Construct, Capable, Confident

I can’t make it parallel. I tried. We just have to live with an imperfect world of non-parallel headline items.

I was talking to another speaker the other day, and she asked me how I knew I was ready to give a talk. As with so many other things in my life, I have a checklist.

As I’m prepping a talk, it falls into three stages – construction, feeling capable, and feeling confident.

Construct

Writing a talk is ~40-80 hours of work for me. Usually it’s spread over several months. Here are the things I try to do as part of writing a talk:

🔲 Research and keep notes of where I find information.
🔲 Write a high-level outline.
🔲 Decide on a theme.
🔲 Rough in the slides.
🔲 Find/create/source graphics for slides
🔲 Practice talking through the slides out loud.
🔲 Check for timing.
🔲 Check the talk against the code of conduct.
🔲 Finalize slides.

Capable

Here are the things I need to do to feel like I could give a talk without embarrassing anyone:

🔲 Practice to myself.
🔲 Practice in front of another human.
🔲 Incorporate suggestions and changes.
🔲 Be able to talk about each slide a little bit without notes.
🔲 Hit timing within 15% of goal.

Confident

I could probably give this talk even if my A/V failed completely. I have given it to an audience before, I have refined it. Here are the things I need to feel confident about a talk:

🔲 Have a good recording to listen to before the next iteration.
🔲 Gave the talk at least once in public to get the suck out.
🔲 Changed information on the fly.
🔲 Can roam away from speaker notes without noticing.

Conclusion

I think every speaker has their own process, and you’ll discover yours. For me, I know some essential things about my process that I try to work in. For instance, the first time I give a talk, it sucks. There is a finite amount of suck in any talk, and I need to extract it before I get in front of the crucial audience. Also, I tend to go over time when I have an audience to play to, so I deliberately write my talks 5-10 minutes shorter than the time slot.

You’ll figure out your own process as you go along, but remember that the easiest way to feel confident and prepared when you get onstage is to be prepared to your own standards.

I believe in you! You can do the thing!

Live-Tweeting for Fame and Fortune

That’s a joke. I have made $65 off 4 years of live-tweeting, and it’s more than I ever expected. As far as fame, the point is not for me to get famous, but to promote some amazing speakers as they do their thing.

I don’t know about you, but I have about 20 tabs open in my browser with technical talks that I’m excited about seeing and will get around to anytime now. As soon as I have 45 minutes that I’m not doing something else. Don’t @ me.

It is hard to make space in our lives to consume technical talks. It is much easier to consume a tweetstream that summarizes the key points of the talk.

So what is it that makes live-tweeting successful, and what are some things to avoid?

Tools

Hardware

I use an iPad as my main conference-going computer. It’s powerful enough to write on, remarkably unfussy about connecting to a conference wifi, and small and cheap enough that losing it will not be catastrophic. I also present from my iPad, but that’s a different story.

I’ve paired that with a bluetooth keyboard that I bought with some of my donations. I like the combination because I can set it in my lap or use in in a number of weird orientations. I’m a pretty fast touch-typist, so I can take notes quickly enough that I can capture most main points.

I have a wifi hotspot that I keep in my go bag. I’ve had very few problems at conferences in the last year or two, but before that, there was a pretty good chance that a technology conference would overwhelm whatever wifi infrastructure the venue had set up.

My final hardware investment is an iPad case that allows me to prop it in several different configurations, including horizontal and vertical. I always choose the ones in screaming pink/fuschia/etc, because I’m pretty sure that “girly” looking technology is less likely to be “accidentally” picked up by someone else. Also, it’s very on-brand!

That’s me, in the pink hair, live-tweeting from The Lead Developer New York 2017. You can see the keyboard and iPad balanced in my lap. (It’s a great conference!)

Software

I am an enormous fan of NoterLive by Kevin Marks. I met him at Nodevember in 2016, I think, and he has created an amazing tool for live-tweeting.

  • Prepends the conference hashtag(s) and speaker name for every tweet, so you don’t have to retype them every time (although if you get it wrong, it will be a lot wrong)
  • Automatically threads until you tell it to stop
  • Local caching and logging

Pretty much all I have to do is set the conference hashtag by the day, start a new thread, set the speaker, and then I can type without worrying about it and the tweet is sent every time I hit enter.

It’s aware of character limits and will give you notice when you’re approaching it. The only thing that’s a tiny bit hinky, and I still don’t know if it’s happening, is that it will sometimes attempt to make a link if I have some combination of a period and spaces. It doesn’t send the link, but it throws the character count off.

