Wow - here we go! 🙂 It only took a couple of years, but I finally made up my mind: after so many years of reading anything - books, articles, Reddit threads, comments on YouTube videos, you name it - the time has finally come to try to write something of my own.
It’s been about 2 or 3 years since one of my old managers - we’ll call him Andrew - during one of the many dreaded performance reviews reminded me that, yes, I was improving and progressing but that it was also time to find some new challenges.
Andrew - “Yep, that project could go better, but you’re still progressing, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. You’ve also started mentoring someone from a different team, and we can also check that off. That’s great. I guess it’s time to step out of your comfort zone: maybe you should present your team’s work to the wider org?”
Me, panicking - “Of course, Andrew! That’s been on my mind as well. I’ll get to it ASAP.”
I never did that presentation. Let me tell you why and what got me here.
I have always dreaded public speaking. As an introvert, the idea of having many eyes watching me felt like living a nightmare. As it turns out - it’s hard to become a people manager without some public speaking. So over the years, through experience and out of sheer necessity, I’ve dealt with the sweating-inducting nerve-wracking idea of presenting something to someone. But was I ready to proactively seek an opportunity to fail (well, this was my definition of public speaking at the time!)? Hell no.
Six months later, during our following performance review:
Andrew - “Hey, Ed! Yep, you’re meeting or exceeding expectations, but what about that goal we set months ago? Are you working on that presentation?”
Me - “Ahem, not really! I was busy supporting that very-important project, and I can’t find the time for that!”
Andrew, clearly unimpressed - “Okay fine, why don’t you try writing something then? That might be something that works better for you, perhaps?”
Shit. Checkmate! I have spent months and months building this picture of the bookworm that does reading challenges and loves to give reading advice, and of course writing might be closer to who I am. That felt like a punch straight to my chest: the team I was on had been working on a very challenging project for nearly two years, and I was confident I could find at least a few learnings worth sharing. I started drafting a - somehow technical - essay on our challenges and prepared myself for what was to come.
What can you teach us in 20 minutes?
I’d love to share a link to the result of all those weeks of tinkering but guess what? Life happened, one number at a time. One country, two cats, three motor vehicles and two companies later, I am pretty confident that the IT team deleted my draft together with all the other junk I had on my laptop.
Long story short: after ten years of living abroad, I decided it was time to return to my beloved home country. With that, I also had to say goodbye to my team and - in part - to my career goals. I parked the idea of writing and focused on ensuring I could make Italy work in the long run.
Something happened, though. Again. While scrolling mindlessly on LinkedIn, I noticed that a company asked their candidates to share a video or text where they would teach the interviewers anything they wanted in twenty minutes. Remember how I panicked when my manager told me I should think more about presenting and public speaking in general? Indeed, I panicked again - but for a different reason this time.
Spelling out what LAME stands for
This time, the reason behind the panicking wasn’t the audience (in my previous company, I would have had 400+ engineers reading and judging my work) nor the medium (presenting in front of 400 people is not the same as writing something that two people will read). So I sat down determined to understand why two asks on such different sides of the spectrum gave me the same goosebumps. What was making both difficult?
In the first case, Andrew had asked me to deliver a presentation (not my favourite medium) to a vast audience. I felt confident with the technical jargon and with using English but the extent to which I was supposed to present made me a bit uncomfortable - doing a 5 minutes presentation is different than keeping the audience entertained for 45 minutes. On top of that, I knew the content of the presentation well, but there had been other people involved in the project, and I was afraid I might not have been able to convey all the information needed or answer all the possible questions I could get.
Compared to this, a twenty minutes presentation on any topic should feel like a walk in the park. But it didn’t! And after doing a bit of self-reflection - I think I now know why. While I felt pretty confident about the medium (I could have written something instead of doing a video) and the terminology (once I had picked a topic), I didn’t really know my audience: will those people be uptight? What background do they have? Can I talk about anything I want? Do they expect me to focus on something relevant to the job? What if they know more than me? I only saw two ways of making this better: I could try to understand what audience I was to expect, or I could pick a topic where I felt a high degree of confidence.
Easiness (on a scale from 1 to 10) = Confidence in the topic * LAME score
I invented my own way of thinking about presentations; some are simply unavoidable, so I wanted to figure out how to deal with them. It turns out that presentations will be more straightforward the more confident you are in the topic - nothing new on this front, I hope 🙂 - and the more you can minimise the LAME score:
LAME score = (Lingo + Audience + Medium + Extent) / 40
Lingo = from 1 to 10; how comfortable are you with the jargon of the presentation? For example, can you present to a tech-savvy audience? If you’re not a native speaker, how comfortable are you with a 45-minute-long presentation in a foreign language?
Audience = from 1 to 10; how comfortable are you with the audience? Do you know the audience? Does the size of the audience make you uncomfortable? Do you know what the audience expects from you?
Medium = from 1 to 10; how comfortable are you with the medium you will have to use? Some people are great public speakers, but others prefer writing instead of speaking.
Extent = from 1 to 10; how comfortable are you with the depth and breadth you have to cover with the time you have?
Now that we have a way of thinking about the presentations let’s put it all together to see if it works.
Ready for the assembly line
Imagine you have to do a 10-minute-long presentation to ten of your peers about the assembly line of canned food.
My confidence on the topic (from 1 to 10) is probably no more than 4 - and I’m being generous. And the components of the LAME score are the following:
Lingo = 5. I don’t know the details or technical jargon about the assembly lines of canned food. Where do we even start?
Audience = 8. I know my peers, I know their background, and I know they’re not expecting me to know all the things.
Medium = 7. It’s a 10 minutes long presentation. I can handle this.
Extent = 7. 10 minutes is probably, at most, ten slides. The extent seems okay…
…but my confidence in the topic will indeed play tricks on me!
LAME score = (5 + 8 + 7 + 7) / 40 = 27 / 40 = 0.675. And as such, Easiness = 4 * 0.675 = 2.7.
2.7 out of 10. A recipe for disaster.
It is clear that we need to improve this, so what if we spend 2 hours reading about assembly lines and bump up our confidence score to 8? Now we’d have Easiness = 8 * 0.675 = 5.4. A bit better, but do you see where the problem is? The scenario and the task we’re dealing with are still lame.
We know we’re concerned about the lingo - perhaps we’re not sure we can express the technicalities as well as we’d like to - but we’ve just spent 2 hours reading about the topic. Maybe we can spend 30 more minutes writing down what concepts and words we think will be relevant. We can bump up Lingo up to 8 now, giving us a LAME score of 0.75 and a final Easiness score of 8 * 0.75 = 6. Much, much better than our initial 2.7.
This works across multiple scenarios - if we had to do the same presentation with a few kids from the primary school, would we even need to prepare so much in advance? The LAME score would be pretty low, giving us an optimal Easiness score and making us sweat-free.
I ended up not doing what Andrew was asking me to do, but that didn’t mean I stopped thinking about it. Like a subtle whisper to my ear, the need to be challenged and leave my comfort zone has stayed with me for the last few years.
What to expect from this new exercise? I don’t have a great answer just yet - I’ll probably be writing about my past experiences as an engineer and engineering manager and digging deeper into the challenges I’m facing today. Some of my future posts will have high confidence, and some won’t - and you know what? That’s fine! As we’ve seen today, confidence isn’t everything.
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