Category Archives: Blog

General thoughts on life, the universe and everything. Stuff that doesn’t fit in the other categories!

TED Talks: The Official TED guide to public speaking

Over the years my job has required me to do varying amounts of public speaking. A few years ago I was doing it weekly to audiences ranging from a handful of people to dozens. I’ve done less recently but it’s something I wanted to get back into, hence this book. TED talks are slickly produced and the speakers almost always appear to be, at the very least, competent, and usually much better than that. That made “TED Talks” a good place to start.

While reading the book I ended up speaking at a conference and I was able to put some of the lessons into practice. Of course I’d only read half of it so I did make some avoidable mistakes. However, it also showed some practical limitations of the book: naturally it’s about the kind of talks given at TED, but most people rarely do that.

My talks are often given at fairly short notice, frequently with a “standard” slide deck that you’re not supposed to edit significantly. The last talk I gave was written entirely by someone else and I only had the time to adjust the slides to work with my delivery style better.

Other than the logistics, the subject matter also differs. If you gave a presentation about your companies product roadmap in the style of a TED talk you’d get laughed out of the room! (That doesn’t stop so many companies trying to ape Steve Jobs, but those are usually also seen as inauthentic.)

And, perhaps unlike at TED, at most places you don’t get to choose how the stage looks. I like to walk around a little. This, I feel, makes the presentation look more dynamic but also means that I can’t look at my notes all the time and I have to engage with that audience; double win! But you can’t always do that. Maybe the stage is too small; perhaps they’re recording and they don’t like you moving out of shot continually; maybe the microphone is attached to the lectern.

What I’m saying is, while the advice is probably great for when you give your TED Talk, you’re going to have to allow for a much greater degree of outside control for most presentations you have to give.

But overall, the advice is good. It covers everything from how to structure the talk, to preparation (including your slides, and whether you should even use any), stage presence, voice and how to work best with your strengths and weaknesses.

Where it lost me, though, are the last few chapters (“Reflection”). After talking about how to give a great talk only at the end does it discuss why it’s important and why you should do it. The little bit of TED history is quite interesting but the book probably could have done without it — presumably if you’re reading the book you’re already convinced — or maybe put it at the beginning as a form of motivation for reading the rest.

Ironically, people who don’t want to ever give a talk are the very people that the last section is really aimed at, unfortunately they’re never going to read it.

Of course, that’s mostly a quibble in an otherwise decent guide. Not everyone is going to want to give talk, but if you do it’s worth a look.

Productivity

I just can’t figure how to follow all those “improve your productivity” guides. I’m sure you know the ones I mean: they suggest exercising at 6am; or switching off your email and Slack during the day to avoid distractions; or to schedule all your meetings in the mornings; or…

Can anyone make those things work?

The problem I have is that I work and live with other people. So, sure, I can try to schedule my meetings in the morning but I don’t think my American colleagues will appreciate having to get up at 4am to make my 9am daily standup; if I don’t have Slack running I’ll miss the notification that the database server is going down; without email I won’t learn that the client meeting I’m preparing for has been cancelled; and going to the gym at 6am would be great except who is going to look after the kids while I’m out?

All these productivity guides fail to recognise that we all have external commitments, that we work in places with existing infrastructure and conventions. The best you can do is cherry-pick the bits from the guides that work for you and try to figure out your own process for everything else.

Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, is what we were already doing.

Reading 2018

It’s been an interesting year. Half way through 2018 I started working from home basically full time. While that may not sound like it’s relevant, my time on the Tube was my “reading time.”

What I’m saying is: I didn’t reach my twelve book target this year.

I need to do better, allow myself to carve out some dedicated time as I did for exercise. Looking back over my list, I also want to read more fiction. I enjoy novels too much to only read one in a year!

You can read my full thoughts on my reading material by looking through the “Reading2018” tag, but if you want a theme drawing them together it might be “disappointment.” While pretty diverse — covering politics, persuasion and management — many of them didn’t quite live up to expectations.

On the other hand, What if… might be the best pop-science book I’ve read in a while and, in these turbulent times, Factfulness really is an important book. (I generally don’t like that term, so the fact I’m not using it ironically does mean something!)

Even without the library and new acquisitions, I already have a dozen unread books lined up for 2019. Let’s do this!

