Thursday, July 30, 2015

Talk About the Talk: @drlucyrogers's space debris talk at InspireFest

(Editor's Note: Talk About the Talk is a series in which speakers I've worked with share their experiences preparing and delivering major talks. Dr. Lucy Rogers and I met at the speechwriting conferences I attend in the UK and Europe, and as you'll read below, she participated in my workshop on What goes into a TED-quality talk earlier this year. In one of our exercises, I asked participants to pair up and share their ideas for TED-style talks, then learn what their partner thought and how he or she would suggest adjusting it--a great technique to help you see what your audience might want. Rogers teamed up with Guy Doza, and continued getting feedback from him after the workshop. I'm so pleased that Rogers shared video and her text so you can see the work involved.)

“We’re aiming to have 75% women speakers at our tech conference and would love for you to be one of them.”

Who could refuse an invitation like that? Most tech conferences that I have been to or spoken at (and tech includes science and engineering in this context) have had a maximum of 10% women speakers.

Back in January 2015, Dr.Sue Black, a friend I met on Twitter, recommended me as a speaker to Ann O’Dea from Silicon Republic, based in Dublin. Ann had a look through my YouTube videos and at my blog and asked if I’d be willing to have a Skype chat with her about InspireFest 2015.

We chatted about my portfolio career, and I suggested various topics I could talk about, including “Robotic Dinosaurs,” “Work can be fun," “How to get from there to here,” and “Space Debris”.

We finally (about five days before the conference!) settled on “Space Debris."

I am a member of Toastmasters International and this has helped me improve my public speaking technique. I have also attended a few European Speechwriters Network (ESN) conferences, so have gained hints and tips about constructing speeches. At one of the recent ESN conferences, I also attended the “How to give a TED-Quality talk” workshop by Denise Graveline.

I decided to implement some of the things I had learnt or that had been suggested at that workshop into this speech.

First – write the script. This was new for me. I usually think of what I want to say, break it down into eight parts and write a few key words to remind me the stories in each part.

But, I sat and stared at my computer for a while and eventually wrote a script. I then asked Guy Doza, a friend I had met through the European Speechwriters Network, to have a look at it and give me any feedback.

My original script was a little vague in places and disjointed. Guy helped me focus on the main point of the talk, and suggested ways to help the audience come away with a clear call to arms.

Guy also suggested using more rhetorical devices and painting more pictures - how much debris per day? - rather than just a number.

By writing the script I made it tighter, put more rhetorical devices and quotes in than I would have in my “normal” way of picturing stories.

The script I wrote for the talk is given below. I froze it on the Tuesday, before giving it on the Thursday. If you watch the video (here and below), you’ll see I wasn’t word perfect. I changed the first line and I missed out some of the jokes.

When I was practicing and timing myself in my hotel room, I also realised it was too long - Denise had said, aim for 100-120 words per minute – I had written too many words so I had to cut some bits. (Read the final script here.)

I was nervous before the start – it was the biggest conference I had spoken at, and it was in a theatre, with a proper stage, proper lighting, proper headset microphones plus all the backstage people etc. I had to wait backstage in the dark while two other speakers gave their talks. I watched their slide presentations from the wrong side of the screen, and almost learnt to read backwards.

However, when I was on stage, I relaxed. The audience were friendly, laughed at my jokes, and I felt encouraged by them. Even the “casual saunter” back to the lectern to refer to my notes (see photo) wasn’t as embarrassing as I thought it would be. Note to self: freeze the speech longer in advance to give yourself chance to learn it.

I had decided not to use slides – I relied on making visual pictures. I prefer this as I first started public speaking in a storytelling setting. I often find slides a distraction, but it does mean that I have to be able to hold the audience’s attention.

Immediately after the talk I had some great feedback – both on twitter and in real life. I even got asked if I had given it as a TED talk – and that I should. I was really chuffed by this - I was aiming for the “TED Quality” talk that Denise had highlighted in her workshop.

I watched the video three weeks after I gave the talk. I was very impressed at myself! Thanks to Toastmasters I have eliminated most of my verbal crutches (ums, ers etc.) and also the random hand waving I used to do.

Because I wrote the speech out, the rhetorical devices and word pictures were much stronger. The speech I feel had a purpose and a call to arms.

My only worry now is that I will get pigeon holed as only being able to talk about space or science. I have many greater issues I’d like to speak about - “Women’s equality” “Finding your own path”, or even “How to hold your audience’s attention.”

(Photo by Conor McCabe)

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