Christian Heilmann

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Archive for October, 2011

On controversial slides, talk distribution and lack of context

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

My life lately revolves mostly about going to conferences and presenting. This gives you an interesting insight into how they are run, how other people present and what impact it has on the audiences.

I’ve done this for a while and I think I am pretty good at it. I also see other people who are incredible at it, I see a lot of potential in others and I see a lot of failed presentations.

I also see problems with the way we distribute presentation content on the web afterwards and this is what I want to discuss today.

Powerpoint hell is just not us

Presentations on web technologies (and generally covering our market) are a very strange beast. We are in a “new media” environment where we despise all the things that IT and office life was before we started linking documents with each other over the world wide web or load cool apps onto our smart devices.

A sure-fire way to fail presenting at a web-related conference is to use old school power points with headings and bullets and reading them out to the audience. Therefore we go to other extremes: the “inspiring pictures with a single word”, the “typography heaven with awesome transitions” and the “I have no slides, let’s get to live coding on the CLI or in my editor” are the most common ones.

What we lose by doing so is the context. Our presentation materials become part of the talk and not an information resource. This is good – it means you as a speaker get the attention. But it can be a problem further down the line.

Our “new media presentation style” is very different to what we did before. I use a lot of humour and comparisons with the real world in my talks. Some of my slides seem totally disconnected until I explain their angle. Aral Balkan does similar things. A lot of times he explains the usability of interfaces by showing ticket vending machines at airports. This is great. Real life frustration makes it easy to remember not to do that online.

Slides are backdrops

The gist is: our slides are not the talks, our slides aid the talks we are giving. They are a visual catalyst for the things we talk about. When you see something and you hear about it at the same time it is more likely to stick. It is as simple as that.

The dangers of re-use and distribution without context

Once the talk is over you can bet your life that the first question (unless you covered that already) is “are the slides available for download?”. And this is where it gets interesting.

For the people at the conference it makes a lot of sense to get the slides and check them later on reminding themselves of your talk. Conferences are jam-packed with talks and it is good to have a reminder to re-focus after the party. This is also a very human trait – we are hoarders and want to get our hands on everything we get offered. Free stuff never stays behind – people take it. Wether they need it or not is not the question. Better to get it in case we need it later than not have it.

I’d love to think that people download my slides and read them and all that (which is why I share them) but I am quite sure that this is very rare occasion.

It really breaks when the slides are just that – slides. The aid to support the talk that without the talk lacks a lot of context. If I look at the PDF of a talk a few weeks later and only see pretty images without remembering what they meant at that time I get confused and frustrated.

Even worse, if you distribute slides of that ilk, people will find and watch them when they haven’t seen your talk at all. And this is where it gets dangerous as people can make their own assumptions as to what you tried to achieve.

Attention getting devices can backfire

In our quest to be different to the dreaded talks we had to endure in school and office life we tend to push the boundaries of presenting.

People in web tech swear on stage, make outrageous demands in a ironic manner, and show things that are very much the direct opposite of what you expect. These are attention getting devices that – paired with a good speaker – can be very effective and also very entertaining. They can also cause controversy and misunderstanding.

The other day I had quite a back and forth with a presenter on Twitter about a slide deck he published. I’ve seen the speaker talk and respect him for what he does. I am very much sure that in the context of his talk the slide deck brought the point home and made a lot of sense.

But, as it is right now on the web without notes or any other information, a NSFW picture of an almost naked tattooed lady with taped nipples and massive breasts as your first slide is likely to cause more trouble than it is worth.

He had his reasons for using it, no doubt about that, but with the distribution being disconnected from the rest of the talk, what are the effects of this?

Why shock when you can convince or show?

There is a lot of talk about gender diversity at conferences and in IT. I am not going to poke this hornet’s nest, but I am sure that a slide like this one is a great way to keep an endless discussion with continuously mounting emotions going for months instead of concentrating on solving the issue.

