My Speaking Final Boss —
Meet my speaking final boss. His name is r0ml, or actually, Robert Lefkowitz.
Now, he’s not trying to beat me and certainly isn’t an enemy and he probably hasn’t given me a minute of thought since I encountered him nearly two years ago, but there haven’t been too many weeks since then that I haven’t thought of him.
I have been called an excellent speaker and public presenter. I acknowledge that I am better than most within a certain subset of speakers, but I am nowhere near the top of the field of presentation and speeches. If you take people who are primarily used to speaking to groups of less than a half-dozen simultaneously and not heavily used to staring down an auditorium of strangers, then yes, I will float along the top like artificial sugar. I am taking advantage of a 15-year-old situation in all-hacker-all-the-time-themed conferences, where the idea of presentation as core functionality of a con upends the usual social interactions of computer-intensive individuals.
I’m a big fish in a small pond and my additionally bombastic public persona means that I’m a big noisy fish. This led, although I didn’t recognize it, to my becoming somewhat complacent. Two things changed that: OSCON and r0ml.
OSCON, the Open Source convention hosted by O’Reilly, was a strange invitation. I generally don’t turn down invitations because I like new things and new people, but I still thought it strange. Come speak about your text adventure documentary, they said. Considering my text adventure documentary at the time had no shot footage and was a series of outlines and e-mails, I thought this through and decided what the heck, let’s go for it. I said yes.
In fact, this would help my documentary as well, because this gave me an excuse to travel through the Northwest and garner some interviews, see some old friends, and enjoy the week.
One of the genius things that OSCON does is hold what I call a sampler pack of the day’s talks being given. If you come in the morning of each day, a few people who are speaking later in the schedule will give you little fifteen minute versions of what they will be covering, and then you might be shaken up into attending something you might otherwise not have. I was scheduled for one of the mornings, along with a few others.
So, here’s my mistakes, in case you want the short form:
- I didn’t prepare my 15 minute speech. I can let you know what the weather is in a chipper 15 minute speech, I figured, and here was a subject I knew by heart, making this text adventure documentary. Who needed notes.
- I had never been to an OSCON and didn’t get to visit the previous day to get a lay of the land. Normally, I’m speaking either at a place I’ve been to before or which I can see examples of online.
- I got there late. Very, very late. Like 20 minutes before I was to speak and the speaker handler was on the phone with me wondering where the hell I was.
- I didn’t recognize that a place that had a speaker handler probably had a lot more going on behind the scenes than me being able to show up and cruise up on stage like nothing was going on.
Oh, myriad and multitudinous mistakes; how I made you.
When I finally showed up to the event, I had to really boogie, because it turned out the convention center was huge and going from one place to another was a six days arduous adventure involving escalators, open space, and a feeling like you were riding in a boat heading towards a distant shore. I usually prefer to use the bathroom before a speech; you know, set myself at a level. No time here.
I walked into the room I was to speak and I realized it wasn’t a room.
It was an auditorium.
Not just an auditorium, actually; it was one of those locations where it’s been made into an auditorium but it could also be used to show off the newest Boeing flight products.
I was staring at the back of 3,000 people.
THREE THOUSAND. I’d never come close to such a mass of people all at once. My previous record was somewhere in the realm of 1,300. That’s a lot, but three thousand is even more, as they say. Twice as much, really, if I’d taken the time to do the math, but as I walked up one of the pathways leading to the stage area, my mind had gone blank and disoriented.
Suddenly, all sorts of little details that wouldn’t have been so bad caught up to me. Because I came late, I didn’t walk the room and I didn’t know the setup. Because I didn’t have specific notes for my speech, my stunning at the size of the auditorium was not letting me compose my thoughts. Because this was an event with three thousand people, there was an entire staff of people working behind the scenes on just the Audio-Visual and timing side to ensure this went off without a hitch and I had to crawl around the area like a skunk trying to find them to let them know that Asshole #5 had finally cruised his ass in there.
Somehow, I got composed enough to sit down in the front. There’s even evidence of this: If you look at the front row in this zoomed picture, you can see me in grey pants and black shirt (I’m somewhat obscured by a black railing, sitting with my laptop and box of DVDs). This picture gives you some idea of the scale of folks, but doesn’t really capture it. What it should show you, however, is one of the massive projection screens that had to be hung in the back to allow the people who were hundreds of feet from stage to be able to see whoever was up there.
So, some of these setbacks I’d overcome, by luck. Even though I was terribly late, I still got in place a good 20 minutes before I’d be speaking. I had all my stuff. I had my little laptop and it was working and I had arranged with an A/V guy to show my trailer I’d hacked up. And somehow I was starting to absorb the mass of humanity in the room and getting, if not fine with it, at least that balanced sense of terror that comes with realizing you can’t just keep screaming forever.
But then came r0ml.
r0ml is a fellow with some incredible cred. You don’t become chief technical architect at AT&T wireless by falling upwards. As a huge open-source advocate in enterprise management, he bridges two sometimes disparate worlds with ease and speaks frequently on this topic.
Of course, I’d never heard of him before. Different worlds. Hey, r0ml! I run a website of old crap! Ever heard of me?
I didn’t get a chance to speak to him before he went on stage, but fate and life put him on the schedule just before me. So I got to hear him give his speech in my unsettled-but-getting-better state.
It was quite the flashback to my previous hard lesson in this regard. Think you can just rest on your skills, let blind luck guide your choices, and you will reach that day when the roulette wheel lands on 00, when your 12 in blackjack is given a face card.
r0ml’s speech was amazing. The gist of it was asking what designated open source as a success, or what designated linux as being a success, and what the variant perceptions of both open source and linux could mean when being an advocate or a user. I am doing horrible at explaining it. It sounds boring or detached, perhaps. It was neither.
His fifteen minutes were wound like clockwork, but ticked silently, like the best swiss-made watch. He brought up points that you mentally assailed and then he assailed them himself, with even more deft language than you might have thought up. He had no notes before him. He paced the stage carefully. He encompassed those three thousand people like they were each personally sitting with him around the table, but then rode the laughter and reaction like a wave, always staying upright, always ready with the next point. I say all this looking back, because at the time I thought none of it, just that I was watching magic happen, and I didn’t exactly know why. All I knew was I was sitting in the presence of a true and real Speaker, where my own skillset had turned out to be just the most basic of moves. I thought myself a samurai and was merely a fellow who waved a sword menacingly.
Then it was my turn.
Here, by the way, is what an utterly terrified Jason looks like:
Compared to a lot of speeches given at hacker cons, perhaps I was very good. I didn’t stammer, I covered a lot of subjects in my fifteen minutes, and considering I was speaking about a subject that would result in neither additional money or market share for the listeners, I kept some percentage interested. But honestly, really, compared to r0ml’s work, I was merely “riding the stage”, letting the fact I was in the front of the room designate that I should be listened to.
3,000 people gives you a lot of contact very quickly; outside, after the event, a couple old friends and a few other interested parties met with me to quiz me or give me suggestions. I didn’t hear how great my presentation was, because my presentation was not great. There were no insights, just declarations. No passion to a level required to explain why this was actually important, just an ability to keep my head up while speaking. I give myself a D. I had, as they say, squandered an opportunity.
My speeches since then have gone under various bits of work, some experimentation has occurred, and I’ve even taken to using the occasional powerpoint-like presentation when needed (but not when not needed). Things changed on that day, and r0ml showed me what I might someday become. Maybe someday I will speak on stage before someone who thought themselves a great presenter, who realizes they came ill-prepared and need to step up their game to even consider themselves in my league.
But not yet.
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You inspired me to post my story of failing at public speaking.