Praise is a vitamin

I was thinking about how happy I am when I get the kind of praise I need. It doesn’t make me feel smug or complacent, it makes me feel strong and empowered and like what I’m doing matters and is seen. Which is kind of the opposite of burnout. I don’t think you can entirely stave off burnout with praise – it’s systemic and situational, but I think you can certainly help.

I mostly get enough vitamins in my daily diet, so I don’t take a multivitamin. I will take specific stuff if it seems called for – folic acid while pregnant, vitamin D in the dark northern winters, salts when I’m doing a lot of sweating. (Pro-tip: If Gatorade actually tastes good to you, keep drinking it until it returns to its normal grossness).

You would think that most work would also give us what we need to feel rewarded, but some people are just better at metabolizing vitamins from food than other people. Some people can eat all the right stuff and still be desperately short of magnesium, or whatever. Our jobs continue to pay us, our boss is not yelling at us, our coworkers speak to us, surely that’s enough? For some of us, yes. For others, not so much.

For some of us, it’s hard to store praise, just like it’s difficult to store some vitamins. You can take a massive dose, but the body will take what it needs and dump the rest, and you’ll be short again in a couple weeks. Some of us can store praise for a long time, but it’s difficult to replenish, or we can use it all up in a burst.

Some of us walk into work with a chronic deficiency and we’re just going to need the same type of reassurance and praise over and over again, and we can’t help it. We do believe you when you tell us nice things, but it wears out, and we can’t generate it ourselves, anymore than we can generate our own Vitamin C.

Lots of managers realize that we all need praise and attempt to address this with the compliment equivalent of multivitamins. They’ll pat us on the back and say “Good job, I like your work.”, and hope that suffices. It does, for lots of people. But those of us, like me, with specific deficiencies, need more than that. We need something targeted and specific, like a B12 shot, something that can’t be brushed off as lip service or a generality. I like praise about actions that I have taken, especially if they are tied to a goal. So, for example, “Hey, your talk on data privacy really affected people – I heard some guys walking out talking about what they could do to be better.” That’s going to keep me happy about writing talks and giving them for weeks! It’s one of my goals to change people’s thinking and behaviors. On the other hand, “We’re getting a lot of leads from conferences you go to,” is… sales leads are not really my goal? I mean, I’m happy about that, but I don’t know if they’re valuable leads, and I can’t see them, so I’m glad that the company is getting worth from that, but it’s not going to feed me when I sit down to write the next new talk.

As a manager, you’re going to deal with people who have scars from nutritional deficiencies. They may nervously expect that praise always has a dark side, or they may be praise-insecure and never sure that they are going to get it again so they guard it from others. It’s not really your job to diagnose what’s going on, just to figure out what it is that your report is lacking and supply it as best you can, honestly, realistically, and sustainably.I’m working on a new theory where I admit I am anxious and that in the absence of positive feedback, I start getting more and more nervous that there is nothing good to say, and my immanent firing will come soon. People who think they are about to get fired are terrible employees – no creativity, no joy, limited teamwork – for good reason. Rather than end up in that spot, I’d rather say directly, “I need this kind of praise to stay healthy.” Better for me, better for my manager and company.

What kind of praise feeds you? Have you asked for it?PS – Due to my odd childhood, I have a strangely inclusive knowledge of nutritional deficiency diseases. Because I am kind, though, I have not included any of those pictures.

PPS – Did you know that because we use Vitamin C to build collagen, people with severe scurvy can have old healed wounds reopen as the scars dissolve? There’s a metaphor to be had there.

This job is undoing me

… in the best way possible.

My protective casing of hard-earned cynicism is being rubbed away by all this genuine kindness, cooperation, good culture, and all that jazz. It’s honestly kind of uncomfortable, like molting.

You need to understand – I have this hard-ass candy shell for a reason. My first job in technology was 1996. My first college boyfriend introduced me to BBSing through what we would now call a troll community. I have been “one of the guys”, and “that girl”, and “the writer, whats-her-name”. I have gotten my ass grabbed at work and gotten dirty texts and chats from co-workers and been propositioned in creepy ways at conferences. The technical writer is hired too late and fired early in the startup process, but I love startups. No company has ever previously make me feel like I have valuable things to contribute and they consider themselves lucky to have me.

