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This job is all the best parts of going to college

I used to say that technical writing is an endless series of research papers, and if I had realized that when I started doing it, I might have studied harder at the Java class I flunked. But not really, because the thing I loved about research papers was reading the primary text, and a bunch of secondary texts, and summing them all up and then getting to spin my own theory informed by all of that. Technical writing is all of that, except that instead of texts, you have three harried developers, and interface, and if you’re lucky, some user complaints. Instead of a grade, you are always driving toward serving the user and the business purpose. And also you never have to write a sentence that begins, “This writer…”. So that’s good.

Lately, when people ask me if I like doing DevOps Relations/Advocacy, I bubble at them – “It’s like all the best parts of college. Go to lecture, cram your brain full, talk to brilliant people while you’re exhausted and say things like “But have you ever really looked at your deployment system?” and then take everything you learned and synthesize it and tell other people.”

I wasn’t motivated to go to grad school, and I feel like I got what I needed out of my time in college, but I never knew that there were so many jobs that could be about learning as hard as possible and then sharing it. That’s so cool! An off-the-cuff estimate is that I’ll go to ~300 talks this year. More like 400 if we count the 5-minute talks, which we should. This is why I always feel like I just heard a thing about that, or maybe you could try, or have you heard about…. because I’m getting to consume so much information!

You can, too. Not a lot of people get to go to 40 conferences a year, but so much of modern conferencing is available by video. The great thing about that is that you don’t have to go anywhere, you can watch it at slightly accelerated speed, and if a talk isn’t working for you, you aren’t stuck in the front row and can just leave. So now that it’s getting cooler (at least in my hemisphere) and curling up on the couch seems more appealing than zooming around outside, grab some popcorn and a video of a technical talk, and join me in reliving the cool parts of college. You don’t even have to take notes.

Here are a few to get you started:

Talk link Why I picked it
FixMe by @dhh at RailsConf 2018 Look, any talk that has a long discussion about conceptual compression and callbacks to both Marx and Piketty is a winner.
SRE for Good: Engineering Intersections between Operations and Social Activism by @lizthegrey and @emilygorcenski at SRECon EMEA 2018 A clear call to use our power as producers and managers of data to be ethical and drive our organizations to be ethical.
How to Crash an Airplane by @nmeans at The Lead Developer London 2017 Riveting failure analysis, top-notch storytelling.
Have You Tried Turning It Off and Then Turning It On Again? by @whereistanya at LISA 17 A super-interesting talk about “where you are in the stack?”. Chewy and funny at the same time. “Everyone’s back end is someone else’s front end.”
Testing Microservices: A Sane Approach Pre-Production and In Production by @copyconstruct at Test In Production Meetup Technical and cutting-edge answers for questions that a lot of us have.

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!

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”

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Longer version

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Why I Speak at Developer Conferences

I don’t write code for a living, and I never have. Developer has never been part of my job titles, and my Github history won’t impress anyone. I think that’s why people are surprised that I speak at developer conferences — next month I’m going to RubyConf, PyconCA, and Nodevember.

When I started speaking at conferences, I thought I was only “allowed” or “entitled” to speak at technical writing and generalist conferences. As I got more confident in my messages, I realized that there is a lot of value in cross-pollination of ideas. As I talked to more developers, I realized that the talks they found the stickiest were not about how to do something, but rather, what it was possible to do.

Think about talks that you remember after the conference. Are they the bravura live-coding examples of how to execute something tricky or new? Or are they the talks about what you could do, how you could think about things in a different way, what might be possible in the future? The demonstration of current things is important, but so is the discussion of where and who we want to be in the. future.

Most conference committees seek to balance talks and speakers based on experience, representation, intended audience level, technical depth, and appeal to attendees, sponsors, and employers. We need to have deeply technical talks, and we need to have talks about mental health and accessibility and usability. it’s not either-or, it’s also-and.

So I speak at developer conferences to bring balance to the force. I also do it because I want to show up and be technical and expert and pink-haired in the world. I want to share my decades of experience with people who have poured their energy into learning different things. I think I bring value, and evidently conference organizers agree.

