Talking in Public

When I talked at Hydrahack, @sil offered to give me some feedback on my presentation. He said he wanted to talk about style not content. My first reaction was, “I had a style?” but I like feedback, so I got it.

There were 2 main things:

  1. I sounded like I was reading out an essay. Fair. I was creating an essay from notes. I’m used to writing, on my own, and
  2. If I may paraphrase, “What was my motivation?”

This was the one that confused me and I couldn’t answer at the time. What did I want to happen as the result of my talk? Honestly? Nothing. I’d had some ideas during my research about ‘Agile’ and I wanted to share them with developers to see what they thought.

Then I listened to a couple of Reith Lectures by Hilary Mantell on Radio 4. She sounded like she was reading an essay. Maybe I’ve spent too long thinking about ‘what things are’ but I started to question what the differences are between ‘a talk’, ‘a lecture’ and ‘a presentation’.

I found this on Quora:

  • "A lecture is a teacher [ someone with expertise? ] talking about a specific thing to students.
  • A presentation is a talk used to ‘sell’ something. You present a product or an idea.
  • A tutorial is a how-to kind of talk… I think they tend to be more interactive than lectures."

I think ‘a talk’ is less formal than a lecture and can come without the implied authority gap. I think I was trying to deliver ‘a talk’ in the style of ‘a lecture’. I didn’t think of what I was doing as selling an idea. Should I have?

Should ‘a presentation’ be more of “a performance” because it aims to use emotion as well as evidence to change people’s opinions? Does a science education try to knock that out of you? Very few MPs have a science background.

I’d like to hear other people’s views on whether these distinctions are valid, including @sil.

This is interesting. I’d guess a “talk” in the context of something like Hydrahack is somewhere between a lecture and a presentation. I guess a lecture is usually longer (I heard some of that Hilary Mantel thing and I guess she was reading from notes, which would later be published)?

A few jobs ago I got sent on a presentation training course by a guy who’d worked with Steve Jobs (he apparently coached him on the Macbook Air speech where he gets the laptop out of that thin envelope that was on stage with him the whole time). It was a bit more sales-y than I liked, given I was doing talks about software stuff, but lots of it stayed with me. The main thing was that every talk should have one of two aims (and the instructor insisted this was true for anything, whether it’s a pitch to the board or a discussion about JavaScript): your aim is either:

  • To give you an understanding of…
  • To convince you to…

He got us to complete these sentences for our topic and frame it from there. Most of the course was about body language, vocal delivery, and “tricks of the trade” (eg. reference to physical objects/visual aids) and slide tips (basically, avoid text on screen if at all possible, bullet points at worst, and make use of blank slides to draw attention back to yourself).

In his view, it was most certainly a performance – this is a difficult thing to achieve though and if you’re not comfortable with the “selling” thing it may come across as a bit fake. Still, I learned a lot from it (if only about how to structure a talk – I did his course in between two conference talks I gave on the same subject and although the content was the same, the way I delivered the two was completely different, and, I hope, improved).

1 Like

I’ve been ‘doing talks’ because I’m uncomfortable with the process so I’m trying to do something about it. I’m fine with asking a question, sitting in a large crowd, less so if I’m asked to stand up. I’m perfectly comfortable in Agile workshop situations where I and perhaps others are standing up and doing things and I might be shouting out instructions but there is something about standing when ‘more than 6 - 12 people’ (a crowd) are staring at me that (sometimes) freaks me out. I’m fine in ‘a performance’ when I’m playing a part. They aren’t looking at ‘me’ then.

What I learned at Hydrahack was that I was far happier in the question session at the end, when I had no idea what was going to happen than when I was in (partial) control of the situation, during the talk. That was new information that I think I can use.

I think I can trace it back to ‘childhood trauma’ at the first birthday party I went to after starting school. I was asked to ‘do a turn’ in front of all the other kids. It was probably something this family always did at parties and it hadn’t occurred to them that anyone might not. I was shy and I didn’t have anything and I was surrounded by people I didn’t really know. It was horrible. Working this out hasn’t helped much but at least I didn’t pay for therapy.

My memory seems a bit weird too. I don’t remember sequences well. If I try to remember a talk, I’m as likely to go off on a tangent into the wrong part of the network as to stick to the intended path, so I try to tie myself down with prepared materials but it doesn’t always work if I allow myself any creative space. You’ll get a talk but not necessarily on the intended subject. Or I’ll come to a slide that I’ve already covered, which leads to panic.

I’m being open about this for the same reason people have started discussing mental health issues. It’s easy to think everyone else is “normal”, if we all hide the contrary evidence.


I’m gutted to have missed this talk and Hydra Hack (because I can’t read a calendar properly!)

This to me is a fine motivation for presenting. Speaking out loud your ideas as a form of reenforced learning/understanding can only be a good thing.


