The Ruby Freelancers Show 036 – Speaking at Conferences

by woody2shoes on November 15, 2012


  • Eric Davis ( )
  • Evan Light ( )
  • Charles Max Wood ( )


02:02 – Picking topics

  • Passion
  • : Evan’s WindyCityRails Talk 2012
  • Listener questions/interest
  • “Doing what you love and sharing with other people”

07:08 – Speaking at User Groups vs Conferences

  • Practice runs

09:46 –  inquiries

10:16 – Topic proposals

  • Marketing
  • Abstracts

13:28 – Marketing to conference owners/marketing to the audience

  • Making memorable talks

16:32 – How speakers are chosen

  • Individual merit/”Hero Worship”
  • Keynotes by invitation
  • Past experience

20:56 – Preparing for a talk

  • Practice
  • /

25:04 – Writing a book/writing a presentation

  • Flexibility
  • Stream of consciousness writing
  • Markdown

31:37 – Code in slides

  • Syntax highlighting
  • Wrapping lines
  • Screen resolution

35:18 – Practice, practice, practice

  • Time your presentation
  • Possibly leave time for Q&A
  • Skipping slides
  • Real-time edits

39:29 – Talking about something/convincing people to try something

  • Avoid library talks
  • Try to get people to shift perspectives

41:56 – Don’t change topics at the last minute

45:58 – Communication between conference organizers

49:32 – Giving talks, getting leads and referrals, and being recognized as “an expert”


  • (Eric)
  • (Evan)
  • (Chuck)
  • QR codes (Chuck)


EVAN: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue. [sniffs]

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CHUCK: Hey everybody and welcome to episode 36 of the Ruby Freelancer Show! This week on our panel, we have Eric Davis.

ERIC: Hello!

CHUCK: We also have Evan Light.

EVAN: I’m back!

CHUCK: And I’m Charles Max Wood from And this week we are going to be talking about “Preparing for and Speaking at Conferences”.

EVAN: Conferences.

CHUCK: And I’m kind of inclined to also talk about speaking at users groups.

EVAN: Yeah you should. We should. Actually we should let you do all the talking about users groups.

CHUCK: Why is that?

EVAN: Because I just said ‘you’ first instead of ‘we’.

CHUCK: [laughs] What did I do to you?

EVAN: [chuckles] Right.

CHUCK: So let’s start talking. So Evan, I think you spoken at more conferences than either Eric or I have.

EVAN: Or just spoken more, as in ‘talk a lot’. Yeah, especially I’ve done quite a bit this year too. So I remember in the user voice, the person who suggested this topic started with “How do you pick your topics”, and I think it’s pretty much how do you pick your topics and how do you present and how you get accepted. Picking my topics for me is one of two things — or actually no, it was really one thing – at the end of it, it’s always, it’s something important to me that I wanna share. That I feel strongly about and I wanna share. And that come in one of two forms: often — as evidenced by my frustration development talk — it’s about things that piss me off.

So the topic comes to me because something makes me care about enough that I wanna talk to people about it. Occasionally — like a talk I’ve done more recently that I was going to do at Ruby Conf and then my trip to Ruby Conf got blown to hell — it’s about something that interest me like writing a recommendation engine. But more often than not, it’s about things that piss me off because I tend to write code in my spare time when something bugs me so much that I need to do something about it.

CHUCK: Wait a minute. So people are wrong on the internet – somewhere?


CHUCK: And you have something to say about that?

EVAN: Never. Cucumber is awesome. Oh, wait. No its not.

CHUCK: [laughs] Yeah. David Brady and I had that talk pretty recently. He spent a couple of days getting Cucumber to work on a project we are working on and then I stepped in and cracked on it. [chuckles] It was just kind of funny. We had a conversation about when we wanted to use and when we didn’t.

EVAN: Did the conversation involve you putting duct tape in his mouth and you get things involving Cucumber?

CHUCK: Oooh that would have been fun.

EVAN: Yeah. You should have done that.

CHUCK: I live close enough to do that. Of course lives close enough to make it not worth doing that.

EVAN: [laughs]

CHUCK: Anyway, yeah. It was interesting but that’s interesting. When I pick my topics, it’s usually something that I’ve done before, that I have a lot of people asking me questions about. So, for Aloha Ruby Conference, I’ve heard people talk about how do I scale my app up, how do I solve these different problems — usually its code coupling and things like that. And so, you talk about different techniques and then I turned around and I said, “Well, if you are trying to deal with scaling and code coupling, and these other problems and your problem set looks like this…” and there were people that were like, “Yeah that’s my problem set,” then SOA. And so I did a talk on SOA.

EVAN: So we talked about ‘Lynchpin’ in the pre-cast discussion — this is where Seth Godin starts to come to mind — I choose topics that are especially important to me versus topics that people might talk to me about or might inquire to me about. Because if it’s not something I’m interested in, then I’m not going to – if it’s not something that I care about especially I should say — then I’m not going to put this much energy into preparing a presentation or giving the presentation. That is that, I’m afraid it won’t come off as authentic — which my presentations are — because there are things that really matter to me. So I get really passionate about them maybe the downside of it is sometimes I get really passionate about them. [laughs]. [coughs] Cucumber. (That’s not a conference talk though.)

CHUCK: [laughs]

EVAN: Though I proposed it as one actually.

CHUCK: Why Cucumber is full of fail?

EVAN: Oh it was slightly more positively than that. But only slightly.

CHUCK: Why it was slightly less than full of fail?

