What is Larry Thinking? #67 => Public Speaking

March 11, 2013
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About This Newsletter

Last year was a fairly active one for me in terms of public speaking. I spoke at four events, each quite different than the next, and I really worked hard on becoming a better public speaker. (Those two activities–public speaking and working on becoming a better public speaker–don’t always go hand-in-hand, sadly.) Over the course of the year, I learned quite a bit, both about myself and about public speaking in general. In this newsletter, I thought I’d share some thoughts and resources along those lines.

As always, questions, comments, and all feedback are much appreciated. And thanks for your interest in what I have to say and do!

What is Larry Thinking? => Public Speaking and Me

A confession: I’ve never liked, or been good at, public speaking. Standing in front of an audience of any size, for any reason, has been my kryptonite. I don’t know how it started, or when, but speech class in high school was uncomfortable for me, and by the time I got to college, speech class there was terrifying (yes, I had to take it). I got literally nauseous while preparing to give the toast as the Best Man at a friend’s wedding: it was that bad.

After college, I did a fair amount of training for Borders Bookstores (R.I.P.), which I did enjoy, although that was a different beast. Borders had a casual atmosphere, which made me more comfortable, I’m sure. The groups I trained were small–maybe 5-9 people at a time, maximum–and the goal was to teach, to enable people to do their jobs. I enjoy teaching, and in terms of being in front of people, teaching is more about the subject than about myself, which must be why it’s less nerve-wracking for me.

A few years later, once I started writing books, public speaking become a natural, and arguably expected, companion. And somehow, that kind of public speaking was again kryptonite for me.

In the couple of years after I published my first book (in 2001), I occasionally performed multiple-day corporate training (mostly PHP and Oracle or MySQL). I found those events to be stressful and tough, but lucrative. Lucrative is good, but I’d be nervous, sweaty, and would undoubtedly speak too fast. I was still effective, though, or effective enough, as I continued to be asked back. I made these training situations harder on myself by creating custom courses for each group, and even changing the content and examples on the fly over the duration of the course. Hard on myself, yes, but I thought these customizations were the best way to give each group the most tailored training and the most value for their money.

I admit that, for years, I never spoke at conferences where I was not paid. I don’t think it was so much a matter of being selfish or cheap, but rather thinking that the math didn’t add up. Even if, as a speaker, my travel costs were to be covered, it’d still be a couple of days of work that I’d miss while being there, plus the time required to prepare. (For the record, I have never made a lot of money by U.S. standards, so lost money is not insignificant to me or my family.) Moreover, I didn’t appreciate the other benefits that being at conferences, let alone speaking at them, brought. The arguments for conferences were lost on me and my myopic business sense (just as the arguments for social media were lost on me for years, too).

Oh, and I hated public speaking, so doing it for free was even less desirable.

Then, in 2006, my twins were born, and I became a stay-at-home dad. Traveling for work became a huge imposition on my wife and kids (and me). Between 2006 and 2011, I believe I only spoke at a single event (the “Voices That Matter” conference in Nashville, TN) and attended one other (Adobe MAX in San Francisco, as a guest of Adobe).

And then, next thing I knew, it was 2012. My kids were older and some other personal issues had been resolved sufficiently for me to start considering public speaking again. That, and I finally (finally!) started thinking about marketing and other things I should have been doing for years to improve my career.

Thanks to my books, my eventual use of social media, and a bit of randomness, I spoke at four events in 2012:

The training in San Francisco was familiar territory to me, and to a wonderful and relaxed group of educators. Speaking to 200+ business people in Turkey, and speaking to 250+ people there to see just me at Boston PHP, were entirely new, and potentially quite stressful experiences. (In case you’re curious, one of these paid very well, one paid okay, one only covered my travel expenses, and one didn’t even do that.)

Still I think these all went pretty well. In fact, I received a very warm response to my Boston PHP presentation. Debra said to me (on my blog):

I went to your talk that night. You were like a born public speaker, presenting your ideas as clearly as your writing style.

Flattery aside (which is always nice), the fact that in one year I went from being deathly afraid of public speaking to being considered a good public speaker is quite a change. And I’m getting marginally more comfortable doing public speaking, which probably helps the quality, too.

A big influence towards both the quality of my presentations and my comfort in doing them has been two great books that I happened to have read in 2012 (as part of my conscientious goal to improve). I’ll highlight those a bit later in this newsletter. Later on I also point to a blog post, “What I Learned at Boston PHP,” in which I talk about how surprised I was to (re-)learn something I already knew (or should have known): if you want to get better at anything, just work on it. As obvious as that statement is, it surprised me to discover that it also applies to things you don’t like to do, or don’t think you’re naturally good at doing. Again, this should be obvious, but sometimes we have to be reminded of the obvious.

Along with learning how to be a better public speaker (and learning that I can learn to be a better speaker), in 2012 I discovered the benefit of attending conferences and events like these. I would not consider myself either an extrovert or an introvert, but there is a value in getting out and meeting new people. (This is especially true when you’re fortunate enough to have strangers telling you how much they like your books; I am lucky!) Yes, there’s a business case for meeting new people (i.e., networking), but it’s also just a great way to find out what people are into.

