Sunday, December 27, 2015

So you've been invited to speak at Ignite...

A friend of mine was just invited to give an Ignite spark at a conference in San Jose.  She's an experienced speaker, but hasn't tried the Ignite format before.  Since I've spoken a few times at Ignite Boulder, she asked me if I had any tips.  It turns out I did.

So you've been chosen to speak at Ignite!  First of all, congratulations on your bravery!  This format makes seasoned speakers weak in the knees, so anyone who's willing to stand up there and bare their soul in 20 15-second chunks has my admiration (and my empathy).  It's the scariest, most fun public speaking experience you can have that doesn't involve tear gas.  Here are my tips for first time Igniters.

Know your main point before you start. You only have 20 slides, which isn't enough time to ramble, unless rambling *is* your point, in which case that's all you'll have time to do. When people talk about your talk, what do you want them to say? "Oh, right, that was the one about..."  And be prepared for the main thrust of the talk to change completely as you work on it.  Just as Michelangelo chipped away everything in the block of marble that didn't look like a woman, sometimes a new talk emerges as you work.  If it's good, go with it, but make sure to stay focused.  5 minutes.  That's it.

The geekier the better. Ignite is about passion and geekiness, and the best talks I've seen went deep on topics that I'd never known anything about before. One of my favorites of all time was from a woman who decided to knit a "weather scarf," that showed the average temperature in Boulder for an entire year, with one color-coded row per day. She walked through the problems she had to solve, from getting the data to building an app that could access a weather API to pull a year's worth of averages. It wasn't life-changing (unless you're also a weather obsessed knitter, I suppose) but it was funny, odd, and interesting all at once.

You can be inspirational, but don't try too hard. I've seen too many talks that went, "Here's this thing that I feel. Now go out and change the world!!!"  Meh.  I'm inspired by smart people's passion, not by generic rah-rah speeches.  Now, I have also heard powerful stories told from the Ignite stage, stories that packed a shocking amount of pathos and inspiration into only 5 minutes.  If you have one of those stories, then go for it: inspire us.  But if you don't, that's OK.  Rather than offering the verbal equivalent of an office motivational poster, teach us something fun and infect us with your passion.  That's far more memorable.

Likewise, humor is good, but this isn't standup. Don't let the laughs get in the way of the message. I try to have a sprinkling of jokes in my talks, but I'm up there to share something important to me while entertaining people. If you want to crack jokes for 5 minutes, try the open mic night at the bar down the street.  Same with language: keep it clean unless there's no other way to make your point. We had a talk earlier this year that was (intentionally) littered with F-bombs, and while it was clever, the speaker obscured an important message about getting involved in local politics behind the haze of cursing, and she got called out for it by people who disagreed with her.  One or two curse words can have a great impact, but if you don't need them, don't use them. Even if it's part of your daily vocabulary, it isn't for everyone, and some audience members will be distracted or turned off by excessive cursing.

Think about the "so what?"  I'm sure your talk is very interesting -- the organizers chose you out of a crowd of applicants, right? -- but people will hear 10-15 other talks that night. What makes yours stand out in the crowd? What's relevant to the audience, and what made you want to share it in the first place?  Why should they listen rather than heading to the bar or live tweeting their thoughts about the last talk?  Do you have a call to action? If you know why you wanted to share this idea, then make sure they do, too.

Tell stories. Our brains are wired to remember stories, not facts and opinions. If you can either open with a personal story or use one to illustrate your point, you'll have a much better chance of being remembered, because you'll be "the one where she..." rather than "the one with the compelling argument that I forgot by halfway through the next one." The most compelling talks I've ever seen were given by people sharing deeply personal stories and inviting us all to join them in learning from them.


Write it all out without worrying too much about time, then prune. As a general rule, you'll get 2-3 sentences per slide, so the total will be around 50 sentences (no run-ons). Aim for about that length, but don't worry about slide timing until later. In 2 out of 3 of my talks, I got completely stuck because I was worried about presenting ideas one slide at a time. I had to go back, ditch it all, and just write. Then, when I went back, the words started to line up with the slides.

Done pruning?  Great, now distill your speech down to its essence. You'll need space for breathing, laughs (hopefully), and reacting to what's going on around you, so you'll want the talk itself to run about 4:45. To get there, you'll need to cut your second-favorite joke, that clever little tangent, and the second point that seemed so brilliant when you came up with it in the middle of the night. Remember your point and get rid of anything that doesn't support it.