C25K Diary Part 4

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d leave the house early on a Saturday to run in a park when it’s barely above freezing, I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet that’s what happened this last weekend.

A year ago I’d just started my Couch to 5km adventure and it feels like a lot has happened in that time. Since my last entry in March, I’ve managed to both increase my speed, become more consistent and actually run a full five kilometres. With hindsight, I can see that I did much right but a few things wrong. As before, I think it’s worth writing about both as a help for people starting in the same place as me and as a reminder for myself. Knowing that I had difficulty keeps me going on days where I feel I’m doing badly!

I left my last post having completed the C25K programme but not having actually run the full 5K. (The programme helps you run 5K or for thirty minutes. That’s small print for you.)

My initial plan was to gradually increase my speed until I could run the full 5km in thirty minutes. That’s what I did for a while until I realised that it was going to take me a long time! So for one week I changed tack and concentrated on distance rather than speed. By that point it was actually quite easy but I’m glad I did it, if only to tick a virtual check box.

In trying to improve my consistency, the main thing I think I’ve learned is that I’ve been a terrible judge of how tired I actually am. There’s a difference between “not feeling it” and not being capable of running the full duration. With the benefit of hindsight, I could almost certainly have pressed on with some of the later stages of the C25K programme and finished sooner. Which is not to say that I think I erred; being cautious meant that I avoided getting injured. Doing exercise was (is) a bigger goal than completing a 5km run.

Around the same time, I’d started hearing about something called Parkrun. The arrival of spring and the desire for a change from running on a treadmill in the gym made me open to a change, even if it meant turning up to a local park early on a Saturday.

While I liked the idea, I didn’t want to find that I couldn’t finish or that people would sneer at me for finishing last. Turns out I misjudged the atmosphere and how competitive it would be. But I didn’t know, and I spent a couple of weeks trying to run outside before I even attempted it.

After all that time in the gym, I found running outside to be quite challenging. I had to pace myself rather than have the treadmill “force” me to continue at a known speed. Harder still, I had to plot my route in advance!

Having spent the rest of the year mostly running outside, oddly I now find running on a treadmill to be a challenge.

Back to Parkrun. After a couple of weeks practicing outside I went to my local in Tooting. I think I was expecting a handful of sporty people wearing Lycra sprinting around. What I actually found was over five hundred people of all abilities. There were the athletes but there were also people with baby buggies, teenagers and pensioners. Not only was I not out of place, but I didn’t even come in last place. And not even that but it was a supportive crowd meaning that my fears of finishing last were utterly misplaced. It’s not a race, it’s only as competitive as you want it to be. Oh, and it’s incredibly well organised, mostly run by volunteers.

This wasn’t supposed to be an advert for Parkrun. (Still, you should consider doing it.)

Since early summer I’ve stuck to doing two or three runs a week outside. When I started the running, my not-running days I typically went swimming. Recently I’ve started alternating that with some resistance training. But the running is still the “backbone” of my exercise regime.

What next? Well, winter is on the way so I’m interested to see how motivated I am to keep running outside! I still have no grand goal, no major objective to run a marathon or reach any particular race time. This is partly because exercise is the real goal but mostly because I want to be realistic. I’ve taken nearly ten minutes off my time for running 5km over the summer but, without some serious effort that I’m not likely to ever put in, constant improvement from here is going to be a lot harder.

But I’m going to keep trying!

Factfulness

I didn’t mean to immediately buy Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness“. I saw it in a “recommended reads” list (both Bill Gates and Barak Obama suggested it, if I remember correctly), thought it sounded interesting and went to Amazon to add it to my wish list. Fat fingers meant that I tapped the “buy” button instead.

Anyway. As an antidote to all the bad news around at the moment, I decided to read it right away. The narrative that the world is getting worse by many measures, this book argues, is false. I want to believe that we’re progressing but the pictures on TV of Trump and Brexit, famine and war make it hard to accept.

It starts with a questionnaire and, without wishing to steal the book’s thunder, most people will do incredibly badly at it. Worse, in fact, than merely picking answers at random, or “the chimps” as the book calls it.

I’d like to think that I’m better informed than many, if not than the general public than some chimps, but I still did badly!

The book continues with a list of errors that we all make, examples of them and how to spot and avoid them in the future. It sounds dry but it isn’t. Hans Rosling is humble, keen to draw attention both to where he made mistakes and where he made a difference. If anything, his modesty often sounds misplaced. I think it’s fair to say that he had more achievements than failures.

