Saturday, October 2nd, 2021
Friday, July 30th, 2021
Why do we long for a time when the average life span was 22 and everyone was wracked by tuberculosis?
This was the problem I had with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (and to a lesser extent with Rutger Bregman’s Humankind):
Paleolithic peoples, so the tale goes, spent most of Tuesday strolling under Baobab trees, running their hands through the long elephant grass, and breathing in the sweet dust of the open Savannah. On Wednesdays they carefully chipped away the edges of Levallois blades, swept dust out of the home cave, and snacked on freshly gathered almonds. On Thursdays they gathered into small bands – a hand-picked selection of the finest endurance runners this side of Nairobi – tracked down an elephant, and sprinted after it barefoot for nine hours until the creature – dehydrated, exhausted, and unable to sweat out the excess heat – crumpled into a violently sad face-plant in the hot, gritty sand. Our strapping, supple ancestors jogged to a halt beside it, barely out of breath, to carve up its flesh and bring home the elephant bacon. Later that evening they would break their 36 hour intermittent fast, retire to the lake, and engage in polyamorous affairs.
Monday, March 8th, 2021
Preparing an online conference talk
I’m terrible at taking my own advice.
Hana wrote a terrific article called You’re on mute: the art of presenting in a Zoom era. In it, she has very kind things to say about my process for preparing conference talks.
As it happens, I’m preparing a conference talk right now for delivery online. Am I taking my advice about how to put a talk together? I am on me arse.
Perhaps the most important part of the process I shared with Hana is that you don’t get too polished too soon. Instead you get everything out of your head as quickly as possible (probably onto disposable bits of paper) and only start refining once you’re happy with the rough structure you’ve figured out by shuffling those bits around.
But the way I’ve been preparing this talk has been more like watching a progress bar. I started at the start and even went straight into slides as the medium for putting the talk together.
It was all going relatively well until I hit a wall somewhere between the 50% and 75% mark. I was blocked and I didn’t have any rough sketches to fall back on. Everything was a jumbled mess in my brain.
It all came to a head at the start of last week when that jumbled mess in my brain resulted in a very restless night spent tossing and turning while I imagined how I might complete the talk.
This is a terrible way of working and I don’t recommend it to anyone.
The problem was I couldn’t even return to the proverbial drawing board because I hadn’t given myself a drawing board to return to (other than this crazy wall of connections on Kinopio).
My sleepless night was a wake-up call (huh?). The next day I forced myself to knuckle down and pump out anything even if it was shit—I could refine it later. Well, it turns out that just pumping out any old shit was exactly what I needed to do. The act of moving those fingers up and down on the keyboard resulted in something that wasn’t completely terrible. In fact, it turned out pretty darn good.
The idea here is to get everything out of my head.
I should’ve listened to that guy.
At this point, I think I’ve got the talk done. The progress bar has reached 100%. I even think that it’s pretty good. A giveaway for whether a talk is any good is when I find myself thinking “Yes, this has good points well made!” and then five minutes later I’m thinking “Wait, is this complete rubbish that’s totally obvious and doesn’t make much sense?” (see, for example, every talk I’ve ever prepared ever).
Now I just to have to record it. The way that An Event Apart are running their online editions is that the talks are pre-recorded but followed with live Q&A. That’s how the Clearleft events team have been running the conference part of the Leading Design Festival too. Last week there were three days of this format and it worked out really, really well. This week there’ll be masterclasses which are delivered in a more synchronous way.
It feels a bit different to prepare a talk for pre-recording rather than live delivery on stage. In fact, it feels less like preparing a conference talk and more like making a documentary. I guess this is what life is like for YouTubers.
I think the last time I was in a cinema before The Situation was at the wonderful Duke of York’s cinema here in Brighton for an afternoon showing of The Proposition followed by a nice informal chat with the screenwriter, one Nick Cave, local to this parish. It was really enjoyable, and that’s kind of what Leading Design Festival felt like last week.
I wonder if maybe we’ve been thinking about online events with the wrong metaphor. Perhaps they’re not like conferences that have moved online. Maybe they’re more like film festivals where everyone has the shared experience of watching a new film for the first time together, followed by questions to the makers about what they’ve just seen.
Wednesday, February 17th, 2021
Hana recounts the preparation she did for an online presentation, including some advice from me. I’m right in the middle of preparing my own online presentation right now, and I should really heed that advice. But I fear what I told Hana was “do as I say, not as I do.”
Saturday, November 14th, 2020
The Correct Material
I’ve been watching The Right Stuff on Disney Plus. It’s a modern remake of the ’80s film of the ’70s Tom Wolfe book of ’60s events.
It’s okay. The main challenge, as a viewer, is keeping track of which of the seven homogenous white guys is which. It’s like Merry, Pippin, Ant, Dec, and then some.
It’s kind of fun watching it after watching For All Mankind which has some of the same characters following a different counterfactual history.
The story being told is interesting enough (although Tom has pointed out that removing the Chuck Yeager angle really diminishes the narrative). But ultimately the tension is manufactured around a single event—the launch of Freedom 7—that was very much in the shadow of Gargarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight.
There are juicier stories to be told, but those stories come from Russia.
Some of these stories have been told in film. The Spacewalker told the amazing story of Alexei Leonov’s mission, though it messes with the truth about what happened with the landing and recovery—a real shame, considering that the true story is remarkable enough.
Imagine an alternative to The Right Stuff that relayed the drama of Soyuz 1—it’s got everything: friendship, rivalries, politics, tragedy…
I’d watch the heck out of that.
Monday, September 21st, 2020
Can anyone recommend an outlining app for macOS? I’m falling out with OmniOutliner. Not Notion, please.
The only outlining tool that makes sense for my brain is https://kinopio.club/
It’s more like a virtual crazy wall than a virtual Dewey decimal system.
I’ve written before about how I prepare a conference talk. The first step involves a sheet of A3 paper:
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).
Kinopio is like a digital version of that A3 sheet of paper. It doesn’t force any kind of hierarchy on your raw ingredients. You can clump things together, join them up, break them apart, or just dump everything down in one go. That very much suits my approach to preparing something like a talk (or a book). The act of organising all the parts into a single narrative timeline is an important challenge, but it’s one that I like to defer to later. The first task is braindumping.
When I was preparing my talk for An Event Apart Online, I used Kinopio.club to get stuff out of my head. Here’s the initial brain dump. Here are the final slides. You can kind of see the general gist of the slidedeck in the initial brain dump, but I really like that I didn’t have to put anything into a sequential outline.
In some ways, Kinopio is like an anti-outlining tool. It’s scrappy and messy—which is exactly why it works so well for the early part of the process. If I use a tool that feels too high-fidelity too early on, I get a kind of impedence mismatch between the state of the project and the polish of the artifact.
I like that Kinopio feels quite personal. Unlike Google Docs or other more polished tools, the documents you make with this aren’t really for sharing. Still, I thought I’d share my scribblings anyway.
Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
Service design on the Clearleft podcast
If you’re subscribed to the Clearleft podcast there’s a new episode winging its way across the airwaves to alight in your podcast software of choice.
This episode is all about service design. More precisely, it’s about me trying to understand what service design is. I don’t think I’m alone in being unsure of its meaning.
So in some ways, this is similar to the first episode, which involved a lot me asking “What exactly is a design system anyway?” But for the service design episode, rather than using interviews as my source material, I’ve dug into the archives of UX London. There are past talks on Clearleft’s Vimeo channel. I made plenty of use of presentations by Kerry Bodine, Jamin Hegeman, and Lou Downe.
That worked out well, but I felt there was still something missing from the episode. It needed a good story to wrap things up. So I cornered Rich for a chat about a project Clearleft worked on for Brighton council. That did the trick!
Again, there’s not much of me in this one. I’m there to thread the narrative together but my voice is not the one doing the explaining or the story-telling.
The episode ended up being almost half an hour long. Like I said before, rather than trying to squeeze each episode into a predefined timeslot, each episode will be as long as needs to be. And this one needed the time for Rich to tell his story.
Ooh, and I even tried adding in some sound effects during that part! It probably just sounds cheesy, but I’m still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Anyway, have a listen to this episode and see what you think. It’s got dead badgers, Downton Abbey, icebergs, and airplanes. Service design really does encompass a lot!
Wednesday, July 8th, 2020
Design systems on the Clearleft podcast
If you’ve already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, thank you! The first episode is sliding into your podcast player of choice.
This episode is all about …design systems!
I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out, although as it’s the first one, I’m sure I’ll learn how to do this better. I may end up looking back at this first foray with embarrassment. Still, it’s fairly representative of what you can expect from the rest of the season.
This episode is fairly short. Just under eighteen minutes. That doesn’t mean that other episodes will be the same length. Each episode will be as long (or as short) as it needs to be. Form follows function, or in this case, episode length follows content. Other episodes will be longer. Some might be shorter. It all depends on the narrative.
This flies in the face of accepted wisdom when it comes to podcasting. The watchword that’s repeated again and again for aspiring podcasters is consistency. Release on a consistent schedule and have a consistent length for episodes. I kind of want to go against that advice just out of sheer obstinancy. If I end up releasing episodes on a regular schedule, treat it as coincidence rather than consistency.
There’s not much of me in this episode. And there won’t be much of me in most episodes. I’m just there to thread together the smart soundbites coming from other people. In this episode, the talking heads are my colleagues Jon and James, along with my friends and peers Charlotte, Paul, and Amy (although there’s a Clearleft connection with all of them: Charlotte and Paul used to be Clearlefties, and Amy spoke at Patterns Day and Sofa Conf).
I spoke to each of them for about an hour, but like I said, the entire episode is less than eighteen minutes long. The majority of our conversations ended up on the cutting room floor (possibly to be used in future episodes).
Most of my time was spent on editing. It was painstaking, but rewarding. There’s a real pleasure to be had in juxtaposing two snippets of audio, either because they echo one another or because they completely contradict one another. This episode has a few examples of contradictions, and I think those are my favourite moments.
Needless to say, eighteen minutes was not enough time to cover everything about design systems. Quite the opposite. It’s barely an introduction. This is definitely a topic that I’ll be returning to. Maybe there could even be a whole season on design systems. Let me know what you think.
Oh, and you’ll notice that there’s a transcript for the episode. That’s a no-brainer. I’m a big fan of the spoken word, but it really comes alive when it’s combined with searchable, linkable, accessible text.
Monday, July 6th, 2020
Announcing the Clearleft podcast
I’ve been working on something new for the past few months and now I’d like to share it with you…
Now I know what you’re thinking: aren’t there enough podcasts in the world already? Well, frankly, no. Unless you also concede that there are enough books and records and films in the world already too (to be fair, this is a reasonable thought to have when you’re navigating Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix).
In any case, this podcast is going to be a bit different.
In our field, the usual podcast format is in the form of a conversation: a host or hosts interviewing a guest or guests. Those are great. I’ve certainly enjoyed being the guest on many a great podcast. But I wanted to do something a bit more like an audio documentary.
If you’ve seen a lot of documentaries you’ll know that there are two key factors to getting a great story:
- the source material and
- the editing.
That’s what makes the Clearleft podcast different.
For the source material, I’ve interviewed my colleagues at Clearleft as well as our peers in other companies. I’ve also gathered great material from conference talks—we’ve got a wealth of wonderful insights from multiple editions of events like UX London, Leading Design, Ampersand, Responsive Day Out, Patterns Day, and dConstruct.
A lot of work has gone into the editing. It probably works out at about an hour of work per minute of podcast. I know that seems excessive, but I really wanted to get a snappy feel for each episode, juxtaposing multiple viewpoints.
The focus of the episode will be around a particular topic rather than a person and will feature lots of different voices woven together. The really challenging part is threading a good narrative. It’s kind of like preparing a conference talk in that respect—I’ve always found the narrative thread to be the hardest but most rewarding part of putting a talk together.
It’s simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking to put this out into the world. But I think you’re going to enjoy it.
Visit the website for the podcast and choose your preferred method of subscribing. There’s the RSS feed, but the Clearleft podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Deezer, TuneIn, Castro, and Overcast.
The first episode will go live later this week. In the meantime, there’s a short trailer to give you a taste of what’s to come.
The episodes will be grouped together into seasons. I reckon a season will around six episodes long. So you can expect the first season to be released over the next six weeks.
Hope you like it!
Thursday, January 2nd, 2020
The Rise Of Skywalker
If you haven’t seen The Rise Of Skywalker, avert your gaze for I shall be revealing spoilers here…
I wrote about what I thought of The Force Awakens. I wrote about what I thought of The Last Jedi. It was inevitable that I was also going to write about what I think of The Rise Of Skywalker. If nothing else, I really enjoy going back and reading those older posts and reminding myself of my feelings at the time.
I have to admit that my first reaction was …ambivalent. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either.
Maybe I just find it hard to really get into the flow when I’m seeing a new Star Wars film for the very first time.
This time there were very specific things that I could point to and say “I don’t like it!” For a start, there’s the return of Palpatine.
I think the Emperor has always been one of the dullest characters in Star Wars. Even in Return Of The Jedi, he just comes across as a paper-thin one-dimensional villain who’s evil just because he’s evil. That works great when he’s behind the scenes manipulating events, but it makes for dull on-screen shenanigans, in my opinion. The pantomime nature of Emperor Palpatine seems more Harry Potter than Star Wars to me.
When I heard the Emperor was returning, my expectations sank. To be fair though, I think it was a very good move not to make the return of Palpatine a surprise. I had months—ever since the release of the first teaser trailer—to come to terms with it. Putting it in the opening crawl and the first scene says, “Look, he’s back. Don’t ask how, just live with it.” That’s fair enough.
So in the end, the thing that I thought would bug me—the return of Palpatine—didn’t trouble me much. But what really bugged me was the unravelling of one of my favourite innovations in The Last Jedi regarding Rey’s provenance. I wrote at the time:
I had resigned myself to the inevitable reveal that would tie her heritage into an existing lineage. What an absolute joy, then, that The Force is finally returned into everyone’s hands!
What bothered me wasn’t so much that The Rise Of Skywalker undoes this, but that the undoing is so uneccessary. The plot would have worked just as well without the revelation that Rey is a Palpatine. If that revelation were crucial to the story, I would go with it, but it just felt like making A Big Reveal for the sake of making A Big Reveal. It felt …cheap.
I have to say, that’s how I responded to a lot of the kitchen sink elements in this film when I first saw it. It was trying really, really hard to please, and yet many of the decisions felt somewhat lazy to me. There were times when it felt like a checklist.
In a way, there was a checklist, or at least a brief. JJ Abrams has spoken about how this film needed to not just wrap up one trilogy, but all nine films. But did it though? I think I would’ve been happier if it had kept its scope within the bounds of these new sequels.
That’s been a recurring theme for me with all three of these films. I think they work best when they’re about the new characters. I’m totally invested in them. Leaning on nostalgia and the cultural memory of the previous films and their characters just isn’t needed. I would’ve been fine if Luke, Han, and Leia never showed up on screen in this trilogy—that’s how much I’m sold on Rey, Finn, and Poe.
But I get it. The brief here is to tie everything together. And as JJ Abrams has said, there was no way he was going to please everyone. But it’s strange that he would attempt to please the most toxic people clamouring for change. I’m talking about the racists and misogynists that were upset by The Last Jedi. The sidelining of Rose Tico in The Rise Of Skywalker sure reads a lot like a victory for them. Frankly, that’s the one aspect of this film that I’m always going to find disappointing.
Because it turns out that a lot of the other things that I was initially disappointed by evaporated upon second viewing.
Now, I totally get that a film needs to work for a first viewing. But if any category of film needs to stand up to repeat viewing, it’s a Star Wars film. In the case of The Rise Of Skywalker, I think that repeat viewing might have been prioritised. And I’m okay with that.
Take the ridiculously frenetic pace of the multiple maguffin-led plotlines. On first viewing, it felt rushed and messy. I got the feeling that the double-time pacing was there to brush over any inconsistencies that would reveal themselves if the film were to pause even for a minute to catch its breath.
