What’s Big Data anyway?

I spoke recently at SMX East on Leveraging Big Data in Search Marketing. I was the opening speaker, and I started by defining Big Data. I thought I’d share some of what I said.

First, I believe that Big Data itself isn’t valuable, it’s what you do with it that is. The name

I just bought the t-shirt. Grab yourself one too.

I just bought the t-shirt. Grab yourself one too.

implies only that you have a large amount of data — more than you can process in Microsoft Excel — and that you’re investing to store it. It implicitly implies that you want to store the data in one common infrastructure, so that you can organize, process, and extract value from the data. This is a large topic in itself — it is hard to get data into one infrastructure, get it cleansed and organized, and to create order and structure around how its processed — and I’ll save that for another time.

In this post, I’m going to focus on examples of creating business and customer value using big data. It’s the first of two posts on the topic — stay tuned next week for the conclusion.

Discovering Patterns

I wrote early in 2012 on the topic of query alterations. They’re a great example of extracting customer value from big data — in this case, discovering patterns and using those to improve the experience of your users. Suppose you work at a search engine company. You decide to process vast amounts of data to discover examples where users have typed a query into a search engine, haven’t found what they wanted, and refined their query to improve the results. By processing hundreds or thousands of millions of such query patterns, you learn how to improve queries automatically. For example, you learn that users who misspelt ryhthm [sic] refine their query to rhythm, and so you learn that you can automatically do this with high confidence (as Google does today).

Finding Anomalies and Outliers

I’ve been lucky enough to run very large, distributed computing infrastructures at eBay and Microsoft. They’re incredibly complex — thousands of machines carrying out hundreds of different functions in several data centers, and all orchestrated to work together as a complex system. The vast majority of the time, it works almost perfectly — but there’s always some anomaly or quirky behavior at the margin. For example, users of a particular version of Internet Explorer 8 might be having a problem with one page on the site when they carry out four rare actions in a specific order; we might hear about this from a customer service representative who’d been speaking to a customer.

The customer probably simply stated that they’re having a specific issue on a specific page. That is, we’d typically learn about the symptoms, but not much about the problem itself. Here’s where big data comes along to help: we might look for a specific error message in our logs, and collect all the steps and information about all customer experiences that lead up to that error message. From there, we might discover that the common thread is the Internet Explorer 8 browser, and the four rare actions in a specific order. That gives us clues, and then it’s down to the engineering team to diagnose the problem — say, it’s some subtle issue where data isn’t synced across data centers because of a race condition — and to prepare a fix for the site. Splunk has built a successful business around mining system diagnostic big data.

Summarizing and Generalizing

On eBay, a cell phone is sold every five seconds. That’s amazing, and also a good example of how big data helps you summarize what’s happening in terms that people can understand and discuss. Similar examples include sharing that eBay has over 124 million users, that top rated sellers contribute 46% of US GMV, or that fixed price listings were 71% of global GMV.

You need big data to create these kinds of insights. Let’s take the top rated seller fact. First, you need to find all purchases in the relevant time period and sum the total dollar value of the purchases — I don’t know what the time period was, but let’s say for argument’s sake it was the past year. Then, you need to sum the total purchases of the top rated sellers, by joining together the purchases and seller information to ensure you’re only counting the dollars sold from the top rated sellers. From there, it’s simple division to get the 46% answer. The bottom line is you need a year of purchase data and your complete user information to find the answer — in eBay’s case, that’s 124 million active users and (a guess) at least 3,000 billion transactions that need to be processed.

In the follow-up post, I talk about three more examples of creating value using big data: predictions, relative performance, and creating new ideas with data.

Writing a Book

One day I’ll write another book. Perhaps a sports book about people and their stories, or the story of search engines and the people that build them.

I wrote my first book in 2001 with David Lane, and we rewrote it in 2003 for the second edition. I wrote another book with Saied Tahaghoghi in 2004 – the truth is I started it, and he picked up the pieces when I changed careers and countries; he’s a good man. The first book sold over 100,000 copies over the two editions (I still get a royalty check quarterly) and the second modestly (Saied and I earned our advance back). They’re both dated, old books now.

Web Database Applications with PHP and MySQL. My first book in its second English edition.

Web Database Applications with PHP and MySQL. My first book in its second English edition.

It’s thousands of hours of work to write a book. I spent at least 20 hours per week for 18 months on the first edition of the first book – that’s 1500 hours at least. I got out of bed at 5:30am and I did a few hours of writing before work. I’d also squeeze in a little more after work (typically some proof reading), and a longer period of writing on the weekend (where I’d still get out of bed at 5:30am).

Did I get rich? No. Typically, the authors get less than 10% of the wholesale book price — a couple of dollars per book sold at most. I got more than the minimum wage for the first book (roughly dividing the royalties by the number of hours by the number of authors to get an answer). The second book didn’t pay its way.

The longer I worked in a single sitting, the more productive I was. It takes a certain fixed amount of startup time to begin writing – you reread what you’ve written, edit it a little, get the context back, think about the structure of what you want to say next, and then start writing anew. But I can’t write for an extended period – it’s tiring, and I need to stop and take time away to think about what I want to do next. Three or four hour stints are the most productive for me.

When I wrote the first book, I’d count how many words I wrote in a session, and use that as a measure of success. I’d decide that I was going to write 1000 words before I took a break. It turns out, that doesn’t work for me: I’ve learnt that what’s important is sustained output, averaged over a month or so. Some days, I’ve got writer’s block. But I’ve learnt that that’s when I am doing valuable thinking – I’m working through a larger problem, or thinking through structure, or solving something that’s been bugging me for a while; sometimes, this is a subconscious activity. Other days, I’m a machine: I write as fast as I can type, and thousands of words flow. A whole chapter has been known to flow after a writer’s block.

My second book, Learning MySQL in its one-and-only edition.

My second book, Learning MySQL in its one-and-only edition.

Writing slows down as the book takes shape. I’ll be in the middle of a new section, and I’ll want to reference something else I wrote using something like “as you learned in Chapter <x>, the <something>”. Then I have to figure out what chapter it was, and what exactly was that <something> – that takes time. And, as the book gets longer, you repeat yourself – at least, my memory isn’t amazing enough to make sure I only say the same thing once. I’ll find myself waxing lyrical about some great idea, only to discover that it is somewhere else in the book too. Then it’s a case of figuring out where it should be – which is going to lead to editing a was-finished chapter elsewhere in the book or rethinking what I’m writing today.

I worked with a major publisher, O’Reilly Media Inc., and the wonderful editorial skills of Andy Oram helped me on both books. Editors are awesome – they push, prod, ask questions, push for clarity, and say things that make your book better. But they create a ton of work – you’ll get feedback such as “Perhaps you could merge those two chapters?” or “Chapter 4 needs to be broken into two chapters, and you need to really go into much more depth”. That often happens after you think you’re finished. You’ll get asked for extra chapters, rewrites, more or less content, and complete changes in style. It makes your book better. Between the first edition and second edition of my first book, Andy helped me change my style from a formal computer science style to a more conversational, chatty style – the kind that I use in this blog.

Writing a book isn’t a social experience. You need to enjoy being alone with your thoughts. Prepare for one hour of inspiration and conversation to turn into a hundred hours of hard labor and iteration. If it takes a couple of thousand hours to write a book, ten of them are the inspirational ones where you create the fundamental ideas. I wrote much of the second book in my parent’s Winnebago – parked on the grass, a good distance from the house, deliberately without wifi, and with nothing inside to distract me.

So, why do it? I enjoy writing – there’s rewarding impact in sharing knowledge with thousands of people. If you’re lucky, someone’s success or their impact will be because of what you shared. Or maybe you change how someone thinks or sees the world. Or you make their life better. It’s also cool to see your name on the cover, and to feel it in your hands – it’s even cooler when it’s translated into a language you don’t understand. I wonder what joy there is in knowing people are reading a digital copy? The digital sales on the royalty statement have never quite inspired me the same way.