💖

I use TweetBot on my iPad to watch the conference hashtag and retweet things that are cool and relevant that I didn’t get noted or didn’t see. The new TweetBot for Mac just came out, and they finally have a dark theme and a much better way of handling and viewing lists.

I used Storify to compile all the tweets about my talks and weave a loose story about the experience, but it’s gone and I am very sad and I’ve not yet found a replacement.

Techniques

For Speakers

  • Put your handle on every. single. slide. No, I am not kidding. I want to be able to attribute your stuff properly, and if I slide in 2 minutes late and miss your first slide, then I have to spend 3 minutes hacking around the conference site to find it.
  • Put the conference you’re at in your Twitter display name. That allows people to mute if they want, and it makes you easier to find and correctly identify.
  • If you don’t use Twitter, give us some other way to attribute you, because attribution matters.
  • Follow the code of conduct. A live-tweeter in your talk is a great force for good, until you piss them off, and then they’re going to take pictures of your offensive slides and drag you.
  • Turn off all notifications before you get on stage. It’s super distracting to have your phone freaking out at you while you’re trying to speak and even worse if it’s your laptop.

For Tweeters

This is actually just the set of rules I try to follow for myself. There isn’t really a journalistic code of ethics for tweeting.

  • Attribute ideas properly. If a speaker is quoting someone else, do your best to make that clear.
  • If you are making an aside, try to set it off in some way. I use (parentheses), and @lizthegrey uses [ed: ], but as long as it’s clear you’re commenting on the content and not reporting, anything works.
  • You do not have to exactly quote what someone says. Paraphrasing is the norm. If there’s some especially unique phrase and you have space to get it in, you can put quotes around it, otherwise you can just do your best to approximate the concepts.
  • If you’re taking a picture to go with a tweet, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but do avoid making the speaker look unreasonably dippy. It turns out it’s hard to speak without sometimes making extremely weird faces.
  • Use hashtags and threads to make it possible for your regular followers to block the tweetstorm out. Not everyone is here to read 200 conference tweets.
  • Put the conference you’re at in your Twitter display name. That allows people to mute if they want, and it makes you easier to find and correctly identify.

Let’s Not

There are some anti-patterns that I’d like you to try to avoid:

  • Just transcribing the slides for a talk
  • Commenting on anything about the speaker’s appearance
  • Negativity in general, really. I mean, why waste your precious conference time and dollars hate-watching a talk and tweeting about it? Get up and go do something else. You’re allowed.
  • Violating a speaker’s publicity preferences. If they have a “No Photos” lanyard, don’t take photos.

Add To Your Lists

@lizhenry – the OG livetweeter, the one I learned so much from. Good for Mozilla information, politics, and feminist poetry.

@cczona – the mind behind Consequences of an Insightful Algorithm AND @Callbackwomen. Excellent at pointing out connections between different threads of technical talks and the implications of them.

@lizthegrey – Google SRE, badass speaker in her own right, and excellent at documenting and commenting on lots of topics, especially resiliency.

@EmilyGorcenski – livetweeting not just technical conferences, but resistance politics.

@CateHstn – Thoughtful blogger and live-tweeter operating at the intersection of dev and management.

@bridgetkromhout – indefatigable DevOps organizer and excellent live-tweeter. She actually manages to take pictures and livetweets from her phone. I’m in awe, honestly.

@whereistanya – a systems thinker who managers to pull tweets and blog posts together and make you see a side of the talk that you might not have recognized.

@GeekManager – conference organizer and integrative thinking on the bleeding edge of the humane treatment of developers who end up managing.

@QuinnyPig – Not always a perfectly accurate rendition, but always funny (and clear) about the divergence

@MattStratton – brings an insider perspective to talks, which allows him to point out connections you may not have thought of.

@skimbrel – technical expertise from an unapologetically queer viewpoint. It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you.

Using Airtable to Manage Conference Submissions

I know, it’s not a very catchy title, but it is descriptive.

A large part of my current job is speaking at conferences and talking about feature flags, systems resiliency, and whatever else I can talk people into. And part of speaking at conferences is applying to lots and lots of conferences. But how do you keep track of it all?

At first I tried to use Google Calendar, but that did’t work. I tried Trello, but there weren’t enough dimensions. I wanted to track these elements:

  • Name
  • Location
  • Start date
  • End date
  • Talks submitted
  • Submitted/accepted/rejected/conflict
  • Speaker tasks
  • Tasks remaining

That’s a lot! I complained about the problem, and Thursday Bram suggested Airtable, as a beautiful mashup of a taskboard and a spreadsheet. Since then, I’ve suggested it to several other developer relations people and I know some of them are using it. I’m now paying for the full version, which gives me the calendar view, and that’s been my killer feature. It really helps me to be realistic about how conferences stack and overlap with each other.