But that wasn’t the case. On second viewing, things clicked together much more tightly. It felt much more like a well-oiled—if somewhat frenetic—machine rather than a cobbled-together Heath Robinson contraption that might collapse at any moment.
My personal experience of viewing the film for the second time was a lot of fun. I was with my friend Sammy, who is not yet a teenager. His enjoyment was infectious.
At the end, after we see Rey choose her new family name, Sammy said “I knew she was going to say Skywalker!”
“I guess that explains the title”, I said. “The Rise Of Skywalker.”
“Or”, said Sammy, “it could be talking about Ben Solo.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
When I first saw The Rise Of Skywalker, I was disappointed by all the ways it was walking back the audacious decisions made in The Last Jedi, particularly Rey’s parentage and the genetic component to The Force. But on second viewing, I noticed the ways that this film built on the previous one. Finn’s blossoming sensitivity keeps the democratisation of The Force on the table. And the mind-melding connection between Rey and Kylo Ren that started in The Last Jedi is crucial for the plot of The Rise Of Skywalker.
Once I was able to get over the decisions I didn’t agree with, I was able to judge the film on its own merits. And you know what? It’s really good!
On the technical level, it was always bound to be good, but I mean on an emotional level too. If I go with it, then I’m rewarded with a rollercoaster ride of emotions. There were moments when I welled up (they mostly involved Chewbacca: Chewie’s reaction to Leia’s death; Chewie getting the medal …the only moment that might have topped those was Han Solo’s “I know”).
So just in case there’s any doubt—given all the criticisms I’ve enumerated—let me clear: I like this film. I very much look forward to seeing it again (and again).
But I do think there’s some truth to what Eric says here:
A friend’s review of “The Rise of Skywalker”, which also serves as a perfect summary of JJ Abrams’ career: “A very well-executed lack of creativity.”
I think I might substitute the word “personality” for “creativity”. However you feel about The Last Jedi, there’s no denying that it embodies the vision of one person:
I think the reason why The Last Jedi works so well is that Rian Johnson makes no concessions to my childhood, or anyone else’s. This is his film. Of all the millions of us who were transported by this universe as children, only he gets to put his story onto the screen and into the saga. There are two ways to react to this. You can quite correctly exclaim “That’s not how I would do it!”, or you can go with it …even if that means letting go of some deeply-held feelings about what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened if it were our story.
JJ Abrams, on the other hand, has done his utmost to please us. I admire that, but I feel it comes at a price. The storytelling isn’t safe exactly, but it’s far from personal.
The result is that The Rise Of Skywalker is supremely entertaining—especially on repeat viewing—and it has a big heart. I just wish it had more guts.
Saturday, September 7th, 2019
Six UX lessons from game design:
- Story vs Narrative (Think in terms of story arcs)
- Games are fractal (Break up the journey from big to small to tiny)
- Learning loop (figure out your core mechanic)
- Affordances (Prompt for known loops)
- Hintiness (Move to new loops)
- Pacing (Be sure to start here)
Thursday, July 4th, 2019
I mentioned how much I enjoyed Mike Hill’s talk at Beyond Tellerrand in Düsseldorf:
Mike gave a talk called The Power of Metaphor and it’s absolutely brilliant. It covers the monomyth (the hero’s journey) and Jungian archetypes, illustrated with the examples Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and Jurassic Park.
Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.
This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.
I realised that Mike’s monomyth talk aligns nicely with my workshop. So I decided to prep my fellow Clearlefties for the workshop with a movie night.
Popcorn was popped, pizza was ordered, and comfy chairs were suitably arranged. Then we watched Mike’s talk. Everyone loved it. Then it was decision time. Which of three films covered in the talk would we watch? We put it to a vote.
It came out as an equal tie between Jurassic Park and The Dark Knight. How would we resolve this? A coin toss!
The toss went to The Dark Knight. In retrospect, a coin toss was a supremely fitting way to decide to watch that film.
It was fun to watch it again, particularly through the lens of Mike’s analyis of its Jungian archetypes.
But I still think the film is about game theory.