EVAN: Yeah something like that. But Seth Godin talks about this too, essentially. And I think he was in Lynchpin because – like Eric said for having read a lot of Seth Godin — he tends to repeat this, I’m  messing a lot of his messages and a lot of his books. But I think in Lynchpin or maybe another book or more, he mentions doing what you love and sharing with other people and mentions — I don’t remember if it was a book he had ‘The Gift Economy’ talks about the gift economy and Lynchpin also — but sharing what you care about is giving away a gift. It’s demonstrating what you know and it also implies that you have more to give, so people who find it valuable are more likely to wanna work with you.

CHUCK: He is not wrong. And I think the talks where somebody is passionate about what they are talking about, usually are the best ones.

EVAN: But you never know too because you might get that really shy presenters who really love what they are talking about, but they are either new to presenting — which we wanna talk about later right? — or they are just uncomfortable. And so maybe, even if you have something you care strongly about, it still might not be conveyed well.

CHUCK: That’s fair enough. But at the same time, in most cases, if they are truly passionate about whatever it is they are talking about, it will come through. It will come across. And it just makes a huge difference; they get excited and they can kind of overcome some of the issues they may have with speaking. And that animation and stuff just really pays off.

EVAN: Completely agree.

CHUCK: So I’m sure there are exceptions, like there are to every rule — especially rules about people — but you know, in general, that’s true. One other thing that I’ve noticed is like, speaking in users group versus conferences, a lot times people — at least in the user groups that I’ve attended — people will say, “Hey I’m interested in learning about x or y” or some topic. And then I’ll say, “Who has experience with this topic?” and that’s usually how I get landed with speaking at a user’s group as opposed to the conference, where I have to come up with the topic, propose it, write a good proposal and get it accepted.

EVAN: But you kind of hit something there too. For people who are trying to come up with a conference topic and presentation topic, getting ideas from the user group and then presenting to the user group is excellent warm up. I’ve done that a ton of times where — at least I present at a user group. I don’t tend to attend enough user groups because stuck to the middle of nowhere– but, warming up or practice one on a user group are excellent because you do have a real audience in the front of you rather than presenting to your cat, [chuckles] or your wife or few of your friends or something like that to practice.

CHUCK: Yeah Mike Moore tends to do that at the users groups — and this more into ‘talk prep’ than maybe familiarizing or talking about a particular topic — but we usually get to see his conference talks before he gives them, because the month before he’ll have it together — mostly together — and he’ll give the talk to users group.

EVAN: I think what I’ve done sometimes in the past too, if there in the topic, I’ll just have ton of ideas about what I could talk about. And I think at least one time, I just brainstormed some slides – bring things together kind of quickly — I mentioned maybe in another episode using Keydown. I’m going to have to link to that in GitHub but, which is a markdown based slide authoring package actually for Ruby.

And so I would just bang out an outline in keydown and maybe I just flush that just a little bit. I think I actually took that to a user group and I just talked to it and I get to a slide and I would just go. And then I would afterward reflect on what I said and think about, “Well these things kind of go nicely together,” and then tailor that into a presentation. If you can weigh it — if you know enough about a topic, and you feel strongly about a topic, that you can just wing it, then that might be a good way to suss out what it is  you wanna present or how you wanna present it.

CHUCK: Yeah. One other thing that I have done is I’ve just gone on to Twitter and asked people what they think I would be good at speaking about. Though it’s only really paid off once, so–

EVAN: Yeah. Actually, same here and same here. [laughs]

CHUCK: It really depends. And it depends on the conference, it depends on the conference organizers as to what they are looking for. Sometimes you will put a topic out there, it’s a good topic, there’s plenty of interest around that and it’s not just what they are looking for for the conference. So you have to be aware of that too. So we kind of talked about picking a topic, what do you need to put in to the topic proposal for the conference in order to really have them want you to come speak?

EVAN: Well, OK like so many other things we do, its marketing. Right?


EVAN: That was for you Chuck.

CHUCK: [laughs]

EVAN: Now, so the… one thing I guess that bugs me a little bit about submitting in conferences is that you are marketing to the people who are organizing the conference. But you are also — usually when you are submitting an abstract — you are also submitting your talk description which will end up in whatever program the conference puts up. So you have to figure out how you also wanna market to the attendees or going to attend and  so attendees are going to attend – that’s actually redundant. So what I tend to do is I tend to take a kind of tongue-in-cheek approach trying to come up with something I guess a little bit witty and little clever but being topical. Because actually I don’t know why, I guess because it’s fun for me to an extent. I guess I also have a notion that it’s more likely to stick in people’s minds.

CHUCK: I agree. And one thing that I have seen with that — or were you going to keep talking? Sorry.

EVAN: I was actually going to get beyond abstracts and extrapolate, but let’s do one thing at a time. [chuckles]

CHUCK: OK. So Yeah. With abstracts for me, it seemed like I couldn’t get in to conference for a while and it turned out that what you are talking about exactly is exactly the mistake I was making. So, I either wasn’t comfortable putting the sort of the entirety of what I was going to cover in to the talk. And sometimes, you don’t want to  get in to the abstract and sometimes you don’t want to, but for the most part, you really wanna let the conference organizers know what you are going to be speaking on and what is going to be in the talk, so that they can fit it in where they want it. The other thing is, yeah it was usually pretty dry and—

EVAN: I’ve done that enough, yeah.

CHUCK: And since I’ve kind of given it a little bit of flavor if you can kind of hint at a theme or something like that, where they get an idea that it’s not just going to be this dry speech on some topic, but it’s actually going to have some flavor to it, a lot of times that helps as well. Because then you will be interested.

