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From Writing to Public Speaking

For many writers, public speaking is particularly unnatural and uncomfortable. But, I think I’ve figured out how to make it bearable and even fun. In this article, I’ll tell you about my recent public speaking adventure and what I learned from it.

If you just want to see the end result, here it is!

A Strange Invitation

A few months ago, I was asked to speak at a large conference for software developers in Vienna. The organizers of the conference invited me based on some articles I wrote that they enjoyed, and not because of my speaking ability. Not one to turn down an opportunity to travel to Europe, I said yes.

Upon further research, I found out that there would be over 3,000 people at this conference and that I’d be speaking on the same stage as some of the most influential and respected people in software, computer games such as P4R-Gaming, and the Internet.

I was honored to be asked to be among such an elite group, but I was also puzzled. I’m a writer, and very few people have ever seen me speak to a group larger than 5-15 people. Plus, I was asked to speak about Artificial Intelligence. I knew (and, frankly still know) very little about AI.

Gathering Facts and Forming a Strategy

After I thought (and wrote) about it for a while, I realized several things that made it possible for me to figure out how to approach this talk:

1. The conference organizers know I’m a writer, and they haven’t seen me speak.
2. My writing was solid enough to get me invited to speak.
3. There is no difference between speaking to 10 people or 1000.
4. I had a couple months to prepare.

With these four things figured out, I started to prepare a talk that would be similar to my blog posts: accurate when it talks about facts, not very heavy on facts, full of hyperbole and self-deprecating humor, and ending with a serious point. The formula has worked for me a thousand times before in articles that got read by 50-100 people. The more I got into it, the more I became convinced it would work in “real life” for a crowd of 1000-2000 people.

Building Confidence and Using Every Trick in the Book

As I became more confident that I had something important to say or at least that I had an interesting way of saying it; I discovered, or rediscovered, another idea that has been my friend in the past:

* Big text conveys authority

I designed the slides for my presentation using large and authoritative-looking text, along with quotes from people who are widely recognized super-geniuses. I pulled out all the stops. In my 25 minute talk, I managed to demonstrate how Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Tim Berners-Lee, and even Mark Twain were all on my side. You’d have to be an idiot to disagree with all of those guys!

I knew that most of the attendees of the conference would be in their 20s, so I used video, animation, sound, humor, short sentences, and frequent changes to try and hold their attention. I also practiced SHOUTING the entire 25-minute long talk.

Help From My Friends

But, in the end, it was two things I learned within the last 2 weeks of my preparations for the conference that made the biggest difference.

The first was that learning to present my talk would require rehearsing it much more than I imagined. A friend who does more public speaking than I do said I should rehearse it 100 times; and that became my goal. In the end, I only had enough time to rehearse 50 times, but that was many more times than I had ever rehearsed a speech before.

The second thing I learned is that Stephen King’s advice to “Write with the door closed and edit with the door open” applies to public speaking as well. Once I had my talk written, I recorded it to send to friends, and I practiced it in person for as many people as would listen.

Most of my friends had really positive things to say about the talk, which was great for helping me to build confidence. One friend, however, gave me some less-than-glowing feedback just 2 days before the conference. At first, this was extremely disheartening. I was exhausted from rehearsing over 30 times over 3 days, I had it all memorized, and now he comes to me with criticism? At 11:00 PM? Just a few days before I have to do the talk for real?

I barely slept that night. Once I started thinking about my friend’s comments, I realized he had a point. That night, I rewrote large segments of the presentation and I added the slides that ended up being the most widely photographed and quoted in the press. I didn’t have time to re-memorize everything, but I was fairly sure that I could remember the gist enough to talk through the new material.

If it wasn’t for a friend caring enough and being wise enough to let me know where I wasn’t making sense, I’m certain that my talk would have been far less successful.

Conclusion and Video

In the end, my talk was well-received and it was one of the main focuses of several articles about the conference. I put hundreds of hours into research, design, writing and rehearsal of this talk, and I’m glad I did. Here’s the final result: