I have to admit, I’m kind of nervous about this talk. It’s been quite a while since the last New Adventures, but it’s always had quite the cachet. I think I went to most of them. It’s quite strange—and quite an honour—to shift gears from attendee to speaker.
The talk I’ll be giving is called Building. That might be a noun. That might be a verb. You decide:
Every new medium looks to what has come before for guidance. Web design has taken cues from centuries of typography and graphic design. Web development has borrowed metaphors and ideas from the world of architecture. Let’s take a tour of some of the most influential ideas from architecture that have crossed over into the web, from pattern languages to responsive design. Together we’ll uncover how to build resilient, performant, accessible and beautiful structures that work with the grain of the materials of the web.
This talk builds upon the talk I gave at last year’s An Event Apart called The Way Of The Web. It also reflects many of the ideas in Resilient Web Design. When I gave a run-through of the talk at Clearleft last week, Andy called it a “greatest hits.” For a while there, I was feeling guilty about retreading some ground I’ve covered in previous talks and writings. Then I realised it was pretty arrogant of me to think that anyone in the audience would be familiar with any of it.
Besides, I’ve got a whole new avenue of exploration in this talk. It’s about language and metaphor—how we talk about what we do on the web. I’ve just finished giving another run-through at the Clearleft studio and I’m feeling pretty good about it. That’s good, because I find that giving a talk in a small room to a handful of colleagues is way more stressful than giving a talk to hundreds of people at a conference.
While I was putting the talk together, I posted some pictures of my talk preparation process. People seemed to be quite interested in that peek behind the curtain, so I thought I’d jot down the process I used.
There are two aspects to preparing a talk: the content and the presentation. I like to keep the preparation of those two parts separate. It’s kind of like writing: instead of writing and editing at the same time, it’s more productive to write any old crap first (to get it out of your head) and then go back and edit—“write drunk and edit sober”. Separating out those two mindsets allows you to concentrate on the task at hand.
So, to begin with, I’m not thinking about how I’m going to present the material at all. I’m only concerned with what I want to say.
When it comes to preparing the subject matter for a talk, step number zero is to banish your inner critic. You know who I mean. That little asshole with the sneering voice that says things like “you’re not qualified to talk about this” or “everything has already been said.” Find a way to realise that this demon is a) speaking from inside your head and b) not real. Maybe try drawing your inner critic. Ridiculous? Yes. Yes, it is.
Alright, time to start. There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank slidedeck, except maybe a blank Photoshop file, or a blank word processing document. In each of those cases, I find that starting with software is rarely a good idea. Paper is your friend.
I get a piece of A3 paper and start scribbling out a mind map. “Mind map” is a somewhat grandiose term for what is effectively a lo-fi crazy wall.
The idea here is to get everything out of my head. Don’t self-censor. At this stage, there are no bad ideas. This is a “yes, and…” exercise, not a “no, but…” exercise. Divergent, not convergent.
Not everything will make it into the final talk. That’s okay. In fact, I often find that there’s one thing that I’m really attached to, that I’m certain will be in the talk, that doesn’t make the cut. Kill your darlings.
I used to do this mind-mapping step by opening a text file and dumping my thoughts into it. I told myself that they were in no particular order, but because a text file reads left to right and top to bottom, they are in an order, whether I intended it or not. By using a big sheet of paper, I can genuinely get things down in a disconnected way (and later, I can literally start drawing connections).
For this particular talk, I knew that the subject matter would be something to do with web standards. I brain-dumped every vague thought I had about standards in general.
The next step is what I call chunking. I start to group related ideas together. Then I give a label to each of these chunks. Personally, I like to use a post-it note per chunk. I put one word or phrase on the post-it note, but it could just as easily be a doodle. The important thing is that you know what the word or doodle represents. Each chunk should represent a self-contained little topic that you might talk about for 3 to 5 minutes.
At this point, I can start thinking about the structure of the talk: “Should I start with this topic? Or should I put that in the middle?” The cost of changing my mind is minimal—I’m just moving post-it notes around.
With topics broken down into chunks like this, I can flesh out each one. The nice thing about this is that I’ve taken one big overwhelming task—prepare a presentation!—and I’ve broken it down into smaller, more manageable tasks. I can take a random post-it note and set myself, say, ten or fifteen minutes to jot down an explanation of it.
The explanation could just be bullet points. For this particular talk, I decided to write full sentences.
Even though, in this case, I was writing out my thoughts word for word, I still kept the topics in separate files. That way, I can still move things around easily.
Crafting the narrative structure of a talk is the part I find most challenging …but it’s also the most rewarding. By having the content chunked up like this, I can experiment with different structures. I like to try out different narrative techniques from books and films, like say, flashback: find the most exciting part of the talk; start with that, and then give the backstory that led up to it. That’s just one example. There are many possible narrative stuctures.
What I definitely don’t do is enact the advice that everyone is given for their college presentations:
say what you’re going to say,
say it, and
recap what you’ve said.
