My worst public speaking experience...

My worst public speaking experience...

Last week I was invited to the Rabobank (a Dutch bank), where the bank and the Utrecht JUG hosted a small two day conference.

The first day was about clean code and the second day was about architecture.

The main attraction of this conference: Robert C. Martin, also known as Uncle Bob. He is one of the founders of the Agile manifesto and wrote numerous very good books on topics like ‘Clean Code’ and ‘Clean Architecture’. He’s also the main advocate for the SOLID design principles.

This presentation of mine… turned out to be my worst public speaking experience yet.

One thing I want to make clear though: I absolutely don’t want to discredit the Utrecht JUG or Rabobank in any way, they are doing awesome things for the community. I just want to share my personal experience. Also: Robert C. Martin (Uncle Bob) is a great speaker and writer, his talks are inspirational, entertaining and just very very good.

Breakout sessions

I was asked to present one of the breakout session. Those sessions had a rather unique form:

Two speakers are presenting at the same time on the same stage. The speakers and the entire audience had to wear a silent disco-headset. The audience could switch to whichever side they wanted to listen to. Technically this worked perfectly (kudos to the organisers), I have never seen this kind of setup work as well as it did.

The only other place I’ve seen headsets at a conference was in the overflow room of JavaZone. The overflow room there has a huge screen with all presentations and using a headset you can switch to whichever talk you want, great!

Initially this setup didn’t scare me, I’m not an anxious person, it sounded novel and quite frankly fun/entertaining! I did ask two fellow presenters whom presented the day before about the setup, they said it was a bit weird at first… but they got used to it.

Nobody prepared me for what followed though, my worst speaking experience to date (by far).

The fever

The first complication of the day: fever.

I woke up with a splitting headache. My kids had been ill for a couple of days and now it was my turn. Mucus filled sinuses and a bit of fever, I’ll spare the details.

Surely nothing a couple of painkillers couldn’t solve!

The censorship

When I was setting up my laptop before the presentation a colleague of mine made a joke. A joke about his height and the small wall which was being set up on stage. This wall divided the stage into the two parts for the breakout sessions.

One of the organisers (again: who did a great job, it isn’t easy to organize such an event, I love the Utrecht JUGs effort!) came to me and gave me a firm and surprising warning:

“Roy, one thing, I have to warn you: Don’t mention the wall. Don’t mention any wall, not this wall, not the Trump-wall. Don’t even say the word ‘wall’ in your presentation.

Don’t mention Trump or guns or anything political please. Just don’t joke about it. This was one of the requirements from Uncle Bob. He is very sensitive and clear about this, no mentions or jokes about his political views, we don’t want to upset him.

If you ignore this advice, we’ll switch all the headsets to the other presenter and you are done.”

This… was very suprising to me. Uncle Bob is one of the most outspoken people I have on my Twitter timeline. He often gets into public discussions making his views very clear, engaging in debate, for example:

And (surprisingly) this:

I actually wanted to start my talk with a small joke about the wall to break the ice, to point out the irony of having a wall on stage at a conference named after Uncle Bob. Because I’ve seen people attacking him, saying he’s a dumb Trump supporter.

It turns out other breakout-session presenters got a similar warning before their talk, it was not just me.

The bubble


It was time…

I put on the headset and microphone and waited behind a closed door. The announcer called out my name and that of other presenter, we both made a grand entrance. Him entering the stage from the left, me from the right. We met in the middle for a friendly handshake and…

Ready to rumble!

… silence …

… just a deafening silence.

Normally you hear noise, people clap, cheer or laugh or… at least they breath. Now there was one big nothing. With the headset on I felt so alone, inside my little bubble. It was like recording a webinar or podcast, only my own voice, heavy breathing and my headache. Nothing else.

This was something I just couldn’t cope with. Whenever I made a joke, nothing, just the echo in my sinuses. 400+ people wearing headphones looking at me apathetically. Some of them (with blue-LED headphones) to the stage next to me, some (with green-LED headphones) looking directly at me… still hearing nothing. There was a complete disconnect with the audience…

My style of presenting is entirely based around the audience, around instant feedback and interaction. I want the audience to have a good time, to be entertained and learn something new at the same time. I’m not someone that (re-)plays a recording, throwing informantion into a void.

I just wanted to crawl into a corner and cry.

The hangover…

I’m still not sure what caused this horrible feeling, maybe it was the censorship, maybe it was the headphones/audience disconnect, maybe it was the fever, my exploding sinuses and the numbing painkillers… probably a combination of all those things.

It was a first for me in many ways:

I never did a headphone/silent disco-style presentation… and I’m not sure I want to do this again.

It was also the first time I experienced censorship at a meetup; being warned that some topics and/or jokes were off the table.

A couple of friends warned me: “Are you sure you want to connect your name to Uncle Bob, speaking at his conference”.

I thought about it back then and accepted the invite: Just because I’m speaking at an event bearing his (nick-) name doesn’t mean I agree with him or his political/world views. I’m free to have my own view and opinions.

Now that I know about the weird censorship, I’m not sure I was right.