Dr Nic

How to stop killing people with your public speeches

Let’s do the math.

If you give a speech to 200 people for 30 minutes you are consuming 100 hours of human life.

Giving an hour-long talk to a thousand people? That’s six weeks of human life devoted to your talk.


Let’s assume 6 weeks of human life is at stake. It is not a loan and you cannot give it back. One hour after you finish speaking, you’ve used up 6 weeks of human life.

If you’re bad enough for long enough you kill a whole person.

Mathematically, if 1000 people witness your speech and 0 of them change any aspect of their life then you should not have given the talk. You used up 6 weeks of human life and achieved nothing.

Let’s all pledge together:

  • I am valuable
  • I will continue to share my ideas and my work in public
  • I will continue to improve the craft of sharing publicly (for example, speech craft and blogging)
  • I will respect the time of other people as a gift
  • I will change lives

This pledge needs a name; anyone?

You are an incredible individual. You have done things, seen things, diagnosed things, solved things that no one else has done. No one else has the accumulated knowledge and reasoning that you have. You were the one who conclusively deduced that all solutions to World Peace involved chocolate biscuits.

You are also unique in your methods of communication. You have different stories, different mental models, and different approaches to communication. You do that thing with your voice and your posture. As a child you were beaten up for being different. As an adult it makes you extremely valuable.

There are human beings who need to have their lives changed by you. Your value is when other people behave differently because of you.

What to do next?

There is no check box, pass or fail, “crossing the finish line” in public speaking. I’d rather watch you play Guitar Hero. Aim higher. Take responsibility for your communication. Look at the human beings in front of you and rock their world.


Like the craft of software development, there is the craft of communication.

Practise the craft of communication. Limit the minutes/hours/days/weeks that you use of other people’s lives. Write your speeches and then practise them to increasingly larger audiences.

“I’m not very good at speeches”

Write small speeches for small audiences. As you improve, increase the size of the audience. If it’s necessary to achieve your goal, increase the duration of your talk. Though how often can you communicate 80% of your message in just 5 to 15 minutes?

If you are given 45 minutes at a conference to speak, you are permitted by me to speak for 15 minutes only. If you know you only have 15 minutes, perhaps invite one or two other people to share during the remaining time. Or give back the remaining time to the audience. Ask them to use it to think about or explore the idea you’ve shared with them.

“Where can I find small audiences?” If you’re practising a large audience speech, then pull a handful of people into a room and they can alpha test your talk. As a small group they’ll probably do something annoying like give feedback. You’re probably self-conscious enough that your brain is full of negative self-feedback, so you may or may not want their feedback. But let them give it to you. “Thanks, that’s a good idea” is the reward you give them back.

Next, find another small audience. The jokes won’t be as funny in small audiences. Large audiences laugh louder and stronger. Do the talk again.

Follow up with the first group – did they do anything different in their lives after your talk? Did they talk about your ideas or thoughts during the week? If your speech is good then some small nugget will carry with them, regardless that they are a friend/peer/family member.

Don’t worry too much if you don’t rock their world: friends and peers tend to not learn as much from you. “You can’t be a guru in your home town.” That’s not the job of a friend. Friends are there to laugh at you and put you in embarrassing situations for their own amusement. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see if your small friendly audiences thought about your talk in the days afterwards.

Even in a small room with friends, unload on them with energy and passion. Practise your communication as much as you practise your content.

“Where can I learn speech craft?”


You learnt to drive with your parents and a driving instructor. You learnt software development by writing small demo apps and pair programming. And yet some people have the audacity to stand on stage in front of 100s of people and be terrible. Those people are not you. You will not suck. You are going to learn the craft of speaking because you want to use people’s time well and you want to change their life.

Toastmasters is a club format. There is no “school” concept. Rather a group of 20 people meet twice a month and each time they all suck less. They stop stuttering. They tell interesting stories. Everyone learns something fascinating from other members who have different backgrounds and professions.

The practise format is interesting and successful. You give three types of speeches: 5-7 minute prepared talks, 1-3 minute impromptu talks, and 2-3 minute improptu evaluation talks about the previous speakers. That’s right, you get immediate evaluation from another club member!

Every club is different so visit a few of them to find a club that you like. Some a filled with old farts who value meeting protocol over having a good time. Some clubs like doing competitions. Some clubs meet weekly. Some clubs meet for breakfast or lunch or in the evening.

It’s relatively cheap.

You will learn the craft of speaking and leadership. And conversely, though not explicitly promised in any Toastmasters literature, you’ll stop killing people.

Is it really that important?

Personally, I think its a bit unfair of a presenter to be bad in front of a large audience for a long duration and say “I’m sorry if I was bad. I’m trying to get better.”

But! It is far far worse is the competent presenter who does no preparation, does a terrible job, and merely hopes it goes better next time. There are human lives at stake. One of them might be mine.

As a public speaker you have a gift – human lives. You have their time and their open minds. Aim high. Change lives. You are special. I hope to experience you speaking awesomely at a conference near me soon!


Thanks to Zach Holman for our chat on the plane back from Ruby MidWest and for proof reading and fixing the post. He is a great speaker and will definitely convince you of whatever snake oil he’s selling rock your world. Just look at these slides!

Showcase of CoffeeScript – 2.5 mins for your next Dev Group meeting

If you are giving an “Introduction to CoffeeScript” talk at your local developer group in the future, I have a 2:30min video you might find exciting to show. CoffeeScript is so cool that I thought it really needed to be put to music. Hard rock music. AC/DC.

I finished my session at NordicRuby with this video and I think it helped get lots of people excited about CoffeeScript.

Because of it’s heavy dependence of the backing song – the screencast is boring without it – I’m kind of screwed as to how to distribute it to other presenters. The licensing rules of including music and it’s 600Mb size are prohibitive.