Thursday, May 23rd, 2019
After a fun and productive Indie Web Camp, I stuck around Düsseldorf for Beyond Tellerand. I love this event. I’ve spoken at it quite a few times, but this year it was nice to be there as an attendee. It’s simultaneously a chance to reconnect with old friends I haven’t seen in a while, and an opportunity to meet lovely new people. There was plenty of both this year.
I think this might have been the best Beyond Tellerrand yet, and that’s saying something. It’s not just that the talks were really good—there was also a wonderful atmosphere.
Marc somehow manages to curate a line-up that’s equal parts creativity and code; design and development. It shouldn’t work, but it does. I love the fact that he had a legend of the industry like David Carson on the same stage as first-time speaker like Dorobot …and the crowd loved ‘em equally!
During the event, I found out that I had a small part to play in the creation of the line-up…
Three years ago, I linked to a video of a talk by Mike Hill:
A terrific analysis of industrial design in film and games …featuring a scene-setting opening that delineates the difference between pleasure and happiness.
It’s a talk about chairs in Jodie Foster films. Seriously. It’s fantastic!
Marc saw my link, watched the video, and decided he wanted to get Mike Hill to speak at Beyond Tellerrand. After failing to get a response by email, Marc managed to corner Mike at an event in Amsterdam and get him on this year’s line-up.
Mike gave a talk called The Power of Metaphor and it’s absolutely brilliant. It covers the monomyth (the hero’s journey) and Jungian archetypes, illustrated with the examples Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and Jurassic Park:
Under the surface of their most celebrated films lies a hidden architecture that operates on an unconscious level; This talk is designed to illuminate the techniques that great storytellers use to engage a global audience on a deep and meaningful level through psychological metaphor.
The videos from Beyond Tellerrand are already online so you can watch the talk now.
In this talk, we’ll discuss how the language we use affects our users and the first steps towards writing accessible, approachable and use case-driven documentation.
While the talk was ostensibly about documentation, I found that it was packed full of good advice for writing well in general.
I had a thought. What if you mashed up these two talks? What if you wrote documentation through the lens of the hero’s journey?
Think about it. When somone arrives at your documentation, they’ve crossed the threshold to the underworld. They are in the cave, facing a dragon. You are their guide, their mentor, their Obi-Wan Kenobi. You can help them conquer their demons and return to the familiar world, changed by their journey.
Monday, February 25th, 2019
While the Interaction 19 event was a bit of a mixed bag overall, there were some standout speakers.
Marty Neumeier was unsurprisingly excellent. I’d seen him speak before, at UX London a few years back, so I knew he’d be good. He has a very reassuring, avuncular manner when he’s speaking. You know the way that there are some people you could just listen to all day? He’s one of those.
Marty’s talk at Interaction 19 was particularly interesting because it was about his new book. Now, why would that be of particular interest? Well, this new book—Scramble—is a business book, but it’s written in the style of a thriller. He wanted it to be like one of those airport books that people read as a guilty pleasure.
One rainy night in December, young CEO David Stone is inexplicably called back to the office. The company’s chairman tells him that the board members have reached the end of their patience. If David can’t produce a viable turnaround plan in five weeks, he’s out of a job. His only hope is to try something new. But what?
I love this idea!
I’ve talked before about borrowing narrative structures from literature and film and applying them to blog posts and conference talks—techniques like flashback, in media res, etc.—so I really like the idea of taking an entire genre and applying it to a technical topic.
The closest I’ve seen is the comic that Scott McCloud wrote for the release of Google Chrome back in 2008. But how about a romantic comedy about service workers? Or a detective novel about CSS grid?
I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about Marty Neumeier’s book next time I’m struggling to put a conference talk together.
In the meantime, if you want to learn from the master storyteller himself, Clearleft are running a two-day Brand Master Workshop with Marty on March 14th and 15th at The Barbican in London. Early bird tickets are on sale until this Thursday, so don’t dilly-dally if you were thinking about nabbing your spot.
Monday, September 24th, 2018
Preparing a conference talk
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.
Wednesday, July 18th, 2018
Erika has written a great guest post on Ev’s blog. It covers the meaning, the impact, and the responsibility of design …and how we’ve been chasing the wrong measurements of success.
We design for the experience of a single user at a time and expect that the collective experience, and the collective impact, will take care of itself.
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
Prompted by his time at Clearleft’s AI gathering in Juvet, Chris has been delving deep into the stories we tell about artificial intelligence …and what stories are missing.
And here we are at the eponymous answer to the question that I first asked at Juvet around 7 months ago: What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?
Sunday, March 4th, 2018
What a beautiful and fascinating website!
This is a layered interactive narrative that traces the life of Captain Antonio DaCosta, a Black Portuguese sailor who visited Japan in 1597. From his early life as a slave in Lisbon to his voyage to Japan, this site weaves together his personal diary and drawings, along with artwork and historical notes from 1500-1700, the Age of Exploration.
Tuesday, December 26th, 2017
The Last Jedi
If you haven’t seen The Last Jedi (yet), please stop reading. Spoilers ahoy.
I am well aware that the last thing anybody wants or needs is one more hot take on this film, but what the heck? I figured I’d jot down my somewhat simplistic thoughts.
I loved it.
But I wasn’t sure at first. I’ve talked to other people who felt similarly on first viewing—they weren’t sure if they liked it or not. I know some people who, on reflection, decided they definitely didn’t like it. I completely understand that.
A second viewing helped to cement my positive feelings towards this film. This is starting to become a trend: I didn’t think much of Rogue One on first viewing, but a second watch reversed my opinion completely. Maybe I just find it hard to really get into the flow when I’m seeing a new Star Wars film for the very first time—an event that I once thought would never occur again.
My first viewing of The Last Jedi wasn’t helped by having the worst seats in the house. My original plan was to see it with Jessica at a minute past midnight in The Duke Of York’s in Brighton. I bought front-row tickets as soon as they were available. But then it turned out that we were going to be in Seattle at that time instead. We quickly grabbed whatever tickets were left. Those seats were right at the front and far edge of the cinema, so the screen was more trapezoid than rectangular. The lights went down, the fanfare blared, and the opening crawl begin its march up …and to the left. My brain tried to compensate for the perspective effects but it was hard. Is Snoke’s face supposed to look like that? Does that person really have such a tiny head?
But while the spectacle was somewhat marred, the story unfolded in all its surprising delight. I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of having the narrative rug repeatedly pulled out from under me.
I loved the unexpected end of Snoke in his vampiric boudoir. Let’s face it, he was the least interesting part of The Force Awakens—a two-dimensional evil mastermind. To despatch him in the middle of the middle chapter was the biggest signal that The Last Jedi was not simply going to retread the beats of the original trilogy.
I loved the reveal of Rey’s parentage. This was what I had been hoping for—that Rey came from nowhere in particular. After The Force Awakens, I wrote:
Personally, I’d like it if her parentage were unremarkable. Maybe it’s the socialist in me, but I’ve never liked the idea that the Force is based on eugenics; a genetic form of inherited wealth for the lucky 1%. I prefer to think of the Force as something that could potentially be unlocked by anyone who tries hard enough.
But I had resigned myself to the inevitable reveal that would tie her heritage into an existing lineage. What an absolute joy, then, that The Force is finally returned into everyone’s hands! Anil Dash describes this wonderfully in his post Every Last Jedi:
Though it’s well-grounded in the first definitions of The Force that we were introduced to in the original trilogy, The Last Jedi presents a radically inclusive new view of the Force that is bigger and broader than the Jedi religion which has thus-far colored our view of the entire Star Wars universe.
I was less keen on the sudden Force usage by Leia. I think it was the execution more than the idea that bothered me. Still, I realise that the problem lies just as much with me. See, lots of the criticism of this film comes from people (justifiably) saying “That’s not how The Force works!” in relation to Rey, Kylo Ren, or Luke Skywalker. I don’t share that reaction and I want to say, “Hey, who are we to decide how The Force works?”, but then during the Leia near-death scene, I found myself more or less thinking “That’s not how The Force works!”
This would be a good time to remind ourselves that, in the Star Wars universe, you can substitute the words “The Force” for “The Plot”—an invisible agency guiding actions and changing the course of events.
