How To Present at OSCON the Conway Way

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Derek J. Balling
Aug. 01, 2005 02:18 PM

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I have a deadly fear of public speaking. I like to think I'm a pretty decent writer, but when it comes to getting up in front of people and talking, I just don't feel like I've got the chops for it. (Which is amusing, because in small settings, I'm told people would like me to just shut the hell up after a while).

I went to Conway's talk, dubbed "Presentation Aikido", with only sort of a vague idea what he had in mind for the talk. And that's important, actually, as he pointed out within 15 minutes of the beginning of the talk. The title evoked a feeling of mystery in me, and I just *had* to see and hear what came from it.

He went through all sorts of examples, both good and bad. The good examples you recognized as good examples. In some cases, the bad examples, well, you thought maybe you knew exactly who he was talking about in a couple of those cases.

Because in the end, let's face it, we all wish every presenter was as engaging and interesting as Damian Conway is. This was Damian sharing the magic beans, so to speak, saying "If you want your talks to be as engaging and interesting as mine are, it's not hard, here's all you have to do."

And it really is just that simple. There's the common mistakes we see every year -- slides where the color contrast sucks... people who are trying to squeeze a 90 minute talk into 45... speakers who are more hung up on their own achievements than on the information they're trying to pass on to the attendee... slides with god-awful templates that include a logo pasted on every single page (yeah, that means your standard slide templates, too, O'Reilly! *grin*) ... the guy who reads his talk from the paper ... the woman with slides that are so full of stuff that you can't read them ... the demos that don't work ... the annoying powerpoint "effects" ... on and on and on

We all recognize all of those flaws, having sat through them at some point in time.... A little part of us winces in pain every time we sit through them (and the level of pain is exponentially related to how many of them are combined into a single talk).

The reality is, it doesn't have to be like that, and all it takes is a simple edict:

"Go to Conway's talk. Listen. Know it. Live it."

I say in all seriousness that O'Reilly should pay Damian to give this talk again next year, free of charge, to any potential speakers who want to attend, and that in 2007, or whenever, it should be made a requirement. You *must* have gone to this talk in order to be a speaker, because it really is both that good and that important. OSCON gets a lot of quality speakers, but it also gets its share of, well, to be blunt, not-so-quality speakers. Being a brilliant technical mind does not necessarily correlate with being a great public speaker, so that's no slight on anyone. At least if those sorts of people have been made to sit down and attend this beforehand, they might avoid some of the pitfalls that cause the rest of us attendees so much consternation.

Derek J. Balling has been a Perl programmer and UNIX/Linux system administrator since 1996 and is currently employed as the Data Center Manager for