This post, my 55th on Learning jQuery, is a departure from the usual jQuery tutorials and announcements. It’s about my experience speaking at the Future of Web Design (FOWD) conference in New York City this week. I’m writing it mostly for myself, to set down in writing my thoughts about what went right and what went wrong for me at the conference, and to learn from it. I’m also writing this with the hope that someone else might be able to learn from my experience, as well. While I’ll try not to make it too terribly self-indulgent, there will be some “self-disclosure” that might make you feel uncomfortable, so if you’re looking for something less personal here, please stop reading this and head over to the category archives, where you’ll find some good tips on using jQuery.
As Charles Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
As a last-minute substitute, I led a 3 1/2 hour workshop on Monday for roughly 35 people and gave a 30 minute presentation on Tuesday for 300 or more. As far as I could tell, the workshop went well and the presentation…not so much. If I had to do it all over again, I’d try to follow these 10 pieces of advice:
Don’t assume that speaking in front of twenty to forty people is similar to speaking in front of three or four hundred.
I’ve had seven years’ experience teaching, so I know what it’s like to conduct a class. That experience didn’t translate at all to the presentation in the concert hall. My teaching style was very casual, and my strengths lay more in discussion and drawing out my students than in straight lecture.
Figure out how to deal with the particular challenges of a large venue ahead of time.
For Tuesday’s presentation, I spoke from a raised stage through a microphone to an audience I couldn’t see (except for those in the front couple rows). The sound, the lighting, and the relationship between speaker and audience were all things I could have anticipated but didn’t. Instead, I was disoriented by hearing my own voice coming from somewhere else in the room and looking out into a sea of darkness.
When speaking to a large audience, don’t just look at the first couple rows, even if they’re the only ones you can see.
When I was a kid, I learned that you should look over the heads of where you think the back row is. This will give the illusion that you are looking right at the audience. But then I forgot this trick, only recalling it after my presentation.
If you have very little time to prepare, don’t try to create something brand new. Instead, raid your portfolio or even your work in progress.
It’s not a sin to establish your credentials, especially if nobody knows who you are.
Even though I incorporated my credentials (including co-authoring two books and being a member of the jQuery project team) into Monday’s workshop slides, my modesty overcame me on Tuesday and I avoided saying anything positive about myself. That was really dumb. As Ryan Singer of 37Signals pointed out to me afterwards, people want to know that they are listening to an expert, or at least someone who knows what he or she is talking about. It’s the presenter’s responsibility to assure them that they are.
If you take daily medication (like, oh, I don’t know, an anti-depressant or ADD medication maybe), set an alarm to remind you to take that medication on the day of your presentation.
Do not leave this to chance or to your flaky memory, unless you don’t mind feeling like your brain has been dropped into a vat of molasses and then squeezed. When you step outside your daily routine to travel and attend a conference, it will be difficult to remember such things as what pills you need to take. So, write a note to yourself on a sticky pad and post it on the bathroom mirror, or set an alarm in your calendar app and have it set to remind you repeatedly.
Know your audience well and tailor your presentation to the majority of people who will be listening to it.
It’s not a bad idea to start your presentation with a joke. But if it’s an inside joke that nobody in the audience is aware of, you’re better off leaving it out. I started my presentation with a picture of the jQuery rock star; after all, the conference was in a rock venue. Come to think of it, though, it wasn’t even much of a joke. Oh well.
If you’re speaking at a design conference such as FOWD, it’s important to speak with pictures, not just words, and especially not with a whole lot of code. Tina Roth Eisenberg (aka Swiss Miss) noted, “This could have been such a powerful presentation, would Karl just have used a few visual examples. When speaking at a design conference where 75% of attendees are designers, make sure to use visuals.” I think this was my presentation’s single greatest flaw, and it was based on a misunderstanding of who the audience would be. Before FOWD, I had presented at a couple developer-heavy barcamps, two jQuery conferences, and the Ajax Experience. All of those audiences were much different from the one at FOWD. Failing to understand that ahead of time was a serious shortcoming on my part. Next time I’ll know better.
Don’t expect to have internet access for your presentation—or your hotel or anywhere during your travel.
Don’t even expect to have decent internet access at your hotel if you pay through the nose for it. Fortunately, this is another thing I did right. The day before I left for New York City, I pulled down my remote databases onto my computer and set up virtual hosts for the sites I’d be demoing. If I hadn’t done that, I would have been in a world of hurt.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
I’m a pretty sensitive guy, not the kind of person who can just let criticism roll off my shoulders (hence, the anti-depressants). So, it helps to remind myself that it’s just one conference, one presentation, one group of people. It also helps to talk about it with people, like my wife, who aren’t in the web design/development industry.
Get to know your hosts
I met quite a few really cool people at the conference, but I most appreciated getting to know the folks from Carsonified, the organization that put on the conference. Not only are they incredibly talented, but they’re also gracious and kind and remarkably down to earth. My discussions with them were one of the highlights of the conference for me.
I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to speak at FOWD—mostly because of what I learned, albeit much of it the hard way. If you’ve presented at a conference before, what are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from your experience? If you attended FOWD, what lessons did I miss that you think I should learn?
I’ve uploaded all my slides from the workshop and presentation, along with some interactive examples and links to things I mentioned, to training.learningjquery.com.