Talkin’ what I feel*


*I’m listening to Young Disciples as I write this 🙂

Back in 2013 I decided that I would try and do more public speaking. I had done a couple of small public things including the first Bristol Ignite and a fair bit of internal speaking at work. While I felt I was becoming better at it I still found it all pretty painful and it had been on my mind for a while to try and challenge myself to get better at it.

As it happened it wasn’t until 2014 that I really started speaking at ‘real’ conferences and over the last couple of years I have spoken at ten proper events, a couple more Ignites and quite a few ONS internal events (which average almost 100 attendees). Nothing huge, well I was at SXSW but only in a little room, but decent sized, well organised events.

Over time my motivations changed from a personal challenge to a real desire to change perception of working somewhere like ONS and to tell the story of how things are changing and get people to see the scale of the opportunity to really do ‘digital transformation’.

The personal challenge changed as well – once I had got up to talk I needed to become good at it. There is a real responsibility to take it seriously when people have paid their own money to attend something.

I have have had two big influences on how I do presentations – the first I read back in 2012 and the second was much more recent.

Christian Heilmann, a developer evangelist who was at Yahoo I think at the time, wrote this post about the idea of a ‘portable presentation’ and in it he outlined his personal, content first approach;

I write my presentation as an article – headings and 1–2 paragraphs explaining what I want to bring across.
I make sure to add a lot of links to the article pointing to resources that back up what I am saying and that people can read at their own leisure.
I use the headings as slides and the paragraphs in a shorter form as notes to remind myself what I want to cover
I take screenshots and screencasts of the resources to distribute and re-use (as you can never expect to be online on stage)
I put together the slides, add imagery and that’s it


This means that post talk you have a ready made blogpost that almost certainly makes more sense than your slides without context. I’ve done this for every talk since Port80 – even if I am rehashing the same themes and topics I try to update it and rewrite as much as possible.

The other influence is much more recent and dovetailed nicely with the first. It essentially got me completely rethink the presentation of my slides which in turn has helped me to improve the structure of my talks.

Russell Davies, late of the Government Digital Service, wrote this series of blogposts about doing better presentations;

One thing he said stung a bit but was clearly true;

“..if you’re typing an abstract noun into Image Search you’ve already lost.”


Look at my earlier slides and it is clear I do not follow the ‘illustrate don’t decorate’ advice. Recently though it has become a principle I stick to.

Oh I have also learned that I am not above going for an early cheap pop to get the crowd on my side Mick Foley style!

So I have learned a lot and I think I’ve become half decent at presenting. It has also helped massively when I also attend the events as it means people introduce themselves to me and I meet interesting people (like Rebecca and Jeff at SXSW) when if left to my own introverted devices I’d stand in the corner of a room playing with my phone until I decided it was safe to sneak off.

The thing is it really hasn’t got easier. I get hugely stressed before each talk – sometimes to the extent of being physically sick. I can’t sleep the night before I speak. My most recent talk took 16 hours to write (it was 35 minutes long) and that was after thinking about it for months. I do actually enjoy the buzz when I am up speaking but I have to wonder if it is worth all the agony up to that point.

I think I have reached any personal goals I set out to achieve and while some of those professional goals remain I do think the story surrounding ONS digital has changed and it doesn’t need me (if it ever did) to carry that.

So perhaps it is time to stop. I have a couple things left I’m committed to but I’m thinking in 2016 the world can live without my dulcet tones being amplified in auditoriums.

Now writing a book – how hard can that be? 😉

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