To me, that’s the equivalent of showing an audience the trailer for a film right before watching the film …and then reading a review of the film right after watching it. Just play the film! Give the audience some credit—assume the audience has no knowledge but infinite intelligence.
Oh, and there’s one easy solution to cracking the narrative problem: make a list. If you’ve got 7 chunks, you can always give a talk on “Seven things about whatever” …but it’s a bit of a cop-out. I mean, most films have a three-act structure, but they don’t start the film by telling the audience that, and they don’t point out when one act finishes and another begins. I think it’s much more satisfying—albeit more challenging—to find a way to segue from chunk to chunk.
Finding the narrative thread is tricky work, but at least, by this point, it’s its own separate task: if I had tried to figure out the narrative thread at the start of the process, or even when I was chunking things out, it would’ve been overwhelming. Now it’s just the next task in my to-do list.
I suppose, at this point, I might as well make some slides.
I’m not trying to be dismissive of slides—I think having nice slides is a very good thing. But I do think that they can become the “busy work” of preparing a presentation. If I start on the slides too soon, I find they’ll take up all my time. I think it’s far more important to devote time to the content and structure of the talk. The slides should illustrate the talk …but the slides are not the talk.
If you don’t think of the slides as being subservient to the talk, there’s a danger that you’ll end up with a slidedeck that’s more for the speaker’s benefit than the audience’s.
It’s all too easy to use the slides as a defence mechanism. You’re in a room full of people looking towards you. It’s perfectly reasonable for your brain to scream, “Don’t look at me! Look at the slides!” But taken too far, that can be interpreted as “Don’t listen to me!”
For this particular talk, there were moments when I wanted to make sure the audience was focused on some key point I was making. I decided that having no slide at all was the best way of driving home my point.
But slidedeck style is quite a personal thing, so use whatever works for you.
It’s a similar story with presentation style. Apart from some general good advice—like, speak clearly—the way you present should be as unique as you are. I have just one piece of advice, and it’s this: read Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan—it’s really, really good!
(I had to apologise to Lara last time I saw her, because I really wanted her to sign my copy of her book …but I didn’t have it, because it’s easily the book I’ve loaned out to other people the most.)
I did a good few run-throughs of my talk. There were a few sentences that sounded fine written down, but were really clumsy to say out loud. It reminded me of what Harrison Ford told George Lucas during the filming of Star Wars: “You can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it.”
I gave a final run-through at work to some of my Clearleft colleagues. To be honest, I find that more nerve-wracking than speaking on a stage in front of a big room full of strangers. I think it’s something to do with the presentation of self.
Finally, the day of the conference rolled around, and I was feeling pretty comfortable with my material. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. You can read The Web Is Agreement, and you can look at the slides, but as with any conference talk, you kinda had to be there.
New presenters often feel that they need to write a brand-new talk for each conference they are invited to. Unless your job is giving presentations, or you are being paid very well for each talk you give, it is unlikely that you will be able to keep this up if you do more than a couple of talks per year.
It’s true. When I first started giving talks, I felt really guilty at the thought of “recycling” a talk I had already given. “Those people have paid money to be here—they deserve a brand new talk”, I thought. But then someone pointed out to me, “Y’know, it’s actually really arrogant to think that anyone would’ve seen any previous talk of yours.” Good point.
I explain it to people like a band touring an album. Lots of work goes into the album, and the tour puts those ideas on display. To expect a band to write a brand new album’s worth of music in between Pittsburgh and Chicago is absurd.
Giving the same talk more than once also allows me to put in the extra effort into the talk prep. If I’m going through the hair-tearing-out hell of trying to wrestle a talk into shape, I’m inevitably going to ask, “Why am I putting myself through this‽” If the answer to that question is “So you can give this talk just once”, I’d probably give up in frustration. But if I know that I’ll have an opportunity to present it more than once, improving it each time, then that gives me the encouragement to keep going.
I do occasionally give a one-off specially-commissioned talk, but those are the exceptions. My talk on the A element at CSS Day’s HTML Special was one of those. Same with my dConstruct talk back in 2008. I just gave a new talk on indie web building blocks at Mozilla’s View Source event, but I’d quite like to give that one again (if you’re running an event, get in touch if that sounds like something you’d like).
My most recent talk isEvaluating Technology. I first gave it at An Event Apart in San Francisco exactly a year ago. I’ll present it for the final time at An Event Apart in Denver in a few weeks. Then it will be retired; taken out to the woodshed; pivoted to video.
I’m already starting to think about my next talk. The process of writing a talk is something else that Rachel has written about. She’s far more together than me. My process involves lots more procrastination, worry, panic, and pacing. Some of the half-baked ideas will probably leak out as blog posts here. It’s a tortuous process, but in the end, I find the satisfaction of delivering the final talk to be very rewarding.
Here’s the thing, though: until I deliver the talk for the first time in front of an audience—no matter how much I might have practiced it—I have literally no idea if it’s any good. I honestly can’t tell whether what I’ve got is gold dust or dog shit (and during the talk prep, my opinion of it can vacillate within the space of five minutes). And so, even though I’ve been giving talks for many years now, if it’s brand new material, I get very nervous.
