Christian Heilmann

Posts Tagged ‘conferences’

A call for shorter talks

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Right now I am in San Francisco working on training materials for the Mozilla Evangelism Reps program. As a part of this I am analysing great talks and point out the tricks the speakers used and what new speakers can learn from that.

I love giving talks and I love watching good talks. I used to watch Southpark and American Dad episodes on the cross-trainer in the gym but lately I replaced them with TED talks and presentations from YouTube (why isn’t there an option to download them without an add-on) and Vimeo.

Both when watching and when giving talks I realised a thing lately: shorter talks tend to be better. Yes, a well crafted long talk can be very exciting, too, but I find myself drifting off quite quickly. A well written and executed 15-20 minute talk can bring across the same messages as a one hour talk that is padded with a lot of demos or stories.

Running the danger of many a “how dare you suggest how to run an event, what have you done to earn a right to say something about that” comment and tweet I wondered if we shouldn’t think about aiming for shorter talks at events and if they aren’t more effective. Here are some reasons for shorter talks:

  • The audience’s attention span is not stretched to its limits
  • You can have more talks, thus offering more choice and also a chance for unknown speakers to have a slot
  • Speakers are forced to plan their talks better. You concentrate on one thing that makes a difference instead of once again telling “the history of HTML5” or “how medieval sock-knitting relates to responsive design”
  • Talks become more of a “check this out and look it up later” giving the audience resources to look up in their own time and on their own terms
  • After the event re-use is easier. A 15 minute talk is easier to edit and release on the web and will get much more viewers than an hour or longer talk – simple file size and dedication from the viewer’s side are the reasons here
  • Content becomes more reusable. If your talk is shorter you are likely to show things that people can try out for themselves later. In a longer talk you can show all kind of cool stuff that only works in your setup and a special version of the browser and so on. In a short talk you don’t have time to explain how people should set up their environments
  • We have more time for Q&A

Of course this doesn’t apply to all talks. A good inspirational session or something discussing an idea in depth will take more time and a good speaker will make it worth your while. I have, however, seen shorter talks work very well in unconferences and lately more and more conferences seem to favour them, too. I for one am happy to deliver more short, focused items (maybe several in different tracks) as it keeps things fresh.

Of course some talks are performances and the time is planned well and it makes sense to allow the speaker to deliver a short play around a topic. This is very much not me though and for quick educational items maybe less is really more.

Comment on Google Plus if you are so inclined.

Breaking barriers at Beyond Tellerand (talk, audio and impressions)

Friday, November 25th, 2011

A few days ago I was fortunate enough to attend the Beyond Tellerand conference in Dusseldorf/Germany.

The conference was organised by an old friend of mine, Marc Thiele and it showed once again that the success of a conference is very much dependent on the passion of the organiser. As it were, Beyond Tellerand was amazing and had a very cozy vibe to it. This could be because of the location, an old-school theatre for variety shows, complete with small tables with lamps on each (no telephones to order champagne though).

I was kicking off the day with my “Breaking the barriers – moving browsers and the web forward” talk. The slides and audio are available here:

(navigate slides with cursor left and right, go through bullet points with up and down and toggle notes with “n”)

I will publish a more detailed post on Mozilla about the content of the slides. Here, let me quickly go through the other talks I attended and was able to follow (I had a cold and felt awful).

