Bricking and De-Bricking it at Reasons to Be Creative Brighton 2012

I am right now on the train back to London after attending the Reasons to be Creative conference in Brighton, England. How was it? Short answer: splendid, indeed.

Can has keynote?

When the organisers approached me to speak after giving a talk at the reasons to be appy conference I wasn’t quite sure if I’d be a fit, and for just for the heck of it I asked for the keynote slot to make it worth while. Big mouth strikes again: they agreed so I was in a bit of a pickle.

Wait, what? Stage fright(-ish thing) kicking in

Why? Well, I was nervous. Yes, the guy who speaks at dozens of conferences every month and is part of a training program for people to become evangelists got nervous. As I put it, I was bricking it. My normal reaction to speaking is a bit like a puppy seeing a shiny red ball. I love it and I go for it and won’t let go as I have too much fun doing it. A keynote is a big thing though, and can make or break the start of the day and the Dome in Brighton is a huge venue.

I have a few principles as a speaker, which I also tell anyone who wants to speak are a great idea to consider. They are a lot of work but worth it:

  • I am there for the audience to give them a great time, give them information and get them excited to try something out
  • I should speak to the audience in a way that is understandable and engaging to them
  • My goal should be to give the audience something to take away to try out and to impress their bosses or peers with
  • Always be fresh – do not repeat the same things over and over again

Creative eye for the coder/writer guy

Now, with Reasons to be Creative I was very much out of my comfort zone. I am a tech and writing guy, whenever I try to be visually creative whatever I do are “happy accidents” and I have a deep respect and lots of jealousy for people who can draw a beautifully curved line or paint a character or even know the first thing about typography.

Reasons to be Creative used to be Flash on the Beach, a conference celebrating Flash and interactive Art and all things visual. So not me.

Shaun Tan the man

Good, I thought and looked around to be inspired. Luckily enough Marc Thiele who organises the Beyond Tellerand conference and is very connected with Reasons to be Creative got me a book as a present in the past that just blew me away: The Arrival by Shaun Tan, a graphic novel without any text but just the most stunning little pictures telling a beautiful story. I got more of his work from my partner, and one of the books I got was The lost Thing by Shaun Tan. I devoured this book and the movie and had a lightbulb moment. I can do a talk about the lost thing we call the web and how we as a community fail to nourish it with our knowledge as we are too busy impressing each other with things that could be if we called the shots. As we do call the shots if we just take ownership of our work and the outcome, this was a good start for a talk.

So I wrote the talk and split it up into slides and spent more time than usual “designing” it (adding a “dangling picture” animation feature to the images) and I was ready to go.

You can see the slides here:

the web thing

To try out the talk (something I normally never do) the people who couldn’t attend the conferences I thought it good to record a screencast of it (about half an hour long). This one sticks more or less to my notes.

Now, on stage this was different. As soon as I started and shared my excitement and awkwardness about the gap between me and the audience with them I was off to the races. The 50 minute live version of the keynote deviates heavily from the notes but shows that simply going for it does the trick.

The feedback was very good indeed and I am happy we got that over with but I’d be doing it again – it was a great experience.

Not one to waste an opportunity, I used my learnings from the experience to give a quick 5 minute talk at Ubelly’s Soapbox. The Soapbox is an idea by Ubelly to have a small stage for speakers to give 5 minute passionate talks about any subject and it will travel around a few conference.

Originally I promised to speak there about how I built my HTML slides for the keynote but as Jake Archibald did the same I talked instead how I de-bricked myself for giving the keynote using the opportunity to promote the Evangelism Reps program I spend most of my time on these days.

The De-bricking yourself – starting out as a speaker slides are here and I will post more about this on the Evangelism Reps mailing list and here soon.

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De-bricking yourself – starting out as a speaker

At the Reasons to be Creative conference I was asked to give an extra 5 minute talk for Ubelly at their Soapbox stage about some subject. As I had given the keynote before and I was rather excited about it I thought I share my thoughts on how to become a good speaker and get past stage fear. As there was no recording I thought I release it here as a screencast with the notes. The slides are available here.

Script and Links:

Here’s how I learned to stop worrying about being on stage and being
ready for the challenge.

Get inspired by watching others

The first step to being a good speaker is to get inspired and learn by watching other people do it.

On the Evangelism Reps Wiki we have a list of great talks and detailed information why they are great talks.

Going to conferences and meetups allows you to see other talks. From them you can learn what you like other speakers doing and what to avoid.

A lot of conference videos are available on the web, so check them out there.

TED is a great resource for seeing amazing talks – but be aware that this is the master class, don’t feel bad about these talks. A lot of rehearsal and work went into them and they only look very easy to deliver.

Do all this to find your own style – do not copy what other people do as this will show. Find little bits and pieces you realise to be effective and being you and start using them in your talks.

Learn to endure yourself

One big step to becoming a good speaker is to get used to yourself, to the sound of your voice and the person you appear to be. How other people see us is very different to how we see ourselves and this very much starts with the voice. Our heads vibrate when we speak which means we hear ourselves much
deeper than we really sound.

Watching videos of yourself is awkward but a very important part to becoming a speaker. This is how you come across, and this is the person you are – get used to it. You are your worst critic and that is good. Also have good friends watch you and tell you what can be improved. A lot of this is about posture and body language and you can improve a lot by being aware of ticks and
things you don’t like about you and avoiding them.

I know this is all awkward but it is a great step to being you
on stage and not some afraid person far removed from you.

Talk about things you are passionate about

  • If you don’t care about what you say, you’ll deliver an awful talk
  • Easy to find materials to use

Passion is the most integral part to being an inspiring speaker.

If you don’t care for what you talk about or you don’t quite understand it you will deliver a sub-standard if not terrible talk. Passion for a subject makes it easy for you to explain it, you can even share why you feel the passion for the subject.

If you get the subject and you want to talk about it your body language and tone will automatically fall into place. If you don’t, you need to spend more effort covering up the automatic body language you emit when feeling uncomfortable.

Computers = bastards

  • Don’t rely on your laptop
  • Don’t rely on your slides+notes
  • Never trust projectors

Hardware seems to have an uncanny knack of breaking when you need it. Your computer will be totally fine until you are up on stage – then it starts to lock up on you. Projectors have a creative edge to them displaying your slides and notes in ways you don’t intend to and can’t deal with.

All of these things should be a nice to have but not make and break your presentation. Just prepare for a few things going wrong and if they do, swiftly move on.

Share pain and excitement

  • Tell stories
  • Share how you learned what you tell people
  • Share success and failure stories

One big obstacle for a lot of new speakers is to move from human to expert that needs to inspire. This step is much less hard to take when you stay human and think of human ways to interact with the audience. Share that you are excited and/or afraid of being on stage and talking about this. Be human, be honest. Good stories on how you reached conclusions, how you bettered your ways and how a failure got turned into a success are a great way to give an inspiring talk. Use them.

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