My BarCamp presentation disaster

It was the longest 15 minutes I had ever lived through in the recent decade.

It was the 5th BarCamp held in Singapore, on the 27th March 2010. My friends were attending, and one of them said it would be great to present. And he bullied me into presenting as well. It would also be an opportunity to build what the social media people were calling the “personal branding”, so I thought “why not?”.

BarCamp is an event where people gather to give presentations, hold discussions over shared topics and generally share ideas. I’m sure I gave the wrong definition, and you can find more pertinent information yourself.

Well, I don’t have a lot of presentation experience, so I had my work cut out for me. I needed a topic first, and I also searched around for presentation advice (Andrew Lightheart dishes out good tips).

For over a week, I prepared my notes, mostly in my head, because it didn’t feel concrete enough to be fleshed out into presentation material. I watched some TED videos to hopefully gain some of the presenters’ charisma and flair. I researched on what BarCamp attendees were (probably) like, to better speak to them.

Well, 3 days before the event, I scrapped my notes and begun anew. Covering many ideas, my polymath nature sought to teach many things and will surely achieve nothing for that group of people. I even wanted to juggle (thank goodness I didn’t), to emphasise a point.

Eventually, I settled on what I previously wanted to write an ebook about, “Discipline and Deflection“. And here was where I willingly and knowingly made a mistake. On the day of the event, I put up “Discipline and Deflection” as the topic for voting (attendees voted on the topics they most wanted to hear about).

I’ve studied blogging and writing tips before. I’ve even studied Internet marketing techniques. What’s the most important thing to note? The title. In this case, the topic title.

Surprisingly, the topics most sought for were HTML5, entrepreneurship, and start ups. There’s also a small undercurrent of interest in non-tech stuff. So, understanding human interests, my topic should preferably have included a number (preferably odd, better if it’s prime because they irk the human psyche), plus any keywords involving “HTML5”, “entrepreneur”, and “start up”, plus the usual attention-catching words such as “sex”, “violence”, and “relationships”.

So my ideal topic title should have read “7 tips on using HTML5 to discipline yourself to focus on being an entrepreneur and creating start ups, while deflecting distractions about having sex, doing violence and still have a healthy relationship”. But I’m not a bombastic writer. If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant amount of time, you would probably have noticed my titles aren’t any stand-outter. I mean, “Why are signals from passive optical networks split into 32?“? That probably bored the typical adolescent student to tears after hearing the title.

And the typical adolescent student, aged 18 years or so, comprised maybe a third of the attendees. Probably because it’s held at Singapore Polytechnic. So I decided to ignore all those tips and appealed to curiosity instead, and simply stated “Discipline and Deflection”.

Zero takers. Unless you count that one vote from my friend.

Discipline and Deflection

Well, it was still early in the morning. And my friend got selected for speaking, so the bunch of us went to support that friend. He’s talking about “A Hacker’s Guide to Financial Independence“.

Hacker Guide to Financial Independence

Much attention, many questions, and much follow-up after his talk. He’s good.

I went back to check on my submission. A couple more sticker votes, but the morning slots were all taken up, so I’ll have to wait till the afternoon to know if I’m to speak. I had fun with the morning sessions, and was nervous at the same time.

Lunch came and went.

And practically everyone went for the Aikido session, because, well, it’s Aikido, and there’s a hot chick doing the demonstration.

There was this mounting feeling of stuttering somewhere between my heart and my throat. You know that feeling where you’re nervous and when you speak, your words fall over each other and you can’t quite string together a few words to form a sentence? Yeah, that feeling.

I checked the submission board again. My topic was still there. All the early submissions were already assigned a time slot, and mine was the only piece of paper on the left side of the board, bravely and defiantly challenging anyone with a mote of curiosity to vote, like a weed growing unabashedly amidst a rose garden, like a smudge of dirt on a pristine white wall.

