Technical writers and public speaking

Technical writers and public speaking – a match made in heaven? We have the knowledge about and passion for our field. We can safely put one word after another without causing mayhem. But can we stand up and speak in front of a crowd? More importantly, what would we do when confronted by a chandelier?

To find out whether you can do it or not, try Scott Berkun‘s book, Confessions of a public speaker. I’ve just finished reading the book, with great enjoyment and plentiful note taking.

Technical communicators who do it already

Anne Gentle, Janet Swisher, Tony Self, Rhonda Bracey, Char James-Tanny, Tom Johnson, Sue Heim, Joe Welinske, Ellis Pratt, and many more. All excellent speakers and presenters. Perhaps most people reading this post have a public-speaking story to tell, either of horror or of triumph. 🙂

Until two years ago, you could have blown me down with a feather duster if you’d told told me that I would speak at a conference. Then I met Joe Welinske and started blabbing about my love of documentation wikis. There was probably a lot of arm waving and even a bit of in-place leaping about. Joe quickly suggested that I speak at the next WritersUA conference. I remember silence. I probably went pale. But I must have said yes, because within a few months I found myself on stage. To my absolute astonishment, my presentation went reasonably well. Since then I’ve presented sessions at a few conferences, and I enjoy the experience more each time.

At work, our team has decided to investigate public speaking as a way of sharing our experiences with others and of learning from others too. I tweeted about this during a #tcchat on Twitter, and Andrew Frayling recommended the book, Confessions of a public speaker, by Scott Berkun. Andrew is right. It’s good.

The terrors of public speaking

"Confessions of a public speaker" by Scott Berkun

One of the very first things I learned from Scott’s book is that fear of public speaking is a good thing. It’s your body’s way of preparing for a challenge. Without it, how would you cope when “a legion of escaped half-lion, half-ninja warriors fall through the ceiling and surround you, with the sole mission of converting your fine flesh into thin sandwich-ready slices”? (Page 16.)

Now, that may sound a bit of a stretch. But think again. Towards the end of the book is a set of stories of the situations some hapless speakers have faced. Dan Roam was on stage in Moscow when “six balaclava-hooded and heavily armed OMON troops (Moscow equivalent of a SWAT team)” burst in, grabbed an audience member and marched out again. (Page 184.) That story makes the average tech comm conference seem a little quiet.

It is strangely comforting to read a list of things that have gone wrong for other speakers!

Another of the stories, called “Watch your slides”, is told by Gerv Markham. His laptop with slides, and all his other luggage, was stolen in a subway station when he was on his way to give a presentation. Since then, Gerv always takes a cab.

Gerv’s experience reminded me of what happened just before my very first presentation ever. It was also my very first trip to the United States. I took a cab from the hotel, and unwisely let the cab driver put my laptop bag in the trunk with the rest of my luggage. When we arrived at our destination, the driver jumped out, grabbed my bags before I could get to them, perched the laptop bag on top of the suitcase, and then turned round to me for his fare. The laptop fell off the suitcase with a loud thump.

When I opened the bag, I found that the laptop casing was squewed, the DVD drive was permanently jammed open, and there was an ominous rattle coming from deep inside the computer. But, wonder of wonders, it booted up and worked. So I left it like that. I didn’t even try to fix the DVD drive or straighten anything at all, until the presentation was over and I was safely back in Sydney.

So, Gerv, cabs are not safe modes of transport for presentations either. 🙂

Good solid advice

Scott’s book is full of stories, and it’s full of tips too. The advice on page 19 rings true with me, about the importance of practising your presentation thoroughly. Page 21 has some great tips about how to prepare immediately before your speech.

I loved the description of the importance of a title. It “divides the universe into what you will talk about and what you won’t”. (Page 61.) And there’s an inspiring description of the only moment when you’ll have the full attention of everyone in the room: the silence just before you start speaking! (Page 80.)

Scott reveals a mild obsession with and definite antipathy towards chandeliers. (Page 40-4.) But hey, we’re all entitled to our oddities. 😉

The book emphasizes the importance of simplicity. This is something close to a technical writer’s heart too. On page 162, Scott explains that it is our duty as speakers to simplify and clarify our points. The audience should not be doing the hard work. We should.

Thank you Scott

Thank you for a good read! I’d like to be in a room and hear Scott speak, putting all these techniques into practice. Especially if there’s a chandelier in the vicinity. 😉

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 24 July 2011, in technical writing, WritersUA and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Thanks Sarah for including me on your list.

