Helpful Talk Tips!
I’ve been giving many talks: here's some of what I've learned
Right now I give a lot of short speeches and presentations, meaning that I stand in front of an audience with a clicker in hand and speak to slides. I used to give a couple talks a year, but lately I’ve been giving as many as 4 talks a month, plus various emceeing and appearing-on-NPR-and-podcast responsibilities that are key to corporate survival in our modern event-based economy. For me, fundamentally a shy person who goes a long time between haircuts, this is a lot of talking.
It always starts the same way. People send me an email. “Dear Paul,” they write, “I liked that you wrote about computers one time. We do a thing called Experience Explosion every thirteen point five weeks, co-sponsored by Monsanto, Nuclear Proliferation, and Grave Childhood Diseases. The audience is hungry prisoners who are learning Java. Would you like to talk for 13.7 minutes? Other speakers have included Bono, and a MakerBot.” And as often as not I say: Sure! As long as it’s not in some godforsaken place like the Upper East Side. Usually the talks are scheduled months ahead and when I sign on, I fully expect that by the time I am to speak I will have met all my deadlines, purchased new clothes, and lost significant amounts of weight.
I used to write a brand new talk every time someone asked me, but as a result of my changed circumstances I have a new strategy. Instead, I’ve got two talks that I like giving, one specific to my industry on “The State of the Web,” very factual, and the other one is more general, gently ironic and deeply felt, and is called, simply, “What is Talent?”
I’m not going to talk about what’s in the talks, just about giving the talks. If you want to see the talks you have to actually tolerate physicality.
Here’s the last six weeks: I tried out the talent talk, in a very rugged form, at two small corporate events: First at The Barbarian Group, an interactive ad agency with a giant white desk and a full bar, and second at Gimlet Media, which looks a little like the basement in Silence of the Lambs. Then I gave a talk at an event thrown by HUGE, which was a kind of one-off talk about working across disciplines. A few weeks later, I gave the talent talk at a design-focused event thrown by Google Design, at an event that featured enormous sound-absorbent structural felt hangings emblazoned with material design pictographs, the sort of, well, material design that you can do if you are an enormous global megastructure.
That Google event on October 29th was my first time really delivering the whole talent talk, and at first it went well, but it soon got into the weeds because I decided to explain at length how Vaudeville, the form of popular theatrical entertainment that dominated the United States from 1880–1920 or so, was a prototypical content distribution network. In retrospect that was a little bit too much for the end of the day in a large warm space.(Immediately afterwards someone handed me a much-needed handkerchief.) But as I like to remind myself, It’s not like I was paid!
And this way you learn! At the same time, presenting an untested talk to a hundred or two hundred people is kind of exhilarating; it feels a little like being caught in traffic on the way to your wedding.
A couple days after that I went out to Oregon and talked about the state of the web for a Mozilla event, finishing that talk in the hotel room and delivering it to a few hundred people. I flew back and a few days later I gave the talent talk again—cutting out the Vaudeville and adding a few other slides, prettying it up a little—at an event sponsored by FirstMark Capital at the New School, to three or four hundred designers, then I gave the web talk to my own company (since it’s weird that I keep giving these talks to everyone else). It was awkward because we were essentially inviting people to stay late, drink beer, and see their boss speak, so I tried to make sure that people knew it wasn’t compulsory.
A few days after that we held the first of our own series of talks (Gary Chou gave an excellent talk on Orbital NYC), and then last week I gave the talent talk again at the Office for Creative Research, to a very small group. I wasn’t paid for any of this (nor did we pay Gary!).
I might have missed a few things or messed up the chronology.
You might reasonably ask, Why would I arrange my life this way, as a shy person with two small children? Well I started a company, and this is the most sensible marketing I could do. No one is paying me for these talks, but as a result of showing up I’ve told about two thousand people in my field that my company exists, the kind of place we hope to build (big and diverse), and the sort of work we’re looking to do (big, complex projects that deliver amazing digital experiences). That’s about one minute of advertisement; the rest is more relevant to the interests of the audience. Some people like it; some people, I’m sure, just wish I’d be quiet and go away. I’m sure some people think I represent everything that is wrong with the world. Fun!
I used to wonder why no one paid you to talk, but now I realize that there’s a kind of horse-trading of attention going on. All those years when I was giving little talks and also, basically, broke, it was because I’d missed the memo on how the event-driven economy works. Of course, it’s all a lot like Vaudeville, which is something I’ll bore you with some other time. A new kind of corporate Vaudeville. We like to see people on stage. Some American habits die hard.
I used to look down at this kind of stuff, but there is literally no other kind of hustle. And besides, it’s fun to see what you can get away with. It’s fun to be on stage. It’s even fun to fail a little. You always feel like you’re getting away with something.
I’m by no means a great speaker, but I’ve been doing a lot of it, so here are a few things I’ve learned.
I’m finding that it’s very important to just get up there and talk a little bit, make some dumb jokes, let people get used to you existing. A lot of times I talk about the status of the talk (“this is a new talk and I’ll be glad to hear what you think”).
Related, you can get away with a lot of ad-hoc audience surveying, especially if you report back. At the Mozilla conference I asked how many people programmed in PHP and about a third of the hands went up. I asked how many people hate PHP, and a different third of the hands went up. “There was surprising overlap in that Venn diagram!” I said. It was genuinely interesting to see how the PHP people were mixed in with the PHP-hating people. Then when I gave the talk to my own company, I told them about the hands going up in Portland, Oregon. You become the messenger around this given subject, reporting on how different people reacted to what you’ve been saying.
Most importantly, I’ve come to realize that talks are different than presentations. So I’ve thrown away most of the slides with bullets, and I’ve thrown away all of my slide notes. Notes are terrible and half the time you can’t see them anyway. Then, what I try to do is make every slide a little statement, and respond to it. A lot of slides are just facts—and especially statistics. Nothing seems more true than statistics.
By throwing together statistics and pictures and quotes, it looks like I’m giving a talk, but what’s really happening is that I’m having a conversation with myself. The slides are saying things to me and I’m responding. (Tumblr would make a great slideshow program if it was slides instead of a long scroll.) The number one thing I’ve learned is that I don’t really need to take my deck seriously. I can make fun of my own slide deck. You can also show dense slides and just gloss over them.
I’m noticing that this style of presenting is very adaptable; when you’re in a small room you can turn it into a conversation and bring in the audience; when you’re speaking to hundreds of people, and engagement is not possible, you can just keep plowing ahead but it’s still like you’re just having a fun chat instead of holding forth. You can even do a kind of professorial “Oh! Right!” as if the deck was surprising you, and both you and the audience were just seeing this information for the first time together and you were merely riffing.
The nice part about talking to people is that it makes things feel new. When I think about it I’ve done lots of literary-ish and less-than-literary readings in crowded bars and weird stages, and talks at the Bell House, or the late Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction, and in 2002 I performed as a singing squirrel in a touring show with my friend Steve, plus I have given tons of personal-technical talks and been on the radio an awful lot, and god knows how many podcasts. Maybe because of the urgency you feel when you look out people looking back. You’re vulnerable. But so are they. And weirdly even familiar things that you’ve said a thousand times feel natural and unforced. Awkward before, awkward after, but on stage everything feels like progress.
Paul Ford is a co-founder of Postlight.
Story published on Nov 24, 2015.