How a book gets made (this one anyway)

by Scott | 7/7/2009 | 9 Comments »

I’ve only written three books, including this one, but it seems I have a process now that works for me. Every book far has been different and tricky for its own reasons. That’s part of the misery and the fun of writing it seems. But the methods of attack I use falls into predictable patterns.

  1. It takes about two months to write the book proposal, including a sample chapter.  Leading up to the proposal and pitching the book to publishers, I’ve typically thought about the book and made notes on and off, for months, if not years, beforehand.
  2. It takes 5 to 6 months of full time work to write and research the first draft.
  3. Then it’s time for what I call the big read. I sit down and read the entire first draft on paper.
  4. After much whiskey and thoughts of other careers, I get my nerves back together, look at the notes I took as I read the draft.  I make a plan for how to attack draft #2 and get started.
  5. The second draft takes 4-8 weeks.
  6. Along with draft 2, I get plans for promotion, book tour, endorsements/blurbs and the rest of it.

I did the big read for this book two weeks ago.  And I’m half-way through the second draft.

More details on the book to come. But fire away with questions if you’re curious about what goes on in my brain about this project between posts here.

Related: Check out my amazingly popular post, How to write a book – the short honest truth

Can you force questions on an audience?

by Scott | 6/29/2009 | 4 Comments »

Here’s a question from the mailbag:

Last week I held a presentation to my company (around 60-70 people). My strategy for the post-lunch session was to keep the audience involved by asking questions. This was to prevent people from falling asleep from the food coma.

What I did was have a slide with a question, ask the audience, see what came up, and then reveal the answer I had in mind. I got a few interesting answers and it felt like it was partially keeping people from falling to food coma. Afterwards I got some appreciative comments from programmers who attended both about the contents and about the style of the presentation.

One problem:  Our CTO thought that the way I’d asked questions when I already had the answers prepared was demeaning. He felt strongly about this in terms of “that’s something you just don’t do”.  To me, I wouldn’t be standing there holding a presentation if I didn’t think I had answers that not everyone in the room did. Asking people to think about things rather than spoon-feeding them “truth”, to me, is a way to help the process of learning.

What do you think?

There are few things “you just don’t do” as every audience is different and the rules change depending on what they’re expecting, and how good you are at using a technique.  So it’d be rare I’d ever say “you can never ever do X”.

It’s also important to realize there are many ways to reveal those answers, some which might be demeaning (“you guys were too stupid to say things like this”) but others that are entertaining, interesting and enlightening (“Here’s what I had, but your answers were better for these 2 reasons, except that you missed…”).  So how you do it is as important as what you do.

The main problem I see is whether the questions you were asking were what the audience wanted to learn.  I’d rather do one of these:

  1. Ask 5 or 6 people who were going to be in the audience ahead of time what their actual questions were and use them instead of guessing.
  2. Only ask them questions that reflect something I’d taught them in the lecture.  So after demonstrating how to do long division, I’d give them an easy long division problem. Then the questions tests my ability to teach as much as it tests what they know.  Any wrong answers means I failed, not the audience.

In the end the CTO is entitled to his opinion, but it’d be wise to have the opinions of the audience recorded in some simple way so his perspective is informed by what the majority felt.  Having a better way to judge the value of a session is probably the best problem to solve here.

Instant feedback for speakers?

by Scott | 6/24/2009 | 6 Comments »

At the  Business to Buttons conference this month, I noticed an interesting way to collect feedback on speakers at every session.

Instead of bothering with a complex survey, which has to be sent out, complied and edited, they simply place two voting boxes at the door, with two piles of small cards. One pile green, one pile red.

As you leave you grab a colored card and drop it in the voting box. And by counting the cards it’s quickly clear how well received the session was.

The upsides to this system:

  • It’s fast
  • It’s simple: either the session had value or it didn’t.
  • There is no extra work

However there are problems too:

  • It’s not secret.  People see which pile you grab a card from, including possibly the speaker or his/her friends, which may change people’s votes.
  • If you get lots of reds it might not be clear why.

But I do love the idea as it quickly gives the speaker a sense of how well they did, and forces audiences to choose one way or the other.

