I am speaking at Shmoocon next week, on Friday, in Washington, DC. The subject of the talk is “A History of Hacker Conferences”. I’m spending 5-10 hours a day working on it right now, and will get it in under the wire for the show.
I’ve spoken what probably counts as “frequently”, over a dozen times, at various events, shows and conventions. I’ve addressed audiences as small as 10 and as large as a thousand.
The thing is, I have this weird talent: I don’t get nervous about public speaking. Just not at all. I will address a room full of people as if I’m having a conversation with a couple buddies in a diner booth. It just doesn’t affect me. I have seen the often-quoted statistic that more people are afraid of public speaking than death. I am not one of those people.
I discovered this when my high school, Horace Greeley High, had student elections. Anyone running for student elections had to give a speech before their class (about 300 people). This was a dreaded portion of the process, one nobody wanted to do. I, however, saw it as a chance to force 300 people to listen to me for 5 minutes, and signed up simply for that.
My speech was a litany of humor and parody, with a series of bizzare platforms calling for destruction of the language lab, digital clocks in classrooms so people wouln’t have to strain with the big hand and the little hand, and as a big finale, I called for our school mascot to no longer be “The Quaker”, and instead be “The Greeley Ferrets”. To demonstrate, I brought out my pet ferret and said “This is a small foul-smelling rat, nothing would capture our school spirit more”. It was a big hit.
I of course lost. Kids aren’t dumb.
The next year, I decided to go for the gusto and run for School president. Instead of bring president of the class, I would be the lord high poobah of all the students of Horace Greeley High. But more importantly, I would be able to address THE ENTIRE SCHOOL, all 1200 students, at once. Just me. And the school. You couldn’t bottle perfection like that.
On the day that we had the speeches, 4 or 5 of us ran for president. There were speeches for treasurer, vice-president, and so on, and the presidential candidates were all lined up. It helps to understand how this was all laid out.
The school had the speeches in the gym, which is a huge affair (Greeley is a well-funded school) which could knock all the walls down and turn into a massive, massive space. All the kids were on bleachers along one side of the gym. The candidates sat on a few folded chairs in the middle of this acreage of clear, flat wood floor facing 1200 people. And this line of bleachers facing you across the gym was packed to the gills (attendance was mandatory, which made it even better). You couldn’t fit the entire audience in your field of vision. That’s a lot.
I was all prepared to do my act again, this time sans ferret. A few jokes, a little dig here and there, and once again I’d have had my time in the sun.
However, there was one thing I didn’t count on.
David was a student in my class who was in my same social group, the somewhat whacky “Quad Kids” who hung out in the plaza in the middle of campus, being weird, smart, and otherwise entertaining ourselves. His running wasn’t a threat any more than both of us going to the same McDonald’s would be a threat. It was just something we both were having fun with.
A lot of people know of David’s older brother, Jordan. Jordan Mechner programmed Karateka, Prince of Persia, and a host of other games. (I’ve never met him.) David, in fact, was the model for the character in Prince of Persia; Jordan videotaped David running around and jumping and then traced them into bitmap graphics. In this way, a lot of people reading this have likely come into contact with David, if only to make him fall onto spikes.
I believe the order of speeches was random or based on last name, but regardless, David spoke before I did. Like me, he had no qualms, no fears of addressing over a thousand of his contemporaries. (Some of the candidates could barely function in this situation.)
But more than that, he did something even more memorable. He absolutely destroyed me.
Whereas I was planning a basic standup routine, David stood up and addressed the crowd in the most fantastic sweeping voice and gesture, and his “joke” speech, also cooked up for fun, was in fact a completely different tack.
He went for satire.
Much as one is not getting the full impact of the Gettysburg Address by describing it as “I hereby dedicate this memorial”, I am unable to properly translate how devastatingly perfect David’s speech was, but I’ll try my best.
He asked the crowd to consider their time at Greeley, how important and formative these years were, and how many fine and beautiful memories they had gotten in just a short time. He asked of them, “when you come back to visit this school, this place where you met your friends and had so much fun, do you want to find it all changed and different and unrecognizable? NO!”
What you really want, he intimated, was a school where everything was just as you left it, pristine, untouched, unchanged. And he, David, would be the candidate to fulfill this promise. As School President of Horace Greeley, he would do nothing. He would accomplish nothing, he would change nothing, ensuring that the school he took possession of as president would be untouched upon his departure.
He called upon them to vote for him, the candidate of inaction, the candidate of no change, the candidate of dependable absenteeism.
It was a resounding hit. I specifically recall being unable to hold my sides in from how hard he made me laugh. And the echo of the classes laughing in that great huge hall as he triumphantly sat down on his chair was grandiose and well-deserved.
The problem was, here I was following him, the last speaker.
Forget competing. I couldn’t get out of the gate.
How could I even begin to come up with something that even begin to top his speech? It was a finely honed, finely crafted amazing piece of satirical work. I had some jotted down jokes and references. It was like comparing a swiss watch and a joy buzzer.
I remember my right leg shaking for a couple seconds, and then the steady, bright-eyed calm of I’m fucked.
I couldn’t top that. I started to do some of my material, saw it fall flat, and stopped. It was quiet. I made them do the “wave” back and forth a couple times, tried to get everyone to make popping sounds with their cheeks (which worked) and then sat down, totally wrecked.
That was the last time I ever got slammed like that. I was totally unprepared for the situation and completely unable to save it.
Now, of course, the choice is clear; I should have either immediately acceeded to David by lying on the floor in front of him like a lap dog, or tried to drop some sort of one-line bomb, like “What he said!” or “I disagree.” and then sit down again. There was no comparison.
What I’m saying is, I got my little trial of fire at 16. I’m well-tempered steel now. But you need that, that sense of realizing you have to go back to the factory, have to do a bit more training. It made me a better speaker, made me rethink the relationship with the audience. I never thought of them as my toy again, and I never walked up for an hour with 10 minutes of material at any convention.
Oh, and we both lost.
Kids aren’t dumb.
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