(I apologise for the unstructured nature of this post. I honestly don’t know how to structure it. I’ve thought of a few ways of breaking it up by heading, and none of them really work. Particular apologies to Simon Stewart, who has requested more brevity in my blog. Just for Simon, the executive summary is: Scott Guthrie is a really good speaker. I want to be more like him.)
Yesterday I had the good fortune (well, good friends – thanks Phil!) to attend the Guathon in London. This was a free, day-long event with Scott Guthrie and Mike Ormond, talking about MVC 2 and 3, Visual Studio 2010, Windows Phone 7 and more. This was my encounter with Scott – and indeed the first time I’d seen him present. (I value videos of presentations, but rarely find time to actually watch them, more’s the pity.)
Obviously I was interested in hearing about the technologies they were talking about, but I confess I was more interested in watching how Scott went about presenting. (I’ve seen Mike present before – but clearly Scott was the "big name" here. No offence meant to Mike whatsoever, who did a great job talking about Windows Phone 7.) Scott is a legend in the industry, and as I’m very interested in improving my public speaking skills, I felt I had at least as much to learn in that area as anything else.
I was really impressed. In some ways, Scott didn’t present in a way I’d expected him to… but what he did was so much better. Not having seen him before, I’d sort of expected an utterly polished sort of talk – almost like a Steve Jobs presentation. I was hoping to get some insight into what sort of polish I could add to my presentations: where does it make sense to have photos, where do simpler visuals work, where are words important? How do you present against an enormous screen without losing the audience’s focus? Do jokes enhance a presentation or detract from it?
In retrospect, this was hopelessly naïve. I think Scott’s secret sauce is actually pretty simple: he knows what he’s talking about, and talks about it honestly and openly. He’s completely authentic, obviously passionate about what he does, good humoured (we had a few bits of mild Google/Bing banter), and interested in the audience.
At almost every turn, Scott asked the audience how many of us had used a certain feature, or developed in a certain way. This was then reflected in the level at which he pitched the next section, as well as giving a few opportunities for jokes. There were questions throughout – particularly in Mike’s talk, actually – to the extent that I’d say a good quarter to a third of the time was spent answering the audience. This was a very good thing, in my view – I can’t remember finding any of the questions irrelevant or obvious (I should state for the record that I probably asked more questions than anyone else; apologies if other attendees found my questions to be boring). Questions from the audience are always a good reality check, because they’re clearly addressing real concerns rather than the ones in the speaker’s imagination. But the best thing about the questions was Scott’s way of answering, which could broadly be divided into three types of answer:
- A known answer: "Yes, you can do X – and you can do Y as well. But you can’t do Z."
- An unknown answer which was easily testable: "Hmm. I’m not sure. Let’s try it. Ah yes, the code does X." (There were fewer of these, just due to the nature of the questions.)
- An answer which was unknown but needed further investigation: "Send me a mail and I’ll get back to you about it."
The last one is most interesting – because I have absolutely no doubt that Scott will get back to anyone who sent him a mail. (I’ve sent him two.) Now don’t forget that Scott is a Corporate Vice President (Dev Div). He’s clearly a busy man… but his openness and passion make an enormously positive impression, suggesting that he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t think of himself as being above such questions. Assuming this is what he says at all his presentations (and I suspect it is), I dread to think how much time he spends every day answering emails… but I also suspect that it’s of enormous benefit to the products for which he’s responsible, by keeping the executive level in touch with grass-roots developers.
So, what have I learned from the whole experience, in terms of presentation skills?
- You can definitely give awesome presentations without fancy graphics. Content is king.
- There’s no substitute for knowing your stuff, and being honest about when you don’t know the answer.
- Interaction with the audience is beneficial to everyone.
- Sitting down and just writing out code – particularly with audience participation to make the demo "belong" to them – is absolutely fine.
- Scott’s an incredibly nice guy, and it shines through very clearly. I really hope to see him again soon.
- If you speak clearly, speed doesn’t matter too much: Scott talks really fast, but is very easy to listen to.
- If you lose a vital file in the middle of a presentation, check the recycle bin. It’s the virtual equivalent of checking down the back of the sofa.
- Don’t worry if you have more material than you have time to present, particularly if that’s due to audience questions.
Whether I’ll be able to apply this myself remains to be seen… although I’ve already been acutely aware of how much more comfortable I am when presenting on "home topics" (e.g. C# language features) than areas where I have a lot less expertise (e.g. Reactive Extensions).