How does a geek end up doing public speaking?

Thu, Jan 20, 2011 09:00 AM
I just finished reading Confessions of a Public Speaker (O'Reilly) by Scott Berkun. It is the first book I have read cover to cover in 16 years. I even read the colophon (which I had never seen in a book before). I found the entire book to be very engaging. While reading it, I kept reviewing every mistake I had ever made in every talk I have given. Even if you are not a regular public speaker, there is great stuff in the book that can help you with talking to your coworkers, boss, etc. There is a chapter that is more about teaching than speaking that I found really good. I can really apply a lot of that knowledge to working with my team on new technologies.

Public speaking was never something I thought I would do when I was younger. I was not on the debate team in high school. I was never the leader of any clubs. The most I ever did was run for class president my senior year. I did not win. The eventual valedictorian who had been the president of our class every year of high school won. That was probably for the best. In fact, I was considered a "rebellious", quiet outsider I later discovered. Ha, a rebel? Me. That seems quite far fetched.

I first felt like I wanted to share my knowledge with my peers was when I went to Apachecon in 1999. We were a 4 or 5 person company at the time. But, our CTO had been to regular conferences in his past jobs and found value in the experience. So, he and I took off for Orlando, FL. At the time, Apachecon was really the only well rounded web conference that existed (I find it is not as much this way now). I was excited by the environment I found at the conference. The speakers were not talking heads for faceless corporate giants. They were guys that, like us, were trying to make the web work. Also like us, a lot of them did not have massive investment cash, but were operating on shoestring budgets. Performance and availability mattered. Coming up with new ideas really mattered. We found that we had ideas that others had concurrently. And in some cases, we had ideas that some had not thought about. I would wait another two years to have my turn on stage.

The web dev/ops team had grown to 5 people. I received an email for the CFP (Call for Proposals) for Apachecon 2001. I thought I had a good idea for a session. The reaction we received from people when we talked about our caching scheme was interesting. Most people had one of two reactions. They either thought the idea was very interesting or they thought we were just dumb. But, the key was that almost everyone had a reaction. So, I thought it would make a good talk. I made every rookie mistake there was. I made my slides the night before the talk. I did not go to the room I was speaking in until it was time to talk. You name it, I did it for the actual presentation. The talk felt like a train wreck. The only good thing about it was, at that time, Apachecon required the presenters to submit a full written version of the session for printing in a book that attendees received. So, we (I was doing the work along with a coworker) had become very familiar with the content. The response we received from the people that attended was incredible. They probably had no idea that the slides were written the night before. But, I have to say, from that point on, I was kind of hooked.

It would be a few years before I spoke on that type of stage again (MySQL Conference, 2008). I seem to have found a home at O'Reilly conferences. Like Apachecon, they embrace people that are doing the work in the field. Sure, you see some talks that feel like sales pitches, but the community quickly exposes those sessions. In the last 5 years, I have spoken at several O'Reilly conferences, another Apachecon and several regional conferences.

All of this public speaking helped me in a way I never expected. In late 2009, my grandfather passed away. My grandmother, his wife, passed away in 1995. I remember at then having the urge to get and and talk about her. She was a fascinating woman. And there were so many things in my head. But, I lacked the confidence to just get up and say them. So, when my grandfather passed away, I had a completely different mindset. I made it known that I would like to say some things about him. When trying to decide what to say, I found myself using techniques I use for preparing a presentation. I started with several points to make, worked on the right order for the points. Then I went back through and filled in the details of each point. Practicing that "talk" was the hardest practice I have ever had to do for public speaking. No practice or preparation has seemed hard sense. It was an odd clash of my worlds. But, I am so happy I did it. I still have the notes on my iPhone. When I miss him, I get them out and read them.

Lately, I have branched out from talking to geeks. O'Reilly's Ignite series of events leap out of the geek culture and into your community. We are lucky to have a very good group of people organizing Ignite Birmingham in my home town. And while my talks thus far with Ignite Birmingham have had a tech slant, they were not for geeks. I was speaking to a room full of smart, but not nesicarily technical people. It's fun to get outside of my comfort zone. Also, they video all the talks. So, I get to see myself and judge my performance. It's great. Speaking to a wider audience is a fun journey that I am finding very exciting and look forward to exploring more. My next challenge for myself is to find a completely non-technical topic for Ignite Birmingham.
Gravatar for Mark Moore

Mark Moore Says:

Thanks for the book referral. Right in the middle of Jono Bacon's Art of Community. Confessions is next...

What ever happened to good ole Dale Carnegie. Where's the love!

Gravatar for Brian Moon

Brian Moon Says:

@Mark: Scott mentions Dale a few times. One of those times he mentions that he does not like "How to win friends...". But he does speak of him in a good light overall.

Gravatar for Charel Morris

Charel Morris Says:

Hi Brian,

Great article!. Wanted to let you know the CFP for ApacheCon NA 2011 will open soon. Hope to hear from you again!

Producer of ApacheCon!

Gravatar for Luca Olivari

Luca Olivari Says:

Hi Brian,

I spend most of the time in front of customers, prospect or users and after reading your blog post I started to read the book itself. You are absolutely right, it's full of useful advices and the anecdotes makes reading it a surprisingly nice experience.

Thanks for sharing and good luck on your future speaking engagements.

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