(Some of) the talks

  • Aaron Gustafson’s “Crafting Rich Experiences with Progressive Enhancement” was a nice reminder on how to create rock-solid sites and apps by layering complexity instead of throwing the kitchen sink at the browser and wondering when things break. His book on Adaptive Web Design covers the same topics in a very understandable fashion. I have had lots of work together with Aaron but we met for the first time IRL, which is very cool.
  • Naomi Atkinson’s “Going Beyond” was a talk about self-promotion and how to get known online. It was not a seedy SEO talk but more about the irony that we spend days making our products look amazing but fail at doing the same about ourselves. That she managed to use three celebrities as examples that I heartily despise and still keep me interested shows that it was a talk worth your while.
  • Heiko Behrens’ “Mobile Apps with JavaScript – There’s More Than Web” was a whirlwind tour of all the different options we have to build mobile applications using JavaScript. He covered Appcelerator, PhoneGap and many other tools and live coded the examples to show us how you can use emulators to get going. A bit packed as a talk, but I managed to follow and enjoy it.
  • Vitaly Friedman’s “The Invisible Side of Design” showed a lot of shiny web site examples but reminded us that the real value of design is not in its visual representation but in the effects it has on the visitors and the benefits it brings for site owners. A nice reminder not to chase the shiny but use effects in moderation and where they reap benefits.
  • Seb Lee-Delisle’s “CreativeJS – Beauty in the Browser” was a live coding session showing some particles in Canvas and creating 3D animated snow. Much like the stuff he keeps making people create in his great workshops. Pretty unfair to show people how easy it is to create beautiful things and then end with “but don’t do that” :)
  • Yves Peter’ “Trajan in movie posters: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire” sounded really far-fetched but actually was a very entertaining research into how many movie posters used the font “Trajan” which is known as the “make it an Oscar movie” font. Whilst one can argue with the analytics methodology (amount of movies vs. percentage of movies released in the year, which, IMHO, would be a more interesting number) I thoroughly enjoyed the journey into the OCD world of a typography enthusiast. And, no, simply using Trajan does not automatically get the movie an oscar.
  • Simon Collinson’s “Notes from the Edge” gave us a good reminder that building things with design tools and software is a craft and that we should put pride into what we do instead of complaining about lack of resources or response from the outside world.
  • Tomas Casper’s “How to sneak Accessibility into your project without anybody noticing it” showed a lot of expertise and ideas of how to sell accessibility to large organisations where the “it is the right thing to do” doesn’t quite cut it. Lots of good info there, but IMHO far too much packed into a single talk. This could be a kick-ass workshop
  • Dan Rubin’s “Hands-on Prototyping with HTML & CSS” told the tale of user testing the changes in a huge old-school web site by showing HTML and CSS mockups (done with image map-like positioned elements to click and enter data). Very good information on how to make user testing much more agile and get faster results
  • Jake Archibald’s “Reusable Code, for good or for awesome!” told the tale of historical phalluses and had some info about code. Seriously, it is a kick-ass talk about building reusable JavaScript solutions.
  • Jon Tan’s “Welcome to the brave new world of web type” was a very inspiring talk on using the right font-faces on the web and common mistakes being made. Instead of just talking about the aesthetics of different fonts Jon also talked a lot about usability issues and quality concerns in rendering. All in all, a kick-ass talk about a subject I know zilch about but made me interested in doing more.

All in all Beyond Tellerand was well worth my time and the organisation was great. The format of having 15 minute breaks between speakers worked very well and took the rush out of the conference. The lack of stable or working wireless was annoying but actually meant that I listened to the other talks more than usual (no distraction with company emails).

I especially enjoyed that while being very specialist topics, none of the talks was elitist or left people not “in the know” confused and lost (or bored). I wouldn’t know Arial from Helvetica to save my life (funnily enough I am good at Cheese or Font though) but I was really inspired and interested in the typography talks as they talked about real issues and solutions for them. Being in Germany was weird for me, as I am so used to speaking in English as the first language in conversations but helping other people (and buying cold medicine for Jake) was fun to do.

All in all I had a great time, I hope I inspired a few people to have a go at modern and bleeding edge technology and I can safely say that is a great place to go.

Full Frontal 2011 – some notes

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Last Friday I attended Full Frontal without speaking, which was a welcome change in my schedule. Originally I didn’t mean to go at all but some people dropping out meant that I had to go. Seeing that I love Brighton and have truckloads of respect for Remy and Julie I went down there and I can only say I would have kicked myself if I hadn’t.

Full frontal was a pretty amazing conference with inspiring talks, good info and a quick flow that meant the day was over before I realised it.