Shock slides and campaigns can work. They also have been done in the past and are to me a cheap way of getting attention. Web sites like and ogrish were a very successful thing in the past and Benetton in the 80ies had massive success with their controversial campaigns in magazines. Heck, every boulevard paper has some nudity on their covers to sell issues. Page 3 girls appeal to the audience they try to reach.

So, in essence, this is an old hat. It only works when all you want is attention and your product doesn’t have much to do with the shock content. Benetton sells clothes, something very personal that people buy and own for themselves. They wanted to get their name talked about and expected people to find out about their products on their own. We can not assume people to do the same about our slides, design ideas or code tricks as they are not as excited about our them as we are.

The question we should ask ourselves is what we achieve with this. You get attention quick and you probably get talked about a lot. What people talk about though is that there was “some guy on some conference showing a naked lady (run over puppy, open wound, vomiting child, whatever…)” and not what you wanted to bring across in your presentation.

Using shock slides is the equivalent of kicking someone in the shins and then asking for the way to the station. Yes, you have their undivided attention, but you are not likely to get out of them what you wanted.

By all means, if you want to keep using them – do so. But be aware that when you fail to provide context you will not get your message across. If you use nudity or sexist material you will also contribute to an already existing problem.

If you publish things you are as responsible for their content than when you are on stage presenting them.

Saying that “nobody complained” is not an excuse for offensive material. Not all people who are offended say so and confront you. Actually most are intimidated and will not say anything but tell others how they felt and what your behaviour did to them instead. This is how discrimination and bullying works – you shock and intimidate by coming from a position of power. And you being on stage is a position of power that can be used to inspire others or for personal satisfaction.

So, to me at least, we should stop using any shocking materials in our slides as an attention getter. We are better than that. Our messages should be the “a-hah!” moment, not the packaging they come in.

The best of all worlds

As to the overall distribution of our talks, I think it is time to reconsider our ways.

If our slides are only a backdrop to our talk and we don’t even have notes or a transcript, let’s not give them out. Let’s wait for the video to come out and distribute them together with the video – even if it means that people have to wait. In essence this is a good test to see if people really care about them or if they just want them right on the spot for hoarding purposes.

If you want to release them immediately, try to give them more context. Have notes on your PDF or presentation document. I tend to record the audio of my talk while I give it and publish it along the slides. I always want to sync the slides with the audio but it is a lot of work so most of the time I forget about it so I am not sure just how effective this is. If you use keynote you could do that automatically as it records a movie of your slides if you ask it to. In any case, I can point out what was said and debunk accusations that way.

I also started to go the other way around. I wrote my Fronteers 2011 talk as an article, then split it up into paragraphs and created a slide for each. That way I could publish it as a blog post that makes sense and with accompanying slides.

The new HTML slide format I use based on DZSlides allows me to have the talk as a searchable, printable page with support for old browsers and as a slide format at the same time. I am cleaning this up and adding some new features to release soon.

Let’s be professionals

In essence, it boils down to one thing: if you want to be inspiring and an educator, don’t leave things online that lack context or cause controversy. It confuses people, causes misinterpretation and helps neither you nor the people you try to reach. This is about the people you talk to – not about you.

Comments? Questions?

Discuss this on Facebook or Google Plus

Frontrow 2011 – the future of the web is your responsibility, too.

Friday, October 28th, 2011

Last week I was in Krakow, Poland to attend the Frontrow conference delivered a presentation on attitude towards new technology and inspiration in the tech community.

Frontrow was interesting as it was a mixture of Barcamp and conference. On each day you had a few talks, followed by lunch and 2 hours of “open sessions” with breakout rooms where people were asked to discuss hot topics and share their experiences. Think of it as longer Q&A after the presentations with a moderator.

As you can see in the conference schedule there was a lot to be learned and a lot of great speakers (local and a lot of UK folk) shared their info and ideas with the audience.

My presentation revolved around the issue of getting inspired at conferences and then frustrated when you can’t use what you learned in your job. A lot of that frustration is home made and what really is needed is having the stamina and drive to simply use and explain what you found out about to your company. Without people using what speakers talk about conferences become a stage play, and a bad one at that.