One of the problems with working for yourself (as I do) is how insular it is. No matter how much reading you do, or research, or social media, or whatever, you’re still going to stay within a fairly narrow circle of your own life and interests. Take, for example, my favorite PHP framework, Yii. I think Yii is great, and many of the people I interact with think so, too. In hindsight, this should be self-obvious, because many of the people I interact with are contacting me after reading my works on the Yii framework. By attending conferences, and broadening my sphere of influences, I was able to see and hear not just what people thought of the Yii framework, but what people are generally interested in and talking about: what excites them. It’s just a great way to broaden one’s awareness of what’s out there.

I have not done this deliberately myself, but I once came across two questions that were recommended for use at conferences, events, parties, etc.:

  1. What’s most exciting for you right now in your life/business?
  2. What’s challenging for you in your life/business right now?

(I forget, and can’t easily find, the original source.)

Those are interesting questions, sure to get people talking. And when people are talking, you learn new things. Assuming you’re listening. So one of the things I tried to do in 2012, and will try to do even better in 2013, is ask people those questions and see what they say.

Not to be all cliché, but to me, any year in which you learn a lot, especially about yourself, is a good year. And 2012 was a good year for me, thanks in part to my public speaking ventures.

So what does 2013 look like for me in terms of public speaking? Well, nothing definite yet, but one year ago today, I only had one event scheduled. I am planning on attending BarCamp Harrisburg in April (more on that next). I have also submitted to present at Pittsburgh TechFest in June, and am waiting to hear back on that. My proposed presentation is “How to (not) Get Rich Writing Books,” which is a presentation I’d like to give to share what I’ve learned about publishing (including self-publishing).

One of the key Boston PHP people is also the organizer of the Northeast PHP conference and he has asked me to speak there, although nothing is official yet. Hopefully that will happen (in August). And I would hope to present at True North PHP again this November. I’ve also recently connected with a couple of professional training companies in the hopes of doing more corporate training again (both on-site and online).

While it’s good to have public speaking in my available arsenal (something that I can both do and feel comfortable doing), it’s still an imposition on my family, and time spent not working, so I don’t want to overdo it. Plus, I fear that going to a lot of conferences has a diminishing return, particularly if most of your time is spent socializing with the other speakers (which is often the case, and the same speakers frequently attend the same conferences).

Please let me know if you have any resources or recommendations for:

  • How to be a better public speaker
  • How to give better presentations
  • Great conferences
  • Great user groups
  • Any other great resource along these lines

Or if you just want to share your own experiences and thoughts on being a public speaker, please do.

On the Web => BarCamp Harrisburg

On Saturday, April 6th, I’ll be attending the fifth year of BarCamp Harrisburg, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I don’t know whether I’ll be speaking or not, as a BarCamp is an unconference, with the actual sessions determined on the day of the event. (I’m actually not inclined to speak there, but you never know.)

I’ve not been to it before (and thanks to Hector for bringing it to my attention), but I’m intrigued by its potential. Last year’s BarCamp Harrisburg had 250 attendees, which is impressive. Tickets are still available to this year’s event and tickets are free! If you’ll be attending, let me know and we can meet up.

On the Web => Top 20 Web Conference Talks of 2012

If you’ve got time to kill, or if you’d rather just not work, then check out .net Magazine’s list of the top 20 Web conference talks of 2012. There’s a range of topics covered and the slides or video for each is also provided. This one page is an easy and rewarding way to lose a day!

On the Blog => Two Great Books for Public Speakers

In 2012, I read two books about public speaking that were immensely helpful:

I would highly recommend both books (those links go to my reviews of each book on my blog, if you’d like the specifics of why).

The Berkun book is more lighthearted and personal about Mr. Berkun, but contains a wealth of useful knowledge and amusing anecdotes. The Weinschenk book is more technical, with lots of explanations on how to craft presentations based upon what is known about human behavior (Dr. Weinschenk is a psychiatrist).

If you’d like to become a better speaker, or just put together better presentations (a slightly different issue), spend the time and money to read one or both of those books. You absolutely will not regret it! (Oh, and both books are relatively short, if that helps.)

On the Blog => What I Learned at Boston PHP

My experience speaking at Boston PHP was a special one for me, and I think it went quite well. I learned four particular things from my experience there:

  • Microsoft does not get enough credit for how much they support the open source community
  • You ought to join a user group, if you can
  • Everyone in Boston was part of, is part of, or is planning, a startup
  • You can get better at almost anything by working at it.

For more on these lessons I learned, see this blog post.

Larry Ullman’s Book News => “The Yii Book” version 0.5 Update Posted

Over the past weekend, I posted an update to “The Yii Book“. This is version 0.5, which means I’m halfway there. The book currently consists of 12 chapters and 313 pages (as a PDF)!

Of course, this is about the time I was hoping to have the book done. So much for good intentions. With that in mind, my sincerest thanks to everyone for their patience. I know this is taking longer than we’d all like, but I’m doing my best and very much appreciate the understanding on everyone’s part. It’ll get done, I promise. And trust that “The Yii Book” is not taking a back seat to anything as far as my work goes these days.

For more on this particular update (and what I’ve been doing), check out this blog post.

In a couple of months, once the first version of the book is done, I’ll start pursuing translations, a print version, and an update for Yii framework version 2 (when that’s appropriate).

And thanks to everyone for their interest in this book and to everyone that has already purchased a copy!