The problems can be solved by finding a way to make it secret, even just by moving the box to outside the room, covering it, or finding a clever way to protect the anonimity of people voting.

Your worst speaking disaster? ($200 in prizes!)

by Scott | 6/22/2009 | 61 Comments »

One of the goals of the book is to talk about things going wrong in public speaking. Few books ever mention how often things go wrong, even for experienced speakers, and I want to make sure these stories get told.

Leave your story of a public speaking disaster! It can be something that happened to you or something you saw or heard happen to someone else. You can win from a pool of $200 in prizes.

To help get things started, here’s some of my own public speaking disasters:

  1. I suck at math (The Hague, Netherlands, @CHI 2000). At the CHI conference I and some friends ran a live design competition called Interactionary. 4 teams of designers (from IBM, Razorfish, Sapient and U of Malmö)  competed live on stage in front of a crowd of 800 people and were scored by famous judges in real time. At the end we announced the winners and took questions.  Someone yelled out that our scores were wrong, which prompted the audience to start yelling and booing us – things got out of control and I had to end the session early. They were right – we announced the correct scores later that day.
  2. Audience teaches me a lesson in front of 400 people ( San Francisco, 2007, @Etech). I made the mistake of claiming that the word architect is derived from the word arch, as in the people who make arches. Not sure where I read it (I did read it somewhere), but it turns out to be bogus. As soon as I finished my talk, Tom Coates stood up gleefully  and called me on it as the first question.  Blam. That sucked. (We joked about it later over drinks – he apologized, even though he was right).
  3. “Lets start 20 minutes late with gear that doesn’t work”  (San Francisco 2008, @Adobe Software). On book tour in SF, I spoke at an Adobe office with the worst tech guy I’ve ever met. I arrived 30 minutes early, but 20 minutes after I was supposed to start they were still sorting out their sound system, with various shrugs at my questions on why their system sucked so much. I spoke with a 2 second echo delay in my headset (required so 5 people could listen in remotely) the entire time, to an audience of maybe 15 people that blamed me for starting so late.
  4. I piss off a hostile and drunk audience (Cambridge 2008, @Ignite). This first Boston Ignite was at a bar worth studying for the worst place to do public speaking (Tommy Doyle’s). The small stage is dwarfed by the much larger bar area, meaning as the speaker I could hear the roar of the bar much better than myself or the audience. And since the crowd had been drinking for 2 hours before I arrived, an inevitable heckler yelled out, with an esoteric complaint about my mention of Crick & Watson without mentioning Rosalind. I made a joke about having discovered the feminist section of the audience, and it all went downhill from there. Mike and Marlowe, the organizers (and my friends!) asked me to speak again to close the night, despite my protests based on how much I’d drunk to get over the opening session, I eventually said yes. I believe I rambled something about Michelangelo and creativity but it’d be best to ask someone who was there. Actually spare me more embarrassment and don’t ask.
  5. The problems of being uni-lingual  (Kiev, Ukraine 2008). Being translated is cool if it’s done simultaneously like at the U.N. But silly me, I didn’t think to ask. And in Ukraine I was surprised to learn they were doing live translation, but with the translator on stage. On the fly I had to divide my material in half, as it takes twice as long to do anything if you have to wait for every word you say to be translated. Most exhausting full day seminar ever.
  6. “Please ignore the 120 decibel fire alarm” (Port of Spain, Trinidad).  Half way through my talk the fire alarm goes off. I can see the hotel staff and firemen running in a panic in the hallway behind the audience, but they can’t see it. Do I tell them what I see? Or play it cool and ignore the fact and try to speak over the alarm? I did the later. Talk about a distracted audience – at least no one slept through my talk.

If you take a minute to share a story, you can win:

  • Best story wins $100 gift gift certificate
  • Two runner ups get gets $50 each
  • Any story can win inclusion in the book (you’ll get an acknowledgment & a free copy)
  • Instant therapy – you’ll feel better after you share, I swear! I do!

Lets see what you’ve got – it’s an easy way to help me with this project. Please do.

Who deserves a standing ovation?

by Scott | 6/22/2009 | 8 Comments »
Standing ovation at Cannes

Standing ovation at Cannes (from wikipedia)

Much like clapping and applause, standing ovations are curious things.  The idea, in theory, is that when a performance is so exceptional that clapping isn’t enough, people in the audience should stand to show an additional level of appreciation.

