Today I went to the Spotify office in Stockholm to test-run a training I’ll give at the MozCamp in Singapore next month. The topic was turning geeks into presenters, how to foster a culture of speaking and presenting in a company and tricks how to become a better speaker.
This is a quick introductory talk on how to foster a culture of presenting and speaking and a few tips on how to become a better speaker yourself.
The first question to ask yourself is why you’d want to start presenting. There has to be a reason for it.
It is not easy for geeks to start becoming a presenter. In a lot of cases our nature doesn’t lend itself to being an outgoing person that other people understand. There is a reason why we chose IT as a profession and not something where we primarily deal with people.Furthermore years of bad experiences with company presentations and boring lectures have us conditioned to dislike them. The other issue is that speaking and presenting is considered a task people do who do not code any longer. You know, those managers and the suits and the like. It seems we are more excited about people who write amazing code that never gets released than people sharing what they want to do and get input before we create it. And complaining that people don’t care about our issues without reaching out to tell them about it doesn’t sound too logical either.
Presenting is translating, not selling
The best presenters I know don’t sell with their presentations.They explain, share their excitement and point people in the right direction to find things out for themselves.
People listen if you talk to them!
Giving a presentation internally is a great way to get people up to speed with what is happening. We can have all the documentation and emails in the world – if we don’t know that people read them we can not assume people know what we are on about. Scheduling an internal presentation means people hear at least once about it. External presentations are of course even better, not only make they learn people about what you and your company does, they also give you internal leverage. You are known on the outside for knowing your stuff and the company can benefit from you being associated with it.
Starting a speaking culture
Many companies already do have a culture of presenting but in many this privilege is given to only a few people. Those are coached to be perfect pitch presenters and drive an even larger gap between the people who do things in the company and those who talk about it. Of course we need good professional presenters (and every manager should have some training) but the real success comes by sharing the fame and the responsibilities with everyone in the company.
A few tools
Just in terms to break down barriers and to get people out of the woodwork and start speaking there are a few things companies can do that proved effective in the past.
Powerpoint Karaoke is a great way to get the fear out of presenting. Here is how it works:
Download random powerpoints of the interweb
Pick a random person
The person should present the deck for 5 minutes
Seemingly just a silly thing, powerpoint karaoke can have a lot of positive effects.
It teaches you to not be a slave to your deck
It breaks down the initial barrier – everybody can look the fool for five minutes
You get to know what to avoid in your own slides
You start to learn speaking, not just re-iterating (you are not in your subject matter)
Lightning talks are a great opportunity to discuss issues and solutions and get people to do their first talks.
15 minutes each week
5 minutes: a problem we encountered
5 minutes: a solution we found and applied
5 minutes: discussion if this is a good solution and should become a best practice
I’ve found lightning talks in the past a very good solution for people to get their first speaking experience. They are not scary and they give you a chance to say what you want to say. The reasons are:
The speaker knows his stuff
The speaker talks about a positive experience – fixing something
A Fixed time and duration means predictability which is less scary
Everybody gets to have a go
Content repos beat a slide repository
Instead of archiving slide decks and sending them around the company to present over and over again create a content repository much like a pattern library. This allows people to get information they need and assemble their talks from it rather than repeating someone else’s talk flow and fail at that.
Preliminaries – what to do yourself
There are a few things you can do before you start even thinking about speaking. These may sound weird, but they will save you a lot of time in the future and make you a much more focused and better presenter.
Forget about the slide deck
The first thing to consider is forgetting about your slide deck. Your slides are the backdrop to your talk, if you read them out you are redundant. Furthermore everything you can think of can go wrong about your presentation – be safe, don’t rely on them.
In order to really give good presentations, you need to be excited about what you present. If that naturally happens, good. Move on. If not, find an angle that makes the subject matter exciting for you and then tell a story around that angle.