Have fun. See you soon.

More Sweatember Action

It’s getting late in Sweatember, and I’ve only shared one workout. It’s time to take my Sweatember motivation to the blog and share more ideas.

My buddies at I Choose Awesome are a tough, energetic bunch of Australians. They have great ideas for challenging workouts, and I took one for a test drive this week. Give it a try.

Half An Hour of Power

Write down these six exercises on a piece of paper, and head to the gym. If you don’t know the exercises, the links have short videos:

Try the Half An Hour of Power workout

Try the Half An Hour of Power workout

Start your stopwatch. Do ten of the first exercise, then move onto the next one. When you’re done with all six, that’s one round. Start again from the top, and see how many rounds you can do in thirty minutes. (For what it’s worth, I managed 7 and a bit yesterday — couldn’t quite get to 8.)

Too Hard?

It’s ok if you can’t do a pull up, or you’re worried about a kettle bell clean. Substitute something easier until you’re ready for the full Half An Hour of Power.

For an easier time than a pull up, try a row. If you don’t like the sound of a kettle bell clean, pick up an object (such as a medicine ball) and put it down again. You can always do your push ups on your knees to make them easier. If you don’t like the sound of any exercise, replace it with another one; for example, if you don’t like the burpee, replace it with a abdominal crunch.

Have fun.

I’m not an exercise professional. Do this at your own risk. Talk to a professional before beginning an exercise program.

Delivering a Tough Message

A colleague of mine was recently disillusioned with a significant change that had affected them. They’d had a 1:1 meeting with their manager, chatted amicably about work for 25 minutes, and then the manager had dropped the bombshell in the last 5 minutes of the meeting. There wasn’t enough time to discuss the change, the person felt betrayed, and the meeting ended on time and with many questions unanswered.

Many people avoid the tough topics, dislike conflict, and don’t want to deliver tough messages. Unfortunately, it’s part of professional life — and here’s what I’ve learnt about how to do it.

Open with the Facts

If you’ve got something important to share, start by sharing it. Anything else you say before it will be ignored, seem trivial in hindsight, and you may even look rude for not getting started with the important topic. Take a deep breath, say “I’ve got something important to share with you”, and launch into the punchline: outline the conclusion or outcome you want to share.

Be very clear about the facts. For example, “Thanks for meeting me today, Bob. Unfortunately, you were not successful in getting the manager role: I’ve decided to promote Jenny into the role of team manager, I’ve let her know, and we will be announcing it tomorrow”. Here’s another example: “Sammy, we will not be launching your team’s Wizzle product. As a leadership team, we have decided to cancel the project, and reassign you and your team to the Zazzle initiative”.

Don’t get interrupted during the initial discussion. Politely tell the person you’re talking to that you’d like to finish. You owe it to them to share the complete outcome before they get a chance to have a conversation about it. If you want to explain how you got to the conclusion, do it after you’ve shared the conclusion — it’s a huge mistake to walk through the blow-by-blow account of the decision making process while holding back what decision you’ve made until later.

Minimize the Surprises

If you can, don’t surprise people. Lay the foundations for an important conversation by discussing what you’re thinking in the weeks or months that lead up to the decision. If you’re canceling the Wizzle product, hopefully you’ve spent weeks with the team talking about how it isn’t going well, sharing your concerns, and being clear that it isn’t meeting expectations. It’ll then be less of a shock when you make a change.

Sometimes, you have to surprise people. If you’re telling your boss you’re leaving the company, you probably haven’t been talking about it to them for months. That’s ok.

Don’t hide behind others

If you made the decision, own it. Don’t say “we” when it’s actually “I”. Don’t blame others, and don’t bring others unnecessarily into the conversation. Have the courage to own what you decided — you might not be loved for what you’ve decided, but you’ll be respected for having the courage and conviction to own your decisions.