EVAN: With my Frustration Driven Development, when I wrote a proposal for that about a year ago, I still kind of remember this — I got mixed up in which conference I submitted it to that’s a whole other story — I was in a really silly mood that night and I’ve just decided I’m just going to have all kinds of Star Wars metaphors and allusions in my proposal. I didn’t start with the idea that the presentation was going to have all kinds of Star Wars and other nerd references. And usually my presentations suffered with too many — kept problem. But when I started working on the slides, I guess I riffed off the proposal a little bit and then a little bit of Star Wars led to more Star Wars, led to Jeff mocking me every time on the podcast for always using Star wars references [chuckles].

CHUCK: Hey there is nothing wrong with that.

EVAN: [laughs] Oh, but getting beyond just the abstract in getting accepted, I think Chuck you and I talked about this at Mountain West when we did a recording there that, I think that was the one you lost right? [chuckles] I don’t remember if that went out or not.

CHUCK: I’m trying to–

EVAN: Well it was a year ago. So more than a year ago now. Oh, was that the one… oh fudge, I don’t remember exactly when. I just remember the one we did at Mountain West.

CHUCK: Oh, where we sat and–

EVAN: You, me and Dave and Tim O’Conner.

CHUCK: Yeah. That was the last one. It was last year.

EVAN: That getting accepted to conferences, I think it’s important to put it on context that as I said, you are marketing to frankly, in purely functionally and practically speaking, you are marketing to the people running the conference or you are marketing to the people who are choosing the talks. You are sure your also marketing to the audience but the first thing is if you don’t get accepted, you are not getting on stage to talk. Then once you get accepted, then you have to have something that sounds interesting to people.

The sad fact is it doesn’t even necessarily have to be informative because we are often reminded with our fields of pop culture. Obviously, I would encourage people and I try too myself come up with talks that are informative. But ultimately, the talks that application tend to remember are not necessarily just informative — although the ones that are super informative — the ones that where the content is mind blowing, people will remember it almost no matter how it’s presented, but unless your content is totally, utterly mind blowing, you need to craft your presentation in such a way as to be memorable. What I tend to do with that is I insert lots of stupid humor as I so often do in everything.

CHUCK: Yeah. I’m going to be speaking at New Media Expo about podcasting. And in particular, it’s kind of a blend between understanding podcasting and understanding APIs. And I can say that to you guys you kind of get an idea where I’m going. I mean, I have to explain to them what an API is and why they even care. But I kind of framed it around evil robots and why you want evil robots to come and do stuff with your website. And so you know, I’m tempted to get a lab coat and go in as the mad scientist that makes evil robots. I don’t know how far I’m going to take the metaphor. But anyway, so it’ll be something different.

EVAN: If you do that it’ll be memorable.

CHUCK: Right. It will stand out, you know.

EVAN: Maybe you should even get a wig.

CHUCK: [laughs]

EVAN: I usually start to think of the guy at the beginning of ‘Robot Chicken’.

CHUCK: Yeah. But really, it’s a good way to stand out and get people’s attention. So I’m very seriously considering doing something like that and just talking the metaphor all the way and making it both entertaining and informative.

EVAN: the part that I always feel compelled to mention, I almost feel like I’m a little bit bad/guilty about presenting at conferences because usually the way that conference speakers are chosen is [sighs] I don’t wanna — it’s not egalitarian. ‘Plutocratic’ is not the right term. ‘Meritocratic’ I suppose maybe better — where you have a very few people who choose based on the myriad of the presentation — the myriad of the abstract I should say — and then the myriad of the individual.

CHUCK: Right.

EVAN: Sorry?

CHUCK: I said ‘right’ and you just–

EVAN: Damn it. I’ll blame the whiskey I’m drinking right now. So, getting accepted to a conference really just means one where few people think you are cool enough or smart enough that it’s not an indication that thou art somehow greater than the audience. And yet some… a lot we always suffer — I say ‘we’ — I find that programing can mean at least pop culture’s tend to suffer from ‘hero worship’. So, being on a stage tends to result in some of that from some people in the audience. And I hope that the people listening to this podcast know better, but I just put that out there just in case they don’t.

CHUCK: I think that’s interesting. We talked a whole episode about this same kind of thing on Ruby Rogues. And Josh mentioned what they did was they took the names off of the abstracts and then picked them.

EVAN: Cool.

CHUCK: Which was really interesting and—

EVAN: That was what? For GoGaRuCo?

CHUCK: GoGaRuCo. And they got a completely different sampling than what they normally would have. So I think it’s an interesting idea, but I also think you are right. I think in some cases, certain people could submit a talk to a particular conference and say, “Oh. I’m just going to talk about timing or something and they get a spot.”

EVAN: Yeah.

ERIC: It’s also like a marketing thing for the conference organizer. I mean if you get, you know, Tim O’Reilly or whatever at your conference, you are going to draw people that might not have come otherwise. And so typically you know, at certain level, that’s where you get the keynote where it’s like this guy is coming. In the ideal world, the conference organizers are thinking about, “OK, who is my audience? Who did they wanna see? What topics do they wanna hear about?” But I mean, its people you can’t read your audience minds and match it perfectly with the proposals that are in.

CHUCK: Well and for a lot of the conferences, I understand that the keynotes are by invitation. So, those folks, they don’t even submit a proposal. Before the call for proposals is opened up, they’ve already been asked to come to speak.

ERIC: But for non-keynotes, this must’ve happened for a good number of conferences, because I’ve seen some spectacular talks by people who are typical conference speakers. I’ve also seen some people who do the ‘circuit’ if you will, and their talks are mediocre to terrible. And I have to imagine some of these people get accepted because they have cache associated with their name. So it doesn’t have much to deal with what their abstract is, it’s “Oh, someone wants to speak, so we should let them.”

CHUCK: There is some truth to that. I think also some folks get elected to speak again because the organizers know who they are and have seen them speaking and know that they can deliver a good presentation.