The first time I saw The Last Jedi, I began to really worry during the film’s climactic showdown. I wasn’t so much worried for the fate of the characters in peril; I was worried for the fate of the overarching narrative. When Luke showed up, my heart sank a little. A deus ex machina …and how did he get here exactly? And then when he emerges unscathed from a barrage of walker cannon fire, I thought “Aw no, they’ve changed the Jedi to be like superheroes …but that’s not the way The Force/Plot works!”
And then I had the rug pulled out from under me again. Yes! What a joyous bit of trickery! My faith in The Force/Plot was restored.
I know a lot of people didn’t like the Canto Bight diversion. Jessica described it as being quite prequel-y, and I can see that. And while I agree that any shot involving our heroes riding across the screen (on a Fathier, on a scout walker) just didn’t work, I liked the world-expanding scope of the caper subplot.
Still, I preferred the Galactica-like war of attrition as the Resistance is steadily reduced in size as they try to escape the relentless pursuit of the First Order. It felt like proper space opera. In some ways, it reminded of Alastair Reynolds but without the realism of the laws of physics (there’s nothing quite as egregious here as J.J. Abrams’ cosy galaxy where the destruction of a system can be seen in real time from the surface of another planet, but The Last Jedi showed again that Star Wars remains firmly in the space fantasy genre rather than hard sci-fi).
Oh, and of course I loved the porgs. But then, I never had a problem with ewoks, so treat my appraisal with a pinch of salt.
I loved seeing the west of coast of Ireland get so much screen time. Beehive huts in a Star Wars film! Mind you, that made it harder for me to get immersed in the story. I kept thinking, “Now, is that Skellig Michael? Or is it on the Dingle peninsula? Or Donegal? Or west Clare?”
For all its global success, Star Wars has always had a very personal relationship with everyone it touches. The films themselves are only part of the reason why people respond to them. The other part is what people bring with them; where they are in life at the moment they’re introduced to this world. And frankly, the films are only part of this symbiosis. As much as people like to sneer at the toys and merchandising as a cheap consumerist ploy, they played a significant part in unlocking my imagination. Growing up in a small town on the coast of Ireland, the Star Wars universe—the world, the characters—was a playground for me to make up stories …just as it was for any young child anywhere in the world.
One of my favourite shots in The Last Jedi looks like it could’ve come from the mind of that young child: an X-wing submerged in the waters of the rocky coast of Ireland. It was as though Rian Johnson had a direct line to my childhood self.
And yet, I think the reason why The Last Jedi works so well is that Rian Johnson makes no concessions to my childhood, or anyone else’s. This is his film. Of all the millions of us who were transported by this universe as children, only he gets to put his story onto the screen and into the saga. There are two ways to react to this. You can quite correctly exclaim “That’s not how I would do it!”, or you can go with it …even if that means letting go of some deeply-held feelings about what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened if it were our story.
That said, I completely understand why people might take against this film. Like I said, Rian Johnson makes no concessions. That’s in stark contrast to The Force Awakens. I wrote at the time:
Han Solo picked up the audience like it was a child that had fallen asleep in the car, and he gently tucked us into our familiar childhood room where we can continue to dream. And then, with a tender brush of his hand across the cheek, he left us.
The Last Jedi, on the other hand, thrusts us into this new narrative in the same way you might teach someone to swim by throwing them into the ocean from the peak of Skellig Michael. The polarised reactions to the film are from people sinking or swimming.
I choose to swim. To go with it. To let go. To let the past die.
And yet, one of my favourite takeaways from The Last Jedi is how it offers a healthy approach to dealing with events from the past. Y’see, there was always something that bothered me in the original trilogy. It was one of Yoda’s gnomic pronouncements in The Empire Strikes Back:
Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.
That always struck me as a very bro-ish “crushing it” approach to life. That’s why I was delighted that Rian Johnson had Yoda himself refute that attitude completely:
The greatest teacher, failure is.
That’s exactly what Luke needed to hear. It was also what I—many decades removed from my childhood—needed to hear.
Friday, July 14th, 2017
The latest video from Patterns Day is up—Ellen’s superb philosophical presentation: Patterns in Language, Language in Patterns.
There’s so much packed into this one, it might take more than one viewing to take it all in.