I think this is cool and great and the more kudos great performers and speakers get, the better.

The problem is there has been a kind of standing ovation inflation.

You can see it in politics, where it’s expected certain leaders get standing ovations by default. In these environments standing ovations are mandatory and expected.  They convert what is supposed to be a spontaneous and responsive act into something quite official and often meaningless. And in some cases it can be seen as an insult not to stand and give an ovation, much in the same way not clapping can be seen as rude.

Rock bands are notorious for milking the equivalent of standing ovations by leaving the stage without saying they’ll be back for an encore. Then they wait for the chanting of the bands name, and come out as if the whole charade isn’t done in every venue in every city.

I’ve also found it in the arts. When I moved to Seattle, I found the number of standing ovations very high, particularly at dance or theater performances.  My friends and I would look at each other in surprise as if we’d missed something – the shows were good, yes, but exceptional? No.

Our pet theories on ovation inflation are as follows:

  1. The audience so much want to believe they’re a part of something special that they stand up to help make it seem special. (“It was amazing! They got a standing ovation!”)
  2. They don’t get out much and can’t put what they saw in perspective.
  3. They want to be polite, as is often the case in Seattle, and take being polite too far.

I believe in conservative use of ovations. It’s the atomic bomb for an audience – you can’t do any more. Once you do it, you’ve told the performer it’s the best thing you’ve seen in some time. If you give many speakers ovations, as I’ve heard happens often at TED, you’re diluting the ovation. Unless you’re willing to invent something to top ovations, keep them in reserve.

In my 15 years of public speaking, I’ve only received one standing ovation I can remember. It was my last lecture at Microsoft before I quit, where I finished by playing a song about writing specs, solo on guitar. I can’t play well or sing well, and I suspect the ovation was mostly for having the balls to do it at all.

Two questions for you:

  1. How do you decide when to give an ovation?
  2. If you’ve ever received one, do you think you deserved it?

Why do we clap? A short history

by Scott | 6/20/2009 | 6 Comments »

If aliens landed at a lecture they’d be very confused about what’s going on at the end. Why is it we strike our hands together violently to indicate we’re appreciative of what someone did? It’s an odd thing, an arbitrary cultural act that could have been just about anything. Slapping knees, howling, singing a song, all could have been the tradition just as easily as clapping.

In a recent article in Esquire, Elwyn Simons, head of Duke University’s Division of Fossil Primates, says “We don’t know know how far back it goes… but you don’t find primates doing it unless they’ve been taught to do it. They do not clap hands in the wild. It’s not to applaud something. It’s because they’re frightened or want to call attention to food”.

Jay Fisher, a professor at Yale University, dates the custom to the 3rd century BC, where (Greek?) plays ended with a request, plaudite, for the audience to clap.

Various cultures throughout history have had alternatives to clapping. The article mentions the Romans snapped their fingers. I know, first hand, that Bruce Springsteen fans yell “Bruuuuuce” at his concerts, which to many people new to his concerts, sounds exactly like people booing.

I also find it interesting, when I’m in the audience, to try and be the first person to clap. Often there’s silence when performances, or lectures, end, and whoever claps first can always start a good number of people clapping. It’s a strange phenomenon. Almost as strange as standing ovations.

Speakers and fees: an insiders view

by Scott | 6/19/2009 | 6 Comments »

Most people don’t know it, but some speakers at events they attend are paid to be there. An entire business exists for speakers, conference organizers and what are called speaker’s bureaus, for matching speakers and events together.

I interviewed Shawn Ellis, the founder of The Speakers Group, to hear an insider’s view on the speaking world.

The Speaker’s Group represents many names you know, from basketball coach  Pat Riley, to Dilbert’s Scott Adams, to Man vs. Wild’s Bear Grylls. They even have a search tool to help organizers find the right speaker for their event.

SB: Do you think public speaking is important in 2009? With YouTube, twitter, etc. giving people zillions of ways to connect from anywhere at anytime, why is it people still pay money to come listen to people give presentations?