That’s one more reason to give the same talk more than once instead of creating a fresh hell each time.
It’s not like the usual talks I give. The subject matter was assigned to me, Mission Impossible style. PPK wanted each speaker to give an entire talk on just one HTML element. He offered me the best element of them all: the A element.
There were a few different directions I could’ve taken it. I could’ve tried to make it practical, but I quickly dismissed that idea. Instead I went in the completely opposite direction, making it as pretentious as possible. I figured a talk about hypertext could afford to be winding and circuitous, building on some of the ideas I wrote about in my piece for The Manual a few years back. It’s quite self-indulgent of me, but I used it as an opportunity to geek out about some of my favourite things; from Borges, Babbage, and Bletchley to Leibniz, Lovelace, and Licklider.
I wouldn’t usually write out an entire talk word-for-word in advance, but somehow it felt right for this one. In fact, my talk preparation this time ‘round was very similar to the process Charlotte recently wrote about:
Get everything out of my head and onto a mind map.
I have a new role at Clearleft. It’s not a full-time role. It’s in addition to my existing role of …um …whatever it is I do at Clearleft.
Anyway, my new part-time role is that of being a content buddy. Sounds a little dismissive when I put it like that. Let me put in capitals…
My new part-time role is that of being a Content Buddy.
This is Ellen’s idea. She’s been recruiting Content Guardians and Content Buddies. The Guardians will be responsible for coaxing content out of people, encouraging to write that blog post, article, or case study. The role of the Content Buddy is to help shepherd those pieces into the world.
I have let it be known throughout the office that I am available—day or night, rain or shine—for proof-reading, editing, and general brain-storming and rubber-ducking.
On my first official day as a Content Buddy on Friday I helped Ben polish off a really good blog post (watch this space), listened to a first run-through of Charlotte’s upcoming talk at the Up Front conference in Manchester (which is shaping up to be most excellent), and got together with Paul for a mutual brainstorming session for future conference talks. The fact that Paul is no longer a full-time employee at Clearleft is a mere technicality—Content Buddies for life!
Then we started throwing ideas back and forth, offering suggestions, and spotting patterns. Once we had lots of discrete chunks of stuff outlined (but no idea how to piece them together), we did some short intense spurts of writing using the fiendish TheMostDangerousWritingApp.com. I looked at Paul’s mind map, chose a topic from it for him, and he had to write on that non-stop for three to five minutes. Meanwhile he picked a topic from my mind map and I had to do the same. It was exhausting but also exhilarating. Very quickly we had chunks of content that we could experiment with, putting them in together in different ways to find different narrative threads. I might experiment with publishing them as short standalone blog posts.
The point was not to have polished, finished content but rather to get to the “shitty first draft” stage quickly. We were following Hemingway’s advice:
Write drunk, edit sober.
…but not literally. Mind you, I could certainly imagine combining beer o’clock on Fridays with Content Buddiness. That wasn’t an option on this particular Friday though, as I had to run off to band practice with Salter Cane. A very different, and altogether darker form of content creation.
I met up with Remy a few months back to try to help him finalise the line-up for this year’s Full Frontal conference. Remy puts a lot of thought into crafting a really solid line-up. He was in a good position too: the conference was already sold out so he didn’t have to worry about having a big-name speaker to put bums on seats—he could concentrate entirely on finding just the right speaker for the final talk.
He described the kind of “big picture” talk he was looking for, and I started naming some names and giving him some ideas of people to contact.
Imagine my surprise then, when—while we were both in New York for Brooklyn Beta—I received a lengthy email from Remy (pecked out on his phone), saying that he had decided who wanted to do the closing talk at Full Frontal. He wanted me to do it.
Now, this was just a couple of weeks ago so my first thought was “No way! I don’t have enough time to prepare a talk.” It takes me quite a while to prepare a new presentation.
But then he described—in quite some detail—what he wanted me to talk about …and it’s exactly the kind of stuff that I really enjoy geeking out about: long-term thinking, digital preservation, and all that jazz. So I said yes.
That’s why I’ve spent the last couple of weeks quietly freaking out, attempting to marshall my thoughts and squeeze them into Keynote. The title of my talk is Time. Pretentious? Moi?
I’m trying to pack a lot into this presentation. I’ve already had to kill some of my darlings and drop some of the more esoteric stuff, but damn it, it’s hard to still squeeze everything in.
The trouble with researching this @FullFrontalConf talk is that I keep going down rabbit holes of Cherenkov radiation and Harrington events.
I’ve been immersed in research and link-making, reading and huffduffing all things time-related. In the course of my hypertravels, I discovered that there’s an entire event devoted to “the origins, evolution, and future of public time.” It’s called Time For Everyone and it’s taking place in California …at exactly the same time as Full Frontal.
Here’s the funny thing: the description for the event is exactly the same as the description I gave Remy for my talk:
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
If you’re coming along to Full Frontal next Friday, I hope you’ll be in a receptive mood. I also hope that Remy won’t mind that what I’m going to present isn’t exactly what he asked for …but I think it’s interesting stuff.