Public speaking

I don’t like public speaking. I think that anyone who claims they do is either wired up the wrong way and doesn’t feel fear, or is telling fibs. I’ve come to do it here and there, though. For work mostly, and truth be told it’s usually not really even that public, behind closed doors at work in front of customers. Nobody wants to give the game away prematurely, unless the audience is a genuinely interested one with the required depth of pocket. Despite my public speaking being mostly private, then, I still stand up in a room full of people and say stuff for quite a long time.

What I talk about is usually pretty technical, commonly walking a customer or potential customer through a architecture update and new features in the product, helping to explain how the product will best fit a market segment, and thus how its abilities can be exploited by the customer to create something great for the end user. That’s my job in a lot of ways, helping our customers figure out which of our myriad product configurations is the best one for them and their end customer, and onwards into your hands.

I’ve never enjoyed it, especially in the few minutes before I have to open my mouth for the first time. Nervous, agitated, sometimes physically unwell. Never unwell in the worst way, but definitely a something-is-happening-in-my-body-that-isn’t-normal-or-good kind of unwell. It’s just nerves amplified, a hair past the adrenalin rush and subsequent dump. I’m a mostly functioning human being, so my subconscious remembers what it’s like and gives me shit about it. “Five minutes to go, Ryszard”, it pipes up. My subconscious is an asshole, so he brings the consonant-loaded, realistically unpronounceable wrath of my full name to bear. Thanks, mate, appreciate it.

It’s go time. Stand up, straighten your shirt…wait, I’m lying to you. I don’t wear shirts. Except if the audience has never met me before, and especially if they’ve never met me before and they’re Japanese. Tattooed all up one arm, with a perplexing smear of ink on the inside of the other, I’m acutely aware that some people are sensitive to appearance before my brain is engaged, my mouth moves, and my vocal apparatus delivers what I have to say. The Japanese have a well-documented cultural sensitivity to tattoos, so I play it safe here and there. If they know me though it’s short-sleeved Ryszard in the room, ink out.

It’s go time, again. Stand up, don’t straighten anything, greetings, let’s talk about what I have to talk about. Then things go blank in my mind until the last question is answered and the audience don’t need me any more. That’s the thing about public speaking, at least for me. Having trolled me in the run up to the point of sweating and nervous laughter, making me wonder that if I just ran fast enough for the exit I could be out before anyone could stop me, gives me a perfect break. That’s not to say it all goes perfectly from then on; I’ve bombed during talks, unable to answer queries or losing a train of thought, bewildered by the slide order of the slides I prepared. But at least I rarely actually remember experiencing it, shielded from the experience by a merciful subconscious who already had his fun during the build up.

Sometimes it goes great though, and it’s the memory of the best time that made me decide to write about it. GDC 2015, San Francisco. God I love SF, I need to go back soon. We were doing a developer day before the conference proper. Start to finish about PowerVR, and I was on during the keynote, right at the start. Plenty of time to stand there beforehand, terrified, watching everyone file in to watch me fumble my words and get some stuff wrong. I was talking about our GPU hardware roadmap and the architecture’s evolution, to get the audience more in tune with how it works, the tradeoffs and design choices for mobile, and some trends for the future. Stuff I couldn’t mess up, especially as I saw who was walking in.

Most of the people in the room understood GPU hardware. Any slips would be obvious. I paced and paced and paced some more as they trickled in. Said hi to some. Can’t remember who because I was so nervous. That’s another lie because I definitely remember saying hi to Benj Lipchak. I wanted to work for Benj at Apple earlier that year, but didn’t make the cut. That was slightly awkward and great for my nerves.

“It’s go time, Ryszard”, Captain Subconscious said, before it was actually go time. I sidled up to the lectern as a colleague closed out his part of the keynote and passed over to me. GO TIME. Deep breath, slightly blurred vision, oh God there’s Benj, GO. Now, I’m sure my recollection here isn’t perfectly accurate, but it honestly felt like I didn’t speak with my usual annoying Scottish lilt, everything came out clearly and correctly, smart people in the audience nodded wisely as I imparted my sage selection of PowerVR knowledge, and the slides advanced themselves and I didn’t even have to press the annoying clicker thing. It’s one of the only public speaking things, to a hundred or so peers no less, where I can shut my eyes and remember who and what I saw, roughly what I said and how, and what the reception was like afterwards from the folks that came to talk to me. I hung my GDC exhibitor badge up in my office when I got back, it went that well. I can see it now, in fact.

I really enjoyed GDC as a result, because I didn’t have to stand there on our booth and apologise to anyone who came along that had watched me talk. No talk since, no matter whether I knew the material inside out or not, or whether I had pre-flight nerves or not (and I did have for that talk), has gone as well. I admit that I actually enjoyed it, even. I love the idea of talking about technology to people to help them understand it better and for once it was even fun. On the biggest stage yet, for me.

Anyway, I still don’t like it. Captain still gives me a sharp one-two to the ribs sometimes, beforehand. I still think about running. One time since I even had to ask my then-boss to step in for me with a couple of minutes notice, because I felt so bad. Yet once he started talking I was fine, and took care of the Q&A. Captain, please. I force myself to do it because when I finally get up there and speak, sometimes it goes half as well as my GDC talk in 2015 and that’s absolutely fine by me.

So if you find public speaking terrifying, and let’s face it of course you do, it’s always the right choice to just do it anyway. I bet your Captain is like mine and makes it all go well in the end, even if the pre-flight is a riot of adrenalin and nerves and perspiration. It’s still worth it.