Casey Brant

Dec 19, 2008


I recently gave a talk at work extolling the virtues of the text editor Emacs. If you’ve talked to me for more than like 40 minutes, you probably know what a huge Emacs fan I am. I’m not going to get into any of the details of the talk here (like how awesome Emacs is, how much happier you’ll be using it, how much fuller and more beautiful your beard will become, how others will envy your newfound charm and charisma, etc. etc.); that’s not the point of this post. My presentation met with a pretty lukewarm reception, and I want to get into why, and how to fix it. I want to talk about successful evangelism.

A training class I’m in right now for work just finished up its first week, and the instructors are fantastic. They know the material cold, and they’re enthusiastic about it. They’re so enthusiastic, in fact, that I’m getting caught up in it. I now want to do things the way they do them – we’re starting lab exercises, and I’m pumped about trying out the techniques we discussed earlier in the week.

What was it that got me so excited in that class? I don’t really know, to be honest. But I’m hoping that by exploring the topic a little, I can get closer to understanding.

First of all, the instructors have infectious enthusiasm. They clearly love what they’re talking about, and they fully believe in it. I’m not one of those sentimental types who thinks you can’t fake stuff like that, but if these guys are faking, they’re the some of the best actors I’ve ever seen.

I feel like I nailed the enthusiasm in my Emacs presentation. I’m not the most animated or outspoken of guys, so maybe it just didn’t come across, but I want to believe that there are other forces at play here. You can’t just have the enthusiasm by itself – otherwise, why is this class going so well and my talk didn’t?

Good information is another thing my instructors are getting just right. It’s pretty hard to consistently win over intelligent people with just feelings. Advertising works, so obviously emotion-based tactics aren’t useless, but advertising is also highly hit or miss. There’s no telling in advance what will make a successful ad campaign. I get the feeling that my instructors are used to winning a lot of people over on a regular basis – they’re doing more than just advertising: they’re also informing. I’m excited about the stuff we’re discussing in class not only because somebody told me it’s awesome, but because somebody gave me tons of data on the subject and made me understand it. I extrapolated the ways in which it’s awesome mostly on my own.

Again, I could very well be deluding myself, but I really thought I had good information in my Emacs talk. I took a lot of time to pick out bits that I thought would be relevant to my audience, and I did my best to present that information in a clear manner.

Am I just easy to persuade and other people are just hard to persuade? Was it the problem domain? Certain problems are easier to sell solutions to than others. The proliferation of diet books versus, say, well, any other kind of book illustrates this. But while I think subject may have been a contributing factor, I’m sure it was at most a small one.

Ultimately, I think it might just boil down to experience. My instructors are seasoned teachers, and they’ve taught this same course several times in the past. Every time they teach, they improve just a little bit by observing what works and what doesn’t. Same thing for the class itself: they’ve cut/reworked the bad parts and refined the good.

“Practice makes perfect” is an unsatisfying conclusion to draw from all of this, partially because it’s such a cliched maxim, but mainly because it means the path to better presentations of my own is long and difficult – rather than just consisting of a few cheap tricks and presto! people are clamoring for Emacs. I’d like to revisit this topic at some point. There is a lot of information out there on how to practice skills like speaking and teaching, and it could do with some sorting and distilling.

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