Have you thought about what you can add to a conference by being different? If you feel like you can’t compete because you don’t have anything new to say about the topics that are usually covered, consider covering a topic that you haven’t seen at the conference. If there are a lot of code demonstrations, consider doing a feature overview. If you have expertise in something that you can relate to the conference topic, sometimes it helps people grasp what you’re talking about in a different way. I have a talk about how knitting and documentation and how we teach code are all linked together.

If you’re a “non-technical” technical person, don’t let that stop you from proposing to conferences – you still have valuable and meaningful experience to share. If you’d like to brainstorm about it, go ahead and leave me a message.

Lady Conference Speaker: Slides

Once you get a conference talk selected, you’ll want to put together the talk. There are speakers who can give entire talks without any visual aids, but most of the rest of us count on having some pictures to look at and prompt us. There are entire books written on slides – I liked Presentation Zen and Slide:ology. I can’t replicate everything all the books have to say, but I can tell you what I’ve found useful.

As you make more presentations, you’ll find your own style and voice. Be sure to watch what other speakers are doing and borrow the best of what you see. Some people do very rapid slides, and will have as many as 90 slides in a 25 minute presentation. Some people like to linger on a few key images. Some people use words, and some people avoid them entirely. You’re going to find your voice, but in the meantime, here are some things that would have helped me to know when I started out.

Tools

Slide software falls into two categories: WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) or visual design, and compiled, or coded design. The first category is things like PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Slides. The second category is more like building an HTML page, where you specify elements in Markdown or another language. These are RevealJS, RemarkJS, Deckset, GitPitch, and others.

I only use the first kind of slide software, but people who use coded design tools appreciate the reliability and customizing options of writing their own slides from scratch. My preferred tool is Google Slides because I can work across all the platforms I write on, I can easily send the link to an organizer, and I don’t have to worry about compatibility. In the last year, Google Slides fixed two major problems I had – you can now present offline, and you can use a Bluetooth presentation remote to advance your slides.

You’re going to want to get a presentation remote. They can be had for about $20, but you can get a really nice one for about $50. It depends on how much you want to invest in your speaking future. Practice using it  to understand the range and direction that you can get away with. Having a remote means that you can get out from behind the podium and it gives you something to do with at least one of your hands.

I travel with and present from an iPad, which is more convenient for me than a full-sized laptop. I got an HDMI adapter, and that is a pretty standard expectation at this point. If a conference is using something other than HDMI, they’ll probably let you know. My entire presentation kit fits in the tiny hand-size case for my presentation remote (clicker).

Standard elements

I have some elements that appear on all of my slides:

  • Twitter handle
  • Talk name
  • Conference
  • Hashtag

That may be more information than most people need, but I have a reason for all of them.

I think the Twitter handle is most important. Very few people will remember the introduction slide well enough for them to accurately quote you 20 slides later when you say something they want to talk about. Putting it on all or almost all your slides means that if a picture gets taken, people can come find you if they want more information.

The talk name also helps people identify a picture of the slide, and sometimes it helps me remember which talk I’m in, since I sometimes re-use images. It’s especially helpful for times that I have changed the name of the talk.

Including the conference name is something I do because I re-work my slides for each conference. I don’t entirely rewrite them, but I do add and subtract slides to change the audience, the time, the technology emphasis. Adding the conference name also shows the conference and the attendees that I am thinking about them specifically. I also save each presentation separately, for my records on how talks historically evolve.

The hashtag is less essential, but I like to have it available so people can use it and I can unify my talks around it.

I like to put all these elements in one place so that I can change them easily – in this example, it runs along the bottom of all the slides in this presentation.


I also have fairly extensive speaker notes for all of my presentations – not because I read them, but because it makes the slides more useful whet they are distributed without video. That’s a personal preference, but remember that everything in the speaker notes will be visible if you distribute the deck, so you may want to be careful about what you say.

Images

Don’t steal other people’s intellectual property.

Can I say it more clearly than that? Don’t use pictures without permission.

Conference talks are absolutely your intellectual property, and you’d be rightfully irritated if someone was on the conference circuit slavishly copying your talks, so don’t do it to photographers and visual artists.

