Last month, I gave my first conference talk ever, titled “UX Design and Education for Effective Monitoring Tools,” at TechSummit Berlin. I felt terrible about it. All I could say about it was that it was over and I didn’t make any glaring mistakes, but something felt hollow about the whole thing. I realized that it was because I couldn’t say honestly to myself that I had expressed what I really wanted to say when I wrote the abstract. The good news is that I gave a talk at Monitorama with the same title and abstract, and I feel like I made a bit more progress towards saying what I needed to say. I wanted to write down some of my thoughts on what changed between the two talks.
I have a lot to say on the topic of helping people understand data. Not all of it has to be crammed into a 30 minute talk. I think I spent too much time discussing dry content in my first talk and could have cut those slides for more exciting ideas. I subscribe to the idea that talks are primarily for entertainment, not for education. That’s not to say that education isn’t be a goal, but there’s a limit to how much brain power the audience has, especially after days of listening to many talks. If I have more than 30 minutes of things to say about this topic, I’m now thinking I should prioritize content that is interesting and easy to process over content that is important but boring.
In this case, my original talk gave equal weight to documentation, team culture, and tools. I dedicated several slides to talking about the first two:
To be completely honest, this felt boring as hell to talk about. I don’t think I needed to spend so much time belaboring a point that most people already know and agree with. Yes, updated and clear documentation is important. Yes, the way your team works with other teams is important. Maybe in a talk dedicated to either of those topics, I could have made it more interesting. But in a talk titled “UX Design and Education for Effective Monitoring Tools”, it wasn’t clear why I was talking about these things instead of traditional design, and I wasn’t sharing novel ideas.
I ended up condensing these points into a single slide and briefly covered them in about 2 minutes rather than 15:
I also think this change made my point more effectively for a talk setting. It’s clear (to me, at least) what I meant to say: that team culture and documentation are the foundation of a strong support team and that they are a part of the user experience of interacting with your team.
Another thing that I think helped is that during my talk, I verbally talked about the points that you can see on my old slides, like outdated documentation and making people feel bad for asking questions, but I didn’t bother writing it all out on the slides. The visual representation is easier to look at, rather than having to read long sentences. (That said, the Monitorama slides are still pretty verbose.)
The great thing about condensing team and documentation into a single slide is that I had a lot more time to cover UX design for tools. I think this is valuable because tool design is a more novel topic for a devops-oriented conference, so the audience is hearing about topics that they don’t often hear on stage. The content is also more visual, with screenshots of graphs and UIs, so the slides were more interesting to look at:
I spent over half an hour making the fucking triangle, and I really want you all to know how much effort I put into it. No, seriously, have you tried making advanced shapes in Google Slides? Was I supposed to create stacked trapezoids? Should I have created one big triangle and drawn lines through it? What about the colors? In the end, I created four overlapping triangles, zoomed in to 200%, and painstakingly tweaked the angles so that they would be perfectly aligned. You’re welcome.
In all seriousness, I’m really glad that the new slides are more reflective of my own style. For my first talk, I used a slide template provided by my employer and I erred too far on the side of wanting to seem professional. It felt sterile. I love black slides in dark auditoriums. I love emojis. I love scribbles and gifs and dumb jokes.
My original slides had visually boring moments like this:
Meanwhile, my new slides were more expressive of my own feelings:
I felt more open to adding my own flair to my slides and wrote things matching my own style of communication, rather than trying to meet some vague notion of professionalism. The talk ended up being a lot more fun and engaging because I lightened up.
One thing I’m happy about is that it led to my favorite audience photo from my talk (thanks Soph!):
As an aside: Look how easy it is to not say “you guys” in a talk! Wow!
I asked on Twitter a few weeks ago whether anyone knew of talks they enjoyed that didn’t have an agenda slide. I didn’t get a ton of responses, so I started leaning towards writing an explicit agenda slide. I know a lot of speakers don’t signpost their talks and I think it can be done well. Still, I think it’s easier to lose the audience without an agenda, and it’s even more important to have one if you’re an inexperienced speaker like me. The agenda gives structure to your talk (duh) and keeps you organized so that you make your “thesis” more clear.
The funny thing is that a portion of my talk was about the idea that users are often anxious and afraid when they use your tools, and that makes it harder for them to explore. There’s a parallel here: If your audience doesn’t know where your talk is going, they’re going to spend brain power on figuring that out rather than listening to your words. If you make your thesis and structure very explicit, there’s less uncertainty and potential for confusion.
I did have an implied agenda slide for my first talk, but I think I could have done a better job writing it and signposting my talk to the audience. Here’s the comparison:
It’s not clear from just the slides, but the thing to note is that the Berlin “agenda” slide came about 7 minutes into my talk, rather than showing up right at the beginning. The feedback I received was that people didn’t realize it was intended to serve as signposts for the overall talk, so there was still some confusion about the structure.
I feel terrible when my work isn’t representative of what I think it could be. With writing, I think I’ve built up my rhetorical toolkit enough that I’m comfortable standing by my words. Now that I’m learning more about public speaking, I hope I can continue to introspect on what could be better so that I can one day stand by a talk and say, “This is truly how I envisioned this talk.” For now, I’m satisfied with gradual improvement.
Even between my first two talks, my thank you slides show the difference with just one emoji: