My Thoughts on the Central PA Open Source Conference

I love this new movement of small regional open source conferences that seem to be springing up everywhere. Democratizing the conference space by making it local and affordable is a wonderful thing. When I was at Ohio Linux Fest last year, I got told I should really check out what the folks in Harrisburg were doing with the Central PA Open Source Conference. Given that a trip to Harrisburg would also mean a good chance to visit friends in York as well, I submitted once their call for papers opened up. Having just gotten back from CPOSC, I can tell you they are doing some really great awesomeness there.

First off, the quality of the people at CPOSC is just really amazing. Every random conversation I ended up in was really compelling, and made me wish there was more time between sessions to have even more of those. I learned some very interesting things about mobile web development when I didn’t know, I learned quite a few interesting Drupal tricks that are invaluable, and I found a really vibrant and welcoming open source community in Central PA.

The facilities were brilliant. We were in the Technology Building for Harrisburg University, on the 12, 13, 14th floors, which were truly state of the art. Touch screen controls for all the rooms, power wired to all the desks, really good chairs… just all around brilliant. The flat screen displays in the hallway we even flipping through Linus quotes all day, which while a little detail, really helped set the atmosphere.

The organization was really tight, which I always appreciate as a speaker. The speaking blocks were 50 minutes, with 10 minutes in between. The organizers ensured every session started on time, and ended on time, giving 10, 5, and 1 minute warning cards. The graphics on these included Veloceraptors and Wolves, which I didn’t even realize until after my talk. A well run event is one that seems like no one is running it but, mysteriously, everything is just where it needs to be when it needs to be there. That’s was CPOSC to a T. To everyone that made CPOSC happen behind the scenes, I applaud you greatly.

The schedule at CPOSC was great. The speakers and content were top notch. I’ve now learned that on the presentation win scale there is something even better than a perfectly in context xkcd comic to make your point: using video from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to explain software architecture. My only regret on the speaker front is that by consuming one of the slots with my own talk, I inevitably collided with a talk I actually really wanted to see.  Oh well, thems the breaks.

Finally, my audience was great. I had somewhere between 50 – 60 people in my talk, all were very engaged, and really focused on what I was saying. I felt really good about how the presentation went (though I’ve of course got my mental list of things I’d change afterwards, it’s never a good talk without that), but I did feel that I was on my game. I got a number of great questions at the end of the talk, and people coming up to me later in the day asking more questions and just striking up conversations that followed from there (see point 1 about the quality of the people being excellent).

I can’t wait until CPOSC 2011, and will definitely do my darnedest to get down to it. Knowing how good the speaker pool is now, I’m going to have to make sure I keep my game up to play there.

A Few Tips for Casual Speakers

I enjoy speaking in public. I think I got the bug for it by doing theater in high school. When I took the job in the Linux Technology Center back in 2001 a big first part was to get known in the community, so I submitted papers all over the place. A few of my close friends even got to see my horrible first attempt at conference presenting at Urbana Illinois that year. But, you have to start somewhere.

So here are a few pieces of advice that I’d give to anyone that does public speaking.

Give Yourself Enough Time

If you are giving a talk with slides, start at least a week in advance building those slides. Much like a paper in college, if you wait till the last minute, you’ll end up with the first draft only. Everyone improves after 2 or 3 drafts, especially if this isn’t what you do all the time. I’ve seen a lot of people make the presentation cramming mistake.

Slides aren’t an Essay, they are Supporting Materials

It’s an easy trap to fall into, but the point of pushing big pictures up onto a projector is really to augment your talk with things you can’t say. If people came to your presentation to just read text, you didn’t need slides in the first place.

More Pictures

If your topic is something that requires mostly text, at least spice it up with a few small pictures integrated into at least every other page to mix it up. When I’m making slides now a days I find that if I’ve got 2 text slides in a row, it feels boring, 3 in a row, and I’m doing something wrong.

My favorite presentations are mostly pictures.

Don’t Read Your Slides!

I consider this speaker Sin #1. The audience is not illiterate. When you put text on the screen the audience will read it faster than you can get to it. If you follow the previous suggestions and get rid of text in favor of pictures, this helps solve that.

Black Background

Seriously, it’s a simple change, but it makes things look so much slicker. This was one of the suggestions from the presentation class I took that I was surprised by, but it’s really true.

Practice Run

Make sure you take your talk through a practice run. If you can find a few people to listen to your run, great, but if not, just do it yourself in an empty room pretending their is an audience and a projection behind you.

At the end of every talk I’ve given, I’ve immediately realized something I wanted to change. I should have shortened that first bit, or man I wish those were in a different order. I’m bad on this one myself, but something I’m trying to force myself to do better.

Respect Your Time Slot

Part of the reason to do a practice run is to ensure you are close to your time target. When you got scheduled for a talk you were given a slot of allotted time, the audience was advertised to about it being that amount of time.

Whatever you do, don’t run long. It’s rude, and as long as your main talk is still going people aren’t going to want to interrupt you to give you the hook. If the audience really wants you to stay longer, and wants more of your content, they’ll ask lots of questions, and the host can decide how long they really can let things run.

If you are going to run short by a substantial amount (like having 20 minutes to fill an hour slot), and there really isn’t content to fill the rest, tell the host in advance (and not right before the talk starts). This will give the host some time to pad in filler so it looks like the shorter duration was always the plan. It makes you and the host look good.

Avoid Dropping out of your Presentation

I fall into this trap quite often, where I want to show some code, so I got to an editor. It’s rarely a good idea, because it breaks the flow of the presentation. Also, it takes you longer to find files, search for the right thing to show, change editor colors, or do google searches than you think.

If you are going to show code examples, copy them into your presentation. It takes a little more time, but it helps keep focus.

If you Make a Mistake, Move on

When you are actually in the heat of the moment, treat it as theater. If you miss a beat, whatever you do, don’t back up, just keep heading forward. Maybe you’ll find a place to insert the point later, maybe you’ll get it as a question, and can expand off of that.

No one recognizes your mistakes nearly as much as you do, the audience may never have figured out that something went wrong.

Give More Presentations

The best way to get better at giving presentations, is to give more of them. If you’ve got a local user group for something you are interested, get on their speaker schedule regularly.

There are other, more minor tips I could make, but these seem to be the major ones that come to mind, though I’d love to hear other thoughts in comments. An remember, no one is perfect. I fail on many of these things in presentations I give, but remembering tips like these help make my presentations better.

And most importantly, remember to have fun in giving a presentation. The audience is getting most of their information not from your words, or your slides, but from your body language. If you are excited and having a good time, the audience will pick up on that, and will be far more engaged. So once the preparations are made, the slides are loaded, and the lights go down… enjoy the ride.

Upcoming Talks

Things are going to be quiet here for a few days as I prep for 2 upcoming talks, both which are about aspects of Where is Io.  The first of which is this Saturday at the Central PA Open Source Conference, which I’m about 2/3 of the way through creating that presentation.  Here is the title slide:

The CPOSC presentation is about Android development, using Where is Io as a roadmap through some of the interesting parts of Android.

The second is coming up a week from today at the Mid Hudson Astronomical Association at SUNY New Paltz.  It’s called “Tracking the Movement of the Heavens” and is about the math and astronomy behind Where is Io.  There will be a little bit of content sharing between the two, but they’ll be quite different in many ways.

I’m really looking forward to both talks, especially now that I’ve got quite a bit of material and narrative for the first one nailed down, and a decent set of notes for the second one.