EVAN: Right.

CHUCK: So they are not worried that they going to show up and make the rookie mistakes.

EVAN: And having been on a border or more I don’t remember for sure, for conferences yes, I have not chosen people because some of the organizers said “This person doesn’t do good presentations” and I have helped chose other people because I’ve known that… in part I’ve known that certain people do better presentations. But, well-known speakers does not necessarily equate to god presentation, just as unknown speakers does not necessarily equate to bad presentation.

CHUCK: Agreed.

EVAN: We are getting off in the tangent. It’s totally my fault. I apologize. [chuckles]

CHUCK: No, it’s OK. I was going to change the topic here in a second anyway. I’m a little bit curious as to what you do to prepare. I mean you have to write slides and things like that, but what in particular do you do to prepare?

EVAN: I get stressed out.

CHUCK: [laughs] Yeah by the way getting accepted, it’s only the beginning.

EVAN: Yeah right. Totally. So you get accepted and then you wait to the following months until your talk is supposed to be given and then you write the whole thing the night before. I know that a lot of people do that. And I never — no I actually did that once — I had to do that once because my life was so crazy at the time, I didn’t have any time to prepare the slides before — quite literally — for like a month. But otherwise, ideally between getting accepted and actually writing a draft, for me, I spent a lot time just thinking about the topic, whether it’s consciously or it’s just something that stays in the back of my mind. And I look for ideas as time pass, things that hooks that I see in the real world that I could use in my presentation.

And then maybe a couple of weeks before, I come up with the first draft. I usually do it in Markdown. And then I trend it up again and again and again. And I’ll admit that now, having a bunch of presentations, I don’t practice much. My practice is usually a few iterations of reading through the slides straight through, reciting the presentation as though I was speaking in my head. And when I get stuck on something, I focus on the slide.

It’s like how I practice piano when my mother was still a piano teacher, when she would teach me piano. When I would trip on something, I would take that one section I tripped up on, break it down. Try to figure out what’s wrong; what’s missing, what doesn’t feel right. And then I would practice it a few times maybe and then I would start to do the whole thing again. And then I would rinse and repeat until I had a really comfortable walk through it or kind of comfortable if I had enough time. And then I would back to it again and do it over and then just start refining.

CHUCK: Yeah. That’s more or less how I do it. When I get going, I become hyper aware about the things that are related to what I’m talking about.

EVAN: Yes.

CHUCK: And I’ll start putting together an outline of what I wanna cover and how it kind of fits together. Once I have that outlined together, then I can sit down and start flushing it out. I go looking for images and kind of figure out what theme I want to you know, add into it because I like to have a little bit of a flavor to it — though I didn’t do that in my last talk. But anyway, like the evil robots thing. So I’ll start fitting it all together. And then once I have my slides together, I tend to practice quite a bit. I’ll put it up on my monitor on my computer and I’ll actually pull the clicker out of my  bag and plug it in to my desktop machine and actually click through the slides and talk my way through it. And what that does is it allows me to get my speaker notes in order in Keynote.

EVAN: Yes. Yeah.

CHUCK: And it also allows me to get a good idea of how much time I’m going to take up.

EVAN: I don’t usually… I used to use Keynote. Now, I’m using Keydown. I don’t have speaker notes anymore, so what I tend to do for each slide — in Keydown, there is a note section in the markdown you write that you can write on a  first slide basis — and I tend to have maybe one to three bullet points that I wanna hit on when I’m talking about a slide. So, as I’m going through, as I’m doing my practice, it’s “Do I know what these bullet points are?” and “Do they come to me naturally as I’m talking?” And if they are not, then I need to tweak them.

CHUCK: Yeah that’s another thing that I get out of my practice is, “Does it feel right” “Are all of the transitions smooth?”

EVAN: Mh-hmm.

CHUCK: “Does it flow well?” Because if it doesn’t, then any — I don’t know what the word is – ‘dissociation’ I guess in your talk, your audience is going to pick up on that.

EVAN: So I kind of wonder — because Eric’s actually self-published a book here — I have to imagine that writing a book is not all that unlike writing a presentation except it’s larger in scope.

ERIC: Uh… No. I’d say they are pretty different. So  I don’t do presentations, but I’m looking at this and the steps you guys are doing is the exact steps I do when I do a screencast. Which is obviously it’s a screencast; if I screwed up I can start over.

EVAN: Sure.

ERIC: Writing a book, I mean, some of the outline in making sure that transitions are good like yeah, that’s similar and that’s kind of like writing, creating content in general. But I think writing, its more get everything down on paper and then come back and edit later. I don’t know, I mean writing, you have a lot of flexibility in your medium because its typically longer; you have more time I guess in your book presentation.

EVAN: So a bit like doing a blog post but also doing a presentation? Because a blog post doesn’t necessarily use which outline because it tend to be more focused. Presentations tend to go a bit longer than a blog post but none of them, either of them are books.

ERIC: Yeah. I mean it could just be how I write too. Like I do basically stream of consciousness writing.; like I will outline what I wanna talk about, but then I just go off for an hour or two hours and then come back way later and edit it and try to figure out what ideas I’m going into.

EVAN: To be fair, when I start writing into presentation, that is exactly how I start. It’s just mark downing because a presentation, the slides especially, the slides are a lot like an outline. No matter what the mnemonics are that are there for me, they are essentially a framework that I talk to. But I just barfed down into mark down everything comes to mind and then I start typing it up — usually it’s by removing things. Because as I’m barfing down everything its more language than I want in my slides — because I don’t use much language in my slides intentionally — but it’s the ideas that I wanna talk to. It does actually sound a little bit similar, but god that sounds kind of painful considering how hard it can be to presentation. I just try to imagine writing a book, doing the same kind of work except much, much more of it. That’s exhausting. [chuckles]

CHUCK: But at the same time, you don’t have to trip up — delivering it personally, verbally in person, in a book or a blog post.