Spreadsheet

Airtable main view

This is the main view. I have it sorted so that conferences that are over or that have not accepted any talks from me are not showing, because I really only need to know about what is coming or may be coming. I’ve grouped it by the Talk Accepted dimension and then the date. At a glance, I can tell what I have coming, and what talk I’m giving (if I remembered to enter it, because I’m sometimes not great at that, as you can see.

Cards

I can drill down into any talk title for a card that has a bunch of information on the talk. Frequently I include the proposal I submitted here, along with information about how far along in the process of creation the talk is, all configured by me. Have I drafted it? Made slides? Practiced it on my own or in front of other people?

Cards Pt. 2

Further down on the talk card, I can see all the conferences I submitted the talk to and whether it was accepted or not. That gives me a good overview of whether a talk is “wearing out” or less likely to be accepted than another kind of talk. It’s useful information.

All of those features are available at the free level, and it’s powerful enough for most people, but did I mention I apply to a lot of conferences? More than there are weeks. You probably don’t need the full version.

Calendar View

Airtable calendar view

This view right here is worth everything I spend on Airtable, and I’m certainly not a power user. But it tells me about conflicts in a way that has been very hard for me to predict from just looking at dates. (If we were all good at predicting conflicts from dates and times, we would not have Outlook Meetings Calendar, is what I’m saying) Now I can tell ahead of time that I can only accept one of those three conferences starting on the 24th, and that allows me to be a more polite speaker. Sometimes it’s possible to look at this and make better arrangements. For example, DevOpsDays Chicago is a great event, but it’s literally the day before I need to be in Dusseldorf. Rather than discombobulating myself or the conferences, I can ask now, months ahead of time, to speak on the first day of DevOpsDays Chicago and toward the end of SRECon. That gives me an error budget for weather/flights/etc. Most conference organizers are lovely about helping me out with these things.

Conclusion

Airtable is a super useful tool for being able to organize data when some parts of it are fixed and some parts change and you need to be able to keep the associations together. There are bigger, more heavyweight databases that can do that, of course, but this is a pretty, friendly, usable implementation of the theory.

If you’re interested in trying it yourself, here is a link to the original workspace I set up: Heidi’s Conferences. Feel free to give it a spin or fork it for your own needs.

@wiredferret is so composed, informative, and present as a speaker

I Have Something To Say

That was the tagline for the late lamented Technically Speaking organization, and I really like it because it captures one of the really important parts of speaking – all of us have unique insights and perspectives, and even if you say something, I still have something to say that will be different.

As I learn and grow in the craft of speaking and giving talks, I have been thinking about what it is that I’m trying to achieve, what I would consider growth and leveling up. It’s important to not rest on our previous accomplishments – that leads to stagnation and that miserable stuck feeling.

I want to improve my delivery. I want to improve my slide construction. I want to branch out into different types of conferences. And I want to give a keynote.

When I told my manager this, he challenged me to identify what it is about a keynote that I want to have, that makes it different from the talks I’ve been doing already. After a bit of thought, I realized that the nature of a keynote means that you have a chance to talk to an audience who would not normally select your talk in a multi-track conference. No matter how good my documentation talk is, only people who care about documentation will choose to attend it, even though the people who need a documentation talk may not. I want to reach that reluctant audience, the people who don’t think they need to be in my talk.

What is a keynote?

In a technical conference, a keynote is addressed to the entire conference, and usually happens at the beginning or end of the day. Keynotes are thematically linked to the conference, or are presented by “big names”. They are the one experience you can expect everyone at a conference to share. Even single-track conferences have keynotes – they might be longer than the rest of the talk, or include a special introduction, or the speaker might be a promotional pull.

By content, a keynote either has something relevant to the community, like Matz’s Ruby updates at RubyConf; or it’s something that is broader than any one kind of technology, like Carina Zona’s “Consequences of an Insightful Algorithm”.

Organizationally, keynotes are almost always invited, rather than being part of the CFP/application process. The organizers select speakers and reach out to them with a specific invitation. The topic may be negotiated, but keynote speakers traditionally have a lot of latitude in their topic choice.

How might I get one?