You can read the slides as a simple document available online or embedded below (cursor keys to navigate, press N to show and hide notes and cursor down to proceed on slides with bullet points):

HTML5 101 – a introductory talk at Sabre in Krakow, Poland

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

In my ongoing crusade to talk about awesome new web technologies outside my comfort zone I just spent a few hours at Sabre in Krakow, Poland talking to a room jam-packed with about 100 internal and mostly Java developers.

They asked me to give an overview of HTML5 as there are a lot of requests for it and there is a lot of confusion as to what it is and can do. So I put together some information and talked for an hour about what HTML5 is, what it isn’t, what technologies are “friends of HTML5” and where the web might go in the future.

The slides are available online or embedded below (cursor keys to navigate, press N to show and hide notes and cursor down to proceed on slides with bullet points):

The audio recording of the talk is available on

All in all this was a lot of fun, and I will repeat the talk in German in an online conference with SAP tomorrow.

Xcommerce 2011 – The web and browsers as the platform – exciting opportunities in new web technology

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

I just got back from the x.commerce conference in San Francisco where I gave a talk this afternoon on how new technology can make ecommerce more engaging:

The slides are available online or embedded below (cursor keys to navigate, press N to show and hide notes and space to proceed on slides with bullet points):

The audio recording of the talk is available on

The prestige of being a web developer – Fronteers 11

Friday, October 7th, 2011

The audio recording of the talk is available on


Today I will talk about about perceptions and ways how we as web developers can make our lives better. I got inspired to do so by a great movie called the prestige. The prestige is full of amazing actors and is a twist-and-turn drama story about two stage magicians who learn the trade together and then become mortal enemies. They sabotage each others’ shows, they spy on each other and steal from each other. All to get a bigger audience and to make money. The movie also shows nicely that the audience of the magic shows do not care much for the safety of the magicians – all they want is to be entertained.

One of the things explained in the movie is how magic tricks work. Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts:

  • The first part is called “The Pledge”. You show something ordinary and build up anticipation.
  • The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.
  • The third act, the hardest part, is “The Prestige”. This is when you bring the extraordinary back to the real world.

What we do as developers of the web can seem magic to people. A lot really do not care what we do but I constantly see people on planes looking on my screen while I am fiddling with some JS or CSS and reload the browser and I see them go “oh!” and start asking me what I am doing there.

We do the same to each other. We start with the pledge of using web technologies to build an interface or a solution or a demo.

Then we fiddle around with it until it is is perfect and we show it to people and they go “ouuuhhhhh” and clap and get excited and go to Twitter, Facebook and Google+ and tell people about it.

Us, in the audience, do the same. What we miss doing is going the full way and bring “The Prestige” to others.

Making demos and playing with technology is incredibly important. More important though is slowly but steadily, or – even better – quickly bring the awesome that is in those demos to our delivery jobs.

But before I go to the prestige, let’s take a look at how you can be a good magician (as told in the movie) and how it can relate to our work.

Reuse and improve

A lot of the tricks shown on stage and in the movie are not new, but based on an older trick, spiced up with new ideas and more danger.

This we can easily do as well. Instead of reinventing the wheel we should base whatever we do on things that work. Sensible markup is not there to fill a screen, it is there to bring stability to our products.

We should not discard what we found to be a sure way of building a nice experience in the past. We should build on those principles and allow them to change to address the needs of a new audience that wants other things.

Learn from others

You can see the magicians visiting other magic shows (in disguises) and seeing how others do it, discussing how tricks could be done and trying them out for themselves.

As geeks we are prone to want to build everything ourselves. We take a glance at what other people do but at the first “meh” we see in their code we just start from scratch. You hardly see any demos and talks based on other people’s work and improving them. Why not?