Share pain and excitement
One big obstacle for a lot of new speakers is to move from human to expert that needs to inspire. This step is much less hard to take when you stay human and think of human ways to interact with the audience. Share that you are excited and/or afraid of being on stage and talking about this. Be human, be honest. Good stories on how you reached conclusions, how you bettered your ways and how a failure got turned into a success are a great way to give an inspiring talk. Use them.
Learn to endure and adore yourself
One big step to becoming a good speaker is to get used to yourself, to the sound of your voice and the person you appear to be. How other people see us is very different to how we see ourselves and this very much starts with the voice. Our heads vibrate when we speak which means we hear ourselves muchdeeper than we really sound.
Speak loud, clear and proud
Being understandable on stage is incredibly important. A lot of this is about breathing technique and timing yourself the right way. This takes practice and gets better the more you do it. A great little but also very goofy trick is to put a cork in your mouth and speak at the same time. Try to become as understandable as possible – that way you learn how to breathe correctly.
Record and playback
Watching videos of yourself is awkward but a very important partto becoming a speaker. This is how you come across, and this is the person you are – get used to it. You are your worst critic and that is good. Also have good friends watch you and tell you what can be improved.
Body language is a massive part of presenting or communication over all. There are many studies on the subject with at times scary findings. People do judge you by how you project, not by who you are. This takes time and effort and not many people are happy to go that far. Therefore you need to be aware of what body language works and what doesn’t. What you give the audience is how they react. You need to lead not only with your words but also with your body.
Practice your stage voice and manners
If you have kids – lucky you. If you don’t, get access to some. Then take a good children’s book and read to them. Loud and with lots of gestures and different voices for the different characters. The kid will love it and you break out of your shell and get more confident in projecting and speaking clear and loud.
The first step to being a good speaker is to get inspired and learn by watching other people do it. A lot of conference videos are available on the web, so check them out there. TED is a great resource for seeing amazing talks – but be aware that this is the master class, don’t feel bad about these talks. A lot of rehearsal and work went into them and they only look very easy to deliver.
Go to (un)conferences and share afterwards
Going to conferences is a very good step, even better are unconferences as it means you have to speak, too. Whenever the company allows people to go to conferences it should be on the condition to give a talk (or at least send an email report) about the event afterwards. That way there is no jealousy amongst people and you can set up an archive of what conferences are worth while and which aren’t.
Do not copy!
The danger there though is to copy verbatim what other people are doing. This will not make you or the audience happy as it is a lie to yourself and them. You can find things that you like and start using them but it needs to be natural – don’t force it.
Would you like to know more?
There are a few online resources you can check out.
If you had told me a few months ago that I would be the only guy in a room with 75 women in London’s City Hall (the crooked thermos near Tower Bridge) about to hold a workshop on “how to be an inspiring speaker” I’d have nodded understandingly, taken your pint away from you and called you a cab. Yesterday, however, I found myself in exactly that situation.
In the next round of Speaking Out events my friend Laura North partnered with the Greater London Authority Womens Network to have an afternoon overseeing the whole of sunny (yes, really) London to talk about some of the aspects of public speaking from a woman’s perspective.
Rosie Boycott on public speaking
The first speaker of the day was Rosie Boycott, who didn’t mince her words when it came to explaining her arduous journey in a male dominated environment to become a speaker. I liked what I heard but there were a few things that made me cringe:
Rosie praised the idea of a lectern to give your talk from as this gives you a stronghold and some place to put your notes. I think lecterns are the work of beelzebub and represent everything that is wrong about a bad presentation – a barrier between you and the audience. Speakers are scared of speaking and the audience is scared of being bored or having wasted their time and money. Anything that visually divides you makes this even more obvious. It is you on a stage – you have to overcome the fear of showing yourself and using your body language to stress out some points. This doesn’t come natural to northerners – go and see some Italian or Spanish speakers to see how it is done.