Keynote elements

I think there are three elements involved in being invited to give a keynote:

  • Professional reputation
  • Proven speaking and delivery ability
  • Timely, relevant topics

I feel like I can work on all of those points, in different ways.

My professional reputation will depend on me continuing to do what I do as well as I can – speaking, teaching, mentoring, coaching, being available to help people with their needs whenever I can.

Speaking ability – I only have a smidgen of training in this. My high school didn’t have speech and debate, I didn’t participate in college, I’ve been pretty much getting along with a lot of self-education. I am thinking it might be time to get some real training and coaching. This is probably the aspect that scares me most — it’s really hard to get coached on something, especially if you think you’re pretty good at it. But it’s a way to get better, just like watching the talks I’ve done helps me get better, even though I really hate doing it. If you watch yourself speak enough times, you sort of burn past the shame and get to the place where you can improve by watching.

Timely topics — You always have to lead your target, and I want to put together a couple proposals for general-interest topics that haven’t been extensively covered yet. More on that later.

What I’m going to do

So my plan is multi-part. It all is underpinned by me doing a lot of work to remind myself that it is ok to publicly want a thing and publicly talk about wanting it. That’s hard to do.

Ask

I am trying to talk to all the people I meet in my conference rounds about wanting a chance to keynote. This has three effects:

  • It gets people to think of the possibility of inviting me
  • It normalizes people asking about keynoting, especially if they aren’t in the normal demographic of CEO/powerful person/known famous coder
  • It teaches me more about how to ask for big things, and gives me more experience in doing slightly anxiety-inducing things.

Write

I need a couple topics to tease people with – things that are interesting, timely, and appropriate for a larger audience. Here are the two I’m thinking about, in CFP pitch format

Master Builder and the Growth Mindset

A lot of us got told we were smart growing up, and looking around at our pretty nice lives, it’s easy to believe that. But what if I told you that you are successful despite this compliment, not because of it? It’s bad for our sense of experimentation and willingness to fail to be told that we’re smart. We tend to gravitate to learning and doing things we’re good at with less effort. We avoid things that we won’t be good at instantly because we don’t know how to be mediocre.

Getting into technology is like being able to assemble a Lego set – there are easy instructions, you assemble the modules, and you end up with what you saw on the box. But not all of us are issued a box. Some of us have had to learn to be master builders, able to design and construct new and weird things that are not part of the kit. This experimentation and improvisation can provide us with flexibility and insight in a rapidly-changing industry.

This talk is intended for people who are interested in designing and working on teams full of people who value experimentation as well as execution.

Everything Is A Little Bit Broken
-OR-
The Illusion of Control

Humankind is extremely superstitious and we are operating systems way above our actual level of comprehension. To keep our limbic systems from freaking out, we have a set of beliefs that makes us feel like we have control over things that happen around us – but are we right? Let’s talk about how error budgets, layered access, and function over form are the building blocks of the ability to get on with work without decision paralysis.

This talk is about how we shift risk around with both process changes and magical thinking, and how we can use our tendency to be fearful to actually make things safer, instead of just feeling safer.

This talk is intended to challenge and shake up people who think that failure is a single state or that doing everything right will lead to predictable results.

Study and Learn

I’m going to find myself a speaking coach, or maybe a course. Something to take what I already have and polish and refine it. No one knows how to do a triple lutz on their own, and coaching is the difference between talent and success. Like I said, this is really hard for me. Like a lot of gifted kids, I’ve gotten a long way on sheer talent without having to be bad at something. Luckily for me, I also have spent sometime sucking at things, being coached, and getting better. It took me 6 years to learn to serve a volleyball overhand, but I got there. I want to level up my speaking from “good enough/pretty good” to “reliably excellent”.


It’s a big goal, but I think I have a good plan in place, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

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.

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.

2017 Speaking Recap

This was the year that I got more organized as a speaker. I took up Airtable as a way to track all of my conference proposals, and so I actually have a record of everything I submitted.

Summary

  • Attended 27 conferences, spoke at 24
  • Spoke at 3 user groups, 2 podcasts, 1 video interview, 1 twitch stream
  • 14 unique talks, in a variety of configurations
  • Learned to use Twine as a presentation tool, how to give demos on an ipad over lunch, how to change from saying “I’m a technical writer” to “I’m a developer advocate”

Portrait of a white woman with pink hair, wearing a black and white dress and grinning at the camera

Longer version

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Nothing gold can stay

This month marks the end of two organizations that were really important to me, and I want to tell you about them.

