Learning from Make TV’s William Gurstelle

by Scott | 4/28/2009

I met William Gurstelle, author of Backyard Ballistics, at FOO Camp, an event run by O’Reilly Media. It was a big thrill since I’d gotten much pleasure from the  fun, love of learning, attitude that comes through in his books, his lectures, and now his TV Show Make: Television, based on the popular DIY magazine Make, where he is also a contributing editor.

SB. In 2009 we have more ways to consume information than ever, including videos of people presenting. Why then do people pay lots of money and travel from far away to sit in a room just to watch someone speak? Any theories?

WG: The personal and more intimate nature of a lecture distinguishes it from other forms of public entertainment, such as a play or a concert. As much as we would like to ask the orchestra conductor or theater director why they interpreted Beethoven or Tennessee Williams in a particular way, the opportunity to query them personally doesn’t often happen except in a lecture. Thanks to the virtually mandatory Q&A session afterward, audience members have a rare chance to connect directly with those people at the center of attention. Beyond that, it’s that personal connection between speaker and listener that can make a lecture a profound experience, one with immediate impact. Using their own words directly and passionately, speakers can transform an audience: The audience may become more informed, more enthusiastic, or more partisan. The fact is, they go away different from when they arrived.

What’s the best experience you’ve had as a presenter?

When inspiration, information, and persuasion are expertly combined in one neat package, as happened with these speakers, a lecture can be as amazing for the audience as any other, perhaps more artistically oriented, cultural experience. Dan Pink, a journalist and Washington insider of some repute, and the Guthrie Theater’s Artistic Director Joe Dowling are stellar, mixing all three modalities seamlessly and effectively.

How do you separate style from substance – can someone be a good speaker or TV show host without being funny or particularly eloquent?

Eloquence is mandatory, humor is optional. But content is king.  Good speakers must have an important message and must be able to convince their listeners of the importance of the information they convey. I think that’s why “celebrity” speakers sometimes fall flat — their message is weak because the focus is mostly on their celebrity.

How do you prepare to give a talk? Describe your process in terms of the steps you take?

Audiences differ, so it’s important to tailor the talk to the particular group of listeners. I typically start from a relatively generic framework that I’ve used before and customize it to fit the needs of a particular audience. Once it’s written, I run through it out loud which helps me understand what sounds good to the ear and what might need to be changed.

What are the common mistakes you’ve seen presenters make? And are their things can recommend to help them avoid them?

I’ve seen plenty of bad speakers who are up there fulfilling their own needs instead of the needs of the people they are presenting to. Presenters need to stay focused on the audience.
The material must be relevant to the listeners. It’s surprising how often people present material that’s not well matched to the people present.

How is presenting on TV different than speaking to a live audience?

It’s much different. Without a live audience, there’s less feedback. Also, there is much less time to explore a particular point, so the expectations and “formality” of the situation are peculiar to television.

Here’s Bill in action, talking about his homemade Trebuchet:

One Response to “Learning from Make TV’s William Gurstelle”

  1. KrisBelucci Says:

    Great post! Just wanted to let you know you have a new subscriber- me!

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