Managers often have problems owning performance discussions. I’ve heard the story many times of a manager saying to an employee “I wanted to give you a 4.0 but my boss decided to give you a 3.0, I’m really sorry”. In 95% of cases, the manager really did drive the outcome — they didn’t put the person at the top of their list, they didn’t unreservedly advocate for the employee, and they were honest about one or more performance issues. So, own it: “When I got together with the leadership team and discussed your performance, I decided your performance was what was expected of someone at your grade and I’ve given you a 3.0. We have an amazing team, and you’ll need to work on three things to be a 4.0 at the next review”.

Conclude clearly

Make sure the conversation has been clearly understood. If you can get the person to play it back to you, you’ll be sure that it’s been understood. If you’re worried that it hasn’t been understood, you should follow it up with a written communication (an email is perfect) soon after the meeting. Indeed, this is often a good idea — I do this when I’m worried there’s room for misinterpretation, or that the decision or actions won’t stick how I want them to.

Above all, be courageous

You’re got past the initial discussion, you’ve conveyed the tough information you decided to share. Don’t change your mind. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t lose your cool. Nothing good ever comes of reversing a tough message in the heat of the moment.

Be calm. Courage doesn’t imply sternness or (worse still) yelling or anger. Be serious, but be rational, empathetic, and fair. Make sure you listen and be respectful. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

Good luck. See you next week.

Welcome to Sweatember! Here’s a fun workout for you…

It’s Sweatember! I’m amping up the exercise for the month, before I descend into the darkness of Eatober. Anyway, this month, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite workouts, fitness ideas, and more.

We’re all time-crunched, so here’s my favorite, motivating workout that fits in around 30 minutes. You can warm up, get a tough whole-body workout, cool down, and shower in in less than an hour. It’ll make you fitter, stronger, and leaner. And it’s called satellites.

Choose Five Exercises

Satellites: a tough thirty minute workout, and nothing to do with the space variety.

Satellites: a tough thirty minute workout, and nothing to do with the space variety.

Pick five exercises that don’t exercise the same body parts, and that you can do within a small corner of the gym. You’re going to be moving between the exercises frequently, so make it easy to switch between any pair. You’re going to be doing each one (maybe) 80 times, so don’t make them too challenging.

Here’s a few examples that I like:

  • Push ups – there are tens of variations. An easy variation is to find something at chest height that you can lean against at a 45 degree angle. A hard variation is a regular push up with your feet raised on the stairs
  • Squats – on the easy end, sit in a chair, stand up, and sit down again. On the hard end, try that on one leg without allowing yourself to actually sit (just touch)
  • Abdominal crunches – there’s more variations on these guys than any other exercise
  • Burpees – the basic variant goes like this: start in a push up (plank) position, jump your feet forward, reach your hands up into the air, put your hands back on the ground, and jump back into the plank
  • Jump rope – it’s good to have an aerobic exercise in the mix

This morning I chose jump rope, medicine ball slams (ball above head, slam into ground, catch, repeat), burpees, kettle bell swings, and an abs exercise (that’d take too long to explain).

You could try inverted rows, riding a stationery bike, boxing, running across the basketball court, using the rowing machine, jumping (star jumps, box jumps, hopping, and so on), something new school with a kettlebell, or something old school that looks good in the mirror (bicep curls, shoulder presses).

Write your exercises down and number them 1 to 5

Here’s an example: (1) Push ups (2) Box jumps (3) One arm kettlebell swings (4) Inverted row (5) Burpees

Prepare for satellites

Here’s the concept: each time you work through the exercises, one of them is the “planet” and the others kind of orbit as “satellites”. You’re going to do five sets, since there are five exercises.

The first set, your first exercise is the “planet”, and you go back to it between each other exercise. You do exercise 1, then 2, then 1 again, then 3, then 1 again, then 4, then 1 again, and finally 5. Shorthand: 1-2-1-3-1-4-1-5.

Since we’re getting this done in 30 minutes total, let’s do 20 seconds of each exercise, and give ourselves 10 seconds to change exercises and rest. That means you’ll get through this set in 4 minutes: 160 seconds of exercising, and 80 seconds of resting. (If you want to be picky, it’s really 3:50 since you don’t need the rest at the end.)

