Happy Monday, everyone!

Despite the title, this isn’t going to be a blog post on consolidation. This past weekend I was attending services for Yom Kippur, and had an experience I wanted to share which fits in with some things I think are applicable for those of us who speak or are aspiring speakers. And for the record, I’m not going to turn this into a blog about religion, either.

On Saturday morning when it came time to do what I will call the sermon (and it wasn’t that, but it’s a word most people can identify with), the person who did it had no notes, no microphone – nothing. Now, just to level set here – where I was wasn’t terribly small, but there were no audio visual aids like a microphone (which some synagogues do use, and we can argue as to how that may or may not be good as it relates to general Jewish law about the holidays and Shabbat, but that’s not the point here). For most speakers – that would be a no go. I mean, use the power of your own voice. Oh, the horror!

A little digression before I continue. Being a musician and as someone who used to play in pit bands for musicals quite often, I was used to singers belting out tunes with the power of their own voices. We would sometimes have to adjust to make sure they stood out over us, but that’s one of the wonderful things about music – the interaction. When it all works, it’s simply perfection. Dynamics are a wonderful thing. It’s about using your ear and making adjustments- there has to be blend. These days, I don’t think there’s a musical (as in show, not band) production in the world (maybe some, but it would probably be a small number) that don’t use some sort of small “well, you can barely see it” mic close to the singer’s head to amplify their voices to everyone. I’m not saying technology is evil (says the guy who doesn’t have an affinity for smartphones), but I sometimes wonder if singers are being properly trained or are they now relying on a microphone to assist what would normally be someone who would be middle of the road? We could even extend this argument to tools like auto tune which can be used for good in small doses, but become tools to cover up really bad things.

The same holds true for those of us who speak, too. For better or worse, my voice has always carried. I was always the kid being told to shush and to keep my voice down. Even today, some of my friends give me ‘the look’ if we’re out and about because I can unkowingly be loud. I think if you’ve ever seen me speak, you know my voice can carry even in a pretty large room. Outside of needing one for recordings, I generally wouldn’t need a mic and truth be told, I’ve had those working the sound in the room turn my input level down because my voice can get loud. SPL levels are not my enemy!

I think it’s important as a speaker to be able to command a room both physically and verbally. Forget about content for a second. If you come across as meek, shy, and not confident, you will lose your audience. Even experienced speakers lose audiences, but more often than not, you have a higher chance of success from minute one if you grab the room and never let them go. At services, this particular gentleman had a great presence and captivated the room from the second he opened his mouth. He varied his voice, changed pacing a bit – all the standard stuff, but it was clear to me how this guy got to where he has in life. He is an excellent communicator.

This brings me to the other part of this equation: content. One of the things I always espouse whether I am writing or speaking is that by and large, you have to tell a story. It has to have a start, a middle, and a conclusion. I don’t care if you are talking about the most complex techinal thing – you have to get people to care and follow along. There has to be a logical flow. The biggest problem I have: PowerPoint. Yes, I said it. When we speak at conferences, we’re expected to have slides. Whether it’s a 60 minute talk or a full day preconference session, there’s a lot of work that goes into them. There are problems with this.

  1. Once you have slides, you’re essentially stuck with them. Change them and you potentially screw up printouts (see: preconference sessions), or if you don’t upload them in time (or they don’t exist), people can get cranky. I’m a tinkerer by nature, so locking things in weeks or months in advance is hard – especially if what you’re working with (say, a pre-release version of SQL Server) is a moving target.
  2. Slides give you structure and flow – but sometimes they also lock you into something in a way that you can’t alter dynamically if you have some good questions. You need to think ahead of how to get back on track if you get deralied or logical jumping points. There’s more to structure  than a deck – you need to know how to navigate it.
  3. To a degree, I feel slides and notes are a crutch. The one rule which is always true is a good one – never read your slides. You insult your audience – if they wanted to read your slides, they’d just download your deck. Add something. Use the bullet points as talking points, not just what you’re going to say. They are there to hear you and your insights.

I can track my progress as a speaker clearly. For example, I remember my first TechEd in I think 2001. I was speaking on HA or clustering, and for a 90 minute session I had 90 slides. Boy did I have a lot to learn! One minute per slide, no questions … riiiiiiiight. Needless to say, it was not my best performance. It was far from a failure, but these days, I look at the time I have and judge accordingly, especially if I have demos. Quite honestly, I would rather do all demo and live stuff than slides – but that’s not the expectation. I know if i have an hour with a few demos, I’ll have at most 15 – 20 slides. That’s a far cry from 90 in 90 minutes! These days I love doing talks that are more demo than slide. Believe it or not, I find it much easier.

What that person showed me on Saturday – and I’ve always known and do myself when I’m totally on – was that you can stay on track, on point, and have an engaging talk all without the use of anything but your mind, your body language, and your speaking ability (or possibly also using, say, a whiteboard). It’s interesting to watch others do it when you do the same thing because there’s always something you can pick up from successful speakers. When technology and crutches fail, what do you have left? This is what separates good speakers from great ones. A perfect example in our world is when demos fail: how do you deal with it? Can you explain the same concepts without the visual aid? Can you improvise and do something else? Or do you just clam up and get silent where seconds start to feel like hours to both you and the audience to the point where they start walking out or dropping off a webcast?

Another interesting thing that this gentleman brought up as he was talking was he could go micro or macro drash (drash is short for midrash, which simply means a way to explain things in the Tanach, or Old Testament). He did a little bit of both – the simpler along with  the deeper dive. That was interesting. Think about the way we segment content at conferences: 100, 200, 300, 400, 500. Is that not just another form of micro or macro? Speaking at any one of those levels is valid. You get a good picture at 100 or 200, but you get new insight above that. Sometimes 100 or 200 is enough, other times it isn’t. I found that concept fascinating relating it to what I do day in and day out, and the struggles I sometimes I have with putting some talks together because I think some things need to start out much lower to build to a deeper discussion otherwise you lose people later. This isn’t always the case, but I wish sometimes you didn’t have to level a talk.

In the USA right now, there’s a commercial for Google’s Nexus 7 tablet centered around public speaking. While it’s meant to be cute and show off how the tablet can be used, it raises the question of how one gets to be such a good communicator. You can read books, take classes, and so on. Heck, if you’re so inspired, go purchase a Nexus 7 if you want (but I can tell you that’s not the solution). The only way to get good as a speaker outside of just innate talent is to get out there and do it. Don’t be afraid to fail. Success comes to those who earn it. I’ve had failures – plenty of them. There’s always something you can take away from an experience. Learn from your failures and get better.

I’ll sum things up this way: think of the best movie or concert you’ve ever seen. That’s what you have to do to your audience whether you’re talking about C#, clusters, the blue sky, or anything and everything inbetween. Entertain them. Inform them. Relate to them. Maybe tell a few jokes (but definitely know your audience if going down that road). But don’t ever pander to them or insult their intelligence. Developing intuition about the pulse of an audience is something you will acquire. But most of all: have fun. If you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself, your enthusisam can be contagious.