Ignite done right: Preston on Twitter vs. Tolstoy

by Scott | 7/7/2009

One of my favorite talks at the last Seattle Ignite was Jason Preston‘s talk called “Goodbye Tolstoy: how to say anything in 140 characters”.  He does so many things right in his ignite talk, and did it with such confidence, I interviewed him for his take on public speaking – which is below:

SB: It seemed like you had fun giving your presentation? What about public speaking is fun or enjoyable for you?

JP: So many things about public speaking are fun for me.  I think High School is the first place I really learned to love an audience – I spent two years in the advanced drama class, where we performed a regular mix of improv shows, full-length plays, and student-written short scripts.

Two of my favorite things about public speaking are:

  1. The interplay between the audience and what I’m doing. It feels almost like sculpting; I time statements and form reactions with sentences and gestures. Some pauses I can fill with silence, others with laughter, other with applause. It sounds a little egotistical when you write it out but hey – I’m in front of a room full of people who are paying attention to me.
  2. I love putting things out there. There’s something exhilarating about putting your ideas, your voice, yourself in front of a room full of humans and abandoning the idea that you’re really in charge of what happens afterwards. To me, public speaking is a performance art, and as with all art is has a life outside of it’s initial confines.

At ignite, I could have been quoted on Twitter immediately (I wasn’t, I don’t think, but it was possible!), and there will undoubtedly be a video of my speech on YouTube. I have no control over where these ideas or my performance go, nor do I have any control over how people react to them. Some people say I’m nuts, but I think that’s fun.

SB: As you’ve done public speaking before – are there any big lessons you learned or good advice you picked up that had the most effect on you?

The single most important thing you can do on stage is to BREATHE. I’m not going to dilute that advice by adding anything else, because it is SO important.

How does you process for preparing for an ignite talk differ from a regular presentation?

I actually prepared much differently for my ignite talk than I do for other types of speaking. I what I’d call “rehearsing” instead of “practicing.” Five minutes is not much time to get your idea across and it’s tempting to let the format take over (slide for this, 15 seconds, slide for that, 15 seconds), when that’s not really the point.

I spent time before I built the slides picking my concepts and looking to boil it down into a coherent thought.

Practicing is what I tend to do for most speaking gigs: I go through my slides and my bullet points, and try to figure out what major concepts and analogies I want to get across. I like to give presentations without a formal script because I think I’m a lot more interesting when I have to be a human in the front of the room instead of a poor excuse for a tape recorder in playback mode.

This works most of the time because I have 45 minutes or so to get around to the point. Not so at ignite. As a result, I did a lot more “rehearsing” for this presentation, with the goal of clearing out all the side-trails that eat into my normal speaking routine. I also needed to make sure that I could say everything I wanted to say, and not say everything I wanted not to say, in the right amount of time.

I still didn’t write out a script. I let the presentation grow organically by setting my slides to rotate as they would on stage (15 seconds each), and then started running them, and talking along. I did this several times until I started relying on consistent analogies, jokes, language, and attitudes.

Once you had your material together for your ignite talk, how many times did you practice?

I didn’t keep an official count, but between the time the presentation was set and the time I was on stage at ignite I’d probably gone through the presentation about 13 times. For me, that’s a lot.

What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you while giving a talk/speech?

I guess my public speaking record is reasonably charmed. I’m drawing blanks on horrible experiences – I’ve had microphones die on me (just start shouting) and I’ve had truly dead audiences (just keep going), but I’ve never wet my pants, forgotten my pants, or otherwise had disasters involving my pants.

I’ll round back to my advice from earlier, because I think it’s largely responsible for avoiding deer-in-the-headlights syndrome: remember to breathe.

It’s even OK to pause, too. There have been a couple of times where I’ve forgotten what I’m supposed to say next. Take a breath, pause, if it comes to you–great! if not–no worries, you can come back to it later, and the audience doesn’t even know you left anything out.

You can see Jason in action below:

One Response to “Ignite done right: Preston on Twitter vs. Tolstoy”

  1. How to Break Up With Someone On Twitter – Jason Preston Says:

    […] You can find Jason at Jasonp107 on Twitter, on his blog or his thoughts about the future of publishing at Eat, Sleep, Publish. Jason was recently interviewed by Scott Berkun about this talk here. […]

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