Once you’re done, rest for 1 minute.

Now exercise 2 is the satellite, and so on:

  • Set 2: 2-3-2-4-2-5-2-1. Rest 1 minute
  • Set 3: 3-4-3-5-3-1-3-2. Rest 1 minute
  • Set 4: 4-5-4-1-4-2-4-3. Rest 1 minute
  • And, finally, Set 5: 5-1-5-2-5-3-5-4

Five sets, four minutes each, and four minutes of resting. All done in 24 minutes. 3 minutes to warm up, and 3 minutes to stretch when you’re done. Total 30 minutes. Plenty of time for the shower.

Timing your workout

Time is hard to track when you’re sweating it out. I’d suggest getting an app for your iPhone – I like Tabata Pro, though HiiTTimer is ok too. These beep when it’s time to move to the next exercise, and they play your music in the background. You can also buy a timer online that you can hang on your wall – just like they use in boxing gyms! If all else fails, use the online-stopwatch in your web browser.

If you want it tougher, increase the length of the exercises – try 30 or 45 seconds – or make the exercises tougher.

One last tip: I like to arrange my five exercises in a line on the ground. I might put my medicine ball next to my jump rope, next to my bosu ball, next to my towel, next to a kettle bell — all in a neat line. This helps me not make mistakes and get lost — I can see which exercise is number one, two, three, four, and five, and I can easily tell what’s next.

Give it a try — enjoy Satellites!

I’m not an exercise professional. Do this at your own risk. Talk to a professional before beginning an exercise program.

Writing a Performance Review: Part Two

I blogged recently on the topic of annual employee performance reviews. This post continues the story and discusses what I’ve learnt about writing performance reviews.

The Basics of a Review

As I discussed last time, the reviews I deliver typically include a few elements:

  • Sharing company-specific performance ratings
  • Explaining what went well
  • Explaining what didn’t go well
  • Sharing expectations of the employee as the manager

Structuring a Review

I write reviews in paragraph form and hand over a printed copy. I follow up with an electronic copy.

I’ve experimented with several different approaches, and have settled on the following general structure:

  • One paragraph summary of the review: I thank the person for their contributions, communicate the company performance rating, and outline the structure of the document. It’s a good idea to disclose the rating early in the document, it gets key information out of the way and allows the person to focus on really reading the rest of the document
  • A section that describes “what went well”: A series of paragraphs that explain the person’s contributions, why they were valuable, and any suggestions you might have as to how they could be even better. I’m typically reflecting on the goals we agreed when I’m writing this section, as well as reflecting on what I’ve seen, heard, and feedback I’ve received; I discussed last time the topic of how to solicit feedback
  • A section that describes “what didn’t go well”: Same deal, but this time focusing on where there are problems, why they are problems, and what you’d like to see done differently
  • A section that describes “areas for focus”: A few, specific things you’d like to see that are areas for growth. I’m often writing things about future challenges I see in the person’s career, and new skills or competencies that need to developed
  • A one paragraph summary and conclusion

I strive to be balanced. I work hard to ensure that neither the “what went well” or the “what didn’t go well” sections dominate. It doesn’t matter whether the overall performance was outstanding or below expectations, there are always constructive, useful things you can say about performance. My observation is that most people want to hear where they can improve and what they can do better.

My typical reviews are around two pages in length. I’ve received much shorter reviews that were valuable and longer ones that weren’t. I’m not sure length matters — but substance does.

Reviews are important. They’re often tied to financial rewards, they’re written (and so they have gravitas), and they’re usually part of a formal process. It’s therefore important to write down honest, important, business relevant feedback.

Many managers struggle with being transparently honest in reviews. It’s hard to be critical, it’s hard to confront performance issues, and it’s hard to tell someone great that they can be better. As a manager, it’s your obligation. It’s a topic for another time, but this process becomes much easier if you’re honest in every 1:1 about how you see the performance of your employees — the review should never be a surprise.