ERIC: Also in a book, you can bring in people to help you a lot easier. You guys said you can present to like user groups or maybe to your mom or whatever, but the book  you can bring in like people who know how to do editing or know stories structure. They can basically rewrite your entire thing. And that’s a very strong community that’s already there with books whereas, — I don’t know —  I mean, is there any kind of like presentation help services type thing?

EVAN: Not exactly. But there are some really good books about writing presentations. I feel like I’ve mentioned it on this podcast before, but it might be my imagination. Jim Weirich who does excellent presentations turned me on to a book about called ‘Presentation Zen’. And that by the way is one of the reasons I like Keydown so much is that Keydown distils some of the visual ideas and presentations that I don’t know if it was intentional, but the constraints that it enforces makes it more natural. It makes it more harder not to produce slides that sort of conform with your Presentation Zen. And sure you can throw a lot of English on the screen using, “Oh hey nice quote there Eric”. So yes, the guy who wrote Keydown was thinking that.

You can throw a lot of English in the screen if you want to, but it looks terrible in keydown, maybe intentionally. Sticking with Keydown’s default styling, you end up with something that would suit presentations in pretty well with very little work. And that’s something along the lines to say that you would have a lot of images in your presentations and the text is on top of not next to above or below the image and it flows well with the image. Like the text flow into or out of each slide and you have very little text. So for me, the images in the title for each slide if you wrote a title in each slide are lot of my cues in a presentation which is why I don’t use keydown. I mean the Keynote slide note the other advantage is I usually take a brief look at the slide and I know what’s next, if I don’t already know it in my head.

CHUCK: I’m usually a little bit… I really like that for presentations themselves, I feel a little bad sometimes for the people go look at my slides afterwards because they are very sparse. But at the same time, the slides weren’t written to give your talk.

EVAN: For an audience to–

EVAN: Right.

CHUCK: Right.

EVAN: Right [chuckles] that was again for you. So if you are using Keydown though and you post your presentation say on GitHub — like I have been doing lately — because it’s really easy to do since it’s just HTML CSS and JavaScript–

CHUCK: Then you can get the notes out of the Markdown.

EVAN: Exactly! The notes are still in your Markdown. You can go to the repo, get your notes out of Markdown and you can at least get more of the broad strokes, if not the specifics.

ERIC: Actually what I do when I’m using Keydown is, because is Markdown I just put HTML comments. And so, actually the rendered thing has all those comments in it instead of just using that special notes tag. So, it’s nice because you can just view source, you don’t have to actually publish the repo or any of that stuff.

EVAN: Mh-hmm. I wonder if there is an option to do that in Keydown. I’ll have to check. That would be nice.

ERIC: I use Keydown. Markdown as it is sends any HTML directly out. Like it doesn’t send—

EVAN: Oh. I see what you are saying. It’ll probably be nicer for an audience if you have something like a hover I’m saying abstractly, not but if Keydown maybe have something like a hover effect where you hover on a page and you get a pop up with the notes, instead of having review the source. But I said before, I’m super lazy how I use Keydown. I use it completely and I very happy with it.

CHUCK: Right.

EVAN: Right!

CHUCK: [chuckles] How do you feel about code in your slides?

EVAN: I actually learn some lessons for this from talking to Avdi Grimm after doing enough presentations with code in my slides and having issues with them. I try very hard to keep the number of lines in my slides very, very, very low. Sometimes that means that the examples don’t feel particularly rich, but if people can’t read the code then they are not going to be able to understand what the hell is going on when I’m trying to show code example anyway. So, I try to take the code example and distil out the absolute minimum that I can have and that’s what I will show. And if its means I need a few slides in order to make a point, I guess I’d rather have a few slides with very little code or to make one point then one slide with code that people can’t read.

CHUCK: Yeah. I agree.

ERIC: But the problem with it is it’s hard.

CHUCK: Yeah. It’s better than live coding though.

EVAN: I’ve done that once. [chuckles]

ERIC: I’ve seen a lot of presentations and as a viewer, like 2 things that hit me with code is one some people don’t have syntax highlighting or they have syntax highlighting that you can’t read — which Is a problem. But the other thing is most presentations are on projectors that are on a low resolution. And so, I mean, any code is going to have to wrap lines and when you wrap lines in a presentation, I mean it’s so hard to really kind of understand it. And so you have to really kind dumb down stuff and then it’s not really, that’s kind of a dumbed down example what it is like in the real world.

EVAN: And that’s exactly what I find myself doing these days that, I intentionally have example that are only a few lines of code and they are not many columns of code because I don’t trust the projectors to be anything more than 1024×760. But, occasionally I get surprised; like when I get to a venue — and this has now become a habit for me but the way — I ask the conference organizers what’s the resolution of the screen. What blows my mind is occasionally, when I get the answer back, “What? I don’t know that.”

CHUCK: [laughs]

EVAN: Like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But occasionally, in Geekfest, which is a weekly – not really a conference, almost like a user group but it’s really pretty large held in Chicago –  they have HDTV so it’s 1920×1080, which is unusual. Most conference are using projectors that do 1024×768.

CHUCK: Yeah that’s my experience is that the resolution really isn’t that great.

EVAN: So that would be a tip; ask the conference organizers — they really should know.

