Can you repeat the question?

At the beginning of September I was at Agile on the Beach 2016. It was just as good as I expected, which says a lot given that I had really high expectations!

Fantastic talks, learned tons, in beautiful sunny Cornwall – what’s not to like?

Well, one thing. It’s a pet peeve of mine: Despite most presenters doing a really great job, virtually none of them repeated the audience’s questions before answering them. For the camera and everyone sitting in row 5 or farther back the answer was meaningless.

“Mumble brumble bumble mumble?” – “Yes.”

Repeating questions was so rare that several people enthusiastically commended me on doing it in my talk (on what happens when the whole company becomes agile). Not sure I want my distinguishing trait as a speaker to be “at least she repeats the darn questions” that’s why I appeal to you to get into the habit of doing it, too, when you’re a speaker. (Or to continue if you’re already doing it. :))

If you’re in the audience, you can help by asking the speaker “Can you repeat the question?” after the first unrepeated question.

I had only resolved on doing so during the last talk and it went spectacularly wrong (the original asker repeated the question, again speaking to the front which did not help either me or the camera). After that disaster I didn’t wanna ask again. Instead I decided to bring a sign next time. It’s less intrusive than asking.


Please help spread the word! (Pun intended ;))

You can learn to present! – Public Speaking #3

Somebody has recently asked my husband (a great speaker!) for tips on how to learn public speaking. The asker was, among other things, concerned about his voice being too monotonous. My husband recommended an acting class and I agree. I’m confident that the basis of my being comfortable with public speaking was an acting class I took when I was 18ish. The acting teacher was also a voice trainer and helped us with body tension, (stage) presence and speaking from your body (not your throat).

No matter what part of presenting you are concerned about, you can work on it! Learning to work with your body and voice is one thing. Doing a presentation training is another. A good one will record you and you’ll get to watch yourself present. Really enlightening! You’ll also learn how to structure a talk. If you’ve got stage fright, rehearse a lot. Practice will give you confidence. If you’re afraid of audience questions, ask your friends to simulate a (hostile) audience. Again, practice will give you confidence. After you’ve actually gone out and given a talk you’ll learn it’s not so bad 🙂

Presenting is a learnable skill! I’ve given talks 1-2 talks per year for 15+ years. I was doing okay, but I wasn’t a great speaker. Last year, for the first time in my life, public speaking became part of my job. I created 3 different talks and presented 6 times and it has made a huge difference: I gave the Open Friday talk 4 times and the last time was the best talk I’ve ever given. It’s not only becoming more familar with the material, but also getting much better at delivering. I learned which the (unexpectedly) funny parts are and acted them out. My attitude changed from a teacher-mindset to a performer-mindset. And it made my talks better as in more entertaining, while still delivering the same material. I’m glad I got the chance to witness this change. The acting class really paid off, I guess.

Hopefully your training – whichever one you need – will too!

You’re qualified to talk! – Public Speaking #2

Okay, say you’re positive that your topic is interesting. Still, you can’t possibly give a talk because you think “I’m not an expert! I’m not qualified to speak about it.”

I don’t know you, so maybe. But that “maybe” has slim odds. In my experience it’s true for about 5% of topic ideas per person. The rest is various grades of fear and impostor syndrome.

I’ve heard  “I’m not qualified” from people who are insanely good at their jobs. People for whom I can immediately think of 5 topics I’d like to hear from them about and that they are more than qualified to talk about. “Qualified” is a very mushy concept anyway.

Let’s turn to Amanda Palmer for a spell. This is what she says about being an artist qualified:

[N]obody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it. There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist qualified. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to university, getting published,[]…[but] it’s all in your head.

Whether you’re qualified also depends on the context. For example, I did a talk about Esperanto about a year after I had encountered the language. I didn’t even speak it fluently (and never got that far). What I had going were lots of theory, first practical experiences and loads of enthusiasm. I gave the talk at Chaos Communication Congress, an informal, volunteer run IT conference. Most attendants had never ever encountered Esperanto before. I knew more than them. In that sense I was qualified.

Was I an expert? Nope, not by a wide margin. In fact, Martin, one of the other speakers, turned out to be heavily involved in the Esperanto community, speaking the language for 10 years.

But his talk wasn’t about Esperanto in the least. Mine was. No conflict.

He agreed to come see my talk and help answer questions. Worked like a charm. There were 2 questions I couldn’t answer and he could easily help out.

In general, for this whole public speaking thing – whether you consider yourself an expert or not – it helps immensely if you’re comfortable with not knowing everything. Being able to admit “I don’t know right know. Let me think about. Give me your email, I’ll get back to you.”; being okay with someone in your audience knowing more than you about certain aspects of the topic.

Care more about your audience learning something than that they learn it from you and you’re good to go 🙂

A great way to train are BarCamps. There the audience is part of the presentation and expected to share their experiences.

It’s worth it, going out there with imperfect knowledge! I get about 1 email per 2 years from people telling me that they learned Esperanto because they saw a recording of my talk. That’s impact. That’s changing someone’s life. And that’s just the ones I know about. Sharing knowledge is powerful!

Oh, and by the way, you learn a lot while preparing a talk. If you aren’t already an expert you are gonna get closer.

Update March 8th, 2016: Here’s a great experience report by Sarah Whitee on how she submitted an abstract for a topic she knew only 50% and became an expert through preparing and giving the talk(s), once it was accepted.

Your topic is interesting! – Public Speaking #1

Recently I’ve hosted an Open Space session on finding topics and writing abstracts for conferences.

One of the participants remarked: “I’m not sure that anything I know would be interesting to other people. None of it is really new.”

I know that feeling. I’ve shared it. Sometimes still do. Not often anymore, though.

On most days I manage to say “Hogwash!” to that feeling, because your topic is interesting! Every single one of the 7 billion people out there? Nope. But for some people? You betcha!

Woman on stage

CC-BY Nan Palmero

Just pick a conference you’d like to go to and submit that talk. If it is not interesting – to this particular conference committee – they will decline. End of story. No harm done. All you’ve lost is a few hours for writing the abstract. And hey, you can totally re-use your material and submit it to another conf, so I wouldn’t even consider it lost, yet.

Not convinced? Well, if you’re unsure about public speaking, try it out in a smal setting (and in your native language!). What about a local meetup? Offer a talk to the organizers and pick a topic together with them. They can help you zone in on something interesting.

Even if it’s all been said before and better, people have not heard it from you. Your unique perspective, your challenges, your experiences and lessons learned.

Try it! Public speaking will get you to interesting places, meeting interesting people!

[Do I hear you say “But I’m not an expert. Other people know way more about it”? Stay tuned! I’ll cover that in my next post.]

PS: For statistics: I can think of a potentially interesting topic for about 90% of the conferences I’d like to go to. About 60% of my proposals are accepted. Because I often submit more than 1 proposal I get to talk at about 80% of all the confs I proposed for.

If you stick with this long enough (about 20 talks?), eventually others start to ask you to talk at their event, which feels really nice.

[Continue with Part #2 – You’re qualified to talk]