    Andy Lopata wrote a book called “And death can third” – the title come from a survey that showed people were more frightened of public speaking than dying. So it’s reasonable to say most people are daunted by the thought of speaking in public.

    My advice to anyone thinking about speaking at a conference is:

    1. Practice
    I’ll let others judge if I’m any good or not, but I’ve certainly improved over time. It takes practice. I present to myself a number or times before the actual presentation, and the first run through is always dreadful. The rehearsals help me get the “flow” and timings right and they often causes me to delete, rearrange or sometimes add slides. I also do a truncated presentation in front of a colleague, to get their feedback on the content. Winston Churchill was a dreadful stammering presenter in his earlier political life. He became one of the world’s greatest, mostly due practice and incremental improvements over time.

    2. Attitude
    I present with the attitude of “this is interesting, let me show you what I’ve found out so far”. I don’t pretend I know everything. I’m often sharing an opinion. As a result, I don’t stress out over whether people know a lot of the content, because my presentation should still stimulate a debate and thoughts over how we should interpret or understand the facts. In fact, I use a presentation as a stimulus to discover more about a subject myself.

    Everyone wants you to succeed, so the audience is not as scary as you might imagine.

    3. Presentation format

    Books such as Presentation Zen and Slideology provide great advice on how to present slides. I don’t use bullet points if I can avoid them, and I use great use of images. I also use Keynote, instead of PowerPoint, as it’s better at creating a visual impact.

    4. Structuring the content
    The easiest way to organise a presentation is around a series of questions – basing it on “Kipling’s six friends” (who, what, why, when, how and who) is good way to structure it as well. You can also base it around the history or events. You can use a story structure (with a hero, three attempts to succeed etc) or a politician/vision structure (this is were we are, this is were we can be in the future). You can paint pictures in people’s mind

    So go for it!


    • Scott Berkun

      Ellis: That survey is mostly bogus. In chapter two of the book, which is about fear and the science behind it, I explain the sketchy origins of the data in that survey as well as why it became so popular. You can read the entire chapter here:

    • Hallo Ellis
      What an excellent list of tips! For me, the one about practicing the talk out loud is paramount. As you mentioned, it often gives you pointers about bits that just don’t work, and helps with the timing and transitions between sections. It also helps a lot with my sense of confidence that I can recover from a mistake. None of the practice sessions is perfect, but I get to a point where I feel: OK, now this will work.
      Thanks so much for giving us all those hard-won tips.
      Cheers, Sarah.

  2. Arrgg – one day I will be able to type a comment without typos!

  3. Additon to Ellis’s first point: memorize the speech if possible. Once you memorize it, you will have more bandwidth to focus on other areas (presentation, stge, audience response, etc).

    Also, look for a Toastmaster’s club in your local area and come as a guest to a few meetings. Many clubs will welcome you as a guest and it won’t cost anything (at least in Sydney) apart from your time. But that is the first place I would recommend people to start with if they want to declare the war of fear of public speaking.


    • Hallo Andre

      That’s so true, about memorising the speech. I would find it very distracting to have to refer to notes, either in my hand or on the presenter’s view of the slides. It’s good if you know your material well enough to be able to talk about it, but without sounding flat and over-rehearsed.

      One of our team members at work has been investigating Toastmasters, and in Sydney at that. I’ve been to a couple of sessions too, a while ago. They are very good, very professional and very friendly.

      Great points!

  4. Nate McCartney

    Sarah, et al.

    There is a LOT of great stuff in here, and kudos to Sarah for tipping off such a great discussion. All of this is so practical, and on so many levels, whether you’re giving a presentation to a thousand people at a conference, or an update to your team at the office.

    One major thing that helped me through 10+ years of public speaking (to groups from 5 to 500) is simply to not take myself too seriously. This would tag on to Ellis’s 2nd point about attitude. An attitude of being comfortable in front of the group allows you to be yourself, and even have FUN with the audience. We’ve all been to presentations where the speaker is locked in to the podium, eyes turned down toward their notes. We’re ALL uncomfortable for the duration of the “lecture” at that point. We’ve also been there when the speaker starts out “Webster defines “X” as blah, blah, blah…knowing from the first words out of the presenter’s mouth that we’re in for an hour or so of droning on, rather than an interactive experience we will enjoy.