CHUCK: Yeah. But I think we’ve talked about a lot of the things with the slides. You know, high contrast. The other thing is you can never count on the lighting in the room, so you want to go not only know what the resolution is, but when you get there, get there a little bit early and see if you can just hook your machine in to the projector that you are going to be using and just flip through your slides and make sure that you can read them. That way, you have time to adjust them before you actually give the talk.

EVAN: Although changing fonts and styles at the last minute could be really dangerous. But no one would be able to read your slides then– [chuckles]

CHUCK: Well, that has more to do in my experience with contrast than with font or font size.

EVAN: Yes.

CHUCK: So you might have to change the font size, your most likely problem is going to be contrast. You are going to find out that there’s too much light in the room for what you’ve got or something like that. I’m trying to think if there is anything else that you know, I wanna just reiterate, practice, practice, practice. If you are an experienced speaker, then it’s probably a little bit different story, but I mean—

EVAN: When I was first starting I practice a lot. So OK here’s another one, because this is a mistake I have made — I guess I still make it sometimes. I don’t feel as bad about it if I do it now — time your presentation. Actually this is especially true when you are a new presenter. Plan when you practice when you do a whole run through. Time when you practice. You are probably going to go faster when you are on stage than when you are practicing because you are going to be more nervous at least the first time, but you need to time it because your presentation — some people write way too much content and their presentation run long.

You don’t wanna be that guy who runs — I’ve seen it before that some people complain about it. I haven’t mind it necessarily, but you don’t wanna be that guy that makes the conference run long your because you half hour presentation is an hour and a half. But it’s happened. I tend to do the opposite where I go fast because I don’t talk fast or anything. And my 45-minute presentation gets compressed into 20 sometimes. And as long as I feel the content is valuable and the presentation is delivered well, I don’t feel so bad about that. Also usually, there is at least room for Q&A. If your topic is complicated enough, you’ll get a long of questions. And leaving more time to Q&A then might be worthwhile. For example, during — talk I didn’t get a ton of questions. Doing a talk about writing recommendation engines from scratch, it was about 20-25-minute presentation and about the whole second half of that – another 25 minutes — was just questions, really good questions.

CHUCK: That was my experience with that SOA talk. And when I practice, I typically am trying to get the timing to around 5-10 minutes longer than I have for my talk. And the reason is because I always go faster when I speak.

EVAN: And you are not going to know that for sure about yourself until you get up on the stage and do it once.

CHUCK: Right. But then the other thing is, I also try to get in to my head “OK, if it looks like I’m going to go over, these are the parts that I’m going to cut.” And you know, so in the last half, I have 2 or 3 things that I can just skip. And so I just skip over them and say, “This is bonus material. You can get it on GitHub here. But we don’t have time. I put it in but we don’t have time. Sorry.” And most of the time, that’s fine.

ERIC: What I’ve done for that sometimes is not actually like skipping a slide or saying its bonus, but like if you have a slide and you give a simple example, like I might have a more complex example and then I run out of time, I just skip over the more complex one. And it’s kind of way to kind of buy you a few extra minutes here and there.

EVAN: So mistake I made first time conference presentation, don’t skip slides the first time you are presenting. Because it’s too easy to do for the wrong—if you give yourself some permission to do, it’s too easy to do for the wrong reasons. And having done that before, I did exactly that for the wrong reasons and I wish I hadn’t skipped those slides. It would have actually been valuable to some other people in the audience. I second guess myself and didn’t think so at the time, and I guess wrong.

So, until you have some more experience gauging audience skill level, gauging audience interests, presenting a few times, don’t give yourself permission to skip. I don’t think. Just plan your talk, do your talk. If you try to improvise the first the first time, unless you are really comfortable talking with people, talking in front of people even when you have not done a conference presentation before, you are more likely to not trip yourself up.

CHUCK: I definitely agree with making like in real-time edits, or you are changing your talk while you are giving it. And yeah, those generally aren’t a good idea unless you are extremely, extremely familiar with your subject matter and with speaking in front of people and especially comfortable with it, because it is really easy to mess it up or to miss something that is critical to your actual talk.

One other thing that I wanna bring in is a lot of times, people think that you are talking about something when you are giving a talk. I see this all the time where people are like, “Well I’m talking about SOA” or “I’m talking about what I do when I’m blah, blah, blah”. And effectively, what you are really doing — and a lot of the best talks that I’ve seen really do this – is that they are trying to convince people to do something.

EVAN: Yes!

CHUCK: So they are trying to convince people to try this library or to try this technique. Or to consider whether or not this approach makes sense to the problems you are trying to solve. So if you come at it from that angle, where you are saying, “Look, I just wanna convince people to go and try this NoSQL database.” Then what you do is you wind up making your talk compelling instead of informative.

EVAN: I was going suggest to point out that generally, I personally don’t tend to like talks about “use this gem, use this library.”

CHUCK: Right.

EVAN: Maybe using a tool or using the database, something that has a lot of different capabilities — perhaps more forgiving toward. But libraries are really are almost like a pop culture themselves and a very, very fast paced one. Even more fast paced I think than you the adoption of different techniques in the community. So, try to avoid “a look at my shiny new library” presentation. I say that having done one before and feeling that maybe it wasn’t worth while after even the people in the audience thought it that was, the better talks I found are usually the ones that are trying to change people’s outlook or they are trying to shift people’s perspectives or simply just trying to get people to– well it’s really to get people to think in a different way– I’m saying the same thing now. I found those the most compelling. When you are trying to get people to develop a different perspective, those to me usually are the really good talks. That’s just my opinion.

CHUCK: I’ll admit too that “use this library” is a bad example. “Think about this problem in a different way because it will make your life easier” is a much better example of that.

EVAN: Yeah.