My thoughts were scattering like a flock of pigeons chased by a playful child, and my feelings were fluttering like a butterfly from flower to flower. To make matters worse, I couldn’t find my friends. There were only 4 (5?) rooms for presentation, and somehow, my cognitive powers failed to accomplish the simple act of locating my friends. I wandered the corridor, and flit from room to room, neither really listening to the presenter nor brave enough to stand along the corridor with my thoughts (and the reminder that my submission was still on the board). Which was ironic, since I was going to talk about focussing and distractions.

It was mid-afternoon, and I finally found my friends when they emerged from a presentation room. There was one presentation at the 4pm slot (about publishing and ebooks), and then all the interesting topics would have been covered. Mine was still on the board. I had half a mind to wrench my submission off the board and end my misery there and then. I left it as is, and we went for a coffee/tea break.

After our break, I went (yet again) to the board. It’s not there anymore! I’m not sure whether I was happy or sad at that point. I went to the master list of presentations, and it wasn’t listed. Did someone tear down my submission? I went to the rooms, and found my submission pasted onto the door of room C.

Room C presentation
[I added the subtext because from my friend’s comment, it wasn’t clear what it was about. Not that it cleared any confusion. But my mind was in a confused state then.]

I was assigned the 5:30pm slot, the very last time slot of the event. I didn’t see any of the organisers at that point. The master list wasn’t even updated with my submission topic (everyone else’s was, even the other 5:30pm slots), even though it was selected. The sessions my friends and I wanted to attend were all attended, save the ebook publishing one at 4pm. And my friends, good people that they are, decided to stay the entirety of the event just to attend my presentation.

At about 5:20pm, we went into room C. There were perhaps 7 people in the room. I sat down some 3 rows away from the presenter. I could tell he was palpably frustrated and dejected, because he was going through his points and slides with taps on his keyboard filled with unmistakeable resignation and anger. I believe it was on something about sTeam, and he was asking for help with user interface design. Well, he still had 1 person responding to him with questions, if nothing else.

Then it was my turn. Yeah, after reading over a thousand words, you finally reached the point where I’m going to talk about my presentation.

My friend wanted to help assuage my feelings of unhappiness by standing up and introducing me. That actually created the opposite effect. There were 10 people in the room, excluding me. 4 were my friends, 2 were standing at the back (probably ready to sprint to another place), and 4 were seated.

Vincent presenting at BarCamp
[thanks to Aaron who took this photo]

I started with “getting started“, with references to Merlin Mann. No one knew who Merlin Mann was, or Inbox Zero (which Merlin was famous for), or maybe they were too tired or scared or found it bothersome to raise their hands. I said it wasn’t necessary that you had to buy a moleskine to jot down your notes. That you don’t need a killer app to organise all your notes so you can finally start on that project of yours. You can just start.

Then I talked about Seth Godin and his latest book Linchpin, that people have difficulty finishing projects, of shipping. That there’s a resistance, the lizard brain that’s giving you the final obstacle to completing that project of yours.

It was at this point that the 2 people standing at the back disappeared. I don’t know. Who could blame them? The topic being discussed next door was “The Future Of XXX” where XXX starts with “P” and rhymes with “corn”. I was starting to inherit (even more of) the frustration and dejection from the previous presenter in that room.

I continued with my accidental discovery of disciplining myself by “adventuring”. I took a 5 hour long walk from the centre of Singapore to the east end of Singapore, which was approximately 21 kilometres in length. There was a point in that journey of mine where I was tired, hungry, thirsty, and a long stretch of road with empty grass on both sides of it. And that was the last part of my journey, and I likened it to the 17 mile mark of the 26 mile marathon, where marathoners start to doubt their ability to go on. Breaking through that point, to continue on that long stretch of road, was a key to developing discipline.

Out of the 4 attendees seated (who were not my friends), only 1 was listening. The other 3 were just there for the free electricity and wireless connection. I had only 1 listener (so to speak). Celine Dion was singing “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” in my mind, where I remembered how destitute I was when I started writing this blog. It was one thing to know that the rough estimated number of people reading was only 1. It’s another to see right in front of you, only 1 person listening to you. To be frank, I was getting ready to FTS.

