Reflecting on my talk at ArrrrCamp

November 11, 2014

The talk I gave at ArrrrCamp was essentially my “How to be a Better Junior Developer” talk but adapted to be more generally about getting better at the non-technical aspects of working as a developer. I'll have a post up at some point about how I did that adaption, but first I went to reflect on how it went, which was…really well!!!

Here are some of the things that I think I had going for me or did well at:

Giving myself permission to be anti-social before the talk
I didn't exactly reread my own blog post about what I was going to do better next time after I gave that talk at RailsConf but the key thing I remembered was how terrible it was to not have gone to sleep the night before until 3am. I went out in the afternoon to do a bit of sightseeing and find the venue so I'd know how to get there from the hotel, and that was enough. There was an informal meetup of ArrrrCamp attendees at 8pm the night before the conference started, but I decided to skip it because I knew that if I went, I might tire my voice out again, and then be up ridiculously late doing another practice after getting back. Better to just work on it and go to bed after one out-loud run-through, then getting up early to have plenty of time for a quiet breakfast and another run-through.

Also, a really cool thing about ArrrrCamp is that the breaks between talks is scheduled to be a whole 30 minutes! I considered shutting myself into a quiet corner for these before my talk, especially the break immediately before. I did this at the engineering offsite, I went to the room where the luggage was being kept and just lay down listening to the sound of birds chirping outside for awhile, and that helped me feel a lot more refreshed and ready to tackle giving the talk. I didn't end up going that far for ArrrrCamp, but I did tell myself it was ok not to make much of an effort to introduce myself to new people, even though an overall goal I had for the conference was to have a lot of good conversations with new people. I did end up talking to a couple people, but it was just one-on-one and very manageable.

Where I was on the schedule
I had the PERFECT spot on the schedule, being the third speaker on the first of two days. I didn't have to go first, nor did I have to go second and worry about it all through the first speaker's talk. I also didn't have to go right before lunch was going to be served, but I got the talk over and done with and didn't have to worry about it for the rest of the conference and could pay better attention.

The venue
I was really happy with the flow of the talk, compared to when I delivered it at RailsConf. The venue for ArrrrCamp was essentially like a lecture hall theater, but the lighting was very friendly so that at least in the beginning, I was still able to see people's faces instead of looking out over a sea of darkness and shadow. I was even able to grab a photo of the audience from my perspective as a speaker.

The conference being single-track
Also, I think I liked giving a talk at a single track conference better. With a single track conference, the number of attendees pretty well closely matches with the capacity of the venue, so people were sitting a bit more packed in than the room I had at RailsConf. At a bigger track conference, it must be hard for the organizers to predict which talks will need more seats, and as Ben Orenstein mentioned in "How to Talk to Developers", you would always rather have a packed small room than a cavernous large room for your talk, even if the number of people is exactly the same.

I have a theory now that getting people to sit closer together in your audience helps them be more engaged in the talk, particularly if you have bits where you want people to laugh, since that's such a social thing. You don't see any standup comedy clubs where the audience members are really spread out and far from each other, right? Everyone was really packed in tightly at the engineering offsite where I originally gave the Ask vs. Guess cultures talk, and laughter would swell up around the whole room in like a big wave.

The other nice thing about the conference being single-track is that I didn't end up feeling competitive or anxious about people wanting to go to the other talks. People pretty much had to come to my talk, and if they stepped out, I could assume it was because they had some work they needed to do or something, not because I was boring them that badly.

Dealing with my nervousness
As before, I reminded myself that the feeling of wanting to puke right before I was supposed to start was totally normal and just a sign of overexcitement, not a sign that I was going to do horribly. This seemed to be a bit more effective, despite not having done a ton of practice talks of the new version of the talk. Maybe because I was more confident in the Ask vs. Guess Cultures segment I'd swapped in?

