03 April 2023

tl;dr So many new speakers (and quite a few veterans who should know better by now) make what I consider to be one of the classic rookie mistakes when giving a technical presentation. The appointed time arrives, the expectant crowd hushes as the speaker stands up to talk about their particular topic... and the speaker launches into a five-, sometimes ten-minute-long monologue about themselves. The audience shuffles, the speaker senses the discomfort, and now not ten minutes into the talk the speaker has lost some of that precious resource we depend on for a talk to go smoothly: credibility.

Why do this? Why has this technique so common that its been taught in almost every public speaking class, yet simultaneously so deserves to be tossed into the dustbin of dramatic worthlessness?

Bona fides: "good faith; absence of fraud or deceit; the state of being exactly as claims or appearances indicate", "the official papers, documents, or other items that prove authenticity, legitimacy, etc., as of a person or enterprise; credentials" (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/bona-fides)

Credibility is a currency. As a speaker, it's what you rely on to carry you through the awkward moments that will plague any talk. In Mistakes Happen; Get Over It, I told the story about the session I did in Belgium that absolutely hit every failed demo bomb that a single talk can hit--I mean, it was almost a perfect score of suckiness from a demo perspective.

From an objective "did I accomplish what I set out to do", it's pretty clearly I should've scored somewhere in the 50th percentile--an F grade in any US high school public speaking class, for sure. But when I talked to an attendee, they explained the rather positive evaluations I received by praising how I didn't let the failed demos derail the talk.

But even before I ever set foot in that room, I've discovered, I had something going for me: a reputation.

Your Reputation Precedes You, Mr Bond

You see, I've been doing technical public speaking (user group talks, training classes, conference events, and so on) for almost twenty years now, and I've had the fortune to be able to give many of them to people who then said some nice things about those talks to other people. By this point in my career--as I described once to my grandparents--"To a small percentage of the planet I am moderately famous".

And fortunately, much of that fame includes a belief in my ability to understand technology well enough to help others understand it better through my presentations. If something goes south, the audience can shrug to themselves and say, "Everybody has an off day." If a demo bombs, they can wince and say, "Ow, I've had that happen to me before, too." They'll shrug off a number of failures on my part--but each time they do, I lose a little "Cred", and if I lose too much of it, they'll stop shrugging it off.

Credibility: Get it now while it's HOT!

This is why I say it's a currency: Spend the Cred in a tactic or an idea that people are impressed by, and you get more Cred back. When I do a talk that involves live coding, and somebody asks a question, and I can adjust the demo to include that specific question and show (rather than tell) the answer, that's a huge boost of Cred. Of course, if I can't make the demo work at all, it's usually a negative Cred event.

In fact, you can think about each and every thing you do up on that stage can be thought of as either a deposit into your Cred account, or a withdrawal from. When you deliver an amazing talk, your account is flush and you can spend some of that Cred to leverage an invite to other conferences. (Always ask the organizers for links to your talk on the Web, by the way!) If you botch the talk too badly, you'll find your rep is shot because there was a run at the bank on your Cred, and unlike Silicon Valley Bank, the FDIC won't bail you out.

I've seen well-established speakers do this; one speaker in particular, I can remember, didn't prep at all for his keynote talk at a well-known conference in front of people that weren't his usual audience. His demos bombed because he was using a broken build of a beta product, he was trying out a new idea live for the first time after having thought about it on the plane, and about halfway through his keynote, he said, "I think I'm done." Closed his laptop, walked off the stage, talk over. As far as I know, he's never done a public presentation since.

Now, don't get me wrong--the guy is a ridiculously smart guy, someone I've admired for many years, but he fell into the trap of coasting some on his Cred. He could try out new things, wild ideas, and to the audiences who knew him, he could do no wrong--he had Cred accounts that made even Warren Buffett envious. But Cred is local currency, not global, and Cred in one region (sphere of conferences/technology) is not spendable in other regions.

But we were speaking of something else.

"Well there's yer money, Harry. Gringotts, the ~~wizard~~ speaker bank."

Most speakers will tell you, when asked, that they put their bio slides and self-introduction at the start of the talk for the exact reasons I've cited above: Cred! "I need to explain who I am and what I've done and all the reasons why I'm the right person to give this talk so that the attendees will know that I'm worth listening to!" All of which is pseudo-speak for "I need to build up some Cred with the crowd right at the beginning, because I have none."

Au contraire, mon ami. You have Cred already, even if nobody in the room has heard of you. Even if this is your very first talk ever.

Because the fun thing about Cred being a currency is that it can be loaned. And repaid. And in this particular case, a very important entity has loaned you some of their credibility, just by putting you on that stage at that time and in that place.

I speak, of course, of the conference. The event staff. The track chairs who looked at your proposal, your body of work, your breathless phone video that you recorded and sent in with your CFP because you were just so gosh-darned excited about speaking at your event Madam Track Chair, you see and they said, "Sure. Come on up and give us a talk."

That Cred was deposited into your account the moment the conference gave you the thumbs-up after the CFP closed. So you don't need to open your talk and waste the most precious time of the entire slot by reading your family history to the audience.

Check your ego at the door

One of the other reasons speakers like to put their bio slide at the front of the deck is, because, let's face it, they love to talk about themselves. All the cool things they've done, all the amazing books they've published, all the incredible articles.... Do you really want to be "THAT speaker", when all is said and done? I mean, if you do, sure, by all means, get on with your bad self and you do you, boo.

The First Five

But the first five minutes--ten minutes if the talk goes to an hour--is really the most magical time in the entire talk slot. This is where the audience is at its most impressionable: They are curious, breathless in anticipation (or from running down the hallway beause they wanted to catch your talk but stopped at the snack table and then ran into a friend they hadn't seen for a while and suddenly your talk was about to start), eagerly awaiting what you have to say.

Keep in mind, most people, once they're settled into a talk--particularly if they're anywhere forward of the back third of the room--are very uncomfortable getting up and leaving the room after a certain period of time has elapsed. It seems rude in some cultures. Once we're past that five- to ten-minute mark, they're in your room for the duration. And if they don't like your talk (because they've come to realize it wasn't the talk they thought it was), this is just a "meh" evaluation that's only going to get worse--rarely better--as you go.

What you say in those first few minutes will stick with them for the entirety of the talk. Possibly these will be the only things they remember from the talk. This is the time to remember the The Promise of the First Five Minutes (it is your job to tell the audience what you're going to cover, and theirs to decide if they want to listen) and let the audience choose whether to invoke the Law of Two Feet (in which they decide your talk is not for them and use those two feet to find one that is).

It is here, in these first five minutes, that you will lay out the contract for your talk, and explain why it's in their best interest to stick around and hear what you have to say. It is here where you will spin out an overview of the story arc that you are going to relate to them, and how this will make them better for hearing it. It is here that you are establishing the rapport with your audience.

And instead of taking this time to grab their attention with a hook or a story or a "here's a problem we all have"... you're telling them all about you.

Put your bio slide at the back of the deck. Please. If anyone cares to look you up later, they can do so, and if they don't care... then aren't you glad you didn't waste any precious air time telling them about you?

Tags: speaking tips