I thought at first it was perhaps due to the change in my role, this exciting new job title that means I never have to write release notes, but today I realized that it wasn’t that. I was walking with the new person on my team, and trying to download to her what I’ve learned about the company and the things I asked about and can just tell her.

  1. You will not get fired because The Internet Hate Machine is angry about something. We know about the internet hate machine and don’t consider them valuable feedback.
  2. No one is going to yell at you if you mess up your expense accounting, especially at the beginning. We’re all working from a place of mutual respect and shared interested and assumed good intentions.
  3. You are not required to sacrifice quality of life to save company money. Be reasonable, stick to the budget outlines, but it is worth a hotel night to have you bright and functional instead of trying do do a conference after an early morning flight.
  4. You have time to learn your job. We’ll be happy as soon as you contribute, but you need time to ramp up and that’s expected and normal.
  5. It’s ok to ask questions. No one expects you to know everything, we hired you because we think you have the potential to learn. Very few of us knew about this technology or industry when we started. You don’t have to know it all when you start.
  6. Maintaining human relationships with your coworkers and other people in our ecosphere is important, and will be counted as work, not fluff.
  7. If something happens at home while you’re on a business trip and you need to leave, it’s ok to just leave. No single event is more important than your outside-of-work life.

How am I supposed to maintain a cheerful cynicism about people who genuinely like working together and also sometimes hanging out at tea parlors with a kid in tow? How is my cool detachment going to go when I get raises and positive feedback without even asking for it? What if it doesn’t feel like high-stakes gambling to be able to bring my whole self to work, even the wacky futurist parts and the parts that can’t code and the parts that are noisy feminist politics? What if “being me” is not high stakes, but table stakes, for everyone?

This job is breaking me because all of that shielding and cynicism were adaptive for other companies, but not actually very useful at this one, and in order to succeed here, I need to take all that armor off and be real, and vulnerable, and let people help me. It’s terrifying, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Welcome!

Teaching and learning

At LaunchDarkly, we’ve been hiring really aggressively, because we’re doing amazing things. (Come work with me!)

That means that we are also doing a bunch of training, and I’ve been working on doing the training for our non-technical employees, folks like marketing, design, outbound sales. They’re important to our success and they have a TON of domain knowledge that I don’t have, but we’re all going to work together more successfully if they know what they’re selling. Also, selfishly, the more people who can help work a table at a conference, the easier it is for everyone working at the conference.

Me, I’ve been doing tech for 20 years, at all levels, including hardware through to cloud. I bring a ton of domain knowledge with me every time I start a new job. But for this training, we need to explain enough about the software lifecycle to be able to talk about the problems that LaunchDarkly solves. That gave me a chance to really dig in and figure out how to explain the basics in a way that’s useful to people who haven’t been accidentally drinking from the devops firehose.

  • What are developers trying to do? What does their work life look like?
  • What is deployment and how is it hard?
  • How does software get to the user?
  • What are waterfall and agile and how does that relate to us?
  • What are APIs, SDKs, CDNs, CI/CD, devops, feature flags, polling and streaming updates?
  • What’s a monolith vs a microservice?
  • Why wouldn’t everyone just build their own software?
  • What is Software as a Service?

It was satisfying to realize that I can define and describe all of that in pithy and accessible terms for people. It’s the same thrill I get from writing a really solid document. I know that I am helping actual humans by describing something they need at the moment they need it.

I hadn’t thought about internal training as being part of my job duties, but when we realized we needed it, it seemed logical and easy to do it. After all, my whole purpose is explaining the product to people, and understanding and explaining people’s pain points to my company. This is a natural fit. Plus it was super fun!

In my infinite free time, I’m thinking about recording these explanations with a couple slides, so we have bite-sized concepts when people want to look them up.

 

Screaming in the Cloud with Corey Quinn

Corey Quinn, slasher of AWS bills and frequent conference speaker, had me as the first guest on his brand-new podcast, Screaming in the Cloud. We had a great time talking about feature flags, the all-iPad conference setup, testing in production, and how I feel about technical documentation.

