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Speaking? Tips.

February 27

Over the past few years, I've been invited to come speak at various events. No big surprise there, as I've probably met a bunch of you at them. Since there's a chance that some are publicly speaking for the first time in Austin this year, I figured I'd share a few things I've tried along the way.

These tips will probably be more relevant if you're a nervous talker and you suspect you won't fill in enough time. (If you're a rambler, there are other people who can offer you far better advice than I.) It's timely in a way, because I think I've finally crossed a threshold in my own speaking. I started off early 2004 in a bit of a fluster, went into overdrive preparation mode during most of 2005, and now in 2006, I think I'm easing into speaking naturally and comfortably. Finally.

When I first started, I wasn't sure how to plan for time constraints. Speaking for an hour seemed like a long time to keep going, and there was always a good chance I'd miss important points along the way and end really early.

So I approached my preparation as if I were writing an article, which would take approximately an hour to read out loud. I'd hole up in a cafe and breeze through a logical progression of thoughts that ended up being 10 pages or more of printed text, and try to separate that out into smaller bite-sized points for easier scanning when presenting. Then I'd build slides based on that. It was a lot of work.

Not only was I concerned about the time constraints though, I also got spooked out of allowing myself to ramble at all. I've talked through three slides past the one that's currently on screen, only to madly catch up later. I've realized halfway through that I didn't make a bunch of important points earlier to help support the current slide, so it in turn makes no sense without that context. I've even gotten completely stuck from time to time, I think the most notable was on stage at WE04. "Uh, I completely forgot where I was going with that..." So to help myself avoid any repeats, I've been meticulous in my preparation and made sure to have the entire presentation outlined, with a paper backup on hand, to ensure I could talk my way out of any glitches.

But that spiraled out of control, since every time I presented I tried to deliver new material, adapted to the theme of the conference. And thus, new supporting material. Not such a hot idea, I found out, as it's probably more important to be familiar with your material and comfortable when delivering it, than to be fresh all the time. Not to mention the extra time and effort creating a new set of slides every single time.

So recently, I've realized a few things that I think are making me a better speaker. I've stopped spending ages coming up with finely-detailed outlines of each presentation, and instead I'm leaving more to real-time interaction. I'm still no Veen or Molly, and likely will never be, but at least I'm comfortable in my own methods now, and I think that's the real key to presenting well.

  1. Know your material. But plan to make mistakes anyway. If you talk through a bunch of slides, oh well. Make them available later, and it's no big deal. If you have to back up and provide extra context that you missed earlier, go right ahead. You can even tell people that's what you're doing, although you probably don't need to. Also, if you're more of a bullet-point presenter, you can even use your slides as notes to keep you focused throughout. That's hardly a bad system, though we all know why PowerPoint is evil...
  2. Nervousness goes away. Five minutes into it, you'll stop being nervous and start having a bit more fun. And after doing a few presentations, you'll stop getting those butterflies in your stomach before hand, and feel a lot more at home on a stage.
  3. Pause. Get used to taking small pauses here and there, to take a sip of water, to collect your thoughts, to slow yourself down, or whatever else. It's okay to have a few seconds of silence.
  4. Have a water bottle with you on stage. You'll need it for the dry mouth. Some lip balm might not be a bad idea either, if you're talking more than once.
  5. If you get stuck on-stage, it's not a bad thing. You simply move on to the next topic. The audience might notice, or they might not. A lot of the things you're thinking internally during that moment will never get picked up by anyone else, so if what you're saying still makes some form of sense, chances are no one will catch it. (And if it doesn't make sense, often that's just glossed over! Not everyone is 100% coherent all the time when speaking, and it rarely matters.)
  6. Be prepared to allow for spontaneity. You can't really plan for the asides and diversions that you might make while on stage, but allow them to happen when they do. Often you'll explore a related idea that ties in with your main points nicely, and it'll work its way into future presentations. Try to keep yourself always coming back to the topic at hand, or at the very least, make sure to highlight why your diversion is relevant to the discussion. Don't spend too long on them, however.
  7. Have a lot of slides. If you're worried about time, just make sure you've got more material than you need. Chances are you won't get through it all, but that's not a terrible problem to have. I'd say 40 to 50 slides is probably enough to fill up an entire hour, as that's just over a minute each. As you get more comfortable, you can start bringing that number down.
  8. Be prepared, but it's not worth killing yourself. Don't go for broke on the slides, go for broke on familiarizing yourself with your topic and your slides. Do three dry runs before you get up on stage. Time yourself, and don't try to back up and re-try anything during the dry runs. Learn how to talk your way out of a factual error you just caught, speaking flub, or even just simple mispronunciation. Pretend there's an audience right in front of you and you only have that hour. This will quickly highlight the problem points, and often it'll cause you to re-arrange your slides.
  9. If you don't fill the entire hour, no big deal. (If you're only hitting the 30 minute mark, you might need to have more material next time.) Q&A can usually fill up the rest of your time slot, and ever since I've started speaking I've had more fun answering questions than talking during the actual presentation. Try to make your talk amenable to follow-up questions, and if you've got a small enough room (anything over 50 people is pushing it) you can even encourage questions throughout.
  10. Make sure you've got a strong start, and the rest will fall into place. The first few minutes are the most important. The audience doesn't know what you're like, you don't know what they're like, so you need to get people interested. Plus, the sea of quiet faces is a bit overwhelming, so if you need to script any part of your presentation, this is the best part to script. After you've gone through the introduction and started getting into the meat of it, people are likely to be more receptive and you won't feel so on the spot.
  11. Re-use material. I don't think there's anything wrong with this. If you're giving repeat presentations, feel free to dip into past talks and pull out points. I lean towards illustrated slides instead of bullet points these days, so I've even built up an illustration library which I'll happily re-use for new talks, even if the subject matter changes.

