Wednesday, March 05, 2014

SxSW = Tons of Free Music!

SXSW Music: South By Southwest 2014 | Lineup | Rumors | Tickets | Film Festival | Dates | Mobile App | Video | Austin | TexasAustin, Texas is cranking up South by SouthWest 2014, and that means music - LOTS of music. SxSW gets most of its mainstream press for its technical and creative content these days, but the festival's roots are musical; hundreds of bands will be playing in dozens of venues. (Can you tell that I REALLY wish I were attending?) As you might expect from a festival that features so much indie music, there are more free samplers and promotional releases than anyone could possibly want to download...unless, of course, they're a total music geek. So, since I'm already downloading these (grin), I thought I'd share the links with you. In the interest of brevity, I won't go into lengthy descriptions of each collection; the only thing I'll say is that I inevitably find REALLY good music, across a range of genres, in every year's samplers. Having said that, let's get to the list: 

NPR's Austin 100 - A massive (839 MB) collection of NPR's picks. 
Arts & Crafts Records - This Canadian label will have a healthy presence in Austin. 
Bar/None Records - Always an interesting selection.  
SxSWBaby! - Another large (80 tracks, 314MB) collection from the thoroughly UNofficial SxSW blog. 
Rubberneck/Burger City - Truth be told, this one is brand-new to me; I'm downloading the tunes as I write this...  
Dine Alone Records 
OK! Records 

Some of these are straight downloads, while others require your email address. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

#SpeakerU - Speaker Coaching: It's Worth The Time

OK, so, you've been selected to speak at a conference.  You've spent hours building your slides, you've gone through your outline a dozen times, and you've even jotted down particular words (or turns of phrase) you want to use.  There's only one problem - you've never really given this presentation to an audience.

Enter the speaker coach. 

Now, everyone seems to have their own idea of what a speaker coach should be; as far as I'm concerned, a good technical speaker coach should be able to do two things:
  • Critique the mechanics of your presentation style, and
  • Evaluate the technical content of the presentation itself.
The former category can be tricky for technical folks.  It seems that we're used to people speaking fast, using run-on sentences, and throwing jargon about with reckless abandon.  Most of us have to take a breath and slow things down a bit when speaking to an audience that isn't as familiar with the subject matter as we might be.

The latter focus--the technical content--should be evaluated in the context of the intended audience.  If you're targeting your presentation to beginners, the question is, "Did they get from [nothing] to [basic understanding]?"; presentations to folks with intermediate skills should result in the listener "getting to the next level," and speaking to advanced audiences...well, at that point it's usually about bringing something new to the table, since they (by definition) already know the beginning and intermediate stuff, right? So, you want to find someone who fits the "typical attendee" model, NOT someone who already knows the material.

Long story short, folks - find a person (or persons) who can do these two things for you.  Take them through your presentation.  Don't stop, don't pay any attention to the fact that there are only one or two people in the room, and don't hold anything back: give the presentation as you expect to deliver it on stage.  If you can get a projector, do so; make this as realistic a "dry run" as possible.  After you're done, sit down with them and ask two questions:

  1. "Could you hear and understand my words and how I spoke?"
  2. "What can you tell me about [subject of presentation]?"
Their answers will tell you what (if anything) you need to change.

I can't say this strongly enough: DO THIS.  DO THIS SEVERAL TIMES.  Every runthrough you can make before hitting the stage will improve your performance.

Now, go practice!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

#SpeakerU - Building Your Deck, or "You Want Slides With That?"

Previously, on #SpeakerU...
So, you sucked up your courage, submitted a proposal to a meeting or conference, and then--O happy day!--you received that wonderful "your abstract has been accepted" message.

Now you must...MAKE SLIDES.  You may need to make MANY SLIDES.

Here's where you really have to start thinking about the mechanics of your presentation: how much time you'll have, what points you MUST cover, your own comfort level with the information, how much time to spend on each piece of information...all of this goes into the slides you're about to create.

At this stage of the game, one's slides often take on the 'personality' of the speaker.  This is, I think, as it should be.  The goal of #SpeakerU is not that everyone who reads these articles churns out presentations of identical style--that would result in really boring conferences, if you ask me--but rather that your slides balance your speaking style with the material you need to cover.  Remember, those folks are coming to hear YOU; if they only wanted the raw information, they could have stayed at home and read a book.  Find that comfort level that lets you feature the content.

I'll also recommend a visit to Slideshare, where folks from around the world have posted presentations on a wide variety of topics.  There's nothing wrong with looking at the different formats and styles on display to find your way, but resist the temptation to copy slides wholesale.  (You WILL be caught eventually; remember that the attendees can check out Slideshare, too...)

Instead of going through the mechanics of building slides or talking about point sizes and the like, I'll leave you with some general guidelines I use when laying out the slides for a presentation.  Feel free to use or adapt them as you see fit; your deck is about your style and your information, not mine.

So, then, in no particular order:
  • Assume that your audience can read.  Reading your slides is THE fastest way to lose your audience.
  • Make a noticeable transition, either vocally or by changing slides, every 90 seconds or so - or you'll start losing people.
  • Resist the urge to use copyrighted material of any sort.  Imitiation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it's also the fastest path to a conversation with lawyers.
  • If you can't cover a one-topic slide in less than 2 minutes' time, split the information across multiple slides.
  • Only use effects/animations when they deliver a necessary accent or transition to the content - in other words, forget the eye candy.
  • Don't be afraid to use a (well-designed) graphic instead of words, but remember to give enough written information to spark the listener's memory when they read your slides a month or two later.
  • Don't "get fancy" with language. You'll be seen as a show-off, especially where words/phrases from other languages are concerned.
  • Remember that you will be "talking AROUND your slides," adding perspective/depth to what your audience is reading.
  • Don't let your slides "skip around" - don't take your audience to Point C if you need to talk them through Points A and B first.
  • If you use graphics, remember that they need to be clear to the folks in the last row - avoid clutter.
  • Be VERY careful with humor, especially when delivering to an international audience.
  • Don't create eye charts; use a reasonable font/size for the projection system that will be in use, and stick with it.
Once I've made a "rough draft," I usually put it to two tests; I hand it to someone who knows the topic well ("Did I miss anything?"), and then hand it to someone who doesn't know the material at all and ask, "Can you follow the general flow?"  Remember that your audience will probably cover the spectrum from 'newbie' to 'expert;' you want to inform the former without losing the latter.

Next up - putting it all together...

As always, feel free to add your own experiences, tips, or pasta recipes in the comments...

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

#SpeakerU - Writing an Abstract, or "PLEASE PICK ME!"

It's time to get back to #SpeakerU, our ongoing discussion of how you can "get up on stage" and become a technical presenter/speaker at conferences like IamLUG (now ICONUS), ICONUK, and IBM Connect.  (If you want to play catchup, my previous #SpeakerU articles are here and here. Several other folks have written articles, as well; a quick search for "#SpeakerU" should bring their work to your attention.)

Most conferences do NOT expect you to have a full deck of slides (or a complete paper, or a finished poster) prepared in advance; instead, they'll ask you to submit an abstract - a brief explanation of your topic and material.  Now, whether you realize it or not, many conferences make the abstracts of accepted sessions public well before the conference meets, so that prospective attendees can begin planning their schedules.  Thus, your abstract has to do two things:
  • Convince the folks hosting the conference that you know your stuff, AND
  • Convince attendees to attend your session.
Your task is complicated by the fact that abstracts are usually limited in size; you might have as few as 500 characters with which to "make your pitch."  (Remember in the last article, when I said that a big part of picking a topic was fitting it to the time available?  Well, here's another reason to choose wisely; you have to be able to explain it succinctly!)  So, how are we going to accomplish so much in so few words?

I tend to use abstracts to do one thing - ask/answer attendees' questions.  If you've identified where folks are having problems AND can deliver solutions, that's going to be a big win with the conference organizers; if you hit upon a common problem (or a Frequently Asked Question), you may hear a buzz about your presentation well before the conference and (eventually) face a packed room.