Shawn: The one thing live events have that YouTube and Twitter cannot duplicate is the energy in the room. If you’ve ever seen a comedian live and then watched that same comedian on video, you’ll notice you don’t laugh as much. It’s not as engaging. Something is missing. It’s the same material, but you’re missing the energy from everyone else in the room. The same applies to speakers. Seeing a speaker in a room full of other people is more stimulating at the least, and at best, you connect with other people at the event which can lead to further discussion and maybe even accountability to help you apply the lessons taught by the speaker.

SB: Most people I know are surprised to learn there is a public speaking economy, an entire network of organizations that help match paid speakers to venues. How would you explain what a speaker’s bureau does to someone that had never heard of such a thing before?

The term “speakers bureau” is probably foreign to anyone outside the speaking or meetings industry. Calling a speakers bureau a “booking agency for speakers” might be more easily understood. Essentially, though, I would explain our business by saying, “Meeting and event planners – from corporations, associations, non-profits or other organizations – call us when they need a speaker for their event. We learn about their needs and objectives and then help them secure the speaker who is the best match.”

SB: In terms of payment per hour, public speaking is at the high end of wages in the world. Do people ever question you about whether speakers, or public speaking, is worth this much?

Speaker fees can be shocking to people who have not been exposed to them before. Even at the low end of the fee scale, you may be looking at a fee of $2,000, which sounds pretty good to most people. The fees of best-selling authors and celebrities, then which could be $75,000 or more, really sound outrageous! There are several things that you have to consider.

How many years did the person spend studying, researching, and making other preparations to be able to earn that appearance fee? Then how many hours did the speaker spend preparing for a presentation – researching the client organization, customizing the presentation, etc. – before that one hour on stage? And then you have to figure in travel time – it might take three days off the calendar for a single engagement. The “hourly rate” quickly starts to decline when you take this into consideration. (It’s still a good gig, of course!) But there’s something else to take into consideration: What is the value of a speaker’s presentation to an event? To an audience? To an organization?

A “celebrity” speaker may help an association draw more attendees, which increases registration revenue. A management guru may help a business’ leaders more effectively manage their teams, which could then boost corporate revenue and profits. If a company does $500 million in revenue and a speaker offers some nuggets of wisdom that spark a 1% boost in performance, that’s $5 million. How much, then, is that speaker’s time worth? So the point is, that while it’s easy to get caught up in just the dollars associated with speaker appearances, you really have to look a little closer if you want to start talking about whether or not the value is there.

It seems good public speakers are hard to find in any industry – why do you think good public speaking skills are so rare, despite how many events and conferences there are every year?

Some people just have the innate gift or talent to be a great speaker. Even someone without the gift may be able to learn the skill of public speaking. It’s a matter of aligning with some good coaches and practicing and investing the time, if you want to become a good or great public speaker. Becoming a great speaker is no different than becoming a great musician or great athlete or great actor. It takes work. It takes commitment.

What makes one speaker a better fit for a particular event than another? How do you help your clients decide which speakers will be best for which events?

Every client, every audience, every event, is unique. There are many factors to consider when selecting the “best” speaker. For instance: a speaker’s presentation style, level of content customization, availability of follow-up material (and whether or not such material is considered to be valuable), and experience or knowledge with a particular industry. Also, the time allotted for the speaker is important – because some speakers are great at 75 minutes, but will be off-balance when trying to fit into a 30-minute time slot. There is no universal “best” speaker. A speaker who is the absolute, all-time favorite of one group may fall completely flat with another group.

When we’re consulting with clients, we ask a series of questions to learn about their audience and their event objectives and their expectations to make sure we’re guiding them toward speakers who fit within their unique parameters.

Strange speaking venues, part 1

by Scott | 6/18/2009 | 3 Comments »

I’ve given lectures in some strange places, but this venue is a new one.

Scott Hanselman has this photo from a sports arena converted  into a lecture hall.

Hanselman explains what you’re seeing here:

They’ve used curtains to build up a “room” on the bleachers of this part of the stadium. I’m inside that black box, and the people who are overflowing up the bleachers also go all the way down to the bottom. On the outside of the box is projected both a live video of me as well as my projected computer. That acts as an overflow room, and there’s people sitting out there also. It’s a very clever way to do it, and they’ve set up six different track rooms, all like this, around the stadium.