And if you’re like me and don’t always have time to listen to podcasts, there’s also a transcript!

(This is the third time I’ve been asked to help kick off a podcast. Feel free to ask me for your own podcast!)

Guest post: UX Booth

I wrote a 2018 User Experience Prediction at UX Booth. Amy Grace Wells asked me what I thought was going to be a leading theme in UX in the next year, and I said, “better accessibility”. I think that’s both a serious prediction and a hope, because there is never enough accessibility, but I also think we are getting better.

So many things that are designed for accessibility, but that we don’t always understand that way when they happen, and frequently we mock them as lazy or luxurious. Backup cameras on cars seem silly – why not just turn around? Until you physically can’t turn around, and then you realize how much they matter. Pre-chopped vegetables, electric can-openers, and velcro shoes seem laughable – unless you’ve ever been unable to hold something in both hands at once. In the same way, building web and mobile apps to respond to a variety of command styles may not occur to us if our fingers are nimble or our voices clear, but will matter immensely to people who are not in that category.

Since before I was employed at LaunchDarkly, I’ve been fascinated by the ability that feature flags offer designers to customize user experience. We haven’t had a good test case yet that I know of, but it will come, and I’m looking forward to it.

Peeled oranges in plastic containers

Pre-peeled oranges for accessibility

The sticker bag

I talked about this a little bit in Lady Speaker Small Talk , but let me expand.

I have a bag of stickers that I take to every conference I go to. This week, I leveled up my game from “gallon ziploc bag of significant antiquity” to “bespoke bag”. It only took me a little while to sew, but I’m super pleased with it, and it uses a fastener I got on my last trip to New York City’s garment district.

A black fabric envelope about the same size as a gallon ziploc bag of obvious age. Black envelope style bag with silver bias edging and a fancy silver buckle fastener.

I made the effort because the sticker bag is important to me — part personal brand, part conversation starter.

Array of various technology stickers More technology stickers spread on a table

I go to over 20 conferences a year, and at each one, I collect vendor and conference stickers, and I talk to the people who give them to me, and then I spread them out on a table at lunch or at the evening party and invite people to come poke through them and take away whatever they want.

This is the most genius spontaneous idea I’ve ever had, because what it gets me is:

  • Low-key, low-pressure opportunities to talk to even shy people
  • A way to talk about different technologies and what people are interested in and looking for
  • A way to gauge what a community of conference attendees is excited about
  • Memorability
  • An extremely keen understanding of the market demands and constraints around stickers

What stickers mean

I am the age to have been a Lisa Frank person growing up. I distinctly remember spending science fair reward money on freakin’ holographic unicorns. It turns out a lot of us have never entirely lost the joy of neat stickers. We put them on our computers, water bottles, notebooks, suitcases, beer fridges, whatever we can get to hold still.

We use them as affiliation identifiers. It may be an obscure sticker to everyone else, but if you care about Debian, you know when you see the Debian sticker on someone else’s gear. You know that they will probably talk to you about Debian. Now imagine leaving that kind of conversational hook twenty times over.

We use them as political statements. An EFF sticker means something, as does a sticker that says “Support your sisters, not just your cis-ters”. Rainbow/pride stickers fly out of my collection, because it’s so important to say “not everyone here is straight”.

Some people have rules about what kind of stickers they’ll use. “I only put stickers on for projects I pay money to.” or “I only use stickers from projects I use.” or “Only funny stickers” or “My laptop has a color theme.”

That all makes sense to me. In many ways, our laptops are a proxy for our faces, especially at conferences. We are hiding behind them physically or metaphorically. When we give a presentation, they peek up over the podium. When we are working in hallways, they identify our status.

Secret Sticker Rules

I think there are some generalizable rules about technology stickers. I feel so strongly about this that when I showed up for my one day in the LaunchDarkly office before I went out into the world, I spent 2 hours talking about stickers, and what I wanted to hand out.

