First rule of public speaking

I’ve been away from the “tech scene” for a little while. Other priorities got in the way of hanging out with other software people in any organized or ongoing way. And last week was a little sad, as all my regulars were out at CodeMash without me!

Very recently though I was prompted to check out a tech meetup. I showed up fifteen minutes early, but the program was advertised as being a half hour late, so it netted out to missing the first little bit. Maybe I missed something important.

The topic was a type of business modeling that works on many levels, which is great, but unfortunately the speaker brought his boardroom pitch and boardroom slides. So we, a roomful of implementors, were treated to an hour’s worth of what could have been titled “Why you, a CEO, should adopt this high-level management technique.”

It was a lot of drill-down. It would have been good if we had money and were thinking of hiring his firm to consult with us.

The most important rule of public speaking, which probably isn’t written anywhere but should definitely go first, is “Read the room.” The speech you give in a meetup of implementors is not the case you make to your boss in your annual review is not the testimony you give as an expert witness is not the war story you tell over drinks afterwards even if you’re conveying the same concepts.

A much better presentation would have been perhaps to start with a story, or two really brief stories, illustrating the management practice at a tactical project level. Show how it creates a win. Get people to notice that the thing you’re talking about is actually relevant to their daily lives. Then summarize the management principle you came to talk about and introduce a nice catchphrase that gives people a hook so you can easily shout it out later. Give a brief example of how your C-level people might apply the principle even though it’s likely to be above our pay grade. Then circle back and talk about how we might benefit from applying this principle directly, maybe using two or three clear steps that help us confirm that we’re on the right track.

Everything has to start with “So what?” and “Why are you saying this to me?” If you don’t establish those two things you don’t have an audience, you have a bunch of people who probably feel somewhat socially obligated not to walk out of the room.

More importantly though, I think you have an obligation. People have sacrificed time and energy to come hear what you have to say, and it’s your job to provide enough value to make that sacrifice beneficial. You’re obligated to make the time interesting, relevant, and useful.

And in the context of a gathering of tech implementation experts, that means not recycling your CEO pitch.