    When people take themselves that seriously, it leaves them NO ROOM for things going wrong! However, if one has been fun-loving (to a reasonable degree, given your audience), when (not if) something goes wrong, it is easily played off, because you and the audience are already friends, in a manner of speaking. Find something, some common ground, upon which you and the audience can build a relationship. Have a bit of fun with it, and you’ll find that everything else flows much easier from that. Telling the audience something personal about yourself is also a great way to build that relationship. I know it sounds funny to be talking about building a relationship with a group of people in a matter of minutes when you are the one doing all the talking, but this really does take place! You’ll find people coming up to you after the presentation saying “when you said “X” I knew exactly what you were talking about! Something similar happened to me when…” You have just built a relationship, and have just guaranteed yourself at least ONE attendee to your next opportunity to speak.

    • Hallo Nate,

      What a wonderful comment! It got me thinking about how you could find that magical story to put at the beginning of your talk. The story that makes everyone your friend, The one that makes them laugh and puts them in your side. Once or twice, in a period when I’m preparing a presentation, I’ve happened to tell a story to colleagues that has elicited a spontaneous chuckle or has obviously rung true with them. Both my story and their reactions were unplanned. But I immediately realised, hey, that would work in the presentation.

      I guess there are two points about such serendipity. The first is to be on the lookout for relevant material all the time, even if it’s just an anecdote. The second is that interaction with other people is always beneficial. Bouncing ideas and reactions off friends and colleagues, even unconsciously, always helps. Witness the comments on this post.

      Makes you wonder what ideas you’re generating in other people’s heads with every word you speak, every word you write. 🙂

      Thanks for such a thoughtful, cheerful comment.

      Cheers, Sarah

  5. Another thought – never read the feedback sheets. Get an assessment from someone you trust, but don’t read the feedback sheets. You can never satisfy everyone. You will always get some negative comments. It doesn’t matter how many sheets praise you, you will always dwell on the negative ones.

    At my son’s prize giving this month, the guest speaker quoted his most recent feedback. It began “If I had a choice over how I could spend my last hour on this Earth, I’d like it to be listening to Mr X…”. Unfortunately, it continued, “That’s because an hour listening to him feels like an eternity.”

  6. Hey Sarah! That book’s been on my to-read list for months and you may have just nudged me over the edge.

    The ability to speak publicly is something that can really change the course of your career in many ways. I love hearing about people who were once fearful of trying who then realize they can do it. I was one of those people, too!

    • Hallo Nick,

      It’s nice to “see” you again. 🙂 It sounds like there’s a story behind your comment that you were once one of those afraid of public speaking. When Joe suggested that first conference to me I told myself, “It’s in America. You don’t know anyone there, so it doesn’t matter if you make a total fool of yourself.” Of course, the fact that it was my ticket to see the States for the very first time helped too!

      Cheers, Sarah

  7. Great post, Sarah. I hope sometime to hear you speak. 😀

    I think that the main things I tend to do is not speak to the bullet points but speak around the bullet points. The audience can read. Use the bullet points on a slide (or slide title in Ellis’ model) to help you collect your thoughts and drive the true message home. By talking about the points instead of to the points, it gives you a better attitude. I also like to walk about the audience, if at all possible. (Some say I walk too much.) One of the reasons I don’t like webinars is because I can’t see and react to the audience. I like seeing faces so I have an idea of whether I’ve made my point understood.

    Besides the advice of Toastmaster’s I suggest looking into learning how to build instructional objectives and building your talk around those. Doing so allows you to ask questions that reveal whether you’re meeting your own targets. (An acting course can also help get control of your fear.)

    Lastly, and I think this is important, remember that your audience wants you to succeed. They’re listening to you because they want to hear what you have to say. They want you to do well because they know you’ll give them at least one nugget that they can take away that will improve some aspect of their business.

    (Of course, I’ve been told I’m crazy, so it may make sense to ignore me. LOL)

    • Hallo Julio

      What a great comment! Lots of useful tips there. I agree with you about webinars, they’re not as rewarding as a live talk. Funnily enough, for some reason I find listening to and watching a recording of a webinar even less interesting than attending the webinar at the time it’s happening. That’s odd, because there is usually very little interaction during the webinar itself, so the recorded version should be about as good. There’s some psychological factor about being there at the same time as the speaker and everyone else.

      It’s a great point, that the audience wants you to succeed. And I don’t think you’re crazy. Well, only in the nicest possible way. 😉

      I hope to hear you speak sometime too! Will you be going to the STC Summit 2012?


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