I feel like other people might differ on this, but I am firmly of the opinion that the person up front, doing a talk, has valuable opinion and should be listened to – this is why the conference organisers chose them to speak – and that person doing that talk should feel that way as well. You don’t have to be pushing for your audience to come out of the talk believing something new. Your talk might, for example, be there to gather information; you’re asking questions in order to get responses. But there’s a reason I’m sat in this talk rather than the one across the hall or across the street. So I think it’s important that a speaker believes that their opinions are worthy of being heard. To that end, it is useful to know what the goal of your talk is, in your own mind; do you want to gather information? Present your thinking on a topic in the hope that people give you feedback? Present your thinking on a topic in the hope that you’ll change how people think? All of these are legitimate reasons to speak.

I think the quora distinction between “talks” and “presentations” and “lectures” is rather artificial; it’s post-hoc rationalisation rather than a genuine difference. I did indeed give @woo the feedback that his talk was like he was reading out an essay, but that’s not because I wanted there to be a distinction between it being a “talk” or a “lecture”; it’s because reading out an essay isn’t very engaging. There are different methods of presentation, different language, different approaches for a written essay than for a spoken talk, and reading out a written essay seems rather flat when compared with something written to be a talk. In the same way, an exact actual transcript of a talk doesn’t work well as a written essay – would this answer I’m writing be better if it had the words “um” and “y’know” in it occasionally? Nope. So that was feedback on presentation style; being engaging is, pretty much, rule 1 of importance for talks in my opinion. Talks which are engaging but contentless are still entertaining, although they’re a waste of people’s time and conference organisers should not choose them. Talks which are full of content but not engaging basically fail to get their ideas across to anyone, so they weren’t worth doing. Write a paper if that’s the goal; papers don’t have to be engaging (and arguably shouldn’t, because they can be referred back to.) Selling things is not engaging either; if you go into a talk planning to sell but without planning to be entertaining, you look sleazy, like a car salesman. (You didn’t do that at all, @woo, to be clear.)

I’d agree with @mattpointblank’s outline above as well. (I would add that some talks are honestly there to gather information and not to push an idea at all; this is a lot more common at smaller local meetups than it is for huge worldwide speeches, of course.)

Would speaker training be a thing that people in Brum would find useful and pay for? I could put together some sessions, perhaps…

I hope I made it clear @sil that I accepted your points entirely. I have tried presenting along a continuum from minimal notes and consequently the possibility of a complete memory breakdown, going round in circles and repeating myself and becoming a sweaty quivering mess, but with the possible reward of 1 time in 3 it going well and being more engaging - up to what I did here, a strictly controlled path to keep me to a pre-programmed structure of some complexity. Even then, I missed lots of stuff. I was wearing a T-shirt that I thought would be a sufficient prompt to make a joke, but it wasn’t.

I’m experimenting to find the correct taughtness of the tightrope to let me improvise some LOLs without falling off. This was at the very cautious end to build some confidence. Another thing I wanted to experiment with was the structure. It probably seemed fairly chronological but there were quite a few forward references I didn’t want to miss. I’ve presented the same idea at Agile Staffs but with a different structure. I’m investigating how ‘content’ can have multiple structures and how order of presentation/discovery changes understanding. That’s why I mention intertwingularity a lot. I want to fix it but the man who coined the word says that’s impossible. I ‘believe’ he’s wrong but I’m struggling to prove it.

I’ve had influencing and presentation training but it didn’t help because my mind goes blank when anything goes wrong and I enter panic mode.

The ‘sales’ chat reminded me of going to see an academic called Steve who was famous for 15 minutes when SmallTalk was trending and I was still trying to understand what OOP was. He talked to a group of mainly Inland Revenue folks and the questions showed they were very interested in what he’d showed them but they couldn’t see how it could be used in large teams. He said it couldn’t, so they kind of asked why he was wasting their time then. What was he trying to get them to do? He said he didn’t care what they used; he was telling them about what he used and no valuable software had ever been written by a team of more than 3 people. I remember thinking that both attitudes were unreasonable.

I wasn’t aiming to be Steve with this talk but I don’t know how the idea that agility is software science might help people. That’s the interesting thing about collaborative communication and creativity for me. I think it could help people but it’s up to them to work out where. I’d try to answer questions to help if I could but like him, I don’t feel the need to persuade people who aren’t yet looking for an answer. (Steve should have mentioned C++ but it wasn’t ‘pure’ enough for his taste. It might have been for theirs.)

1 Like

And I agree: talks, presentations and lectures, as well as speaker’s notes, essays and tweets are deeply intertwingled linear constructions from atomic meme networks. The categorisation is a model and they are always wrongbut.

@Woo Andy, have you heard of Toastmasters?

Public speaking, and presenting no matter how formal can benefit from structure and a bit of design, toastmasters can teach you this and give you an environment for practicing.

Being aware of your audience is a pretty key skill to develop and something you never truly master, but when done well makes all the difference.

A very good public speaker is Simon Sinek, his TED talk and other TED and TEDx speakers should give you plenty of inspiration too.


@Joshua_Jones I haven’t but I don’t think lack of planning is my problem.

Proudly sponsored by Bytemark