Learning from Jeffrey Veen

by Scott | 4/6/2009

Recently I interviewed Jeffrey Veen about his many experiences as a public speaker. He’s the author of two popular books on design, founding partner of adaptive path, and now member of small batch inc. which recently launched wikirank.com.

Process: Veen’s background is in journalism and it’s no surprise his process is anchored by writing. He writes out his material first, working approximately like a speech writer, thinking about how the words will be spoken as he goes.  But once the material is right, he never uses the script. It’s simply an anchor for developing and learning the material, he think’s it’s important not to be scripted.

Ideas:  He often asks the question “Could this be part of a talk?” when hearing interesting stories, and keeps a folder of stories, both images and text, that he suspects might be of use. It’s a resource of interesting stuff to play with when he’s asked to do a new talk.

Performance:  Veen described focusing on transitions, knowing how to get from one slide to the next, as being a key factor in looking smooth and telling good stories.  And thinking like a writer he considers ways to build tension and release it periodically through his talk.

How to make any topic interesting:  He suggested one kind of narrative than anyone can create:  Talk about 1) where you struggled with a topic, 2) the principles that helped, and 3) what interesting observations you made.  If you speak of your own struggles you become instantly relatable and interesting, even if the topic is boring.

Disaster story: While speaking at Web Directions in Australia, he got to his second slide and the projector system froze.  He quickly let the audience know that it really wasn’t his fault (it wasn’t!) and improvised until they fixed the problem.

Here’s Jeff in good form, telling some great stories about design and innovation at Startup2Startup. It’s only 20 minutes long, which he thinks is a sweet spot for lectures:

5 Responses to “Learning from Jeffrey Veen”

  1. Tammy Takahashi Says:

    I like how Jeffrey Veen relates public speaking to the writing process. I was a writer before a public speaker, and writing still dominates my process. Both my preparation and my presentation are based on what I learned about strong writing.

    I’m still learning in both regards. It’s great to learn from successful writers/public speakers who have a similar experience.

  2. Scott Says:

    Hi Tammy: I found this fascinating, because as a writer myself my process is quite different. For a standard lecture, as long as i have slides I don’t write anything down. I kick around the slides for a little while, and then I do a dry run. When the dry run falls apart, I kick around the slides some more, and then repeat. I don’t write it at it all.

    However if i have to give a speech or do a short talk and choose to go slideless, I’ll do almost exactly what Jeff described to me.

    Anyway, thx for the comment.

  3. Jeffrey Veen Says:

    Yeah, it’s weird. For me, I can’t really get my thoughts into a coherent form without sitting at the keyboard typing it out. And what Scott noted is really true: I almost never look at those paragraphs again. If I try to memorize the words, it just completely tangles me up on stage. But somehow, the act of typing a script cements certain words in my mind and they are the ones I end up using on stage.

    Looking forward to the book!

  4. John Allsopp Says:


    I was there for the disaster story – both as the organizer of the conference (I’m a real stickler for an event as a show, and so even little glitches with projection and so on annoys me – like when speakers come on stage in front of people and then plug in their laptops, …)

    The timing of this could not have been better/worse right at the first slide transition. I’d actually just introduced Jeff, and when all went pearshaped, I was in the front row, still mic’d up. Jeff looked at me and said something like “John, you are good at improvising”, so we kind of ad-libbed while all around us technicians madly scrambled around doing all kinds of technician stuff. The secret to things like this is to turn it to your advantage – handle it with equanimity, get the crowd on your side, and it can even be a net positive. But never fun ;-/

  5. Scott Says:

    Now if I could interview the tech guy and ask for his recollection of this event, we’d have every angle on the story! Thanks John!

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