Suppressing that urge to just walk out of the room, I told a story of Garion, a young sorcerer, trying to move a rock. Which I wrote about before in the discipline and deflection article. I talked of Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion:

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

Then I mentioned the concept of duality in mathematics, that of changing a problem from one form to another. And solving one form of the problem is equivalent to solving the other form. Graphs (in graph theory) have a dual form. So do sets of linear inequalities or equations. And proof by contradiction is an example of proving the alternate form of the original statement.

“Perhaps the discipline to focus is the dual of the deflection of distractions?” I proposed. “Solve one, and you solve the other.”

Then I brought in Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who talked about this separation of the self from the genius (That’s a TED talk, and it’s awesome. Go watch it first before returning here to find out more about my mishappening), the source of inspiration and creativity.

I continued something like:

Why don’t we take this further? We separate the body, the mind, this genius, and this consciousness that is us. The body does the thing you want to do, the mind focusses on the task at hand, the genius providing inspiration and creativity. And the consciousness that is you? You go deflect all the distractions that’s coming your way. Because when you’re focussing on the task, there is, by Newton’s 3rd Law, an equal and opposite force trying to distract you.

There will always be distractions. Even if you take out Twitter and Facebook and email, there will still be distractions. Twitter and Facebook are just distractions to your real distractions.

Even if I put you in a room with no outside connections, you will still face distractions.

I’m hungry. Where’s the coffee? I need my caffeine. The room’s too hot. The room’s too cold. I don’t want to write with a pencil, where’s my pen? They are all going to laugh at me. This will never succeed.

The distractions ultimately come from you.

The distractions ultimately come from you. That’s why it has an equal and opposite force to you focussing.

Well, I ended with trying to convince the lone listener (and maybe my friends too) that the future depends on you finishing that crazy project you’re passionate about. That game you’re creating. That art you’re painting. That book you’re writing. That software you’re coding. That building you’re designing. That invention you’re thinking of. That race around the world you’re doing.

I asked if there were any questions, and not surprisingly, there were none. It was 15 minutes since I stood in front of a room that’s 2 tutorial rooms combined, which made the audience that much silencer. I sat down beside my friends, tired, strained and completely drained, and they didn’t know what else to do. Then I suggested we go over next door to see what the XXX was about. It was full and standing room only, not surprisingly.

The anguish and frustration and nervousness and humiliation and embarrassment and anger that built up since 9:30am that morning, and crescendoed at 5:30pm, was finally over. I wished I had never submitted in the first place. I wished the votes were more decisive, either more so I know I’m gonna speak, or so much less that it’s impossible I get to speak. I wished the organisers had ignored the votes and chosen some other topic. I wished the audience veered towards content (like you) instead of bombastic titles.

But I stayed. Because as Hugh MacLeod said,

this is totally stupid. this is utterly moronic. this is a complete waste of time.

i’m going to do it anyway.

Because Elizabeth Gilbert said that, even if what we did was not inspiring, not magical, we should be proud that we have the sheer stubbornness to keep showing up. To do our part.

My friends and I went for dinner. I was barely succeeding in trying to keep my spirits up. A friend recorded my session, but I didn’t have the strength to go through it or even put it up here. Then we went for dessert. I went for the ginormous ice cream mudpie. Females aren’t the only ones who can drown their sorrow in ice cream you know…

And that was how I spent that Saturday at BarCamp. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go curl up in a corner and wallow in self pity.

  1. Chin Yong

    You are already one up given that you came forward to present and even prepared for it. Use this experience as the starting point.

    For sure your next barcamp presentation can only get better.

    Chin Yong – fellow presenter at barcampsg5

  2. Justin Lee

    Sorry that I look away your limelight. *hugs*

    But on the bright side, take it as an experience you have gain. Don’t shy away from this and head in straight again to present, no matter how humiliating or embarrassing it is.

    I remember my first time presenting in front of a crowd. It wasn’t easy and my heart was pounding. I didn’t engage the audience, I didn’t capture their interest. I felt like everyone was ignoring me and just there for the free food and drinks, or just to mock me. I felt exactly like how you feel this time. But I try and try again.

    You don’t become a good speaker the first time. You learn, and you learn again. Even now, I’m learning all my mistakes and trying my best to correct them.

    I truly hope this experience has not made you stop speaking, but help you point out your mistakes so you can go back, work on improving it, and coming back again being much better than before.

    Maybe next time, maybe be a little more prepared. If you like, I can help you with some tips or something. Let me know, and I look forward to seeing you present again in the next barcamp. Make it better!

    Cheer up!

  3. Christopher Ng Wai Chung

    Haha ! Don’t worry, you’ll definitely be bullied into the next barcamp and who knows, I might not even wait for it to happen in Singapore next.

    To improve faster, we will need to subject ourselves with constant discomfort.

    You’re on the right path to advancement.

  4. Guyi Shen

    Your presentation skills are fine; Just don’t set yourself up for failure next time, almost nobody can succeed under your circumstances.

    1. Get a slot in the morning where the crowd is the biggest by hook or by crook. My presentation had even less votes than yours but I negotiated it to a slot in the morning(I don’t know any of the organisers)

    2. Nuanced exploratory discussions don’t really work in a barcamp speech format, they work much better in a written blog post.

    3. Your title should’ve been “Why I walked from Orchard road to Changi Airport; How-to guide to discpline”

  5. Preetam Rai

    Let me apologize for the mix up on the main topic board. We got very distracted towards the end with the lightning sessions and couple of room changes and missed out updating the master list. Change in workflow are already in place to prevent this the next time.

    Talking from a point of view of a regular speaker at such events, I would suggest describing your top in a bit more detail. Include a byline that tells something about your topic or an example. Continue tweeting about your topic and try to get people interested. Talk to people at lunch and convince them to come in. The best ones are those where the topic poster speaks the least and gets the participant to talk.

    And let me thank you for writing this blog post. It is indeed brave of you to post this. Like most people have commented before, you have already done one presentation. It only gets easier now.

  6. Vincent

    @Christopher – I’m already in a lot of discomfort…

    @Guyi – Perhaps nuanced discussions don’t work in barcamps, but I was aiming for TED quality.

    @Preetam – I understand the importance of titles, bylines and subtext, and marketing to the attendees. I don’t use sensational titles, and I don’t intend to start.

    Perhaps that will cost me, but I’m really not that kind of person.

    I will say this, the presentation itself was fine. It’s the whole build-up that drained me. I’m not sure if anyone who read the post understood that.

    Sure the title thing started the build-up. I should be trying to get the most number of people to attend my presentation, right?

    Then I will also say this. Don’t try to change minds. Work hard at persuading people who are already willing to change their minds. It’s easier. I think Seth Godin or Chris Guillebeau said that.

    The title thing acts as a filter. This whole experience told me a lot about the attendees. And no, I’m not being elitist. People are who they are. I’m just trying to reach a specific group of people. And I didn’t find them at this barcamp.

  7. Guyi Shen

    If you were programming in COBOL in 1970, you would probably be using variable names like “va” or “bt”, nowadays you would be looked at very strangely if your variable names were like that.

    Titles have come a long way since Victorean England, Jane Austen was fine for her time, but a lot of research/testing/theory have come and gone since then.

  8. DK

    Paiseh, couldn’t attend your session because I was doing the P thingy next door.

    Don’t give up man. I think the time slot was bad. A lot of people had left by 5pm, hence the lesser audience. Hope to see you present again for Barcamp 6

  9. Vincent

    @Guyi – Actually I do have variable names like ‘i’, ‘j’ and ‘p’, ‘q’. They serve the throwaway value holders, but that’s beside the point here.

    I was looking for an audience that would pause and think and reflect, given my title. Those people who scanned (yes, I know about title scanning in posts and news articles), were probably better off at their chosen presentations. Perhaps I’m idealistic. I’m just saying, it’s not like there’s hundreds of posts to read through. There were maybe, 50 topics. If one can’t even filter through that and think and be curious, then like I said, they were better off at their chosen session.

    @DK – the P thing was fine. I think it wasn’t P enough though… 🙂

    @LiuLu – thanks. I’m getting a handle on that ice cream urge thing already.

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