Zen and the Art of Presentations

  

If a presenter gives a talk, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

A few weeks ago, I nearly gave a talk, on something I’d hardly be considered an expert in. It ultimately didn’t happen (or at least, hasn’t happened yet), and although I was upset at the time, I think it was a good thing.

A few weeks ago, I nearly gave a talk, on something I’d hardly be considered an expert in. It ultimately didn’t happen (or at least, hasn’t happened yet), and although I was upset at the time, I think it was a good thing.


December 1st, 2014. I was in the midst of what I would later discover was a manic period. Full of energy and possibility, I had begun planning one of my over-elaborate, over-ambitious projects. I would make something, non-stop, for an entire year.

At the same time, RefreshPDX was in the midst of their speaker outreach. They had penciled in a few people, but a slot towards the end of the year was still open. A slot that I would be content to take advantage of, and in my state, a slot that I felt I would have earned.

It took months for me to realize that my over-ambitious project was… well, over-ambitious. It wasn’t going to work, and so I was left without a topic to talk about. But I still had a slot, and I was afraid to squander it.

So I put together a different talk. One on branding. My reasoning: I’m weird, and I’ve obtained a sort of brand to that effect.

Not the strongest reason, but I ran with it.

I got to work putting it together, fully aware that I didn’t really know much about branding. I started intently reading blogs I was only vaguely familiar with, like Crew’s or Nir Eyal’s. I forced myself to try and articulate my thoughts, and then transform that into something that fit my intended audience. And I reminded myself how to give a half- decent talk in the first place – something I knew, but had forgotten the details.

If the entire experience had stopped there, which it did for all intents and purposes, I’d still be better off. The sheer activity of putting together a talk, whether or not it actually ends up being given, carries enough benefit that it’s worth doing.

I had theories on selling yourself as a professional, theories that wound up proving false (or at least, incomplete). If I wasn’t doing the talk, I’d likely be offering advice based on those theories, in a way that I hadn’t given time to ferment and articulate. All the while, I’d be acting as though they’re true.

Granted, I could’ve done the research at any time. There’s certainly a benefit to being perpetually curious. But like so many alibis, I had the means and opportunity, but no motive. Agreeing to do a talk introduced that motive.

And that’s all that most people are missing. It’s the Internet age, we have means out the wazoo. We can find the 10 minutes to actually do the research. We just need to be so inclined. The obligation of having to present your findings to someone is likely to be a good motivator. We may have done them last-minute, but when we had to write essays in school, we wrote them. (Most of us, anyway.)

Of course, the preparation isn’t the entire benefit. Ideally, you’d talk to your audience afterwards, and the ones who aren’t just mansplaining might offer valuable details or thoughts on top of what you’ve already learned. In my experience, though, a lot of your audience will thank or applaud you, and that’s about it. Certainly good for the ego, but not as helpful.

My advice, then, is to write talks. Even if you have no venue or desire to present. Find something you’re roughly interested in, and keep digging until you have enough that an audience would think you’re an expert. You may not be an expert by that point, though you could be. But you’ve certainly gained expertise in whatever topic you’ve chosen – whether mainstream or niche.

In fact, I’m writing a talk on pub quizzes. Is anyone going to want to hear it? Probably not. But I’m probably going to learn something interesting, and if anyone does want to hear it, I’ll be ready.