Adapting a previously-given talk

November 18, 2014

After I gave my talk “How to Be a Better Junior Developer” at RailsConf and wasn't totally happy with how I delivered it, I was determined to get some more out of the hours upon hours I'd put into pulling that talk together. I took pretty much the same proposal that I'd written for that talk and submitted it a whole bunch of other CFPs.

It got rejected from most places—most conferences are smaller than RailsConf and having a talk so directed at junior developers might be too small a proportion of their audience, I think. I then added on to the talk proposal description that if that was a concern of the organizers, I'd gotten feedback even from senior developers* that they thought much of the content could be more widely applicable and I'd be happy to work on making the talk to be directed at a broader audience if they thought that would be more appealing to their particular attendees.

The talk actually got accepted as-is to PyCon Au, which I was really thrilled about! I studied abroad for a semester at the University of Melbourne and loved it there, but couldn't afford to travel much (in particular, it is a life goal of mine to see Uluru). Unfortunately the timing didn't work out, so maybe some other time.

Of the rejections I got, I was able to get extra feedback from eurucamp. They said they weren't able to really tell what was going to be in the talk, because I'd spent more time in the application talking more about how I could adapt it. I had included a link to my blog post and slides about the talk in its current form, so I'm not sure if they didn't visit that or thought it was insufficient, but I was more careful after that to make sure to still have a fully fleshed out talk proposal so conference organizers wouldn't have to leave the application to get all the info.

This “hey I can adapt the talk if you want” strategy then ended up working out with ArrrrCamp. The organizers actually wrote back to me something along the lines of, “it was between this talk and another one but we think this one works better, if you can adapt it."  I quickly wrote up a new title and abstract and then after buying the tickets for my flights, just set a reminder on my calendar to get back to the talk about 2 months before the actual conference. Which meant of course, I did most of the work the day before the conference.

But the reminder actually still worked, because in the time I had “adapt talk for ArrrrCamp” on my to-do list, I was at least doing some background processing in my brain for what changes I needed to make. I talked a New Relic intern** into helping me with a practice run-through, hoping that would motivate me to get the work done sooner, but that didn't quite work out with the other things I'd had going on that week. Still, going through the talk out loud with another person helped me get some notes on which sections should be cut, and I also asked her to give me feedback specifically on which sections she thought would resonate even with a wider audience.

I realized that I needed to re-work the structure a bit, but I still wanted some kind of overall organizing outline like I'd originally had with the two overall sections with 3 points each, since I thought that helped make the points easier for people to remember. It was too inefficient to try to change the slides first, so instead, I just pulled up a text file and thought through which of the main points I'd want to keep and how I might be able to group them together a little differently. Much less work to move around the different lines of the outline then.

I came up with two new broad themes, around building relationships and improving communication skills. Into each of these, I slotted the other sections I'd had before. I consolidated all the advice around mentoring and being mentored and put them into its own section. However, I ended up ripping out this section entirely because I figured my audience wouldn't necessarily all care about mentoring and the argument for how being a better mentor would help them was a bit more loose. If people did care, there are other talks out there entirely focused on mentoring they could turn to.

Instead, I replaced it with a slightly stripped down version of the “Ask vs. Guess Cultures” talk that I gave at the New Relic engineering offsite earlier this year. That talk had gotten a GREAT response, with lots of people telling me they'd never heard of that concept before but learning a lot from all the stories I told***. I figured that since I had material that'd been shown to be novel, funny, and apparently useful to a similar audience, that would be a good bet.

Once I'd gotten the slides moved around and the speaker notes edited and everything cleaned up with the new outline, I ran through it a few times just speaking out loud to myself in my hotel room. Ideally I would have liked to be able to practice out loud in front of other humans, but this was like 11:30pm the night before. Not great, but still early enough that I'd get a decent amount of sleep. At least most of the different components making up the talk had been given in front of people at some point.

And it all ended up working out really well! For future talks, I'm going to keep in mind Cate Huston's technique of a grid system for the different points in a talk so it's possible to see at a glance how you can adapt it for different lengths.

*ok fine, secretly I always thought that that was true, but 1, I'm particularly interested in helping other non-traditional background developers like me, and 2, it seemed kind of presumptuous to state something like that myself while I'm still a pretty junior developer.
**I had to find an intern because most people at New Relic had already listened to the talk at least once when I was practicing for RailsConf, lol.
***Particularly the stories involving my husband, which got really big laughs, even with a non-American audience. Apparently I'm pretty talented at telling funny stories involving my husband, which is something I'm keeping in mind for future talks, haha. As another ArrrrCamp attendee told me later, my husband might become my Gorbypuff (that's Aaron Patterson's cat that he talks about on Twitter and passes out stickers to make it easier to talk to people, lol).