“I don’t tell you not to worry. I tell you to worry about the right things.”

The curse of this book, if there is one, is that we all think we’re well informed and that we don’t need to read it. The numbers show that we’re wrong. I hope that doesn’t make it the least read, most important book I’ve picked this year!

Apple Watch Series 4


This was going to be my first thoughts on the new Apple Watch, posted about a day after I unboxed it. But then life got in the way and I’ve now been using it for a week. What I’d planned to be a little more than a “hot take” is now probably a little closer to an actual review!

From the picture above you can see what I was using before. It’s not an Apple Watch, it’s not a competing smart watch. It doesn’t even have a battery. (To be clear, my new watch isn’t a replacement. I still plan to wear the Marloe.)

I’ll be honest: until recently I wasn’t very interested in the Apple Watch. It was too big, didn’t look nice enough, was another thing to recharge every night and none of the things it did were compelling enough to overcome those annoyances.

Here’s the thing. The Series 4 is still too big — about twice as thick as the Marloe — and doesn’t look as good as a traditional watch. But I’ve been on a health kick for the last year, so partly I bought it as a new gadget, a reward for keeping going for twelve months, and partly, because of that, the health features became compelling enough.

As you’d expect for Apple, the hardware looks great and is well presented. The finish is beautiful, the controls click and rotate in a satisfying way. I found it odd that it came without the strap attached but I was able to get it up and running pretty quickly.

I’ve read about the Watch before but I’ve never got beyond playing around with one in a store. It surprised me how complicated it is. By which don’t mean it’s hard to use, rather that there are a lot of choices to make. Choices that you probably won’t know the answer to.

The new Infographic watch faces sound great, but what am I supposed to do with eight complications? Not having used the Watch before, I don’t know the best way of accessing apps versus having the information available instantly on the watch face. Should I use the app swarm? The most recently used list? Complications? Notifications? Then you find that some complications only appear in some locations. How am I supposed to know this stuff? It’s confusing. I’m sure I’ll figure this stuff out but I feel information overload just as I’m trying to play with my new toy. (Having started writing a Watch app I think I understand it better, but should I have to?)

I guess I was expecting an iPhone OS 1.0-type experience — just the bare minimum — but I suppose that’s an unfair comparison and an unfair expectation. We’re now at watchOS 5, so it’s had time to evolve. And in hardware terms the Watch is way faster than than the first few iPhones. (It is incredible that you can get a dual core 64-bit CPU on your wrist!)

Having waited until now to get a Watch, I’ve also seen features that I was concerned about. The main one: the not-always-on screen. Would I forever be wiggling my wrist to see the time?

No, is the short answer. It’s not 100% successful turning the screen on at the right times but it’s pretty close. The problems I’ve had have been more along the lines of the screen not staying switched on for quite long enough. Maybe I was too slow to read a notification, or I was showing my wife something neat, but I do occasionally find myself wiggle my wrist around just as I feared. Fortunately the times it happen lead me to think that, as I use the watch more, these occasions will happen less and less. I could be wrong, but I think this will work out fine.

Another example of complexity: if I want to go running, what app do I start? Strava is the obvious one. That’s what I use on my phone. But what about the Workouts app? Do I need that instead? As well? One of the features that attracted my to the S4 was the ability to see my pace for the last kilometre… but how do I get that while recording my GPS trail? Clearly this isn’t an insurmountable problem, but it’s one without an obvious solution. Some experimentation will be needed.

However, putting the niggles and unexpected complexity aside, how has it been? My experience in this first week has been great. Being able to quickly glance at notifications without pulling out my phone has been very handy. Walking around a strange city with it tapping my wrist with the directions is way more convenient, as are the notifications telling me which gate my flight boards. And being able to record a run without clutching my phone or have it strapped to my arm is surprisingly liberating.

I’ve heard people say that Watch apps are not great. Maybe that’s true on average but I’ve been impressed with Strava and, especially, Overcast.

All these things are slight reductions in friction or increases in convenience and are not necessarily compelling alone but when you add it all up it’s impressive. On paper, I thought the features were nice but not quite worth the asking price. I would still say it’s a luxury rather than a must have but the utility is certainly there.