CHUCK: So, Yeah. Are there any other aspects to speaking at conferences that you wanna talk about? Evan? Eric?

ERIC: There is one that I wanna talk about just because it’s  a thing that annoyed me but – I don’t know what it’s called — but you know, your proposal like, “I wanna talk about topic x.” They accept it, put it and print it — all that it’s like you are talking about topic x. One time, the presenter was going to talk about topic x, he walks and said, “I decided not to talk about topic x. I’m going to talk about topic y  because I care about that more.”

EVAN: [chuckles] I love those.

ERIC: I mean it’s a completely… I mean it’s talking about like he was supposed to talk about let’s say ‘JavaScript’ and he says, “I’m going to talk about HTML5 instead” or like vice versa. So really not very close. And he had no slides, basically unprepared. I’m just going to show you what the RFC is and talk about why I think we need to do this. And within 2 minutes, half of the audience stepped up and walked out.

EVAN: Well, good for them.

CHUCK: I was going to say pro—

ERIC: Yeah like this guy, I went to one of his ones before, and he did something similar but I was like, “I’ll stay because I’m interested in this new topic a little bit,” but it was a waste of my time. And so, if you are going to change your topic, if you can, tell the conference organizer. But if you can’t, I mean, I’m kind of inclined to just stick with what you said you’ll do. If wanna mention like a side the other thing you are really passionate about, but I mean it’s hard because I plan out like, “OK, I’m going to this one and not this other session because this one is going to  help me more” and then if I’m let down it really upsets me. And it’s like, “Well that was a waste of time.” And I actually, I didn’t go to that conference again. I was like I scratched it off the list of the ones I would go to.

CHUCK: I was going to say it’s not fair to listeners when that happens, but it’s not especially not fair to the conference organizers.

EVAN: Oh yeah.

CHUCK: Because they brought you in to add that certain thing to their line up, and you effectively came in and said, “I’m smarter than you, I’m better than you and my agenda is more important than yours.”

EVAN: I think you have something very important there Chuck, because in terms of continuing to speak at conferences — assuming you wanna do it more than once — you have to consider how well you are serving the interest of the conference or the conference organizers. So—

CHUCK: And the sponsors in the conference.

EVAN: Well and the sponsor in the conference. Although, sponsors and organizers can be by degrees open-minded at the same time going to completely different than what you said you are going to do. I agree, that’s not a good thing for the conference. So, if I were going to do something like that, on occasions for example when I’ve submitted a few  different proposals and I had one accepted, I had the conference organizers come back and say, “We would like you to talk.” And I say, “Well, is there any one thing you want me to talk about?” So I actually ask them. And they say, “Well any of the things that you have submitted or something completely different.” “Well OK, if you just want me to talk then OK.” At least I know that. But I agree, you should ask them and find out what suits them rather than what suits you and anything else is selfish and rude.

ERIC: Yeah. And in that case, like I think another conference did something like this where the speaker is really good, I mean, he is entertaining, knows his stuff and can switch gears fast. I think they had him submit a proposal that is like, “Listen to Bob talk. Bob knows about x, y and z. He is going to make a presentation and we don’t know what he is going to talk about.” And I was in the room next door and every– like you couldn’t hear the conference I was in because his presentation was received so well, people were laughing. I mean it was like a party next door type thing.

And if you have done it before and you actually have proof that you can deliver and you are open with conference organizers, that could fly. But in this specific case, it was like, this guy has done it before and he just kind of made the gut decision that “I’m changing it” and I don’t think he was invited back the next year, but like I said I didn’t even go back the next year. I was done with that.

CHUCK: Yup. And that’s too bad because I know that those conference organizers put in a lot of work. I have one other question — and this is something that really Evan can answer better than the rest of us because he is involved in organizing conference — but how much do the conference organizers talk to each other?

EVAN: A fair amount.

ERIC: There is a list, isn’t there?

EVAN: There is a mailing list that we’ve had for — I don’t know — I’d say big conference organizers, primarily Ruby conference organizers. I say primarily because —, he sent an email to us when he was getting started and he is still on the list even though — I guess has become more of a multi-language kind of closure focused conference. But otherwise, we talk via email. I guess some of us talk more regularly to each other than others, but there is a little — not a click — but I guess you can say a little bit of a tribe. I haven’t found that we organizers tend to be especially tight with one another, but we do have broad conference related talk discussions with each other sometimes.

Like when I’ve been to Lone Star, [laughs] here we go back and forth. But that’s almost more — except from the mailing list — it was almost more for commiseration than anything else because organizing conferences can be challenging. The mailing list is usually more functionally practically oriented than that; about how do you handle x, how do you do y, what do you do if someone does z and occasionally—

CHUCK: Do they ever ask, “Have you had someone had talk at your conference and how was it?”

EVAN: I don’t believe I’ve seen that. Well frankly, just like we are with this podcast, we tend to be kind of careful about what specific information we share about people or organizations — not just for concern of backlash publicly or privately backlash – but because its personal really. A lot of it could be very subjective. So one person’s experience with one other person might not really be representative of what anyone else’s experience will be like as well.

I think I’ve seen one or two occasions where if a sponsor burned the conference badly, maybe I’ve seen an email where we are discussing sponsors and whether to have contracts or not. Actually that was the more recent one. I’ve seen an email way back where maybe someone said this sponsor bailed on us at eh last minute. Or he might not have said it publicly; I think I actually had to inquire in private because I was concerned about sponsorships at the time. So bringing back, we tend to be fairly private about specifics. Usually, it’s very, very, very rare when a name gets named, if you will.

CHUCK: Right. Its go to be a major deal.

