How Ian Fenn and Karen McGrane rewired my brain.

Last week I gave a talk at UX Lisbon. This talk meant a lot to me, not only due to the prestigiousness of the event but because I decided to radically change how I would create, prepare and deliver my talks. This is the story of how this came about.

Stumbling onto the stage

Over the past few years I’ve had the privilege to speak at several conferences. My talks had usually to do with UX in some way or another. When I started they were really not more than bullet point slides that I would go through. Not really engaging from a UX point of view, but a start nonetheless. With time the presentations became more elaborate but mainly on a level of matter, not necessarily in terms of performance. And although I felt that they were increasingly engaging, close friends would give me feedback like “It was interesting – but man, you are really spelling things out.” or “You’re listing facts instead of telling stories”.

This really bugged me. I knew they were totally right: from a performance point of view they sucked. Sure – I always knew what I wanted to bring across, but just having keywords to guide me through the talk would result in an avalanche of “ehrm”s and *a lot* of sentences being repeated or rephrased.


Then earlier this year, out of the blue, two almost magic moments occurred: First I saw Ian Fenn speak at a local UX event in Switzerland. Frankly his talk didn’t really blow my socks off, content-wise. It did though on a story-telling level. It had narration, it had rhythm and structure. In addition Ian had the ability to perform this in a well pronounced and perfectly emphasized way. After the talk I checked out the slides and there it was: while the slides he had presented were mostly images with sprinkles of text, he had uploaded the slides complete with notes which revealed the full script of his talk.

The second revelation was learning about how Karen McGrane prepares her talks, about how much effort she puts into preparing her public appearances: 40 or so hours spent on rehearsing each talk before its first presentation, taking lessons with a speech coach – stunning. I always felt that she was something like the Meryl Streep of UX and this insight made her fully earn that title.

Piecing it together

This boiled down to one simple idea: Having a script like Ian would allow me to practice like Karen. Little did I know what I was in for – in the good and the bad sense.
So I started to prepare my talk for UX Lisbon by writing a script. A script? Yes, like the ones I had done in filmschool, where I would have a narration first and visualize on a very basic level. Something like this:

[Tokio at night]
Just imagine you are in a hotel room in Tokio, it is Summer. It's hot and humid. Luckily your room has Air conditioning.

This was the moment I realized that mimicking the process of film making would be an awesome way to go – and having some experience in film making it also would be something quite natural.

Having a first version of the script I started practicing it’s parts, harshly becoming aware of one of scriptwriting’s most prominent rules:

Writing is rewriting

While speaking aloud the words that sounded so great on paper I realized that I could not utter them, that the sentences were too complex and unnatural. This meant rephrasing everything: ALOUD. Most importantly I became aware that I really wanted to have a very distinct pronunciation, a natural accent and not my unspecific american-tv-series-with-swiss-colouring pronunciation. And so my brain unearthed my once well-trained “received pronunciation” a standard British pronunciation I was taught at university. (That was back in the early 90ies, before the web came along and bereaved me of any ambition to become an English teacher…) I really felt at ease and I believe that I’ve finally found my stage voice.

Again I realized how similar this was to film making: While filming, actors have to get into character, they have to be able to switch on this personality they represent. So would I have to: after a while of practicing I didn’t have to focus on memorizing and rendering the words any more but could start to shape the rhythm of speech, body language, the synch of speech and slides.

With the script in place storyboarding was a breeze. I just found the images I wanted, those that I didn’t find on Flickr I shot myself. While I spent a lot of time composing the slides I was always clear about what their content would be.

Getting ready

Shortly before the event, in the midst of all practicing I started to clock my runs through the script and as you would do in film making started to trim the fat: This I don’t need, that is a repetition. I did this until I had my talk down to 15 minutes. Yet again: film making as a blueprint.

The big moment

On the big day I was much more nervous than usual. I’m always excited to speak but never really nervous. Now I could have thrown up all morning before my gig. Despite having been prepared like never before.
The talk went well, I guess – those that new me were really surprised about the accent, the others didn’t notice.
I also felt great during the talk. No stumbling through what I wanted to say, just delivery, concise and well planned. Plus I never had to actually look at the slides to find out what I had to say.


If you speak publicly or are planning to do so: do yourself a favor and write a script before you do the slides. And practice. A lot.

Thank yous

I would like to thank Ian Fenn and Karen McGrane for sparking this. Even if you don’t know this, you rewired my brain – in a very pleasant way.
A big shout out to UX Lisbon for letting me do this, thanks Bruno for your awesome input on the script!
I also would like to thank Zahida Huber, Simon Farine and Yann Ringgenberg for their mean and awesome and supporting feedback on my earlier gigs. You make me go where no Memi has gone before.
A special thank you to Übersuper Señor Sicher for lending me his awesome picture. Thanks man!

3 thoughts on “How Ian Fenn and Karen McGrane rewired my brain.”

  1. thanks for your insights in this blog post Memi!

    I also feel that in each presentation it’s a challenge to deliver the content in the most usable and engaging way.
    My 2 cents:
    – bullet points are great for summarizing the following slides
    – but each bullet point should be visualized with a picture or a diagram. as much visualizations as possible!

    By the way: do you have a link to the presentation of Ian Fenn which you have mentioned?

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