Structure: someone once told me to divide my talk into quarters, with 5 slides for an intro, 5 for expansion, 5 for supporting points, and 5 for conclusion and call to action. I'm too verbose for that, so I tend to go in thirds: 3-4 slides for intro, 10-12 for expansion of the argument, and 2-3 to wrap up. My most recent talk on faith was the most tightly structured that I've done, and that was how it came out. I've seen people play with the format, some more successfully than others, but I think either approach is a good starting point.

Slides: use pictures, not words. An Ignite talk comes at the audience quickly, and anything that divides their focus will dilute the impact. They only have 15 seconds to hear your point and scan the slide, so if you make them read then chances are that they'll do that instead of listening. A picture by itself or with a brief caption is ideal. If you have to use something more complex to support your point, then don't compete with it. Give the audience time to read it, then continue with your talk. I personally love to let my slides provide most of the humor. You can find pictures that either support what you're saying or subtly undercut it for humorous effect, which draws the audience in and lets them know that you aren't taking yourself too seriously. Key word: subtle. If you just put a hilarious picture on screen, then you're going to either disrupt your own talk while people laugh or you're going to have to step on the laughs, which discourages any more from coming.

Pro tip: if you have a slide that perfectly fits the point you're making, but your point is too long, you can "cheat" by using the same slide twice. It's a little distracting when the slide advances without changing, but only for a second, and it's better than racing to cram 30 seconds of thought into 15.

Practice.  A lot.  Being comfortable with your material gives you the ability to deal with the unexpected, whether it's an old version of your slide or a drunken heckler in the audience.  I like to practice my rough draft with a stopwatch first, to see how close I am to the right total time, then practice with my slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds.  Doing that helps you find the rhythm and see where you're rushing to get everything in before the next slide, places where your words don't have to synch up exactly, and moments where the timing is really critical (like when the next slide provides the punch line).  Learning where you have room and where you don't will make you more comfortable when you're live.  Unlike in other presentations where you have some control, those slides just keep moving, so you have to hang on for the ride.

Enjoy the adrenaline rush.  I've performed on stage and spoken in front of large crowds, but nothing gets my heart pounding like stepping onto the Ignite stage.  I think it has something to do with the suddenness of it: one minute, you're in the audience listening to someone else, then, 20 seconds later, you're on the stage speaking.  And did I mention that the slides don't wait if you aren't ready?  If you're like me, you'll be out of breath for the first couple of minutes, you'll enjoy the rest, and then you'll be exhausted.  Or, as my wife put it when someone asked her whether she enjoyed her first Ignite talk: "I'll let you know as soon as the nausea passes."

Good luck, and I'll be cheering for you from the bar.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Video from Ignite Boulder 27: "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Faith"

Here's the video from my Ignite Boulder talk.  Enjoy!

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Faith

In case you missed my talk at Ignite Boulder last night, here's the transcript.  I'll share the video when it's available.

Intellifaith: the other blog

So last night I spoke at Ignite Boulder for the third time.  The video will be posted soon, and I'll also share the transcript for those who couldn't make it in person.  In the meantime, several people last night asked me about my blogs.  This is the one that gets linked to all of my profiles, but the other one, where I muse on what it means to live a life of intelligent faith, is here.  I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Respect My Authority!

It is better to be feared than loved.
-- Niccolo Machiavelli

Respect my auhoritah!
-- Eric Cartman



I realized something the other day: the longer people work with me, the less deference they show me. And I've decided that's a good thing.

There are many things about me that, on their surface, would inspire deference, nervousness, maybe even a little fear.  I'm a big guy and I take up a lot of space.  An offensive lineman in high school, I've kept the proportions and the personality.  I protect the people who've been placed in my care, and if you push me I'll probably push back.  I have a big title and a lot of people report to me.  I'm also passionate about finding the best solution to any problem, which can lead to, shall we say, "vigorous" discussions, with lots of whiteboard-writing, arm-waving, and BS-calling.  I ask a lot of questions and I've been known to unintentionally make people cry.  People who walk into my organization learn to hold their own pretty quickly.

So I must get a lot of respect, right?  My staff must scurry when they see me coming, whispering, "Look busy, he's here!"  My word must be law around the office, with everyone telling me how brilliant I am, how correct my judgments and awesome my guidance.

Hardly.

See, I've learned that there are two kinds of authority: that which is held and that which is given.  To put this another way, there's power and there's influence.  While you need both to lead, I've found that influence is by far the more effective and long-lasting of the two.

Power, or held authority, is positional.  It comes from titles, from organizational structures, from laws and traditions.  You gain it because of what you are.  While you probably worked hard to attain that position or stature, the power comes from outside you.  It belongs to the position, regardless of who happens to be occupying the spot at the moment.  If the org chart says that people have to do what you say, then they have to do what you say, and when you're gone, they'll have to do what the next person says, too.  That's power.