Rosie also told us about “being put on Twitter now” which made me cringe and want to have a long talk to her PR people about the value of sincerity and personality in social media. What really threw me though was a long story of her being very upset that someone on Twitter complained about the shoes she wore in one of her talks and that she felt it unfair that her talk was reduced to that. It wasn’t. Some person who wanted to profile themselves and had a thing for shoes needed one thing to criticize to be cool on the web – both comment and Twitter feedback works differently than the real world. People should not get discouraged by them!
On the topic of jokes Rosie said flat out that women should not try them as men are much better at them. Funnily enough also Katie, the second speaker said the same and opted for funny quotes instead. Again, my experience differs as I have seen female speakers deliver amazingly well timed, subtle and very tasteful jokes even with very crude topics (something no man I know would excel at) – a great example is Mary Roach’s talk at Ted (embedded below). So ladies, if you are naturally funny and if you think a bit of irreverence can bring a point across or liven up a very boring topic – do not hold back!
After Rosie the ever inspiring Katie Streten from imagination got up and talked about the art of feeling comfortable about public speaking from a woman’s perspective. I love working with Katie as she is very straight forward in her approach and has the same attitude towards speaking as I do: just do it and worry about your own fears later on. You can only get better with experience.
Katie delivered a talk very similar to the one she gave at the first Speaking Out event about fears of public speaking and how to overcome them. She did once again a great job at addressing some of the problems and showing ways around them.
Some of my takeaways
All in all I learnt a few things about public speaking and women in these talks:
Gadgets are much more important – every speaker pointed out that Flash cards and the right clothing are very important. Also the (IMHO wrong) mention of a lectern as a safety net pointed in that direction. Every male speaker I know is happy to be wired up to a mic and have their slides. If the slides fail, we ad-lib (if we are gifted) or bamboozle (if we are asked to talk without wanting to). It is a confidence (or in the male case a not caring about the results) thing. It is good to have your gadgets when you start but be aware that they are a safety blanket and to be truly inspiring and very happy with yourself you will have to discard them in the future.
A lot I heard is about copying what other people do well. This to me is a danger as women can bring so much more to the table of public speaking (see more about that later when I talk about the happy moments I had). Copying is good but look deep inside you and find the thing that makes you, well – you. Then apply this to the subject matter and you will deliver a killer talk. You can’t be someone else – it will always show.
A lot I heard was about prevailing in a male dominated society. And I am getting tired of this. Stop trying to prevail and instead show men how things are done properly. One thing Katie said and promptly got told off by an audience member is that as a woman you should butt in at meetings if you have a good point to make as men do the same. Expletive yes – she is right about this. Just because other people don’t have manners it doesn’t mean that their point should be heard and not yours – especially when it makes much more sense.
The biggest obstacle to tackle is criticism of other women about what you do. Women are amazingly critical about each others mannerisms, looks and ways they deliver information. Men are much simpler that way (I guess that is why we always look scruffy in comparison). You know what? I blame the media for this. If you look at advertising and magazines you’ll find that a lot is about making women feel bad or inadequate about themselves. Ride the escalator up Leicester Square and you’ll find a lot of posters stating amazingly idiotic things like “start the year with new confidence – affordable plastic surgery”. Mitchell and Webb hit the nail on the head with their sketch about this:
After the talks we split up into three workshops – “Making public speaking easier” by Katie Streten, “How to speak confidently under pressure” by Emer Coleman and “How to be a compelling speaker” by me.
The fun thing was that during my training as a trainer I learnt three things:
Workshops should be done in small groups (5-10 people tops)
You should get to know the people you train beforehand to see what kind of learners they are and cater your materials accordingly
Plan your session in chunks of time and have several activities for people – mix very physical ones with research topics
Which of course became wonderfully moot points when Laura told me a day before that twenty people signed up for my course and that they are of all kind of mixed backgrounds and that the sessions are 25 minutes and not more.
So I took this “horror scenario” and instead of giving people demos and exercises in finding the story in information (which was my original intent) I came up with four terrible scenarios and split the twenty people into groups of five each to deal with them.