My ideal stickers

  • Small – 2 inches is ideal. Unless you work for a company, you do not want to give them 1/6th of your available laptop space.
  • Tileable – circle stickers are selfish, because you can’t stack them or budge them against any other stickers. I prefer the hex shape, which is relatively standard, especially in open source projects, thanks to RedHat. PS – Heroku, right shape, slightly too big, and it breaks the tiling. I’m judging.
  • Funny – the Chef “sprinkle on some DevOps” stickers are hilarious, cute, and not insulting to anyone. They’re probably optimal. I also really like the Logstash stickers that were a log. With a mustache. And I begged a whole package of the “I ❤️ Pager 💩”. Because people find that hilarious. You don’t have to be funny. Other options are cute, completely straight, or your-logo-but-with-colors.
  • Have your name on them. I cannot tell you how sad it was for Influx Data when they had adorable animals with gems in them, but their name wasn’t anywhere on the stickers, and so I was like, uh, it’s a kiwi bird? From someone? Isn’t it cute? Put your name on the sticker unless you’re, like, Target or Apple.
  • Are not sexist, racist, or otherwise jerkish. I pulled out a bunch of stickers that said “UX-Men”, because while the pun was cute, the exclusion was not. I won’t put out Sumo Logic stickers, because I feel like it’s an ugly caricature. Basho was also right on that line.

I really loved the stickers the LaunchDarkly designer, Melissa came up with. Most of them are hexes, a couple are very small oblongs that fit almost anywhere, and the surprise best-moving sticker is unusually big, a representation of our astronaut, Toggle.

Parents love Toggle, love that Toggle is not gendered, and they take home a sticker for each of their kids.

Other handouts

As I’ve been going to conferences representing a company that isn’t just me, I have figured out some other things that work for me. Feature Management is a new enough market space that people don’t always know what I mean, or want something to take back to their team to explain it. Melissa and I worked together to create a small postcard that has some brand identity on the front and a couple paragraphs on the back explaining our business case. It’s small enough to shove in a pocket or conference bag, and when you get back to your desk, you may read it again to remember why you picked it up.

I also carry business cards, so that people have a way to contact me particularly. I serve as an information conduit between people thinking about how we could solve their problems, and the folks on my team who can definitively answer their questions. So if you say to me “Heidi, I’d love to do feature management, but does it respect semver?” I give you my card and you write me and then I find out yes, we have that coming in this quarter. Yay!

And, of course, I keep a few sets of LaunchDarkly stickers that are not mixed in with the general chaos of The Sticker Bag, so that I can hand them out to people as we are talking about LaunchDarkly in particular. For reasons that mystify me, while Moo has excellent card holders for their tiny cards and business cards, they don’t make ones for the postcards in either size, and looking on Amazon and Etsy was just a journey into despair and disambiguation.

So I expensed some materials and made my own, and as soon as I sort out my authentication with Instructables, I’ll post the process, but look, I made a card holder for all my cards!

Navy leather card holder in clutch size Card wallet interior, with postcards, stickers, and business cards.

The postcard side is gusseted so I can stack a few postcards in it, and the business card holder side can also hold stickers. And the whole thing is sized to fit in my hoodie pocket, because that’s what I’m wearing 95% of the time I’m on a conference floor.

What I Don’t Hand Out

T-shirts. Such a nightmare, because they’re bulky and sizing is variable, and I’m traveling light. If you want a t-shirt, write us and we will ship it to you. 😉

Socks. Because we don’t have any yet, but I continue to hope that we will get socks before the technology sock craze (Started by StitchFix, those cunning geniuses) dies out. I love tech socks. At last count, I have 22 pairs of tech socks, and my current favorite pair is from Sentry.io because they come in a version that has SCREAMING CORAL as the cuff color.

To Sum Up

When interacting with people, it’s nice to give them something tangible, but not burdensome, so they remember you fondly. Also, I’m glad I bought a sewing machine, even though it’s one of the three weeks a year a fat bike would be useful.

When the cat’s away….

…the mice will self-organize?

My manager is on vacation. Like really a lot on vacation. Logged out of Slack, not on email or phone, not showing up for meetings, none of that. This appears to be what he’s doing:

Hawaiian beach

And he’s been gone, like weeks. OK, I think it’s 2 weeks. But it is significant and meaningful, even during the weird holiday bit at the end of the year.

