Medium or Podium?

Writing has become the safe option. It’s time to speak up.

What are you doing tonight? Off to see someone do an A-Z of design metaphors in a room under a bar? Catching the drinks after a conference? Watching someone share some ‘insights’ and ‘learnings’ or demo some new prototypes at a friend’s office where there will be free beer? 

We’re having a digital revolution. We’re supposed to be disembodied proxies, avatars gibbering in the pixel dimension while our real lips move soundlessly inside our transparent plexiglass coffins – and we are (I know I am). But somehow we’re also experiencing a golden age of public speaking.

We’re disembodied avatars in the pixel dimension, our real lips moving soundlessly inside plexiglass coffins

The meatspace advantage

Stef wrote something recently about the importance of being in the same room as your collaborators. James told me he feels at a disadvantage in Sheffield, unable to have casual face-to-face encounters with other potential collaborators. And Paul wrote a piece about how the economic and cultural vitality that spreads out from parts of London begins with a sense of physical place. Maybe it’s because we’ve had digital for a long time and we’re missing the old way – or maybe there’s always going to be a natural need to be human – but something has changed lately. Lately we seem to be absolutely craving three dimensional discussion forums.

Speaking passionately on stage hasn’t always had great associations – in fact, I’m convinced this need to sensitively listen and be listened to is a very recent thing, at least for the tech/design/business world. I can remember a time when the only speakers you ever came across were trying to sell you things, because stages and rhetoric lead to money and power. There was a suspicious discrepancy between the showman and the crowd. In a way, The Wolf of Wall Street is a great film about how to succeed in sales, and, you know, Hitler was a great public speaker.

But now it’s everywhere, preaching as mainstream communication, pitching what-you-reckon a totally normal, yet totally weird thing to do. Of course, the new wave of speakers and audiences have brought a change. Not everyone who wants to speak is a power-crazed maniac or a sales-hypnotist, not everyone who speaks goes up there declaring themselves an expert. 

But there’s still an expectation of entertainment – and a rather new expectation of sharing – and there are good, valid reasons for doing this sharing in the physical space. Meeting and connecting with people in real life (as opposed to firing ideas at the faceless masses from a stage) has obvious business benefits. People are business; if you can’t be bothered to get out there and connect to them in their entire human-ness, someone else will.

It never occurred to me to try speaking until a few years ago when Russell Davies invited me to have a go at his annual event, Interesting. Loads of speakers delivered very short, punchy talks about something they knew about – but something that wasn’t their job. The event started in 2007 and was, I think, one of the early experimental but still sort-of mainstream conferences, paving the way for a a raft of similar ones (many of which took place at London’s Conway Hall). Maybe you’ve been to things like this – lighthearted, slightly geeky things with balloons and bunting and arduino-powered bubble machines, and someone you used to work with standing next to you at the coffee urn during the break.

Lighthearted, slightly geeky things with balloons and bunting and arduino-powered bubble machines

I was given five minutes on stage to talk about writing gamebooks, and was absolutely terrified. But I really enjoyed it, and have spoken at dozens of events since, including many of my own. It seems to me that these new events are about sharing rather than imparting, and there’s a sense of playing field levelling that feels new. Your heroes are as likely to be in the audience when you’re on stage as vice versa. 

Reasons to speak

I spend a lot of time writing talks, listening to talks and asking other people to speak, and I’ve come up with a few ideas about why people should speak at things. Not only that, but I’ve realised the people who need to speak most are the ones who want to least. And the current climate allows for that – so while everyone’s in the mood to listen, we ought to capitalise on it.

1. It promotes your status. 

When you turn up to an event to hear interesting people speak, you are aware that those speakers were ‘chosen’. They have an automatic air of authority that all but the absolute worst performance up there can’t completely destroy. A speaker – any speaker – is someone to be listened to. If you’re not used to being listened to, if you think your ideas aren’t worth anything, think again. An open-minded audience who have paid in time or money to come to the event will find something about you to justify their trip, and the fact that you’re up there, while they’re down there.

2. It’s a buzz.

It’s a good feeling, telling people something that you believe to be true, sharing an idea – teaching, generally. Concocting persuasive arguments is fun, drawing strangers into one’s world is a thrill, the nerves are exciting and the feedback is rewarding.

3. You’re giving them what they want.

This is also a great thing to bear in mind to overcome nerves. In a situation with a stage and a crowd, the audience want to feel like they’re being looked after. They’re the ones who don’t know what’s going to happen – you’re the one in control. If anyone should be nervous, it isn’t you. You’re up there giving them the rain dance they paid for, and no one will resent you for that.

4. You learn from your fear.

It’s a distinct and unusual way of interacting with humans, and it’s an ongoing learning experience. Each room is different; some people will be nodding and smiling (look at those people most), some will have their arms folded and their feet on the chair in front. Crowds as a whole behave interestingly – you can learn from the way they respond to you, and to each other. Great performers really talk to the audience, poor speakers turn inwards. Digital forums and audiences are a completely different animal. Computers are great, but they can’t synthesise the unique, wonderful horror of staring out into hundreds of real human faces.

Great performers really talk to the audience, poor speakers turn inwards

5. It’s better than writing.

Writing’s great, it means you never have to talk to anyone, look a stranger in the eye, think on the spot, get the wrong word, risk misinterpretation, have to explain yourself in a way you’re not comfortable with, or otherwise deal with anything too unpredictable or human, while you build your beautiful stories or arguments. Writing is power in the digital world – the internet runs on it. It is self-sufficient and precious. Speaking, on the other hand, is gestural, robust and exposing – which is why many writers are uncomfortable with it. Written words build rigid scaffolds of arguments and ingenious ideas, but words spoken directly into someone’s face can develop in the dangerous, blood-and-claw physical space into practicable ideas. It’s the fastest feedback you’ll ever get, as you learn immediately which of your ideas are delightful or facile, astute or actually a bit of a stretch.
Written words build rigid scaffolds, but words spoken directly into someone’s face can develop, blood and claw, into something practicable

6. It gives you a voice.

I’m afraid it’s still true that a woman in a mixed group is often doing well if she manages to finish a sentence without people talking over her, guessing what she’s going to say, or simply not listening. This has been my experience time and time again which is perhaps how I end up doing so much writing. And of course, it’s not just women – anyone not blessed with that push will be walked over. But speaking is better than writing, remember? If you can’t say what you have to say in “real life”, say it to 400 people. They won’t interrupt you. Most will listen. You will not believe the sense of relief at finally getting your point made.
If you can’t say what you have to say in “real life”, say it to 400 people

7. It helps get your thoughts straight. 

Perhaps due to the above, you never quite get to finish thinking deeply about something. If you want to understand how you feel about something and be forced to think honestly and rationally about it, write it up in a way that means you feel able – even compelled – to share it with a crowd of strangers. In my experience, if you believe what you’re saying, the only nerves left are the fun ones.

8. Your network will strengthen. 

Speaking is unapologetic. It’s still a sell, of course, and like a door-to-door salesman, some will buy your goods while others will treat you with disdain. But because of the automatic dynamic built into the theatre of public speaking, you will not be expected to apologise or back down. You’ll find out what you believe in and you will find people who’ll stand by you on it. And the more you talk about your ideas, the more ideas and people you will accrue. Speaking gives a powerful injection of confidence into your ideas and abilities, and a fearlessness too, because you’ll realise that it simply doesn’t matter if others don’t agree.