Not invented here to me is the biggest problem we have. We should swallow our pride more often and just use what already works and partner with those who created these things rather than doing the same again but not quite the same but you know, better and stuff…

Be inventive

When the competition gets harder the magicians in the movie start to use special effects, fireworks and mechanical parts on their bodies to create new illusions.

If we stop inventing and tinkering we might as well give up in our job as web developers. The thing to learn from the movie though is that these things are hidden and aid the cause and are not shown as the main attraction. Right now a lot of tricks who are a necessary evil to make something work are sold as “best practices”. They can not always be applied across the board though.

Go out of your comfort zone

When one magician does a trick the other just can not fathom he goes out of the world of stage shows and tries to employ the work of Nikola Tesla who allegedly really can transport people and things to other parts of a room using electricity.

With the web moving towards tablets and mobile and rich experiences with native APIs and code we have to start to open up to learn from others. A lot of what we need to fix right now for WebGL and gaming has been fixed in Flash in the past already. If you are honest about it – the demos we show and applaud in open technologies would be laughed at when shown in Flash. So let’s reach out and talk to the experts in these fields to see what can be re-used.

Be gorgeous

Once a trick has been created, the magicians dress it up with beautiful stage machinery and gorgeous assistants and nice clothing.

When we show off things they should be gorgeous. The whole concept of “this is only a demo of course it can break” is not helpful to the cause. When we are ready to show the world about our new cool things they should look incredible, be beautifully interactive and work across the board. I’ve said it before, your code is poetry and others should learn how to play with language from it.

Be open

The most impressive tricks magicians show are the ones done in the middle of a big crowds, with everybody watching and they still manage to amaze people with seemingly impossible things.

It is very simple to create an amazing product when you control everything. This is why the web can never compete on a “completeness” level with native code on iPhones and other devices. The thing is though that it doesn’t have to and giving a web product only one interface and experience is not using it to its strengths.

Bringing the prestige

So what about the prestige? How do we bring the magic back to its origin to make it even more fascinating? One word: adaptation.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”—Charles Darwin

The biggest power of open web technologies is their ability to adapt. Web applications can be re-used in closed environments by means of conversion and you can maintain your product in one space. If you want to go native you multiply your work by every platform you need to support. We should be like the web.

“I was a young man with uninformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything; and to my astonishment the ideas took like wildfire” —Charles Darwin

Never stop questioning and give your input. We are web developers, not stage magicians. Your job is not to sit their open mouthed and be awestruck. Your job is to take what the bleeding edge of our market does and bring it into the day to day delivery. You can only do that when you ask the right questions.

Don’t be out for blood.

In the movie the competition between the magicians turns tragic as in fierce competition they try to kick each other out of the market. In the past this happened with browser makers, too.

Nowadays the competition of browsers is different. We all want the new web to work. We all are aware of browsers having to adapt to new environments. This is what we should be concentrating on – not building more and more magic shows to tell the world that one or the other browser is the better one.

Therefore I’d love to see a shift in the community, something that Chris Williams talked about at JSConf, too: stop trolling, stop inciting fights and stop the greed for controversy.

We all like a good fight and we all like to see great artists and athletes compete with another. When our main focus though is to be better than others and react to attacks and things others have done we lose the opportunity to work together on a predictable web for developers and great experiences for end users across the board.

A speaker needs people he can trust

When you are on stage you are in the limelight. What you say has a lot more gravitas then when you say it in the pub. Therefore you need to have people you can trust to ensure you don’t tell lies. If you talk about a product and get people excited and the product becomes unavailable or the product team is totally unresponsive it is you who gets the blame.

Vanishing act

Three days ago, Mark Pilgrim vanished off the internet. No Twitter account, no Google+, no Facebook and all his sites, including the awesome Dive into HTML5 became a 410 “Gone” empty page.

People started getting worried and tried to contact him to no avail, they even called the police to check on him and found that he is OK and was annoyed that people went so far as to call the police.

Regardless of Mark’s reasons, this made me think about longevity. In the last year we have seen a lot of web attrition. APIs got shut down, companies closed their “labs” sections and formerly free software gets bought and vanishes quickly. Just look at the HTML5 game engines out there.