Of course SXSW is more oriented toward 15 or 20 minutes of talking, so the time frame is a bit different. But chances are sooner or later you'll need to talk for an hour or so. Hopefully you'll be a natural, but if not, maybe these tips will help.

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Homage and Otherwise

February 22

I guess you know you've made it when someone...

  • Typo-squats one of your URLs. See: Notice the extra 'd'. (Thanks Alan)
  • Builds a Windows app to address your complete and utter failure of an on-site navigation. (We all know by now why I can't change the HTML on-site, right? Hence this kludge to make it easier to navigate.)

I'm more just surprised by the latter than anything, since no one wrote me. It's not a terrible idea, and was already done twice prior by other sites. But I was forced to block one after the creator put up Google ads. Hey, if I'm not making a dime...

And to be completely fair, there are tons of great ideas people have spun off, from Gigastyle to CSS Zen Sentiero to Camaleon CSS. And the latest comes from Microsoft, no less, in the form of their Mix design contest. With direct credit too, thanks! (If you enter though, look out: they may just have got me to help judge...)

One thing I should take the opportunity to get out in the public, since I've said as much before in private emails—if you decide to create a similarly-themed project, I'd prefer it if you were to avoid 'Zen' and 'Garden' in the name. Get creative, brand it as its own thing. Cause if someone happens to stumble across 'Javascript Zen Garden' one day, they're likely to assume the two are connected, right?

Not much I can do to stop anyone of course, since I have no trademark or any legal protection of the name (not that I'd want to go that route anyway). But, there's enough mind share in the term '(technology abbreviation) Zen Garden' at this point that I wouldn't mind avoiding the potential confusion. It would certainly be nice. And I thank you!

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El Camino Real

February 16




The reason you're hearing a lot about Camino all of a sudden is because it really is quite good. I've been using it off and on for a few months now, and have just recently taken to leaving Safari unloaded all the time.

Sure, I miss a bunch of stuff from Safari. Hitting Cmd + a number for keyboard access to various items in my bookmark bar was a really nice feature. I was just getting used to viewing PDFs in-browser.

And most importantly, anyone have a Sogudi equivalent for Camino? Weaning myself off of that one is going to be the most difficult . Typing "wiki whatever" for an instant Wikipedia search, or "g whatever" for Google, and being able to custom define these shortcuts, means quick keyboard access to search results without mucking about with multiple page loads. It's bliss.

Update: Turns out Sogudi-like functionality is built in to Camino. Bliss!

But I don't miss other stuff. Safari's method of physically auto-completing a URL always annoyed me, as more often than not I had to then edit out a longer path or query string. And what is up with the beachball lately? Echoing Tim Bray, I've experience more than my fair share of slowdowns lately over pages that shouldn't be slow. The snappiness of Camino is more than enough to make me overlook the rest. I've finally got my Powerbook back.

For now, I'm sold. We'll see what a few months of kicking the tires does.

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February 14

Whoops, it's been a while. Still alive. A few things flying across my radar lately:

CSS Problem Solving Survey

One of the SXSW panels I'm sitting on this year needs some help from you. Got a particularly thorny CSS problem? Go tell us about it, and we might have a solution for you in March. Ethan Marcotte has more information about the panel.

Speaking of SXSW, if you haven't booked your hotel/flight by now, um, see you next year.

Yahoo Does Something Wonderful

To kick off the new Yahoo UI Blog with a bang, Yahoo has opened up a whole bunch of other UI-related stuff, free of charge. Like the Design Patterns Library, a collection of common solutions to UI problems. Or the Yahoo UI Library, a collection of Javascript for common UI components.

And finally, something which is sure to become an instant favourite amongst those who argue for/against bending over backwards to support specific browsers, Yahoo's Graded Browser Support and their corresponding Support Chart. Practical, well-explained guidelines that you can use immediately, as put out by a major technology company—print them out, give them to your clients or boss, and rest easy. Yahoo's done the tough explaining for you. Fantastic.

IE7 Beta 2 Preview
Not beta 2. Beta 2 preview. Meaning, expect a lot of change, and more preview releases, before the final version of IE7. Eric Meyer/Douglas Adams said it best: don't panic.
Unitless line-heights
Speaking of Eric Meyer, check out this explanation of line-height. I had no idea. (This is the same bug I wrote about in October, mind you.)
Last night I caught a technology preview of this new mobile service. It's still pretty beta, but in a nutshell: Skype on your mobile phone. ie., never pay another cent to your long distance carrier. Lots of caveats at the moment, but definitely one to watch.
Photoshop transform handles out of reach
Once again, Veerle has an Adobe tip that's going to save me a lot of time. No more zooming out to 8.25%.
NetDiver Best of the Year, 2005
Pure design inspiration.

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