I have several observations about that:

  • I would like to keep working places where management gets significant breaks and takes them as breaks. It means that I also feel ok taking time off, even though it’s sometimes a little harder for my co-workers when I’m gone. Culture does come from the top, and when your culture involves actually having a life outside of work, it shows.
  • When the person you usually get your answers from is not around, you’re forced to develop alternative sources of information. This is great in a lot of ways. You don’t get rigid about your information, and the organization practices redundancy.

When you think about it, real vacations are chaos engineering for teams.

  • We did find a few little glitches in the system, things that we can either fix ahead of time or work around for next time. For example, he’s the one who schedules our retrospective, it’s not on a set day. None of us know what the parameters are. But we just didn’t have it, and next time we can set it up so it’s not a deal. Iterate.
  • On a psychologically safe team, it’s ok to make decisions without your manager around. I pushed a deadline. A coworker told me her priorities for my work. I worked with a team mate to decide where to allocate money in the coming year. It felt safe to do that, because we can trust that when our manager comes back, he’ll be glad we did our jobs instead of waiting for him.
  • The last email he sent before he left reminded us that he trusted us to do our jobs, that we could ask each other for help, and that it was ok to go to the management team if we had a need. What more could a person ask for? Autonomy and trust go so far toward making us the best and happiest we can be.
  • He’ll be a better manager for having taken time to stare at the sun and the sand without looking at a computer screen or performing work emotional labor. It is exhausting to do hiring at our current pace, because hiring is hugely emotionally intensive, if you’re doing it right. Him taking care of himself means that those of us on his team can trust that he will be available to us when we need him. That’s good planning.

So many of these observations can be summed up as trust. Leaving your team takes trust. It’s important to be trusted to do your job without close supervision. It’s really really important to feel valued without feeling like you’re trapped or obligated.

Being essential is not the same as being valued.

Have a great vacation, boss! We’ll catch you on the flip side.

Well, that didn’t go like I imagined

The Toggle Talk

As a speaker, there are three things I count on to give a talk:

  • Slides
  • Narrative flow
  • Speaker notes

My dependence on these elements decreases as I give a talk multiple times, but I use the slides to help me remember where I am in the narrative even if I don’t refer to the speaker notes often.

This fall, I designed a new talk and built it in Twine, a game engine for choose-your-own-adventure games. Each slide was actually an HTML page rendered by the game engine, and the narrative was supplied by the audience choosing from several options. This was a radical departure from my usual method, but I’d practiced it, and tuned it, and wrestled with the CSS and I felt pretty confident I could make it work, even though I wouldn’t have speaker notes or a unified narrative through-line.

Because I hadn’t solved the hosting problem yet, I needed to “play” it from my laptop, but that was no problem – I had a USB-C to HDMI adapter. The talk before mine ran long, but I only have technical problems a tiny handful of times in my talks, so I didn’t think I’d need much time to get set up.

I had reckoned without the USB-C/USB-3/HDMI problem, because it had never happened before. I always present from my ipad, and it’s usually a rock-solid toolchain. So I get up there, I’m rushed for time because of the talk before, I’m nervous because it’s the first time I’m giving this talk, and because it’s so “weird”, and…. it failed. The combination of cable/laptop/projector failed so hard that my computer rebooted and came back looking weird, and I had to accept that I might have just bricked my brand-new work laptop, in front of an audience, in a talk that had already technically started.

I had no slides.

I had no notes.

I had no narrative.

I had practiced, but I had not practiced the complete failure scenario, because it had never occurred to me that it could fail this hard.

I still managed to pull a coherent technical talk out and I only ran 10 minutes short, and honestly, it’s one of the accomplishments I’m proudest of in the last year. Literally everything went wrong and I still delivered value.

Afterwards, when I was trying to quietly dump adrenaline, I could only think about how I had failed to achieve any part of my goals. My hands were shaking, my throat was tight, and I felt a little like crying.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to go!

Later, I got to talk to people who had been in the audience, and they asked questions that they could have had if they’d gotten the real talk. That was cheering. I joked that this was the worst this talk could possibly go, because there wasn’t anything left to fail!

