The Tech Off Takedown

Photo: Ben Ripley

The crowd in the hall was at least 200 strong, mainly young people in their twenties. A super-hero costumed DJ on the stage was providing the deafening rock music as we waited for the event to begin. Finally, the theme music from Rocky announced the entrance of the MC and his entourage. The scene was straight out of Madison Square Gardens for a heavyweight bout of some kind – security guards in dark suits flanked the MC who was wearing dark glasses that doubled as a matrix sign scrolling various ‘Tech Off’ messages.

This was nothing like any tech event I’d ever attended.

Earlier that day I’d been contacted by Royd Brayshay, a friend of mine who texted me a link directing me to some event details. He asked if I wanted to go as he was intending to be there. The promotional copy suggested it was a wrestling contest interspersed with tech talks. It all sounded bizarre but I thought if it has talks in it, I’d go.

Once at the event I discovered there was no actual wrestling, just the hype surrounding wrestling – capes, costumes, prize-fighting belts and over-the-top MCs. Judging by the effort put into the show the sponsors had clearly allocated a ton of money for it.

The outlandish MC (@BeyonceOfTech) and his crew cruised past me and sailed onto the stage. Once he had the microphone the MC harangued the crowd for their lifeless response to his appearance and baited them into becoming a vocal mob. After ten minutes of vocal pistol-whipping the crowd bayed at the required ear-splitting volume.

It was then announced that one of the Creative speakers hadn’t turned up (I guess creativity is unpredictable) so there was a Wild Card opportunity for someone who was stupid/brave/drunk enough to take on the challenge. My sober ears pricked up.

The explained format was this: there would be four separate bouts where a Creative would battle a Techie to determine who was most relevant in the world. Each contestant would give a five minute illustrated talk to trade blows. After the four ‘fights’ the winners of the bouts would gather on stage and the roar of the crowd would decide the overall champion who could then rightfully claim the prize-fighting belt on offer. The hysterical crowd cheered the strutting MC and the atmosphere was redolent of well, … a prize-fight.

I volunteered to be the Wild Card.

In all my presentation skills workshops I encourage the attendees to take up every opportunity to speak in order to improve their skills – it’s the only way to improve, so if I can’t walk the talk I’ve no business running a speakers workshop.

Then the fights began.

With so many attendants on stage the speakers had trouble knowing who to approach for the clicker that controlled the slides and with the frequent ‘mic drops’ during the talks it all seemed a bit chaotic. After each bout the MC asked the crowd to voice their approval or disapproval of the speakers. A pretend clapometer measured the decibel rating and the winner received a little trophy.

As I watched these early rounds I had about half an hour to figure out what I was going to say in my slot. I didn’t have any slides to worry about so I could concentrate fully on my narrative. At first I considered just having some fun with the audience and playfully going over some presentation hints and tips but I eventually decided to tell the story of Semmelweis who discovered that hand washing in hospitals saved lives. I’d given this talk before at a Bettakultcha event so I figured it should work well within the time constraint but it also has a serious message to it that fitted the remit of the event.

The energy in the room was the highest I’d ever experienced at a speaking event so I was going to have to adapt my usual style of delivery to fit the mood in the audience, I was going to have to make my stage persona a lot bigger. Rule number one for speakers is: it’s never about you, it’s always about the audience.

I have to confess, as experienced as I am, when the time came to ascend the stage I was feeling nervous; this was an unfamiliar sector for me and I had no preparation – but hey, I was a seasoned compere so I could improvise! Another rule for speakers is to use your nervous energy in a positive way.

As soon as I hit the stage I set up a ‘call and response’ format to assess if the audience were willing to follow the story. This got them immediately engaged and I was able to monitor their attention as the story developed.

The talk was going well and I intended to follow the structure of the original talk I had given at Bettakultcha but as I was nearing the conclusion I suddenly thought of a ‘let’s not fight but collaborate’ ending to the talk that was more appropriate for the occasion. This was improvised but judging from the cheer coming from the audience it hit just the right note.

I won the bout.

The climax of the event was where the four finalists stand on the stage for the ultimate clap-off. As I stood at the front of the stage I kept to the promoted theme and played to the crowd with ridiculous ‘body-building’ exhibition poses that indicated I wasn’t taking myself too seriously. The whole package must have worked because I was declared the overall winner of the contest and was awarded the champions belt. It was a surreal but hugely satisfying moment.

The learning I got from this experience was:

  • Be spontaneous and take every opportunity to speak (but don’t traumatize yourself).
  • Adapt to the needs of the audience and the context of the moment.
  • Enjoy yourself!


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