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.

Talk write-up: Choose Your Own Deployment

Yesterday, I was in Phoenix for their first DevOps Days.


The interesting thing about doing this talk in Twine instead of my beloved Google Slides was how much I had to learn to make it look anything like I wanted. There’s a lot of CSS and Twine-specific syntax. At first, it felt like I was wasting my time and being slow because I know other people know this better than me, but as the project went on, it was honestly delightful to learn something new and get my pages to look like I wanted. There was a lot of fist-pumping success in getting a font to work.

It’s still not perfect, and I need to do some pretty drastic revisions for version 2, but now I know which of the resources are most useful to me and I have a conceptual model that I didn’t have when I started, so I think it will be easier to learn the parts I still don’t have.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to learn something that had immediate tangible results, instead of concepts and pitches and taking what I already know and distilling it down. It was good to do that, and I should remember to schedule it into my life sometimes.

The virtuous thank-you cycle

We talk a lot about vicious cycles, and how it’s easy to end up in bad places because the incentives are all bad, but let me tell you a story.

It’s a pleasant Saturday, my family is watching Star Trek: TNG together, and I’m in my home office, working on a side project and slightly resenting it. It’s the collateral for a workshop Carol Smith and I are giving at LISA about the non-technical part of interviewing, and we think it’s really an important part of helping people get jobs. So the workshop will be great and important, but I’m currently wishing I was doing something else. And then this comes across my twitter:

Marie says she uses the principles I espoused in that talk even when she starts side projects, like Call My Congress. Because she set it up to be easily localized, anyone could come through and easily add instructions in Spanish or Somali, without having to fight the project to do it.

I gave that talk 17 times. I took it to a different continent. I got most of my expenses paid, and I got an honorarium exactly once. I figure I spent 60 hours researching and writing it, and and 3-5 hours in prep and rewriting each time I gave it. I was working for myself, so no one paid me for that time.

A thank you note like this makes that all worthwhile. I give technical talks for the same reasons that novelists say they have to write – because it’s something burning in me, and I need and want to share everything I have learned the hard way so that other people don’t have to. In my grandiose moments, I think of it as reducing the entropy of the technical world, giving people a boost up the ladder. Most of the time I think it’s funny that all of my teacher-mother’s children have found our own ways to teach, far from school classrooms.

Now I have a job that pays me for development time for talks, and means that travel and conferences are not lost productivity for me, and that means the world to me, but most of the technical speakers you see at conferences are like I was — working evenings and weekends and taking vacation time to battle entropy with education.

I’m going to try to remember to do better about saying thank you, and thus spread the cycle of appreciation further and wider. A virtuous cycle perpetuates because the rewards are so good. Thank your mentors, and the friends who want you to expand your horizons, and the organizers who make safer spaces to speak in, and the bosses who don’t make you take vacation days. Thank them publicly and specifically.

Writing exercise

As a developer advocate for LaunchDarkly, I need to understand the product in a bunch of different ways – at a technical level to give summaries of how to make integrations work, at a business level to explain how feature flags can save time and money, and at a rhetorical level, so I can quickly gauge my audience and explain it to them in the most efficient way possible. Usually when I start a new project, I’m elbow-deep in documenting how it works and I have to work backward to why people want it to work one way or another. But this time I have the luxury of learning why a product adds value first.

I wanted to make sure I was grasping it, and as my friend Laura’s dad use to say to doctoral chemistry candidates, “If you can’t explain it to this ten-year old, you need to go back and work on it until you understand it yourself.” There is an apocryphal Einstein quote to the same effect. I think the modern version of making sure you really understand something by explaining it derives from Randall Munroe’s brilliant XKCD comic, Up Goer Five. Theo Sanderson built a little text editor with a linter that rejects all the words you can’t use, which is, um, almost all the words. But if you can conceptualize something really clearly, you may be able to describe it with the extremely constrained set of words. Here is my attempt to do so for feature flags:

Computers think in lines. Sometimes we want computers to think in a new line, but it’s hard to change lines all at once. We have to build the new line before we can change to it.

When we build the new line, we give it a cool name and hide it from the computer thinking. When we are ready, we change to the new line and lose the old one. The computer thinks the new line with the cool name is the only line. We can make the computer think with the cool name line or the old line any time. Cool/old, back and forward, when we want.

Sometimes, we want only some people to see the cool-name line. We put them in a cool-name group. Every time the computer gives them a thing, they get the cool-name thing from the cool-name line. Other people still get the thing from the old line. Who is happier? Cool-name group or old-line group?

We try to keep our computers happy and not too busy. Sometimes a new line of thinking takes more work for computers. Instead of making all the computers think the new line at once, which makes them slow and sad, we only tell some of the computers to think the new line. Then we add more and more computers thinking the new line, a few at a time. Soon, all the computers are thinking the new line, but none of them got too busy.

When we are finished with the old line, we make it go away. Now cool-name line doesn’t need a cool name anymore, it is just Line. We change its name to Line. When we want to write a new cool-line, we start over!

I’d love to see the results of some of you explaining your product using a thousand words. It’s not really useful as a way to explain things to people, since we want to teach customers our words and tune our language to their needs, but it’s very useful to show us if we understand something.

New employment: LaunchDarkly

Last week I told you about my exciting new job title, Developer Advocate.

This week, let me tell you about my exciting new employer! On Monday I started a job with LaunchDarkly, a startup that does feature flags as a service.

Feature flags are a way to distribute software with reduced risk. For example, if you had a holiday-themed CSS page that you wanted to activate after Thanksgiving, but you didn’t want the risk of deploying something that might break your holiday shopping experience, you could wrap the CSS in a feature flag. Using the feature flag, you can decide when to turn on the stylesheet. You can set the percentage of people who see the stylesheet. You can even hit the emergency kill switch for the stylesheet if it does cause problems.

Feature flags can also be used to test new features for part of your audience, or to replace conditional text, or to control which customers can access premium or paid features.

There are a bunch of implications that spin off from the ability to turn features on and off quickly and reliably – it changes some core thinking about what deployment is, how we think about a product, and what we do when something goes wrong. I’m really especially looking forward to working with customers to make sure that we are using and respecting their use cases. For example, while I was at DevOpsDays, I ran into someone who asked me how LaunchDarkly worked with HIPPA standards. I get to either find or write a white paper that gives them coverage for their needs.

It’s exciting to be an an inflection point in how we think about things. It’s happened to me a couple times — full disk encryption, multi-cloud management. I think this one may be another one. Ask me about it!