A senator is more powerful than a secretary.

Power can also come from physical attributes.  If I'm bigger than you (and I probably am), then the implicit threat of my physical presence may be enough to intimidate you into doing what I ask you to do.  Make me angry and the more explicit threat of my red face and clenching fists will make an even more powerful argument on my behalf.  I can pound the table and make people do what I say, whether they agree with it or not.  There's power in intimidation.

A wrestler is more powerful than a writer.

Then there's influence, authority which is given to you by people who choose to follow you.  You earn it by who you are, through the character and wisdom that you display every day.  People listen to you, giving you authority over their choices, because they trust you, not because they have to.  Influence is no respecter of persons or titles; it can't read an org chart.  It naturally flows to the person who gets things done, who is effective in their role, and who reaches across boundaries to help others.

A secretary can be more influential than a senator.

Influence also comes through ideas, problem-solving, and intellect.  It doesn't always go to the smartest guy in the room, but it might at least check him for references before moving on.  We're influenced by new and creative ideas, by unique insights into our world, and by seeing an intractable problem, an intellectual Gordian knot, unravel and fall to the floor as soon as someone opens his mouth. We want to be creative, effective, and unique, so we follow people who embody those qualities.

A writer can be more influential than a wrestler.

There are other ways to influence people, of course: with charisma, looks, talent, even through trickery.  In fact, I'm sure that there are enough ideas to fill a book.  But when it comes down to it, we follow people because we want to be like them.  Lasting influence comes through exhibiting traits that people want to see in themselves and giving them hope that they might learn them from you, or at least benefit from them by being near you.  After all, if you solve every problem that comes your way, that's fewer problems for everyone else, right?

So, which kind of authority do you want?  Power follows the traditional path, and it's the clear winner for short-term results.  If you want a pile of rocks moved and you have an army at your disposal, it's far easier to say, "Move those rocks!" than to explain why a pile of rocks is antithetical to the progress of the army and to start moving rocks yourself in the hopes that others will join you.  People who want to advance their careers seek bigger and bigger titles, not just for the status that comes with the new business cards (Gimme a "V!"  Gimme a "P!"), but because they want to have a larger impact on their organizations.  We've been trained, through practice and tradition, to expect that we need the title (and the power) in order to make a difference.

On the other hand, even good soldiers have a tendency to slack off when the sergeant's back is turned, especially if they don't understand why the rocks need to be moved in the first place.  Power's impact is swift but ephemeral: it lasts as long as the holder of the title is present and swiftly fades when he moves on.  The leader who relies too heavily on power has to be everywhere all the time or the gears grind to a halt.  The more Machiavellian leader can employ minions to spread his presence and power by proxy, but if we've learned anything from TV and the movies, it's that uneducated minions do more harm than good.  And they can't shoot straight.

Influence, on the other hand, is based upon consensus.  Rather than saying, "because I said so," influence says, "What if we tried this?"  Better yet, influence combined with leading by example says, "Here, let me show you."  Where power demands deference and must be defended, influence stems from a willingness to serve before you lead, to show before you tell.  The influential leader teaches his followers, so they can carry the message themselves even after he's gone.  Rather than following orders, they emulate what they've seen and can even improvise new solutions based on what they've learned.  Instead of creating minions, he builds disciples.

I don't mean to say that power has no value: it's a great way to get people to listen to you in the first place, and it buys you a little bit of time if you need it to get things right.  We're all more likely to let the senior executive ramble for a few minutes before he gets to his point than we are to let the junior analyst think out loud (trust me: I'm a bit of a verbal thinker myself at times).  But without influence, power fades.  If power is the spark plug, influence is the gasoline.  You need both to get the car started, but the gas will get you where you need to go.

So back to my disrespectful colleagues.  Why do I put up with them?  It's simple: I want them to be comfortable enough with me to tell me exactly what I need to hear, not what they think I want to hear.  I never want a good idea to die stillborn because someone was afraid of what The Big Guy would say, and I recognize that the best ideas can just as easily come from the secretary as from the senator.  And if people do what I say they should do, I want it to for one of two reasons:
  1. It's the best idea in the room, or
  2. They trust me because of who I am and what they've seen me do in the past.
I never want it to be because I said so, unless they're my kids and I'm tired of arguing about bedtime.  In which case, shut up and go to bed already.  You have an early start tomorrow.

You can respect my authority all you want, but it should be because you gave it to me and you know exactly how much it's worth.