The idea was the following: if you are prepared for the worst you are actually free to deliver what you need to deliver in a very inspiring manner. Confidence is the main key to success as speaker. If you are in a mind set of “throw anything at me, I can deal with it” then you have time to hone your speaking skills.
The “Horror Scenarios” to solve
Each group was to nominate a speaker and someone to take notes. They then got a “horror scenario” to solve and had ten minutes to answer three questions about the topic. After that each group had five minutes to give a quick presentation explaining the problem and their solutions.
The scenarios and questions where:
You give a presentation and you planned for a certain amount of Questions and Answers. However, the second person – with 10 minutes in – starts challenging you and explains that he is an expert in the matter and that you were wrong.
You can normally spy a “Clever Trevor” from far away as the question starts with him explaining who he is for hours and talking about the subject matter.
How can you make sure that you don’t have him as an enemy and still not waste time?
What could you do during your talk to prevent this from happening?
What are the positive aspects of a Clever Trevor?
Blinded By Coolaid
You are asked to give a presentation at a big conference and the company sends you a great, beautiful and sanctioned slide deck. The problem with the slide deck is that it is not at all catered to your market and it expects everybody to love the brand whilst in your country it is not really known or relevant in comparison to the competition.
How can you make sure that you can own the presentation and not look like a total marketing puppet?
What can you do to get people excited about the subject matter although it is not relevant at this moment in time?
How can you prevent the audience from doing the obvious thing and pointing out that the competition does it much better?
You have to give an internal presentation about your department and your Boss constantly fails to support you in the absolute basics to deliver your work. You are an expert in the subject matter and he is not – yet this doesn’t stop him from cutting your budget. You as the expert can see doom ahead and you know that it will be on your head cause god forbid your boss would ever admit to being wrong.
How can you prepare a project report that shows what is right now happening and give a positive view of the future?
What can you do in your presentation to show “on the sly” what really is needed?
How can you make sure that your boss gives you better support after the presentation?
This can happen in both external and internal talks. Weeks ago you were asked to prepare a talk on a certain subject and 20 minutes before you are on there is an agenda change – your talk is now not an hour like originally planned, but you only get half an hour.
What can you do in your talk preparation to take this scenario into consideration?
How can you make sure that the audience still doesn’t feel disappointed?
How do you prepare yourself for this?
Workshop proceedings or “why I love women”
The hidden trick in all of the solutions above is to put yourself into the shoes of the person that causes this terrible scenario. What drives a clever Trevor? Why is your boss so terrible to you and cuts your budget while not listening to your advice?
The thing I was actually very scared of was running out of time – 25 minutes is ridiculously short for an exercise like this. Frankly, I was very positively surprised.
Whilst a group of men would have spent the first 5 minutes arguing who will be the speaker and how to present the matters all four groups sat down, picked a speaker in a matter of seconds and tackled the job at hand.
Every single group understood that the main key to fixing these issues is psychological – they analyzed why the person was being a problem and found subtle ways of persuasion to work around them or them to change their ways.
The presentations were on time, to the point and explained both the way they came to the solutions and the solutions themselves.
The notes are readable whereas every man’s notes I’ve seen resemble the scribbles on prison walls (including mine, guess why I use computers).
All groups were very supportive to each other and asked questions afterwards about the problems of the others.
All in all I can only applaud the teams – I hoped for people to find the same solutions I offered as a takeaway afterwards and all of them got it. I only wished I had had more time with them.
I had a great time at the event and I hope to have inspired the attendees to take what happens to you as a speaker in stride. I have seen a lot of talent on the day and would love to witness some of them woo audiences in the future and bring good messages across. The only issue I had with the event is the timing – the workshops should be much longer and get some preparation time to be much more effective. The word “workshop” is thrown around much too lightly these days – it is not a speaker doing some Q&A – it is about a group doing something and getting their first experiences at doing it by themselves and finding their own way of achieving it.