Christian Heilmann

There’s no need to deliver the talk that “kills it”

Friday, November 15th, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I spend a lot of my time right now coaching people on public speaking and attending conferences seeing other presenters. The latter is a great step to get into presenting yourself. Analyse what you see, find what you like and what you could use without parroting what the other speaker does. Also take down what you thought was bad and store it in the back of your head to avoid when it is your turn to dazzle an audience.

Presenting is not about winning against other presenters

I see a lot of talent and I see a lot of great stuff happening. I also see a worrying trend though trying to impress and audience and “win the conference” or “kill it” with a great talk. In other words, we plan technology performances rather than conference talks.
Nyan Cat IRL

Attendee feedback seems to say that this is what we need to do; a talk showing how to control a model helicopter with JavaScript gets more votes than one explaining how to fix a layout issue across browsers. The latter does make us more effective in our jobs, the former is inspiring and has a cool factor we’d love our jobs to have every day. It is technological escapism. Maybe there is a place for that in tech conferences – a presentation is a performance as much as a teaching exercise – but I see too much of it. There are excellent people out there doing this kind of work – Seb Lee-Delisle comes to mind – but we also need people who show how doing something in a certain way yielded great, albeit more boring, results.

Nicholas Zakas just wrote about the issue that conference talks seem to trend towards showing us the “soon possible” and “amazing without proof” instead of case studies proving that doing something in a certain way yields great results.

I agree to a certain point, but also realise that filling a conference with great talks is a hard job. A conference consisting 90% of case studies would not be much better – as you can not assume that attendees have the same problems to solve. A lot of what we hear at conferences as “best practices” might apply to GMail’s mobile interface, Spotify’s “find new music” feature or Facebook’s chat panel, but doesn’t apply to a large part of the market out there. And I don’t buy the logic of “if it works in a high-traffic, technically taxing environment it will make everything better” – an argument we keep hearing a lot when it comes to the web on mobiles. What makes sense for a game might not make sense for a CMS driven content site. Delivering a great experience is more than technical excellence and people do use slow interfaces if the content is good enough – heck, I wait 30 seconds for Minion Run on my Android to start as I like playing it.

Why not talk about what you know and how you do things?

What does this mean? It means that there is a massive demand for talks that are coming from the unknown territory of implementation that is not needed for the big players. How did you clean up a Drupal driven site? How did you manage to sell new technology in a local government project? What does making an interface accessible really mean? How can we deal with old Android phones?

Instead I see an annoying effect of the “let’s impress people with technology” talks: a lot of upcoming speakers bend over backwards to write the awesome cool new talk showing an alpha tech product that makes “everything easy” instead of, well, crafting a presentation and talking about what they do and know.

Live coding, interactive examples and “hey this is not a problem at all” talks are highly successful. They can also backfire. Yes, you get the audience clapping, the oohs and aahs and the overly excited tweets. But you also get forgotten as fast when people realise that they can not use what you showed and that five other speakers at three of the conferences running in parallel pulled the same trick. And if you do it over and over again you “kill it” at the conference, but you also – in the long run – under-deliver as people can’t take home what you taught them and impress their boss with it. To me, this is always the main result I want to achieve.

The awesome that actually is a mistake in disguise

volume-tone-buttonsI see the search for the “Tech awesome extravaganza” talks be frustrating for a lot of people who are interested in presenting but feel inadequate to do so from the get-go. Which, of course, is nonsense. That’s like saying that there is no point in starting to run as an exercise as Usain Bolt will always be faster than you. What I see a lot is people making the following mistakes when presenting which do work when you are a seasoned speaker but are pretty disrupting when you are not. All of these are born out of the desire to be as cool as that talk that caused the loudest feedback, and we assume therefore to be the most successful.

  • Showing too many examples – a lot of decks or outlines I get to review show five or more code examples to talk through. You won’t have time for that unless you rush. Either create one example and build onto that one – then five to seven steps can be easily done – or show two or three, tops.
  • Introduce lookatme.js or – the solution to all of our worries. A lot of times these are abstractions of very complex, still evolving technologies in three lines of code with only five dependencies on other frameworks and libraries. Without your awesome solution having proven itself in a real production environment you are selling pixie dust. Even worse, you discourage the audience to give feedback to the experimental technologies you try to get people to use.
  • Build the most complex thing ever and rely on stage tech – you will be offline, trust me, do not rely on wireless or 3G to be available. Also, bringing a lot of hardware and funky gadgets means you make the life of the stage technicians and organisers hell. You probably also will take too much time and make the presenter after you suffer for it as most conferences plan very tight hand-over periods in between speakers
  • Meme overload – this is hot right now, and will make you look like a dork in a year’s time. Stay ahead of the fads, you are a professional.
  • Minimalism – if your slide says a cryptic word and you are just showing live code at that time – call it demo and link to a code sample that will be available after the conference

You are totally invited to do whatever you want – I am not saying that any of the above can not work and be very natural for you. I am just saying that a lot of it can seem forced to comply with a current trend. And it can make you look like a fraud, or actually be caused by you trying too hard not to look like one.

We need all kind of talks, and the best I have seen and remember and keep telling people about and go back to several times are not the flashy ones. They are the ones based on lots of research, show solutions and explain why the solution came about. Tell your story, do not throw out confetti and hope it sticks and someone turns it into great novels and understandable books. Many great ideas die these days as a “perfect, small solution” is at their start that never gets taken further as it fails to deliver in production.

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