Then I got the speaker evaluation cards, and people were universally complimentary about my poise under tough circumstances. It hadn’t felt like poise, it felt like literal flop-sweat, like a drip from my shoulderblades to my waist. But they couldn’t feel my sweat, they could only experience my description of a brand-new talk focused on something that they had to imagine.

The webinar

One of LaunchDarkly’s goals for the year is to nurture and encourage customers to feel comfortable telling their stories, whether on stage or in a blog post. To that end, we are offering some people speaker training. Remembering my fall experiences, I solicited nice people on Twitter to come to a beta of my talk. That would give me a chance to try out the tool, the content, the process, before we offered it as a finished product.

I learned so much! Almost all of it was a little painful.

  • I need to log in early because I’m a panelist, not a host, so we need to coordinate that so I can show my slides to the webinar.
  • I did test my A/V setup!
  • I didn’t realize how unnerving it would be for me to talk to dead air. For all of my teaching/preaching/tech talks, I’ve had an audience. I can make eye contact with them, hear them start to fidget if they are checking out, notice their grins and twinkles and coughs to stay connected to them. But obviously, none of that happens when I’m talking into a headset with the audience on mute.
  • I need to do some work on the content. Not too bad, but I always have to give a talk at least once to live humans to get the suck out.
  • The lack of response makes me so nervous I talk even faster than usual. SLOW DOWN, ME.
  • I have to figure out a better way to wrap up/end the webinar. I didn’t think about how to tie it up neatly, because talks work differently.

So this is all great. When I do the webinar “for reals”, those are all mistakes that I’m not going to need to make because I know where they are.

The meta-lessons

  • It is hard to predict how you’re going to fail, but it is possible to build in a reasonable degree of redundancy.
  • Tests in isolation are not going to catch systemic problems.
  • It is better to degrade what you provide rather than failing entirely.
  • Test with a subset of users so you can predict how your solution will scale.
  • Don’t get so distracted by your failures that you fail to notice surprising data or silver linings.*

* One of the most beautiful night skies I’ve ever seen was on a winter night in the middle of a widespread blackout. I was stomping across the yard to get firewood, and I happened to look up and see the stars without light pollution. A lot of things had gone wrong, but if they hadn’t, I would not have had that moment of starlight bright enough to reflect off the snow, and the milky way like a second snowy stripe in the sky.

Shoes and software

I bought a new pair of shoes when I went to New York City the last time. I am trying to find shoes and boots that look good with both skirts and pants, fit properly, and are good for a full day of standing/7 miles of walking. This is a pretty tall order, as you know if you buy many women’s shoes. I found a pair I thought was promising and broke them in by walking 30 miles in a week in them. There was just one rub. Right over my left toe.

I complained about this to my friend when I got back, and she told me that since I’d bought them from an actual store that specializes in shoes, I could take them in and get the store to stretch a little spot over the rub. And they did! And the spot stopped rubbing. But by then I’d irritated it enough so that my regular shoes were rubbing it. Well, it’s in no way serious enough to see a podiatrist over, kind of a normal thing that happens to feet, and the advice is to wear shoes that fit you properly.

I fell down a research rabbit hole, and did you know? You can buy shoe lasts and little carved nubs that fit into the holes in the lasts, and you put them in your shoe and add some shoe stretcher, and you can tailor your shoes? Those of you in certain age and class categories, who grew up wearing leather shoes, did know this. I just learned this, in the start of my fifth decade, and it’s almost as revolutionary as when I realized I could just sew my own dresses so they fit properly. I don’t have to accept that my feet or body are just going to be slightly ill-served by the average, I can fix it. If I have the right kind of shoes and the money for the tools, which is another post.

I think this is an essential difference between software users and software creators. Software users almost always have a rub, a spot where they have to conform to the way the software expects them to behave, an irritation point. They don’t know that they could change it or they don’t have the tools to change it. It’s very “fixed mindset”. This is how the software behaves, and that’s just how it is. Software creators understand that there is almost always some way to tweak their tech to fit them better. A software package is not immutable, but rather something that you can tinker with and change – a “growth mindset”.