I also tweeted about that about-to-puke feeling because I've decided that's something I can do to help encourage other people. Showing vulnerability is good, I think, and I loved these statements from Aaron Patterson:
Aaron seems to be kind of known for regularly needing to get through his stage by telling jokes for awhile before he gets to the main content of his talk. I talked to another speaker who's a bit like that, Piotr, who said when he's giving talks, some times things just come out that the audience apparently finds really funny but he doesn't realize until later what the joke he was making was. Like being in a comedian fugue or something, haha.

I don't think I'm the type to just spout out good jokes while feeling nervous, but I think I can do well with funny stories if I've practiced them a bit and have figured out the right rhythms for where to put the beats. I did let off a bit of the nervous energy steam with a few random quips, like subbing an example of my introvertedness about how I was trying not to make eye contact with people at breakfast. I think that worked well enough.

I definitely still talked a bit too fast at the beginning. I kept reminding myself to slow down, for the usual reasons of coming across as more competent and confident, but also because that might help this audience understand it better, composed as it was of largely non-native English speakers*.

Lastly, for this talk, I also gave myself permission to just stay behind the podium and close to my notes, rather than pushing too far out of my comfort zone just yet. Michael Ries (who was also the first speaker!) did an amazing job of this, he was in front out from behind the podium the entire time on his talk and it was still extremely smooth. I'm not sure if I'm ready for that yet, but I talked to him a bit about his preparation strategy. Here's what he said:
  • this was only his second talk, but he'd started preparing it from the beginning with the goal of not needing to reference notes
  • he still wrote a script that he would read through and try to memorize
  • but then he practiced in front of people without that script, which helped him discover the places that needed work based on people's reactions and amend the script to discover the flow and beats to the stories
  • also helped him find the places where the storyline needed to be improved so that he himself could remember where it was going next, maybe add in another slide to help serve as a trigger for him, hopefully with still having mostly slides that are designed with the audience's needs in mind vs. his own

Getting feedback
One thing that occurred to me after my last talk is that receiving positive feedback can be an opportunity to do some market research, as it were. The positive compliments I've gotten usually are something like, “I really enjoyed your talk!” or “Great talk, nice job!” I try to be good about accepting compliments with at least a simple “Thanks!” as opposed to deflecting it or going into self-deprecation. In addition to that however, it's an interesting exercise to try to then ask, “Was there anything in particular that was new or interesting to you?” to see what particular sections might have resonated.

In practice, asking this could sometimes be a bit awkward, so I tried to soften it by saying something like, “you don't have to have an answer or anything, I've just been curious to see what might be good for me to focus on in particular for my future talks,” which helped a bit. One guy wasn't quite sure at first, but then actually came up to me the next day and told me he had a better answer now and gave me something more specific, which was really awesome.

In general, the responses I got were mostly on the Ask vs. Guess Cultures section, the section on remembering to express your appreciation to people who've helped you, and generally on the idea that communication can really help a team be more effective. Some people even said something like, “I can't wait for the video of this talk to be posted so I can make everyone on my team watch it,” which of course is immensely gratifying for me to hear.

So, goals for next time:
  • give a talk with code (I have one talk proposal about time zones written up that got rejected by RubyConf, but I'll submit it to other conferences that are more Rails-focused, and a couple other ideas I might write up proposals for)
  • feel freer to move from the podium—not sure if I'm ready to leave the podium behind entirely, but I can try to practice with that a bit more in mind. A compromise might be like how some speakers step to the back and side of the podium a bit, so that there's more movement, without getting that feeling like you're exposed in front of a large crowd that might eat you.
  • as part of that, remember to get set up with the clicker, I forgot this time around even though they had one
  • write up post-it notes to stick my laptop to remind myself to slow down. I always do this when I'm doing interviews over videoconference, so it might help when presenting too.
  • tell people at the end that I loooove for them to come up and introduce themselves, because I always feel awkward doing it myself
  • maybe tell people at the beginning that I should have time for Q&A at the end so they can write down questions that come up during the talk?

*It boggles my mind that people can learn additional languages late enough that they have an accent (so, not as children) but do well enough to actually work in that language. The idea of attending a conference that's entirely in Chinese makes me feel really tired…I should probably do that at some point if I can.