Why I don’t bring my laptop to meetings and neither should you

July 18, 2019

(Yet another post from my old amazon internal blog.)

Imagine a sports coach choosing drills for an upcoming practice. One drill has the team split up into pairs, and each pair practices a certain move, switching roles each try. In another drill, the team lines up and each member practices a move alone while the others watch and wait their turn. Which drill is a better use of limited practice time?

As meetings grow, they tend toward the latter drill; at any given time, most of the participants aren’t engaged. Whatever is being discussed simply isn’t relevant or even vaguely interesting to them. I propose a general metric for meeting quality: engaged-person-minutes divided by total-person-minutes. To the extent that this ratio is near one the meeting is making effective use of its participant’s time.

At the next meeting you attend with more than a handful of attendees, look around from time to time and compute the instantaneous value of my metric. I’d be willing to bet that the more people there are in the room, the lower the average engagement.

Which brings me to why I don’t bring my laptop to meetings. It’s because I trust that meeting organizers value my time and require my focused attention. To bring my laptop would be to rudely suggest that they are being careless with my time. It would be like bringing your own food to a dinner party.

There are obvious exceptions to my rule. Using the computer as a tool for note taking or problem solving, for example. But if you find yourself spending meeting time in Outlook, on your CrackBerry, or just daydreaming, you might consider accepting fewer meeting requests. There is almost certainly some more effective use of your time.

If you organize meetings where people are disengaged or have their noses buried in email, you might reexamine your goals and ask whether there is a better way to accomplish them.

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Thoughts on Presenting

October 21, 2014

(This is another lightly edited post from my old Amazon internal blog.)

Your slides are the least of your worries

Most contemporary articles about presentation spend at least some time answering the question “What should I put on my slides?” I say forget your slides for now. They’re nearly irrelevant compared to what I claim are the big three things present in nearly all great talks: passion, story, and humor.

Passion – if you haven’t got it, kill your talk: you’re going to be mediocre. If you find the material tedious, imagine how monstrously dull it will be for your audience. Don’t settle for a subject you should be passionate about; you need to have real passion that the audience can pick up on. Software testing is the kind of thing that everyone ought to care about in the same way that everyone ought to floss their teeth daily. But unless you really have a deep personal feeling for software testing (or dental hygiene) let someone else give that talk.

In this wide ranging interview solo violinist Anne Akiko Myers explains how passion helps her with nerves (start listening at about the six minute mark if you’re in a rush)

When I perform I just want to.. I’m just speaking what I’m feeling. And so, I’m always telling myself, in fact when I get nervous, which is all the time, ‘just feel it and then it will come out.’ You know, ‘it’ll come if you just feel it.’ So, when the audience feels it too along with me, I mean, that’s what I’m doing this for: is to communicate with audiences, and hopefully make them feel something too.

The easiest way to become a great speaker is to speak about something you’re passionate about. If you feel it, your audience will too.

Story – if you haven’t got good stories, kill your talk: you’re going to be mediocre. Humans love stories. We’re programmed to listen to narratives. Think of your dullest professors in college. You probably can’t recall anything about their mode of presentation, but I’ll bet that it was a dull recitation of the facts without any sense of momentum. It was dull because you didn’t feel like it was going anywhere. Now think of a favorite movie (or even an average one). You’ll gladly give up two hours of your time and $10 to watch a decent movie. Why? Almost certainly because it’s got a compelling story. If you get good, topical stories into your talk, you’re halfway home.

Humor – it is theoretically possible to skate by with no humor, but you’ll find it so much easier to keep the audience with you if your talk has a few light, amusing moments. If nothing else, find a way to entertain yourself. Include at least one moment in your talk that makes you smile. If you find something delightful, odds are they will too, and they’ll appreciate having a moment’s respite from the heavier ideas in your talk.

A series of great talks

I can sense you squirming in your chair. “Yes, yes, but what should I put on my slides?!” I tell you it simply does not matter. You can kill with no text on your slides, with only text on your slides, with charts and data, with diagrams, with pictures, with hand-drawn doodles, any combination of the above or with no slides whatsoever. To demonstrate, let’s run the gamut with a collection of some of the greatest talks I’ve ever seen.