EVAN: It has to be pretty significant. Like, completely flaked out and gave no reason whatsoever or no valid reason whatsoever was something incredibly lame and really ruined this particular thing. The time when a major sponsor backed out at a conference like I said, this was something I had to address in private in order to get answer. We don’t usually talk about that stuff.


EVAN: We speak in broad terms to try to prevent each other from making mistakes that — well, others of us have made — a lot of the time.

CHUCK: OK. I think we are getting close to the end to our time. Are there any other avenues that we wanna pursue on speaking at conferences? Have you found that it really helps your business as far as being –  I don’t know –

EVAN: Absofreakinglutely. You don’t even need to finish that sentence. [chuckles]

CHUCK: I’m not talking about getting leads or being recognized as an expert.

EVAN: Yes, yes, yes and yes. Most of my leads have indirectly – not directly – been linked to speaking at conferences. That is that, it’s not someone who’ve heard me speak usually, it’s someone who knew someone who heard me speak, I’ve had frequently. I guess I’ve also had some because I organize Ruby DCamp. I mean, I’ve had those two and then maybe it’s about 50-50. Not quite. There’s the — one “I saw your website”. But more often, it’s “I’ve heard you speak” or “I’ve heard that you spoke at X and that you speak a lot,” and then “You know a lot about x because you speak at…” So yes, this gets back to get clients now for me; take the strategies that suits you best personally. And for me, I really hate talking obviously.


Talking in conferences is– wait! Talking at conferences come pretty naturally for more me now. It was a little uncomfortable at first because, I got nervous talking in front of a few hundred people. Now I don’t really get by that at all, very, very rarely. I’m just eager to share and have people ask questions. So, yes. It’s definitely helped me help get recognized as an expert, although that humbles the hell out of me because the more I know, the less I feel like I do. It helps me get work, yes. Yes, yes, yes and yes.

CHUCK: I wanna chime in too because it’s also helped me. I’ve had a few people talk to me about talks that I have given at various conferences. “I saw your talk and clearly you know about X and Yeah.” And it pays off. Most of the work I get is either by referral or from things like the podcasts that I do. But it has paid off that way as well. So I just wanna chime in. It is a real way of generating business and it works. So that being said, let’s go ahead and get in to the picks. Eric, what are your picks?

ERIC: Recently I have been doing a lot of work on paper like actually using notebooks and stuff like that to kind of keep me organized and also kind of, you know, write down little ideas that aren’t necessarily like to-do things but, I want to like through them somewhere. And so, I have been using – I have, what is it, the Pilot G2 pen, which is kind of a standard pen. I know a lot of people use them. I’ve been using those for years. And then, since I got these notebooks I kind of went like, “Oh I wanna put some colors.” So like, if there is a bug, I like to circle it in red, so I can visually see it on the page or if there is a question I will use like purple so it stands out.

And a couple of weeks ago — I guess a I was asking on Twitter — trying to find like a good pen for that because –- is obviously going to go through that paper and I don’t want my bugs be circled 50 pages down. And I come to find out Pilot G2 has colored pens too, and so I bought a pack of them. They are like, black, blue, red and also like a pink, cyan and kind of like a maroon — and they are great. So if you do any kind of like writing on paper and want to have a little bit of color, especially if for a software developer you are doing modelling or you need to kind of keep track of different ideas or things, I highly recommend these pens. They don’t really smear, they don’t leak through pages that well and they have a good feel to them.

CHUCK: So, are they ball point pens or are they more fountain pens?

ERIC: Just ballpens.

CHUCK: Oh, cool.

ERIC: Yeah. Normal pens, just different colors. I think there is a 20-pack but I want to try the 8-pack to see if they actually were the same pens that I was writing with. But yeah, there’s refills and everything else. It’s pretty nice little pens.

CHUCK: Sounds good. Evan what are your picks?

ERIC: Well because I didn’t really have a pick today, I admit. I’m going to say Keydown was my pick. [chuckles] its relevant to do with presentations anyway. Sorry I life’s been kind of crazy lately.

CHUCK: That’s OK. Keydown is pretty cool. I’ve seen few others like it like impress.js and stuff that are at least they are in the browser and JavaScript driven but anyway. So my picks, I have a little clicker like I said before. It’s just a little remote, has USB receiver that you plug in to your computer. And it has back, forward, blank screen, So you hit the button and the screen goes dark. So, if you wanna just talk without having something up there to annoy people with, then that’s a good way to go. And it also has a laser pointer in it, though I typically don’t use the laser pointer because it will get captured in the video but, it’s hard to indicate things when people are just looking at slides and you don’t have that option of highlighting stuff visually that way. But it’s really nice and I’ll put a link to it on Amazon in the show notes.

And then, the other pick that I wanna pick is QR Codes. And I’ve used this in a couple of talks. I’ve put a QR Code with all my contact information in it at the end of my talk. The nice thing about that is that, it makes it easy if people just wanna just capture my contact information while I’m doing the talk. They just point their camera up there and take a picture. That’s all it takes. So then they have my contact information. I don’t have to give them a business card. They don’t come find me afterward and they get a hold of me at their convenience. So those are my picks. Are there any announcements that we wanna go over before we wrap this up?

EVAN: I don’t think I have any.


ERIC: No, nothing new here.

CHUCK: OK. Well then, we’ll wrap this up. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you all next week!

EVAN: See ya!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

J November 19, 2012 at 6:20 pm

So what’s the reason for speaking at conferences? You guys never even brought why you’d want to. Sounds like a lot of work and I don’t know if worth the time if it’s just “marketing”.


November 22, 2012 at 7:15 am

If you like keydown, I assume, that you would also like Impress.js and Reveal.js .
Btw, one more great show! I enjoy your consistent style with absolut top quality.


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