My main question is this: how can this not have awful acoustics?   It’s certainly clever, and does add the potential for hot dog vendors to stroll up the aisles during a lecture.

What’s the strangest venue you’ve spoken at? Bonus points for pictures.

The speaking gig from hell

by Scott | 6/4/2009 | 2 Comments »

As research for the book, I’ve been collecting stories of things going wrong. From hecklers, to equipment failures, to tough crowds.

Today I’ve heard one of the best stories of things going wrong. It’s a great story of what he calls a hell gig.

Comedian Colin Quinn gets invited to speak at Robert De Niro’s birthday party, and nearly everything that can goes wrong, goes wrong, in front of dozens of major celebrities like Robin Williams, Harvey Kietel, Billy Crystal and others.

It will be the best ten minutes of your day – Listen here or download the mp3.

If you have a speaking disaster to share for possible inclusion in my book, leave a comment.

How to give a great ignite talk

by Scott | 6/1/2009 | 47 Comments »

There’s this popular format for public speaking called Ignite – It’s an evening of short talks with some special rules.  Similar to, but simpler than, Pecha Kucha, and more involved than lightening talks, in ignite each speakers gets 5 minutes – but must have 20 slides and each slide must automatically progress in 15 seconds.

Most ignites are held as social events with drinking and other activities, and dozens of these events have been held around the world.

I’ve spoken at 5 different ignite events (Ignite Seattle x3, Gnomedex, Ignite Boston) and make much of my living from public speaking – here’s my advice on this special format:

  • 300 seconds kicks ass. This is super short, which means it’s easy to practice . There is no excuse for not practicing until it feels good. It also means you have to be tight in your points. 300 seconds equals 10 television commercials. You can make great points in a short time if you refine your thoughts.  The entire sermon on the mount can be read in about 5 minutes and The Gettysburg address takes about 2 and a half minutes.
  • Figure out your points before you make slides. Talking about something for five minutes is easy – really, give it a shot once or twice before you make a slide – it will help you sort out what you want to say. You only need Four or five  solid points to go 5 minutes. And practice with a timer before you make a slide. You’ll quickly discover how unlikely it is to run out of things to say during an ignite talk.
  • It is ok to breathe. There is no law that says you must fill every second with talking. When you practice, practice breathing. Take a moment between points. Like whitespace in visual design it’s the pauses that make what you do say stand out clearly. Give yourself a slide or two that’s for just for catching up and taking a breath.
  • Pick strong stories and big themes.  What do you love? What do you hate? What is the best advice anyone ever gave you? Pick stories with big themes, since they require less introduction. What are the 5 most important things to know about X that no one talks about? The stronger the topic & title the easier the work is. Top 10 lists can work, but making 10 points is extremely hard – aim for 5 or 6.
  • Don’t get hung up on slides. Good slides support what you’re saying, not the other way around. The last thing you want is to end up chasing your slides, a common problem at ignite as you’ll never catch up. Pick simple images and if you must use text be sparse. No bullet lists, just one or two points. Make the slides flexible enough that if you fall behind it’s easy to skip something to catch up.
  • Watch some ignite talks! Some of the best ignite talks get posted to the ignite show regularly and you can see the many different ways people use the format. You can watch 6 different ones in a half hour. Do this. You’ll get ideas and confidence.
  • Using the abstract ignite deckYou can hack the format. The idea of a ‘slide’ is vestigial – they’re not slides anymore. I’ve hacked the format a few times, including using a special time counter deck to give me more flexibility (see photo at right). You can see this in action in my ignite talk on Attention and Sex or grab the deck here if you want to use or hack it further.
  • Plan to lose your first and last slide. Time will get eaten by the audience laughing,  by any ad-libs you do, etc. so plan for about 4:30 instead of the full 5:00.
  • You can find royalty free images to use. Search flickr using the advanced options to show you creative commons images. Or try or istockphoto.

And for extra fun, the rest of my advice is in the form of an ignite talk from Ignite Seattle #6.  How meta.

Photo credits for photos used in the above talk (they’re on the last slide but hard to see):

Also see:

If you’ve spoken at ingite and have more advice, leave a comment.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on how preparing helped… or didn’t :)