Ken Robinson’s TED talk uses no slides at all. He just gets up there and speaks… how novel! He deftly sets the stage summarizing three main ideas with gentle humor. His anecdotes are great, but beyond being funny, they have momentum. They feel like they’re going somewhere, they point to the big ideas he wants to talk about. Anyway, the point here is that you don’t need slides. What you need is great content that you’re passionate about. If you care about your topic and can hold your audience’s attention, then your passion will transfer to them, at least for the time you’re on stage in front of them. If you’re really good, your passion might transfer permanently, which is the thing you hope for most fervently.

While Rory Sutherland’s TED Talk uses slides they are almost always simple photos, there’s nary word in sight. Again he uses humor extremely effectively, and he’s intensely passionate about the ideas in his talk.

Hans Rosling’s TED talk might contain the most exciting use of statistical graphics ever in a talk. His passion is palpable; he can barely contain himself as he gestures wildly telling story after story in rapid-fire succession.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum from Ken Robinson is Lawrence Lessig. Lessig’s 2002 OSCON talk on free culture is the talk that made his style famous: hundreds of slides, each with an image, or a handful of words. The slides here are serving two purposes. First, to give the audience something visual to focus on to keep their attention as he explains difficult, abstract ideas. Second (and more generally useful), the slides emphasize certain words or ideas. His timing is so perfect that he can hit your auditory and visual systems both at the same time, driving the ideas home. His humor is dry but present, but his passion is in full force; by the time he gets to “… and what have you done about it?” he’s got your under his spell and you can’t help but feel ashamed by your inaction.

Finally, watch the opening minutes of Adam Savage on Obsessions. How can you doubt that passion is central to a successful talk? He’s talking about Dodo bird taxidermy of all things. The moment before he begins, not one person in his audience knew they cared about dodo bird taxidermy. But within 60 seconds, Adam’s breathless excitement has them spellbound. There’s an important lesson running just beneath the surface of Adam’s talk. He is insanely obsessive about the tiniest details of his work. This is the difference between the mediocre and the great. Whenever you hear an interview with someone recognized as one of the greats in their field, you’ll hear this same thing: details matter, and only by obsessing over the minute details of your work will you make something spectacular.

So ask yourself: 1) Do I care about this topic? 2) What are my stories? and 3) What are the moments in the talk that I find fun? If you have good answers to these questions, you’re likely on your way to giving a great presentation.

What you cannot do

Any of the modes from the previous section will work: no slides, pictures only, charts and data, slides with only text. What you cannot do is the typical style of PowerPoint presentation: text heavy slides laden with hierarchical bullet points. This is using your slides as a teleprompter. Your slides are for your audience, not for you. The typical PowerPoint style, with its lists of sentence fragments, is putting your speaker’s notes on display.

Guy Kawasaki proposes a rule: no font smaller than 30 points on your slides (I try to stay at 60 points). Why?

If you use a 30 point font you can put a lot less text on your slide. This forces you to actually know your presentation and just put the core of the text on your slide. If you need to put eight point or ten point font up there it’s because you don’t know your material. If you start reading your material because you don’t know your material, the audience is very quickly going to figure out that you are a bozo. They’re going to say to themselves “This bozo is reading his slides. I can read faster than this bozo can speak.”

If you’ve put together a slide deck in this mode, and you care your audience’s respect, don’t display it. Just print a copy for yourself and use it as your speaker’s notes. If you feel naked without slides, find a handful of high quality photographs that gesture toward your points and show those as you speak. The alternative, showing your speakers notes to your audience is disastrous and insulting. To illustrate, Peter Norvig made this brutal PowerPoint version of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. It’s like a car wreck: horrifying, but you just can’t turn away.

Ira Glass – Master Storyteller

I can’t tell you how to get passion for your topic, either you’ve got it or you need to find a new topic. But story, that’s something you can learn, and Ira Glass is an excellent teacher. Ira Glass is the creative force behind This American Life, which for over ten years has been illuminating big issues through human scale stories. In addition to being heard across the country on the radio each week, This American Life is the single most popular podcast on iTunes. If you care about communicating ideas, try listening to and imitating their style.

Over at transom.org, Ira wrote a three part series explaining how he learned his craft and how he thinks about it now. It’s illustrated with many examples of great and cringe-worthy stories he’s produced over the years. This short four part series on youtube covers much of the same ground.

Another great resource is Ira’s Ira 2007 Gel Talk. Note his use of backing music to set the mood and to soften his image, making himself more human while at the same time making his ideas seem all the more grand. His story about the production of 1001 Arabian nights at the end is especially beautiful, stories within a story within a story all pointing to a big idea.

