Why I read my speech at Agile08

Some attendees at the recent Agile08 conference were put off when it appeared that I was reading my speech rather than delivering it offhand. (If you’re interested, you can find my slides and speakers notes here.)

It’s true; I was reading my speech.

When I speak to groups of interaction designers or business people I often address them extemporaneously. It’s a style I enjoy very much and feel that I can do well.

However, the Agile08 audience demanded special treatment. Not only was it large, but it consisted primarily of programmers, agile coaches, and product managers. These professionals are bright, knowledgeable, critical, and opinionated. They do not suffer fools lightly. I was coming to them as something of an outsider; not having programmed for a living for years, and never having programmed in a canonically agile shop.

There were certainly some in the audience well acquainted with interaction design and my role in it, but most in the crowd were youngsters whose professional coming-of-age occurred during the last 16 years while I was busy with other things. Their field was programming, not interaction design, and I was the stranger, visiting on their turf.

The Agile08 audience deserved a very carefully crafted speech delivered with precision and accuracy. I knew it should be rich with content and as compelling as I could make it. The arguments needed to be thoroughly developed and mutually supportive. This dictated that I write it out word for word and deliver it that way, too. I practiced giving the talk numerous times, and I did my best to read it with verve and vigor.

Reading my speech word for word meant that my talk would be somewhat less scintillating than it might have been. I consciously made the trade off, knowing some sizzle would be lost as I reached for precision. However, with my position as the closing keynoter, it was inevitable that everyone (including me) would compare my presentation to the keynoters who preceded me.

The opening keynote speaker, James Surowiecki, the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, spoke expertly and engagingly with only a few glances at his notes. He did an excellent job on a fascinating subject. Speaking from personal experience, when you give a talk synopsizing the content of a book you have just written, you can do this in your sleep.

The banquet keynote speaker, “Uncle” Bob Martin, didn’t so much give a speech as he gave a performance. I, along with every other person in the audience, was howling with laughter when I wasn’t marveling at his profound understanding of the agile landscape.

While Bob strutted across the stage making dramatic and critical pronunciations about the state of agile, it was equally clear that his talk was carefully planned out, and he closely followed his notes written on a stack of 3×5 cards (which he used as a prop to hilarious effect).

However, make no mistake, Uncle Bob was preaching to the choir. His agile credentials are impeccable, starting with being a signer of the original Agile Manifesto, and being the author of at least one foundation book in the agile canon. Uncle Bob Martin has earned his right to strut and criticize and pontificate.

I lack Uncle Bob’s agile credentials. What’s more, even my programmer credentials are largely unknown to this crowd. There are still some programmers who misinterpret my pro-design stance as being somehow an anti-programmer stance. And I am sensitive to the fact that many programmers think that my book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, is a criticism of programmers. I tried to make clear in the book that while it included a frank presentation of the strengths and weaknesses of programmers, it was a criticism of the software development industry (also a favorite target of the agile community).

Therefore I knew that there would be many in the audience who wouldn’t start the day as a big fan of me or my ideas, and many who would know little or nothing of my history and how that is relevant to the work they are doing today.

So I wrote my speech out word for word and I read it that way. If you accuse me of cowardice, I will say mea culpa, but that was not the primary reason for reading. I believe that my message is too important to the agile community to get even slightly garbled. When you deliver extemporaneously, the talk can be exciting, but it can often be haphazard and key points can get missed. An audience of friends would forgive me that, but the audience wasn’t my friend yet. My job was to earn their friendship through the quality of my words. Strutting would only earn animosity.

So I take solace in the thought that my staid, measured, content-filled, podium-bound delivery made a pleasant counterpoint to the high-energy of the other keynoters. And I believe that I made some new friends, too.

Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper is the co-founder of Cooper and a pioneer of the modern computing era. He created the programming language Visual Basic and wrote industry-standard books on design practice like “About Face.”

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