An amphitheatre
Photo Credit: Tony Hisgett

Public Speaking – Veni

We’ve had a lot of various blog posts recently on speaking in public, and Todd’s post got me thinking about the posts I’ve had in my drafts for a few days. I was going to publish one or two posts, but I thought better of it, and created a new serial, in three parts, to tell you about speaking: the truth, the whole of the truth, and nothing but the truth; except for the lies. I came to speaking, I got better, and I now have a bunch of principles, rules and tactics to speaking, hence the three-parter: Veni, Vidi, Vici.


When I was a teenager, I loved theatre. I was part of the club in school, and one outside of school, and over a few shows I really fell in love with the stage. You leave reality behind, create a persona, accessorise it with a text, and you get on a stage, a place where you can be anyone.

A few years later, as a developer, I gave my first talk. The year was 2001, the place was Munich, the subject was P2P. I had no idea what I was doing, and had the arrogance of youth combined with the self confidence of a french man - or the other way around. I did dreadfully. My talk was a “sponsored” one, and the audience was only another 15 guys, all in P2P already, and most 10 years older, including Bill Joy and Cory Doctorov. If I had had any shame back then, I would have been ashamed by that botched job.

Keep trying, failing is OK

After a heathy pause, I went back to it, I can’t remember if it’s 2007 or early 2008, my blog seems to have forgotten this. The first couple of times were really good fun, as I started going to many user group meetings People seemed to appreciate my unpolished but energetic style. I had no idea what timing meant, i swore like a sailor and I had no slides ever, but life was good.

People are very quick to provide you with help and feedback in those environments, and I keenly listened to many of the suggestions that were given. And then my talks started tanking. By trying to adopt the formulation and style of other speakers, I attempted to replicate imperfectly what made them, and lost what little I had. Life was said.

I decided to go back to basics, and not listen to speaker trainers ever again. Instead continued speaking, made countless mistakes since then, met many amazing people and heard more great ideas than most developers will encounter in their whole carreer. Life is good again.

It’s about you

Speaking in public is a difficult art. Not everyone comes from the same background, some of us are not native english speakers, some of us are terrified of people, some of us are introverts, some of you are extroverts, and yet all of us can be speakers.

User-groups are a fundamental part of encouraging people to speak: they are safe environments, often full of like-minded people with a long-standing link. They’re also, by definition, the place where talks get practiced on. It’s a system that benefits everyone, from the speakers that get to give the first health check on a talk without fear of tanking, to attendees that get information and pizza, to user-groups filling their events with interesting and varied topics.

We are very lucky in the UK to have had a very vibrant user-group community, one that has worked restlessly to provide the most fertille breeding ground for new speakers. If you want to try out, with encouragements, support, an avid audience, and no one giving a lolly if you succeed or fail, user-groups are the place to be.

It’s not about you

But to speak, you have to accept that people have to come. There is no point in giving a talk if the room is empty. While some speakers can fill a room by the sheer magnitude of their brand, most of us 124still have to find something that will draw people in.

You would be surprised by how many interesting things you’re actually doing. If you haven’t created anything, give a tutorial! I started presenting on MVC 1.0 preview 2 and on the MVP pattern. People are always avid to get an hour to discuss and see something outside of the constraints of their day-to-day job.

It’s about what?

Attendees come because they like hearing about cool, and sometimes less cool but useful, things. But what’s in it for you, and why should you care?

Public speaking is a matter of perspective. Not the speaking part of course, but the public part. Is a public made of four people in a room, eighty in a conference centre, or just your colleague next to you? They’re all the exact same thing: conveying knowledge to someone else. When speaking, you learn how to articulate the knowledge or opinions you gathered, and communicate them to others.

To communicate that knowledge, you need to take the time to reflect on how it all fits together. Be it that you find a way to split learning into parts, or maybe you have to decide the order of the slides in a presentation. I don’t believe for an instant that speakers are anything special, or that anyone should listen to anyone due to their speaker status. I do believe, and I paraphrase a blog post I cannot find anymore from I don’t remember who you are, that speakers exist because we need them to take that time off away from building things, to organise thoughts and investigate mental models to teach to others.

So I came…

Speaking helps attendees, user-groups and conferences. And if you are so inclined, it can help you organise your thoughts, have more confidence in public, and become a more effective learner and teacher. It is however full of difficulties, as we shall see in the next instalment.