Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Presenting Open Spaces and Lightning Talks

Last week I was getting over a cold at work when the CEO came to talk to me. For the company meeting she wanted employees to present on the conferences they had attended recently. I was still feeling a little under the weather, but I always enjoy telling people about the Java Posse Roundup and the ideas and experiences I was exposed to there. So I gave her a synopsis about Open Space conferences and lightning talks. She liked the ideas and asked me to present them to the company. I agreed.

The meeting began and soon moved on to the employee presentations. I was tired and weak from being sick the day before, but I wanted to communicate the Open Space ideas. I didn't know how many presentations there would be or when mine would be. The first few presentations went by, with detailed slides and lots of information about online advertising trends and healthcare marketing topics. I got increasingly nervous, since I had no slides and no written outline, and I felt more like going home and napping than improvising for a large audience.

Finally the CEO introduced my talk at the end. Relieved to stop thinking and start talking, I began following Jared Richardson's advice from his Career 2.0 talk at No Fluff Just Stuff.

• For each point you make, look a different audience member in the eye.
• Pace slowly back and forth across the stage area, to keep people's eyes moving and their attention focused.
• Use big arm gestures.
• Tell jokes.
• Modulate your voice high and low at different times.

I explained how an Open Space conference works, how they've been covered by Business Week as a new way for conferences to educate like-minded people with an unconventional approach. I described the morning sessions at the Java Posse Roundup, where the attendees posted ideas for discussions on post-it notes and then met and recorded our discussions for the podcast. I talked about afternoons where we either went skiing and chatted about programming, or went to someone's house and did some coding to learn a new language. And then I talked about the evenings, where we did lightning talks.

Fortunately it was a subject I'm already passionate about so it was easy to make it interesting. One of the ideas I wanted to sell was that a session of lightning talks should include a few talks that are included only to keep people amused and interested. The point is for their attention not to wander too far and to increase the audience's retention of the material. The inclusion of the "just for fun" talks has been slightly difficult for my teammates to swallow, so I wanted to address it specifically. As one coworker put it "If I have a deadline, why would I want to go in a conference room and listen to you talk about racecars?" As I explained to my audience, the point is to inspire creative thinking and self-expression, to get people practicing energetic public speaking, and to keep everyone awake and amused so they'll be more likely to retain the information from other lightning talks. And the most important part... if you don't like a presentation, it's only 5 minutes. Just wait for the next one.

The audience laughed when I showed them the example of Andrew Harmel-Law's "How to Prepare for Zombie Attacks" lightning talk on YouTube. They applauded when I pointed out that they were laughing and would therefore probably remember some of the other points I made.

The only question from the audience was "So how DO we prepare for zombie attacks?"

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