An Example Summary

Here’s an example of the opening section that I might write:

Sam, thank you for contributions in 2012. I have rated you as <performance rating>.
You made positive contributions to building our next generation platform, hiring and leading the enablement team, and developing your skills in software engineering management. Well done! You did not deliver the new enablement engine on time, have not partnered successfully as we need to with the product team, and you need to continue to grow your presentation skills.

That’s it. A short, to-the-point summary of the document. It doesn’t have to include everything you discuss later — just the key points that you want to highlight, and those that were critical to your decision on the performance rating.

An Example What Went Well Section

I start my “What Went Well” section, imaginatively, with the heading: What Went Well.

I write a few paragraphs, at least as many as the highlights I’ve picked out in the summary section I discussed above. Each of the paragraphs explains what I think and why, and likely includes quotes from others (that I gathered through the feedback process) that support what I want to say. When I’m writing this section, I’m looking at the feedback I gathered from the person’s peers, reports, and other key people that the person interacts with. I’m also thinking about goals and results.

Here’s an example:

Project Alpha exceeded its goal of increasing the business by 3.5% in Europe. Several folks commented on this including examples such as “Thanks Sam for driving the European business, it’s been a pleasure partnering with you” and “You’ve really turned around the story in Portugal, you should feel proud”. It was exciting to see you delivering for Europe, particularly given the language complexities. In particular, it was good to see the successes in translation and price normalization. You also shipped some great work in North America (but missed the goal, that’s discussed later in this review).

Here’s another example:

You’ve made excellent progress on communication and meeting skills. We talked in our review last year about being more concise, letting others communicate, and letting others drive meetings. I can see great progress here – thanks for taking this feedback and working on it. People are noticing too: “I enjoyed working with Sam this year, he’s really developed into a solid communicator”.

An Example What Didn’t Go Well Section

Call me imaginative: I start this section with the heading “What Didn’t Go Well”. It’s ok to call a spade a spade, but you could also use a euphemism if you like such as “Opportunities for Improvement”.

I use the same structure and format as the “What Went Well” section. Paragraphs. One per major point. At least as many as the summary points I made in the introduction.

Here’s an example:

We have had great discussions last year about updating the headcount spreadsheets in a timely fashion, and you reflected in your self-assessment that you’re not doing this. I’d suggest you focus on time management and prioritization — I will support you in developing these skills, including helping you find the right courses you can take. I expect that this is the last year we’ll be having this discussion, and that we will have solved this problem before our next review.

And one more:

I saw development in your ability to think strategically this year, but you can continue to grow in this area. A few people reflected in their feedback to me that you could have taken on more strategic initiatives, or ran with some of the more challenging problems that you saw.  In many of the meetings you’re in, you seeing technical problems that remain unsolved and that you could play a part in driving. You should focus on driving one or two strategic, significant changes this year.

Both of these examples end with a clear call to action and clear expectations. Be clear about what it is you want to see happen.

Areas of Focus

My areas of focus section (titled “Areas of Focus” in my reviews) lists things that I think the person should focus on. They’re not necessarily weaknesses, they’re more often areas where I think the person will need to develop or focus for the future. It’s my advice section.

Here’s an example:

  • Continue to focus on presenting material at the right level for the right audience
  • Many folks worry about your work/life balance (and the example it sets for others)
  • Hire folks who complement your skills

The conclusion

I keep this short. I emphasize the key points, and wrap up with best wishes for the next year. Here’s an example:

You will have a challenging year in 2013, Sam. But I am confident you will do great in the new team, new role, and with your new challenges. Stay focused on strategic thinking! Good luck!

See you next week!

Five tips for Delivering a Presentation

I wrote a few weeks ago on writing a presentation. This week, I offer a few thoughts on delivering one – in no particular order. I’m working on my sequel to my post on performance reviews — expect it next week!