I want more of the world to have a growth mindset about their tech – everything from rooting their phones to eliminate software they don’t want, to turning off push notifications, to hiding screens they don’t care about. That’s one of the things I’m excited about in my work with LaunchDarkly. Currently we’re working at much larger scales than individual preferences – think about the revolution in shoes when we started designing for left and right feet – but eventually the idea that you can customize your experience of technology will get more and more accessible and democratic. That’s thrilling, because everyone should have shoes that fit their particular feet and software that fits their particular needs.

Talk slides are not a presentation deck

This year, I watched a talk called “I’m Judging Your Slides” or something like that. I watch a lot of conference talks. No, more than that. As if it were my full-time job, which it pretty much is. 25 conferences x 2 days (rough average) x 6 talks a day. Plus recorded talks.

As such:

  • I’m not going to go find the link to that presentation, sorry.
  • I have a lot of opinions about talk slides.

In this new job, I have a designer. Someone paid to have professional aesthetic opinions. This is AMAZING, and super exciting. I’m pretty sure she gets heartburn every time she looks at the spectacular pinkosity of my current slide style. She’s given us a Google Slides template to work with, and it is all branded and lovely and works with our website and has the right hex codes just built in so you can always find them instead of wandering around a color picker. I was super excited to port my slides over to the new style.

 

And then I tried to do it, and it is hard. There are a bunch of slide styles that I would never use in a talk, and I’m missing some that I really need, like section headings. What was the disconnect?

Talk Slides Are Not Presentation Slides

I realized that I wanted slides for giving talks, and the template she gave me was slides for giving presentations. That seems like a pretty subtle distinction, but it’s a very different audience and intent, so key parts are different.

If you ask someone for a presentation deck because you missed a meeting, you would get something that gave you a lot of information – facts and figures and decisions and charts. If you got the slide deck from a well-designed technical talk, it would be an unhelpful amalagam of cat pictures and command prompts.

Talk Slides

When I’m designing slides for a talk, I visualize a room that can seat about 100 people. I’m at the front of it, I have a projector with an HDMI connection, and a slide clicker. I’m standing to one side of a screen. It’s the middle of the day, and these people are sitting in hotel banquet chairs to listen to what I have to say and fight off the waves of sleepiness from catered lunch. I need to be energized, my slides need to be punchy, and my points need to connect with their needs. I am here to inform, entertain, educate, provoke thought.

Presentation Slides

Presentations are an entirely different thing. They’re being displayed on a large tv in an office meeting room. The audience is people who are thinking of themselves as “in a meeting”. The slides exist to guide thought and discussion around action items that need to happen and information that needs to be evenly distributed across a group of people who have very similar interests. Presentation slides have agendas, and points that you move through, and they are a persuasive medium in themselves, instead of relying on the speaker to add the persuasion.


Given those two very different goals, I can see why it’s hard to design slides. The majority of the advice and templates are geared toward the common case, which is a presentation deck. I have a friend who says that she works on presentation decks “every ding-dang day”. It’s no wonder that we learn to design slides with articulated points on them as the default.

I never had to do that kind of slide construction, so I didn’t build that habit, and when I started doing technical speaking, I found the spare, almost wordless style was much more effective for that audience. I was reasoning from the opposite direction.

Talk slides best practices

Given that I am probably a disaster at presentation decks, I’m not going to talk about how they should work, but here is what I feel strongly about talk slides:

  • Put your twitter handle or attribution on EVERY SLIDE. That way if you say something memorable halfway through the talk, people can attribute it properly, and every slide has the possibility to work as a standalone photo.
slide screenshot

Slide example 1

  • Except for your handle and attributions, 36 point font is a bare minimum, and I really want something closer to 48-60. Giant font means fewer words, and that’s good, for talk slides.
  • One thought per slide. You can explain it at whatever length you want, but whatever you put on the slide only needs to be a place for people’s eyes to rest while they are digesting the one thought. That thought is tied to your slide in their memories. When you switch to the next thought, change slides.
  • If you have the luxury, go look at a  presentation in the room you’ll have. Different projectors and ambient light sources can mean that a dark background or light background will work better.
  • Remember that your slides are not the persuasion, you are. I try to put information in my speaker notes for other people, but that’s a very secondary use case.