Two lessons from giving talks

So I’m writing this blog post about why the AlphaGo documentary isn’t really about AlphaGo at all, but is squarely about Lee Sedol and the psychological pressure we put on ourselves when we strive to be top performers, the emotional connection we create with opponents, even when they bluff, and a few other things, and I (naturally) ended up down this rabbit hole about the absurd experiences I undergo as a public speaker–in particular a woman speaking about tech–and there are two things that are quite revelatory and meaningful.

The first is that my time with the AV crew before going on stage is priceless. They are always my talk angels, the perfect outlet for self-deprecation and humor and energy release before having to perform. I don’t know if they know this may be the most important service they provide to speakers, at least speakers like me who are introverts inverted into extroverts on stage, who crave the feedback of a smile or a vote of confidence or a pat on the back or a friend before the show. My slides are always ludicrous by design, so we laugh over their skepticism that the slide deck starting with an image of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan is the right one for a talk about machine learning. And then I NEVER have pants or pockets and we play the find-a-place-to-hook-the-microphone-jack game, be that on the back of my neck, the back of my bra, or even the back of my underwear (no joke, did that for the World Science Festival, THANK GOD it was a panel and I got to sit down after walking on stage because it was weighing down my underwear big time and I thought they would fall off right on stage…oh yeah, by the way, this is the stuff you have to think about as a performer, like, all the time, or at least as a woman performer, because I don’t think men have to deal with this kind of stuff).

The second is that having the AV break down may be the best theatrical device to deliver a great talk. I’ve had it happen to me multiple times now (Charlie Oliver thinks my business-card motto should be NO SLIDES NEEDED!) and have actually found that I prefer the energy when I’m screwed on stage. It seems best when the slides stop working two-thirds of the way in. That way, I have the luxury of communicating something using the props of images and memes on slides for a while (note to self: front load the deck with any mathematical concepts that are best explained with visual aids) and then have this magical moment where people are trailing off or looking at their phones or distracted by the rest of their busy lives, and they get surprised and it elicits first their confusion, then their empathy, and THEN, and here’s where the magic happens, their curiosity and their imagination! Because then I am forced to paint imaginative pictures of what the slides would have looked like if they were there, and my audience has a prior for how my talks tend to work, as they’ve seen the first two-thirds worth of images and can fill in the gaps. And the most electrified and engaged audiences I’ve ever addressed have been those whose attention perked up, who were with me, who followed me word by word after everything broke down. It elicits their compassion and, therethrough, their rapt attention. And it creates a virtuous feedback cycle. I have to work that much harder to ensure they understand, and they give me the nods or furrowed brows to show they do or don’t, and we communicate. It’s marvelous. They become actors in my story, part of the talk. Not just a passive audience.

Both of these lessons are about people being people. People connecting as people. Our identity as ruthlessly social beings. We abstract ourselves from our sociality in situations of performance, envisioning ourselves as brains in a vat who act on one plane only. But that’s not who we are. My delight in the absurd details surrounding the performance shows me otherwise. AlphaGo has a lot to say about that too (stay tuned…).

The featured image is of the Fillmore Miami. I gave this talk there, addressing an audience of industrial control systems security professionals. The lights glared in my face and I had no idea what people thought. I only had my own reflection in my mind, so I thought they hated it. After, many people told me it was the best talk of the conference.

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