Here are my impressions of the talks in succession:

Jeremy Ashkenas kicked off with “CoffeeScript Design Decisions” – an introduction to coffeescript and how it is not Ruby although the syntax looks eerily similar. Mike Davies has a detailed write up on this one and I liked the way Jeremy showed the benefits of Coffeescript without being pushy about it. I can see CS being used and with good debugging tools like SourceMapping this can be quite a boost for developers to build JavaScript without having to juggle its “special cases”

Phil Hawksworth followed up with “Excessive Enhancement – Are we taking proper care of the Web?” – a call to arms to stop us from using new technology in an obstructing and excessive fashion. His whipping boy example was which is HTML5/CSS3 and all the other goodies but also clocks in at 11MB of data in hundreds of HTTP requests. In essence Phil repeated a lot of the things that I have been banging on about – that HTML5 is currently mostly used in brochureware sites that can put “skip intro” Flash solutions to shame in their lack of accessibility and responsiveness. Ubelly have a nice write-up of Phil’s talk and you can check the slides here. All in all I was very impressed with the talk. The presentation was very funny, at times it got a bit ranty, but that shows passion. I was very reminded of talks by Jake Archibald and seeing they worked together, that might not be coincidence. Phil also mentioned a lot of tricks how to fix the issues he complained about, which is exactly the right way to deal with this.

Marijn Haverbeke of Eloquent JavaScript fame gave a good round-up of text editors in the browser with “Respectable code-editing in the browser”. The main focus was on Code Mirror and Marijn brought the message across that in-browser editing is not an easy feat but something that needs to be done.

Talking about development in the browser and the cloud: Rik Arends of Cloud 9 was next with “How we Architected Cloud9 IDE for scale on NodeJS” and basically blew me away showing off the new features that make Cloud9 a really interesting choice for collaborative editing in the browser.

After Lunch, Nicholas Zakas did a re-run of his “Scalable JavaScript Application Architecture” talk given some two years ago at another conference. That said, a lot of the talk still rings very much true and Nicolas changed a lot of it to be agnostic of the environment and libraries in use. If you are looking for information to get you on the way to build huge JavaScript solutions, this is a good piece of advice.

Local linked data and open format overlord Glenn Jones was next with “Beyond the page” – a good talk on how new features in HTML5 like drag and drop, File API and post messages allow us to build incredibly rich and web-enabled applications. Glenn showed off all the things that also get me very excited these days about the web, including web intents. A great and inspiring talk with lots of code and ideas to play with now. You could see Glenn’s passion for the topic – especially when he showed how to allow users do drag and drop an image from a browser to the desktop using JavaScript (forgetting that this is possible in browsers without any interfering on our part). The difference though is that you can convert the image while you drag it and automatically rename or pack it, too.

A very charming speaker, Brendan Dawes was next with “Beyond The Planet Of The Geeks” showing us just how much of a geek he is (collecting pencils and paper clips) and how his company and products moved from wild demos and experiments with interaction on a screen to useful and engaging products. To a degree what was shown does not quite meet that yet as the interface at the end was shiny and amazing and looked like Flash but used new technology. It failed to deliver the basic principles mentioned in Phil’s talk of bookmarkability and real links though. I talked with Brendan afterwards and we’ll work on getting the history API and local storage in there to make it beautiful, engaging and a good web citizen.

My absolute highlight of the day was Marcin Wichary with “You gotta do what you gotta do” – a talk about Google doodles and the work that went into them. Marcin was amazing – baffling interactive slides, a very humble demeanour and great information on the tricks that had to be applied to make doodles perform and be small. I was very much reminded on the things we had to do in the demo scene on C64 and Amiga. A great insight into just how much work goes into a thing that is seen for 24 hours and then vanishes. That said, I pestered Marcin afterwards if they are willing to show some of the cool stuff he explained in a blog and he said they would.

All in all it was an incredible day and well worth the money (had I paid for it). The only thing I am really sad about is that there was no recording or filming. Especially Marcin’s talk is something that needs to be archived for people to see.

Update : as Remy just pointed out on Twitter there are audio recordings of the talks available and will be published soon. They are also considering video recordings for the next year.

How to be a kick-ass speaker – MozCamp 2011

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

I am currently at MozCamp in Berlin and my job was to entice all the contributors to the Mozilla project to get out of their shell and start speaking at events about all the great stuff they do. It seems people liked what I had to say, so here are the slides and the audio recording. I will cover this topic more in the next few months, as I think the way we do information sharing in the web development world right now is not really scalable.

The slides are on Slideshare (this time)

Be a kickass speaker – Mozcamp 2011

The audio recording is available on

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.

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