A final Ira Glass nugget comes from his interview with Charlie Rose (video no longer available, sadly). I particularly like something he says near the very end, “Everything in the world wants to be mediocre. All stories want to be bad. It is the natural state of things. And it is only through an act of will that you prop them up at every stage and make them into something where it seems like something.” This reinforces Adam Savage’s obsession over the details. At every juncture you must pay attention to the details in order to be great.

Umm.. so what do I put on my slides?

“Rah, rah. Passion, story, humor. I get it. But I’ve still got to have some content, so where’s that come from?”

Now we’re talking. Content. Not slides. What ideas are you trying to communicate? What is the best way to convey your ideas?

Nancy Darling’s advice on giving a presentation is the best thing I’ve ever read on the topic. Here are her five steps to pulling together a good presentation:

  1. Choose a goal;
  2. Find a storyline that will help the group reach that goal;
  3. Develop a series of activities or a method of presentation that allows you to develop your storyline. Don’t let your media determine your storyline!
  4. Remember that your role is to facilitate the group reaching its shared goal. This is your primary responsibility!
  5. Remember that it’s not about you. All that matters is the experience of the other people in the room.

This is the job of your presentation: to move your audience’s mind from one state to another. Usually from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge, or from a state of apathy to one of engagement. You must be very careful to lead them step by step along the path, never asking them to make too big a leap. You must maintain empathy for your audience, you have to be able to put yourself in their state of mind and ask if they will plausibly be able to follow along.

Figure out out your goal and figure out your story, and the shape of your content will become clear.

Write a script

I hope I’ve convinced you at this point that it’s not about the slides, it’s about the words you speak. My number one piece of advice to people doing presentations is “Write a script.” Know exactly what you’re going to say before you start. Improvisation is insanely hard. People spend their whole lives studying the art of improvisation, and even then usually only improvise within a strict set of rules (e.g. jazz, improv comedy).

Come up with a list of the best orators you can think of. Know why they’re so good? Because they knew what they are going to say in advance, and could focus on the million tiny details beyond the text. Lawrence Olivier: had a script. Barack Obama: had a script. Edward R. Murrow: had a script. You’re not better than they are, so why do you think you can just wing it?

I don’t have the discipline to memorize my script word for word and present without notes like Malcolm Gladwell, but I do write a script.  Each of my slides has the relevant chunk of my script as the speaker’s notes so I always have my script in front of me.  I can give a talk dozens of times and 99% of what I say will fall out of my mouth with exactly the same phrasing, emphasis and intonation each time.

Writing a script allows you to think clearly about what you want to say well in advance of your talk, so slave over on your text. Polish it until it shines like a mirror. Take, for example, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and The Gettysburg Address. What I love about these is that they are so short. The text is so distilled that it borders on poetry. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the ideas are so grand: war, peace, God, honor, justice, humility. If your text is anywhere near so precise or beautiful, you will have achieved a great deal.

Why you’re probably going to suck anyway

On the 140th page of his book, Confessions of a Public Speaker, Scott Berkun busts out the following.

No matter how much you love or hate this book, you’re unlikely to be a good public speaker. The marketing for this book likely promised you’d be a better public speaker for reading it. I think that’s true on one condition: you practice (which I know most of you won’t do). Most people are lazy. I’m lazy. I expect you’re lazy, too. There will always be a shortage of good public speakers in the world, no matter how many great books there are on the subject. It’s a performance skill, and performance means practice — and that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t afraid to write this book.

When I first gave my TCP talk at Amazon’s internal tech talk series, I ran through the complete, finished talk at least once a day for two weeks. That’s above and beyond the endless times I read through pieces of it as I worked on the material. When I presented it again at the O’Reilly Velocity Conference, I practiced it again every day for another week. “That’s completely insane.” I hear you saying. No, it’s not. Among professional performers, practicing every day for a week or two is nothing. A friend of mine is a part time magician and juggler. Every morning before he goes to his day-job, he goes to his basement where he’s set up lights that mimic a stage spotlight, and he practices his most technically difficult juggling routine while looking into those lights. He’s done this every morning for years. He doesn’t screw up in performance very often.

Delivery

Patricia Smith reading “Building Nicole’s Mama” is a lesson in the power of words, but also delivery. Listen closely. Pay attention to her rhythm… when she chooses to enunciate syllables like bubbles popping and when she strings her words together in a bit of a mush. (Here’s another performance.)