Alterconf

Alterconf logo

Alterconf was a conference series that happened all over the world. The organizing spirit was Ashe Dryden. She took all her experience with the tech industry, gaming, and conferences, and used it to build something new and unique. For a tiny conference series (relatively), Alterconf pulled the Overton window a long way toward justice and equal access. Some of the features that were almost entirely unheard of when it started and are now increasingly common:

  • Sliding scale entry fees
  • Real-time transcription
  • Child care
  • Inclusive catering by local small businesses
  • Paying sketchnoters, live-tweeters, and other local correspondents
  • Paying all speakers, equally and publicly

They also made sure that all the talks were recorded. Everything Alterconf chose to do ties back to opening up access, removing barriers to participation. So many of the people I can think of now on the speaking circuits got their start at Alterconf.

My Alterconf talk was about the intersection of female socialized caretaking roles and digital security: https://alterconf.com/speakers/heidi-waterhouse

My kid’s first conference talk was also Alterconf: https://alterconf.com/speakers/sebastian-w
He talked about what it’s like to be a kid on the internet before you’re 13.

The topics were personal, varied, heartfelt, meaningful. The speakers were not the usual suspects. Look at all these beautiful people representing a huge diversity of experience.

https://alterconf.com/speakers/

Alterconf meant a lot to me personally and to the culture of technical talks. I am emboldened by what I learned there.

If Alterconf, with a sliding-scale admission, can afford to pay speakers, I will never accept that bigger, more expensive, better-sponsored conferences can’t. I am especially angry at conferences that don’t even give their speakers a free pass.

So thank you, Ashe, and all the people who made Alterconf happen. I’m sorry it couldn’t last longer, but I understand there’s only so much anyone can pour out.


Technically Speaking

Technically Speaking logo

The Technically Speaking newsletter also ended this month, and for much the same reason – there is only so much self we can pour into a project before it becomes a drain and not a gift. Chiu-Ki Chan and Cate Huston put together a useful, informative, and encouraging newsletter that was applicable to both new/aspiring speakers and experienced folks.

It was opinionated, which was a benefit. There are a lot of conferences out there, and if someone helped me curate for conferences that paid costs or were in my interest range, with write-ups about what to expect, that was so useful! They also curated links to relevant topics, everything from slide design to clothing choices to imposter syndrome. You could always count on some useful bit of data to make you a better speaker, or a better conference organizer. They didn’t shy away from talking about conference-based controversies – like what do you do with an invited speaker who turns out to be A Problem? How do you evaluate whether to pull out of a conference? What are red flags for speakers?

It was also a community, albeit in a weird new-media way. There were other people, other women who were experiencing some of the weird things I was, and I would not have seen them because I’m not in that corner of tech, but the experiences were easy to translate. We cheered each other on, watched for each other at conferences, remembered to act in solidarity when we could, because our sticker-based motto was I have something to say.

I have something to say. And Technically Speaking taught me how to say it.

Technically Speaking Archive: https://tinyletter.com/techspeak/archive


Resolutions

I hate that these things aren’t going to be happening in 2018, or maybe ever again, but no one owes them to me. I’m just going to remember that they were important to me when they happened, and the best way I can honor the work that went into them is teaching other people what I learned, as much as I can, the way I can without damaging myself.

To that end, I’m assembling a little webinar on how to write and submit CfPs. I started doing it as a work thing, to help LaunchDarkly help customers who want to give talks, but when I posted on Twitter that I was going to have a beta to test out my ideas before I used them on my customers, 30+ people told me they wanted my completely untried lesson. So… I’ll beta, and give it to my customers, and then get it recorded. And that will be a little thing I can give to the world that isn’t either Technically Speaking or Alterconf, but still built out of their lessons. I’ll make sure it’s captioned in the final version. I’ll remember that it’s weird and opaque the first few times you submit a conference talk. And I’ll hope I can break the trail a little more, for the people walking behind me, as the people walking in front broke it for me.

Spring photo of a tree budding from a river


Nothing Gold Can Stay

Robert Frost1874 – 1963

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.

Packing, optimizing, and satisficing

I’m off on a two-week trip that happens to be broken by an 18 hour stop at home. (Nodevember, North Bay Python, SpringOne Platform, LaunchDarkly writing sprint). Every couple months, I try to clean out my bags entirely, get rid of the trash that accumulates, make sure that I have room for all the new fidget spinners, that sort of thing. This time I thought I’d share what it is I take along.

In summary, if you are at a conference with me and need Imitrex, Immodium, condoms, period supplies, emergency protein, or stickers, I’m your gal.

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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.