Eye Contact

You want to portray confidence. You don’t want to mumble. You want to engage your audience. Here’s my simplest tip to achieve all three: make eye contact with the audience. Pick out a few friendly faces – people you know who want you to succeed or just people who look friendly – and look them in the eye. Move between those folks as you deliver your presentation.

The side effects are you won’t look down and mumble. You will face the audience and not the slides (the slides aren’t that interested in your talk). You won’t look like you’re only trying to impress your boss (it sure freaks me out when someone spends the whole presentation looking at me). You’ll look like you’re in command as you survey the crowd.

Body Language

Stand up, go to the front, take charge of the room. But don’t plant yourself in one spot – plan to move every few minutes; for example, stroll from one side of the projector screen to the other, or move from the lectern to center stage.

Don’t rock. Plant your feet. Don’t freeze your arms. Make a few gestures – you can even plan to do these every minute or two.

Change your facial expressions every now and then. But not as much as a news anchor – don’t raise your eyebrows every second sentence like they do.

Don’t Read Notes (or Memorize)

Don’t write out your speech. You’ll kill the presentation. Please. For the sake of everyone who is listening. If you must, write a phrase per slide on some palm cards.

Memorizing is the same as writing it down. You will kill the audience.

Only newsreaders can do this, and you are not a newsreader.

Don’t Read Slides

Don’t read the slides to the audience. They can read, and that’s why you’ve put the text on the slides. Again, you’ll kill the talk.

Here’s how I see the role of slides: they’re the key material, and your job verbally is to add flavor to what they’re saying. Relate a story, add an extra point that wouldn’t fit on the slide, point out a key fact, or summarize the key message that the slide is conveying.

The worst thing you can do is to read the slides and track the text with a laser pointer. I hate laser pointers.

 It’s (almost) Impossible to Speak Too Slowly

Earlier this week, I was watching the first election debate in Australia, between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It wasn’t a debate per se, more of a press conference. And as I was thinking about writing this blog post, I was watching and listening for their presentation styles. I noticed careful use of body language, eye contact, and saw the Prime Minister use notes in the form of phrases. Whether either is charismatic is in question, but they are certainly practiced speakers.

What I noticed most was how slowly they spoke. Try an experiment: watch this video (or any video of a leader), and count the number of words they speak in a minute. Now, at work or school, count the number of words a presenter speaks in a minute. Compare and contrast people you think are great, and those that aren’t – you’ll quickly see that the ones you like generally speak slowly.

About 150 words per minute is about right. That’s hard to execute when you’re up on stage – so my practical advice is just to slow down. Speak as slowly as you can – nervousness will make sure it actually isn’t too slow, you’ll go a little faster than you intend anyway.

A Word on My Personal Style

I always walk off stage thinking that I made a mistake in one way or another. That causes me to reflect on what didn’t go well – and to try and capture it, and avoid the same mistakes twice. Here are a few things that I’ve learnt along the way:

  • If I work in humor early, the body language of the audience becomes more positive, and I relax (and become confident, and present more effectively). I try to lighten the mood early – but only when it’s appropriate!
  • I always write my own slides. I can’t present other people’s slides with confidence
  • When I’m repeating a talk, the third time is always the best. Before that I am rehearsing, and after that I am going through the motions
  • When I’m nervous, I gesture too much and I touch my face. I think about putting my hands in a position (such as one hand in a pocket) and keeping them there, and allow them to move only occasionally
  • I practice the endings of my talks. Starts and middles I can do, ends tend to drift. One trick I use is to learn who or what is coming next, and to introduce it in some form. For example, I might say “I would love to spend more time with you today, but I know you are all looking forward to Jenny speaking to you about Hadoop internals. I hope you’ve enjoyed the presentation, and I look forward to seeing you all again soon”. Or something like that. I also clearly signal the end of the presentation verbally

I love to run surveys about large meetings that I run to see what I can learn. I also always ask people in person what they thought of my presentations. If there’s a video, I’ll skim that too (which is always painful – I don’t know anyone who likes watching or listening to themselves). I think I am pretty good at spotting my own flaws – most people are their own best critics.

See you next week.