Jacqueline Novogratz’s talk about patient capital at the US State Department stands in contrast to the more animated examples above. Her passion is quiet but present. She’s precise, but not robotic. She sounds like herself. Further, it’s clear that she knows her script cold… you could shake her awake at 3am, and she could deliver that talk perfectly.

So, having written your script and cobbled together some slides (or decided to go slideless), read your script aloud. Does it sound like you, or do you sound like a robot? Or are your sentences too long and clumsy to sound like spoken text? Work on the text until your natural voice comes through. Then play with rhythm, intonation, pauses, gestures, and so on until it feels right. Having pinned down the bulk of the content you’re now in a position to work on the endless tiny details that will make your talk great.

Thoughts on Writing

January 20, 2014

(I wrote this years ago and originally published it on my internal Amazon blog.   I’ve sent it to various folks over the years, but wanted to give it a permanent home on the internet.)

Why writing matters

Clear writing is clear thinking. Conversely, muddy writing implies muddy thinking. Your readers know this instinctively — clunky sentences and confused composition undermine your credibility. In the worst case your readers simply stop, rendering your effort wasted. If you’re not willing to write well, perhaps you shouldn’t bother writing at all.

Then there is the question of impact. If you want to accomplish something extraordinary in your life, Scott Adams suggests two strategies: 1) Become the best at one specific thing, or 2) become very good (top 25%) at two or more things. The first is difficult to the point of impossibility [1]. The second is remarkably easy.

Marc Andreessen picks up where Adams leaves off, suggesting five skills that in combination with your degree can dramatically increase your potential. The first of Andreessen’s five skills? Communication. Andreessen notes, “The great thing about communication is that most people are terrible at it, because they never take it seriously as a skill to develop.”

A skill like any other

The good news is that you learn to write well just like every other skill you’ve acquired in your life, through study and practice.

At the very least, read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It’s a thin book, you can read it in a couple hours. It reviews crucial bits of English grammar and punctuation and then goes on to outline some key principles of composition. Perhaps the most important these is that the paragraph is the unit of composition. Each idea you want to communicate should have a crisp paragraph dedicated to its development, and each paragraph should be dedicated to a single topic.

An excellent accompaniment to Strunk and White is a style guide from a publication you admire. I have both the Economist Style Guide and the New York Times Manual of Style. These are useful for looking up topics like use of the apostrophe, details of capitalization, the difference between affect and effect, and usage of that and which. Beyond useful, these guides are fun to flip through; if you enjoy surfing material like The Jargon File, you’ll also like the Economist Style Guide.

Finally, to help develop your own distinctive voice, read Zinssers’ On Writing Well. Zinnser stresses the importance of being present in your writing. Feel free to use the first person, ignoring any childhood warnings to the contrary — you’re not writing for a newspaper. Even in genres where ‘I’ and ‘we’ are discouraged, the reader should feel the presence of a unique author behind the text.

As for practice, opportunities abound. How many crappy emails do you write each week that would benefit from a more formal treatment? Take just one each week and give the topic the respect it deserves. The next time you present in front of a group, write a short paper detailing your thesis and hand it out to the audience. If you’re a developer, write a two or three page paper describing and defending your next design choice. The written word is the most precise, long-lasting mode of communication available. Use it.

Beginning

Imagine a serious performer giving a dramatic reading. He strides purposefully onto the stage and takes his position facing the audience. The murmur of the crowd settles. The performer takes a breath to begin, and looses a huge fart. This performance is now in such trouble it may never recover.

Your opening sentence has to be perfect. Your opening paragraph has to be great. You can afford a sloppy sentence midway through — people might not even notice — but not at the beginning. So, spend an inordinate amount of time crafting your opening. It should be clear, tight and grammatically correct. Anything less is unacceptable.

Empathy

After spelling and grammar, empathy is the most critical skill of a decent technical writer. You must be able to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and simulate their thought process, starting from an appropriate level of ignorance. Failure to accurately anticipate and answer the reader’s questions is the cause of most muddled writing.

If you lack this skill, a crutch is to build your document like you would a large mathematical proof, layering on successive, interlocking theorems (statements) and proofs (arguments or supporting evidence) that lead inevitably to your conclusion.

Stories

The easiest way to keep your readers engaged is to tell stories. Humans are intensely primed for stories; if you introduce a character and narrate a sequence of events, your audience will automatically follow along. Don’t believe me? Watch this. Actually, watch all four parts, Ira Glass is one of the greats.