Luckily, it’s actually pretty easy to be a responsible person about this when you assemble a presentation. Images come from three legitimate sources:

  • Pictures you took yourself
  • Pictures that you paid for (Getty, stock photo providers)
  • Pictures that are licensed for re-use that you handle properly

Taking your own pictures is sometimes fun, and you can do a lot of interesting things with just your camera phone. With reasonable lighting, you can get snapshots that will look OK at conference screen size.

Buying the rights to pictures is expensive, but if you work for or are representing a large organization, they may already have a license that you can use. You can also find some relatively low-cost stock photograph suppliers, but if you’re a 60-slides kind of speaker, it’s still a lot of money.

The thing I do most often is use images that are licensed for re-use, and make sure I attribute them properly, either on the slide itself or at the end of the presentation.  I mostly use the advanced Google image search. In fact, if you are in Google Slides and you say you want to insert an image and then search for it, you will get a search tuned for images that are licensed “Commercial Reuse with Modification”. Knock yourself out, just remember to attribute them properly. I have other ways to search for licensed-for-reuse images in the Resources section.

Code examples

Not all technical talks have code. I promise that’s allowed, and I have never had code in one of my talks and yet they still let me up on stage and give me a mic.

If you do use code in a talk, here are some tips you might find useful:

  • Make the font bigger. No bigger than that. Are the characters the size of your head? Maybe big enough.
  • Use syntax highlighting. It reduces cognitive load at lets people focus on what you’re trying to say.
  • If you’re talking about a particular section, make it bright and the other parts a bit greyed out. Or leave them out all together. After all, you’re not going to teach anyone to code from a stage, you’re just showing them that a thing is possible. They’ll look it up later.
  • Murphy’s Law loves a livecoder. Although some people are virtuousic typists, lots of us get clumsy when we’re nervous. Instead of livecoding, consider taking a series of screenshots and stepping through them as slides. That way the wifi is not an issue, the remote servers are not an issue, and you reduce several variables.

Videos, sound, and other weird things

It may work. From my observation, your odds are 50/50 of getting a video with sound to work with the A/V system, especially if you surprise the technician. Do you really want to unclip your mic and hold it up to your laptop speakers awkwardly? I didn’t think so.

The medium most likely to work in a presentation is an animated gif, which is nice as far as it goes, but you need to make sure it doesn’t just…run…continously….behind you, because dang, those things are hypnotic. I have made this mistake myself, but nothing is as hypnotic as the slide I saw that was just a video of a massive domino layout, with spirals and collapsing towers, and…. yeah. It was a great illustration of the point, which was about how nothing works perfectly, but then we were all watching the looping dominoes, looking for the parts where the connections failed. Great illustration, but it completely distracted the entire audience. It’s possible to set gifs to only loop once or twice, and I strongly recommend you do that for your presentations.

Other weird things that sometimes work and sometimes just make the speaker more nervous or the audience less attentive:

  • Selfies with the audience
  • Physical humor
  • Open coffee mugs, beer steins, or anything that can dump itself on your laptop
  • Asking for audience response if you haven’t prepared them.

Resources

My new favorite resource for slide templates: Slides Carnival

A good roundup of CC0 and public domain image sites: WPTavern image resources

And of course, almost everything on Wikipedia has a reuse license, and if you go to the image page, you can get different sizes and a handy little attribution slug.

Museums, such as The British Museum and libraries, such as The New York Public Library are also working very hard to digitize and publish their collections.

A large WWII cargo ship about to slide down the dock

It’s easy to find pictures you can use, such as this great launch photo of a Liberty Ship.

 To sum up

There is no one Right Way to create presentation slides. It’s very dependent on personality and topic. I once saw a great talk that had hand-drawn slides, and one that had 8-bit art. It worked for those speakers and pulled the talk together in a memorable way. But the way you do it will come to be your style, so feel free to experiment while you’re learning. Just don’t stop learning!

Remember that slides are not the whole presentation – your topic and delivery are a huge part of it, too. Provide essential information on every slide. Do your best to be ethical in your use of intellectual property. Be careful of things that may fail and fluster you on stage. Go have fun!