I had an interesting, fairly personal experience today and a resulting lesson that I wanted to share.

Earlier today I gave one of the opening keynotes at OSCON. It was 15 minutes long, and it was OK. While I didn’t consider it a bad talk, it wasn’t what I would consider my best work.

Immediately after the presentation I gave my second talk, which was 40 minutes long, and I was very happy with the results. A filled room of folks seemed to find the talk useful and there were plenty of questions. I did consider that some of my better work.

So in a nutshell, my 15 minute keynote felt OK and my 40 minute talk felt solid.

Something was bothering me much of the day about why this was.

My dissatisfaction was not with the execution of the keynote, I felt I was reasonably vibrant and articulate in the way I presented, but I was less happy with the content and the structure. It felt to me that not enough of the rubber hit the road.

I have been giving talks at conferences around the world for over twelve years. I have prided myself in striving to deliver useful content but wrapping it up in a loose and entertaining style, and providing plenty of anecdotes to identify with the audience. Twelve years in, I felt pretty confident that I had this presentation-business down pat. I felt like I had cut my teeth, paid my dues, and made all the mistakes I needed to make to get the art of delivering a solid presentation down.

I am an idiot.

As a bit of background, when I started preparing the content for my keynote, the content and the structure was something I really battled with. This was a different type of keynote; it was more along the lines of a lightning talk in terms of duration, but it had the gravitas of a keynote. It needed to be thought-provoking and set the stage for discussions elsewhere at OSCON. But I needed to do this in a short burst of time, and make it feel like an experience that people could identify with. I had my message; I believe that we are at the beginning of a renaissance in community management, but I found the shorter nature of the presentation and it’s position as a keynote really challenging, and more-so than I expected.

After delivering the keynote and in thinking about this and talking to some close friends, I came to some conclusions, and it is these conclusions that I wanted to share. If you are a presenter some of these thoughts might be useful in how you think about your own presentations too.

Firstly, my presentation style has always been story orientated; I build up a context, provide some tension in that context, and then deliver an outcome that strives to relieve the tension and provide insight. As such there is a certain amount of set up and context building that gets the audience up the curve, I then deliver the outcome and bring the audience back down over the curve and provide conclusions. This story-telling component takes time…valuable time in a short presentation.

Secondly, Steph Walli observed that there is a real skill in writing novels and a real but very different skill in writing short stories. I think this was really insightful. Short stories by definition need the story-telling to be more compact, and the finesse and skill is in delivering the same smooth set-up and transition of events, but with fewer keyframes thrown into the mix.

As such, my conclusion here is that I like to tell stories, and my presentations always comprise of telling stories, but my career so far has far been from the perspective of a novellist as opposed to a short-story writer. I believe this was illustrated today when my longer talk felt more natural and more me, yet the keynote felt personally more awkward, and less me. While I am confident in my skills in delivering a 30 or 40 minute presentation, I discovered today that delivering a shorter presentation that needs to have the same or greater level of gravitas requires a very different and distinctive set of skills, and I want to aquire them.

To be completely clear, none of this is at the fault of OSCON and O’Reilly, I have no issue with 15 minute keynotes, and they put on one heck of a great conference. Everyone has been so supportive and wonderful to me. I am delighted they gave me an opportunity to get up and speak and I feel even more grateful that my experience has now helped me to learn something new about myself, and a new area to focus, even after I had been down the presentation road so many times before and I thought I knew what I needed to know.

It turns out that this old dog still needs to learn some new tricks, and I am now switching gears to learn how to do this. Thoughts and advice all welcome! 🙂

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