The first critical element of story is tension and resolution. The simplest way to create tension in your writing is to pose questions: Will the wolf eat Little Red Riding Hood? Which design is the best? Will Cinderella get her just reward? When the latest release decreased efficiency, how will the problem be resolved?

Open up some space in the dry recitation of the facts. Leave your reader in doubt about the outcome for the beat between sentences, propelling them though the piece. The technique of introducing questions nests — leave a big question open for the duration of the piece, and along the way, continuously pose and then answer smaller questions. This is the essence of interesting writing.

The second critical part of story is character. Too often the characters in technical writing are abstract. The more human you can make them, the better. I am reminded of an example from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Paraphrasing, suppose I create a deck of cards by combining two normal decks, one with red backs, the other with blue backs. I select only face cards from the red deck (discarding the rest), and combine them with all the cards from the blue deck. Then I shuffle them, turning some face up and others face down randomly, and deal out four cards:

  • a queen
  • a face down card with a blue back
  • a four
  • a face down card with a red back

Which cards do you need to turn over to determine whether I created the deck as described above? Many people will get the answer wrong, and those that get it right generally need to think carefully about their answer.

Now consider a similar problem. You manage a pool hall that serves beer, and is popular with students of a nearby college. One of your jobs is to make sure no one underage is drinking alcohol. One evening you see the following:

  • a man drinking a glass of soda
  • an elderly man whose glass you cannot see
  • a woman drinking a beer
  • a teenager whose glass you cannot see

What do you need to do to ensure that the law is being followed? Most people will get this right, and do it instantly. This is surprising because the two problems are logically identical.

You need to ID the woman drinking beer, and make sure the teenager isn’t drinking beer. Anyone can drink soda, and the elderly man can drink whatever he wants. Similarly, you need to flip over the four to make sure it’s from the blue deck, and the red card to make sure
it’s a face card. It doesn’t matter what is on the reverse of the other two cards: a queen can have either a red or blue back, blue card can be either a face card or not.

The difference between the problems is that one involves people. Human brains through both evolution and socialization are highly adapted for reasoning about people. Smart writers take advantage of this fact.

Instead of software systems, make the people who create and deploy them the subjects of your sentences. Talk in detail about the customers that will use those systems — what are their needs and how will those needs be met? The more human the actors in your writing, the more interesting it will be.

Art

I spent much of my late-twenties studying art — modern dance in particular. Both watching and creating performances were valuable training for my professional life.

Art, in my opinion, is fundamentally about communicating (perhaps with only yourself), and artists think harder about effective communication than any other profession.

Studying art, artists, and particularly how artists think about their work has shaped my own aesthetic sense and informed my voice. I encourage you to find some aspect of the arts you enjoy and immerse yourself in it.

A great resource for learning about the inner thoughts of artists is Terry Gross’s Fresh Air Podcast. Regarded as one of the best interviewers of our time, she often has artists as guests. Memorable interviews include performers ranging from Steve Martin to Gene Hackman, musicians like Rob Halford of Judas Priest, writer Alan Ball of Six Feet Under and American Beauty, and poets like Billy Collins.

Ending

I deeply dislike the dull form of 1) tell them what you’re going to tell them, 2) tell them, and 3) tell them what you told them. If I thought I could accurately capture the ideas in the body of the text in fewer words, I would have done so. I am reminded of Robert Frost, who was once asked after a reading about the reason behind his choice to double the final line of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. His simple response?

And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Not helpful, you might complain, but accurate in its poetic way.

In truth, ending is an issue I still struggle with. I have little to say, so perhaps it is best to simply quote the final line of Paul Graham’s short piece on writing:

learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it.

[1] Worse than difficult, it usually requires a great deal of luck. A friend of mine plays for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, widely considered one of the greatest orchestras in the world. I can almost guarantee that she has worked harder on her craft than you have on yours, but to land that gig she also needed luck.

She was one of perhaps two hundred people who auditioned for the spot. They were all tremendously talented, with technical mastery over the most difficult music of their instrument’s repertoire. But on that particular day, for whatever reason, the judges took a liking to my friend’s sound. Each judge heard something small, maybe tiny bit of technique gleaned from a old teacher, or a flicker of emotion shaped by a distant life experience. Whatever it was — and no one knows — those details made the difference.

Talent and hard work got her in the door, but the ineffable chemistry of a particular lifetime with her instrument is why she got the gig. The other 199 applicants? Take a hike. At her level, music is a cruel profession.