On Tuesday Laura North’s Speaking Out partnered with the London Girl Geek Dinners to deliver the third Speaking Out Event in London, England. Speaking out is meant to give people tips, confidence and ideas on how to become a public speaker. This time, Laura had invited Claire Lee from Microsoft and Margaret Gold as speakers and me as someone to get people drinking and talking afterwards.
The topic this time was “Speaking in Technology” and my presentation “Talk Nerdy to me” gave some tips on how to speak to a tech audience.
The event was special for me as it was the last public talk for me as a full-time Yahoo employee – great to do that on a topic that is close to my heart.
Talking to technical audiences is different than talking to others.
The good news are that clothing doesn’t matter and that technical glitches are expected. If something goes wrong, you can blame either Microsoft or Apple.
The bad news are that there is a shorter attention span – technical audiences don’t forgive long-winded explanations – and that the audience is keen on spotting a mistake to show off that they know more than you. The final part of bad news is that feedback is very polarised, so you should take bad and good feedback with a grain of salt as the truth is probably in the middle.
If you take the right approach, none of this is an issue though.
Girl geeks are not uncommon and there are crossovers. For example in Star Trek – The undiscovered country – Lieutenant Valeris – a Vulcan – was played by Samantha from Sex and the City!
Lea Verou (@leaverou) completely blew me away at the Fronttrends2010 conference in Poland. Her CSS3 talk was very long, very complex and she delivered it amazingly well although she was incredibly nervous at first.
Anna Debenham@anna_debenham gave an amazing talk at the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival about the state of education in web development in the UK. Although she is very young she already runs her own web magazine at ScrunchUp – check it out!
What is their secret? Simple, passion and information – if you love what you talk about you will give a great talk. Prepare properly and you have a great talk nailed already.
However, there are some more tricks:
Don’t over-plan – rehearsed talks with planned jokes are stale and boring
Avoid redundancy – Write your deck and then remove all the things that are not really necessary.
Say what it is – tell the audience upfront what you will talk about and use the right terms
Cite other people – instead of telling the audience that you know it all back up your information with deep-dive links
Break out of the box – every topic has a very obvious use case, but the interesting talks are based around the unknown part of a certain technology
Don’t preach – tell people what works for you and why and not that they should use what you use because that is the way
Ask questions – a simple show of hands makes the audience feel much more part of your talk and forces them to move
Avoid religious wars – don’t get into nitty-gritty little arguments about technology. It is good to cause controversy but doesn’t teach you or the audience anything
Prepare takeaways – have your slides available, your code on GitHub and a list of links somewhere. Don’t make the audience scribble down while you talk
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.