Instead of creating spurious examples at this point, I'm going to point you to Russell Maher's recent article on the subject.  He gives the best possible example of the abstract process - his own abstracts. (As you'll see, I collaborated with him.)  The key point is take your topic and put it in terms of the attendees' environments, their questions and your answers; remember that they may not even realize that they need to visit your session until they read your abstract.   It isn't what you can teach - it's what they can learn if they attend.  Russell provides a before-and-after view of two session abstracts, which I think illustrates the process pretty well.

For all this talk about 'selling' and 'pitching' your session/presentation, it's important NOT to oversell.  Remember, you can't claim to make attendees experts in a one-hour session, nor can you ever answer "all the questions."  Be reasonable and straightforward about what you can deliver; as I've often said on stage, sometimes the best outcome of a presentation is NOT that everyone finds their questions answered, but rather that they learn the right questions to ask!

A good abstract requires effort; it isn't something you dash off in 90 seconds.  If you can find old conference programs, take a look at successful abstracts from past events.  Ask your friends to review your first effort, ask others to rewrite them, and don't be afraid to take it through several iterations.  The important thing is NOT to give up - keep trying!

Next up: You've Been Chosen - And Must Now Create Slides...

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Puzzling Through Music? Here's My Chordspeller...

If you've been paying attention to this blog (or if you've ever met me), you know that I'm a complete music nerd.  Well, that extends to music theory; I'm one of those folks who fakes playing piano by cheating from the guitar notation, and I'm one of those singers who wants to know whether I'm singing the root, third, fifth or seventh of that big chord at the key change.  Well, to do that stuff one needs a fairly comprehensive chord library, whether it be a mental storehouse or a cheat sheet.  I'm not that good - I need a cheat sheet.

Long ago, when I first started dissecting barbershop music (and, yes, baritones DO have the strangest part!), I had a great 'chord spelling' chart; unfortunately, it was lost some years ago and I've never been able to find a good replacement.  My daughter recently ran across some 'fake sheets' for current pop songs, which have naught but lyrics and guitar chords; she started asking me "What's a Cdim7?  How do you play an Fm9b5?"  I thought of my old chord speller, and decided to create my own.

Simply put, it's a one-pager that includes:

  • Nomenclature (e.g. dominant 7th, minor 6th, etc.),
  • Symbol notation (e.g. Cm7, C+, etc.), 
  • Scale note formula (e.g. C minor triad = "1 b3 5"), and
  • Chord listings (e.g. "Gbm9 = Gb A Db E Ab")
for 204 chords, plus extra notation & scale note formulae for another 15 chord families, for a total library of 429 chords - on a single 8.5"x11" page.

You can grab a PDF copy of Chordspeller from my Slideshare library.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

#SpeakerU - First Step: Picking a Topic

OK, so you've decided to take the plunge and become a technical speaker/presenter.  Excellent!  Well, the obvious question must be this: on what subject(s) will you speak?

This question is not as simple as it might seem at first glance.  Most of have a mental library that looks something like this:
We all have some old volumes (ask me about provisioning cylinders on a 3380 DASD sometime...), some nifty books that are rarely used, stuff we thumb through regularly, and new stuff that we haven't really read through just yet.  Now, your first urge will be to find something new/hot/shiny to talk about and/or something with which you are familiar in great detail, but there are three things you MUST consider:
  1. Know your audience.  Are you speaking to a highly technical audience, a management-heavy audience, a room full of "just want it to work" end users, or a combination of the three?   Some events (notably larger regional/national conferences) may have separate "technical tracks" and "executive sessions," but that won't always be the case.  You may need to pick a topic on which you can (potentially) engage a broad range of listeners.
  2. Know your limits.  I'm not referring to your skills in public speaking or slide layouts, or even your knowledge of the subject matter; rather, I'm talking about the simple mechanics of the venue.  Will you have a projector available?  How much time will be alloted to your presentation?  Will there be a mandatory Q&A period that cuts into your speaking time?  Will you have network connectivity for use in live demonstrations?
  3. Know what fits.  You may be the world's leading expert on foobiebletches, but you won't be invited back if you run out of time, lose half of your audience halfway through, or rush through a massive deck of slides in an attempt to "cram it all" into the alloted time.  As an experienced speaker, I can tell you that there are few things more painful than watching a speaker who has bitten off more than can be chewed...
So, this boils down to a single statement - "Pick a topic with which you are familiar, but also which can be discussed in some detail in the time alloted, in terms that most of the audience can follow."

A few suggestions:
  • New speakers are often comfortable with a "tips and tricks" presentation; most of us have favorite configurations/tweaks for various applications and/or devices.  If you stop to think about it, "12 Neat Things You Can Do with Your iPhone" or "What You Don't Know About Hotmail" would be great presentations for the local Toastmasters, school groups and the like; something like that would be a good "hip pocket" presentation to keep around for short-notice speaking opportunities (especially since they can often be "trimmed to fit" different time limits!).
  • Brainstorm with friends and colleagues.  Ask them, "what would YOU give up an hour to hear?"
  • Draw upon your own experience, for better or worse.  I've seen some EXCELLENT presentations on topics such as, "10 Things I Learned While [fill in the blank]"...if you happen to write a blog, go back and review your old articles; you may find raw material there that can be refined into a great presentation.
  • Take a look at sites like Slideshare, where thousands of presenters have posted copies of their slides.  Take a look at their topics, and think about whether you could take a slice of that pie and run with it.  (NO, DO NOT JUST COPY THEM WHOLESALE - you will be found out...)
  • Search for meetings/conferences in your field, and check out the presentations being made at those events.  You don't have to start at that level of difficulty, but it will give you a good idea of topics that made it through the selection gauntlet.
Well, that's simple enough - so go do it!

Next up: the art of writing abstracts...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Time For You to Get on Stage - #SpeakerU

Having just returned from IamLUG, I've realized that it isn't too early to start thinking about next year's IBM Connect.  At both Connect 2013 and IamLUG, there was a great deal of discussion around the question, "How can we get more people up on stage presenting?"

Well, I've been doing this for a while (as a speaker, coach, and content selector), so I've put together a few thoughts, a few experiences, and--yes--a few war stories, in the hopes that some of you will be encouraged to make that jump from "attendee" to "speaker/presenter."  For lack of a better title, I'm calling it Speaker University, or #SpeakerU for short.

Now, let me be clear; there is no One True Path to success as a technical speaker.  Each of us has both strengths to which we can play and weaknesses to be avoided.  My tips may not work for everyone, and I ABSOLUTELY encourage everyone to chime in - not just here, but on their own blogs as well.  (I would like to see the #SpeakerU hashtag, just so that folks can more easily find a range of voices on the topic...)

Having said that, here's what I'm going to write about over the next few months:

  • Picking a topic
  • Writing an abstract
  • Outlining a presentation
  • Creating slides
  • Timing
  • What to do (and not to do) while speaking
  • How to catch that person in the last row AND hold their attention
  • ...and more.
Down the road, I'm planning to move this into small-group and (perhaps) one-on-one coaching sessions, using Skype, Sametime, Google hangouts, or whatever works best.  Think of it as an online Toastmasters meeting, and you won't be far off the mark.

Here's what I ask of you:

  1. If you're thinking about jumping into the pool - GREAT!  It's an incredible experience, whether you're presenting at a small local meeting, a user group conference, or a major industry event.   You won't regret it.
  2. If you're already an established speaker/presenter, I'd LOVE for you to post your own tips/tricks/techniques - write a blog entry, a series of tweets, I don't care...but it's time to start priming the next generation of speakers.  Use the #SpeakerU hashtag when possible, so that folks can catch all of us in as few searches as possible.
That's it for now...coming up: Picking the Right Topic.  See you then!