What the hell. I’ve included an inline sample above; and the links to the 600Mb version is below. All self-promotional “Dr Nic made this shiny video” bits have been removed. Go for gold. Share the CoffeeScript excitement.


NordicRuby finished 5 days ago, but many of the attendees and speakers are only finally winding down. Executed with the style, excitement and pizazz of Unspace’s RubyFringe and FutureRuby conferences, I had a brilliant time in Gothenburg. If NordicRuby’s organiser’s Elabs host the event again in 2011 I highly recommend attending. Carefully selected and sequenced speakers from around the world, 30 minute talks with 30 minute breaks over two days, an hour of lightning talks each day, and parties every night. Phew.

To CJ and Lilly, the organisers, the other speakers and all the attendees, thanks for an awesome experience in Sweden. Looking forward to coming back next year.

Why CoffeeScript?

JavaScript has a wonderful feature or two: it’s everywhere and it’s getting really fast. Unfortunately, its syntax was heavily influenced by Java/C++ and other popular goliaths of the time. But the JavaScript runtime is sweet. JavaScript syntax, not so sweet.

Like .NET and it’s selection of languages, the JVM and it’s growing smorgasbord of languages, I think the JavaScript runtime could benefit from more experimentation with alternate languages and/or syntaxes. Objective-J was one attempt. CoffeeScript is another.

Of the two, I like CoffeeScript. A lot.

Demonstrating CoffeeScript at Dev meetups

The video flies through core ideas pretty quickly, so I ran through syntax examples on a slide first, and then said “You know, I think this would go better to music,” and played the video.

Download and Demo

The purpose of offering the 600Mb video version is for the growing number of people doing CoffeeScript talks at their local software dev groups. The music in it is not licensed, not mine, but sounds awesome.

Please play the video with speakers. AC/DC on mute is a cruel act. Also watching the text jump around without the music is probably weird to watch. AC/DC and CoffeeScript. Perfect match, I think.

Formats: Torrent | Download (600Mb)

Tack så mycket

Swedish for “Thank you very much,” pronounced like “tuck sa-meekeh” or thereabouts.

If you use the video at all, I’d really appreciate it if you left a comment below!

FutureRuby talk: Living With 1000 Open Source Projects

The FutureRuby conference has been (and still is, as of 11:43am on Sunday) wonderful. I just finished my talk on “Living With 1000 Open Source Projects” which was great fun, good for a bunch of laughs, and more importantly allowed me to share some thoughts on Zero Maintenance, Managing community expectations, self-sustaining communities, and the difficulty of scaling pet children.

Below are the slides and all the nice things people said about the talk, which has made me feel very good for sharing, and for the 60hr return flight from Brisbane to Toronto.

If you want to hear the jokes, and an Australian “mistaking” Canada for a state of America, perhaps wait for InfoQ to publish the video.

The slides

Nice things people said

@drnic #futureruby

Thanks to…

Elle Meredith who helped me design and theme the slides so they looked spot-on-awesome.

My two children for not being old enough to be disturbed by some of the things I said about them during the talk.

Why you should see Dr Nic at RailsConf

There are 5 sessions on at 11:35am on Tuesday the 18th of September, 2007, at Rails Conf Europe.

If you are unlucky enough to be one of those speakers, then I have pity for you.

I should know, I’m one of them, and I have pity for me.

So, I thought I should give a completely unbiased opinion about which of the five sessions you should attend, and which you should avoid like the plague.

Rails Full Text Search with Ferret

By Jens Krämer.

Jens is a German, so this conference is a home game for him. The room will be filled with local Germans all wearing their home strip, and will all be chanting and cheering in German throughout. I watched World Cup 2006 on the telly – that’s what they did then, and Jens’ talk will be no different I’m sure. You can’t learn anything with other people chanting and carrying on like its a football/soccer match.

Screenscraping as a Tool for Changing the (Legacy) World

By Jesper Rønn-Jensen and Mads Buus Westmark.

Jesper and Mads are Danes, from Denmark. A small European country who’s royal crown price recently married an Australian girl. Her father, Dr Donaldson, was my Calculus lecture in 2nd year university. He yelled at me once for talking in class. Whilst not directly Jesper and Mads’ fault, its something to keep in mind.

ActiveRecord and Service Data Objects: Adding New Data Models Beneath Your Rails Apps

By Doug Tidwell from IBM.

IBM is a large country off the coast of all tax-paying countries. Most likely in the Pacific Ocean, as its probably big enough for IBM. Whilst the session talk description is enterprise gobble-de-gook, it probably would be interesting, but I’ll summarise it for you: write specs for your underlying data layer and how they map to the #find and #save methods of ActiveRecord, and bob’s yer uncle.

3rd Partying Issues and Solutions

By Ryan Garver, ELC “Diamond Sponsor” Technologies.

There are three diamond sponsors for RailsConf – ThoughtWorks, Sun Microsystems and ELC. Diamond sponsors are a good thing. Sponsoring things is a good thing. I hope Dr Nic Academy will sponsor things in the future. I’ll talk to the owner about it.

Meta-Magic in Rails: Become a Master Magician

By Dr Nic Williams.

Dr Nic is Australian, so he has a funny slang accent that can be quite awkward to understand, especially when he starts talking very fast. Australia was cheated in World Cup 2006 by Italy who, with 10 seconds left in their round 2 map, dived in the box, got a penalty kick, scored, won the game and went on to win the World Cup. So, logically, if Australia hadn’t been cheated, we’d have won the World Cup instead.

Thusly reenacted here on YouTube:


11.35am on Tuesday might be a good time to grab a coffee, and talk to Chad Fowler about the shame of putting 5 awesome speakers on at the same time as each other.