The vanishing of Dive into HTML5 was a massive blow. I linked to this great resource in almost all my presentations, when people ask me where to learn about HTML5 I sent them there. Of course there are mirrors of the site, but that still means that all my old links are broken now.

Stop following the stars, join a band

It made me think that it is time to stop relying on a few people and on ourselves as a source of truth and information. I write a lot of things on my blog and people link to that. I also don’t find time to re-visit old posts and update the information which might not be applicable any longer.

So I started to think that it makes more sense to contribute to places where people already work together to document things. Forums, developer documentations, wikis, and – of course – the Mozilla Developer Network docs.

Anyone can do that – there is an edit button on those and you can add a fix, a note or an example.

Collaborative coding and discussions

Instead of writing a blog post and hoping for comments amongst the spam I started to use collaborative tools to begin with a discussion and then write an article or post once we found an interesting solution. There are many cool tools to do so:

  • Using JSFiddle you can show some code and ask people to fix and improve it with you. You can also provide a working demo to prove a point or give a demo to people.
  • Using Google Docs and Etherpad you can write docs and explanations together and get some quick review from people.
  • Using Dropbox you can work together with people on some files.
  • Using GitHub you can spread your code and you can get and improve other people’s work.

Be your own teacher

I’ve always found that I learn best by doing. Instead of getting things explained to me and following an hour of live coding or watch a video I get the best results by downloading the code, playing with it, breaking it and finding the solution doing some research.

Anyone can do that. That is the fun about open source and the way we do things as web development speakers.

Fill the blanks

The other day I went to attend Seb Lee-Delisle’s Creative JS course. A great course and a good reminder to play with technology. The course assumed a lot of previous knowledge of how to animate with computers and basic Math of triangles and basic physics. As Smashing Magazine were very eager to get another article from me to publish I reminded myself of a few of the Math tricks used in Commodore 64 demos and wrote an article about it. The article got good comments and did the rounds on Twitter.

As an extra, I put all the demo code on JSFiddle for people to play with. People now can read that article as a refresher before the course.

Guerrilla documentation

You can do that, too. If you find something cool on GitHub and you use it and you find an annoyance, why not fix it and send the original writer a pull request? Of course not everybody is happy about changes in the code but I dare you to find anyone who’d be unhappy to get some extra docs or examples using their systems.

You could also create a folder with fixes for other browsers for demos that only work in one. There are a lot of possibilities.

Use what you hear about!

It is very important that you use what people on stage talk about. And not only give it a go in your lunch break. Implement it in products and feed back the issues you find. There is no point in us showing a brave new world of technology on stage and then never seeing it used.

Using things means we can avoid the delivering people getting more and more disconnected from those who show what “best practices” are. Or as Molly Holzschlag put it: “now that we spent 4 years making rounded corners working in every browser designers don’t want to use them as they look dated”.

Repeat the messages

Most of you work somewhere, and others work with clients. Why don’t you now go home after this conference and set up an internal meeting showing off some of the things you learned?

There are a few benefits to this: you can share the goodies, you give back to the company who paid your ticket here, you get some experience speaking and you show that Fronteers is not just a big party.

Collect good stories

If you manage to use some of the stuff you heard about here and made a client happy or worked more effectively in your job, tell this story. Send it around, blog it or send it as an email to us. We need to hear how our work has impacted your life.

Best practices are discovered, not defined

We live in a changed world. The “best practices” of old are not applicable everywhere and there is a lot of criticism towards the web camp as being people who preach dogma and missed the boat.

Let’s collect real evidence how we used open standards, sharing practices and free tools to build an amazing web. Then clean up our approach and make it a best practice based on facts instead of great principles.

It is time to step up – all of you deserve to be in the limelight

So please, join us in documenting, fixing and using what we are all very excited about. This is not a magic show, we are here to tend to the web that was so far damn good to us.