Storytelling for Geeks

Thoughts on speaking.

In 2012, I participated and spoke at the big data conference organised in Bangalore by HasGeek called The Fifth Elephant. I really liked the overall concept of the big data conference and the event was extremely well-managed. It was one of the best conferences I have seen in India – kudos to the HasGeek team. The selection of the talks was done by community voting (to some extent) and there was a rich variety of topics covered – both technology & tools related and industry & business applications related. Developers from both end of the spectrum where present – big tech companies like Google, ebay, RedHat, IBM, Flipkart etc. to non profits like Fields of View, Open Knowledge Foundation etc.

However, reflecting on the two-day event, I could not help thinking that many of the sessions with good rich content and concepts to share were somehow marred by poor presentation and storytelling. I obviously did not see all the sessions – there where three parallel tracks after the keynote sessions – but unless I had a selection bias towards dull sessions, I can see them as representative of the overall sessions. I can understand that the geek community may pride itself for not being like the ‘business folks’ spending time prepping on their presentations. But this was a conference where they nominated themselves to present and the least they could endeavour to do was to ensure the audience stays engaged in the talk instead of tuning out in the first five minutes itself. Don’t get me wrong – I do believe ‘content is king’ but the delivery can easily reduce this king to a pauper. So what were my observations?

First about the basics of presentation. If you are going to speak in an auditorium big enough for 1000 people, you cannot have fonts that are less than 30pts on the slides. More like 40pt should be the norm. And you cannot have snapshots of your weblogs or applications put on slides, which even you cannot read standing on the daïs. Make them legible. Add a magnifying glass and explode a part of them you want the audience to see. The number of slides presented upfront with an apology – “… you will not be able to read this but let me tell you…” was very high. And where were the nice visuals or diagrams to support the talks. I only remember one good presentation where the anchor slide was a tech stack diagram and the speakers used that to tell the story. Otherwise, most of the slides had dense bullet points that the focus just shifted on trying to read what is written on the slide.

Second about the art of storytelling. It would be tough to find good narrative arc in many of the presentations. Lot of the sessions had good content on what the company was doing to address the big data challenges but it was not in the form of a simple story that the audience could engage with and understand in the 30 / 45 minute session. There are many elements to creating a good story structure but one of the easiest that I would recommend for creating a good story is to use a storyspine – current reality is introduced (base), conflict arrives (change), there is a struggle (narrative), the conflict is resolved (climax), and a new reality emerges (conclusion). It can easily be worked into telling the story about how the big data problem was solved in each of their companies. Further, good presentations are hardly about the slides or the story alone. The oft quoted adage: storytelling is only 7% words, 38% tone and 55% body language - is something that also needs to be ingrained in every speakers mind.

Thirdly a bit about the tools. Everything was either a Keynote or a Powerpoint, (except the Google keynote, which was obviously Google Presentation). I half expected somebody to liven up the session by using a different tool – say use javascript / css tools like impress.js or deck.js or reveal.js. Or to just stand up and tell us a good story using pecha kuccha. But it never happened.

There were definitely bright spots. Two of them I can distinctly remember and they left a very lasting impression. The first was S Anand’s talk about visualizing text, which was stellar. Anand had the advantage that he was talking or more correctly showing visualizations. However, it had a great narrative arc – it started by his own personal journey into text visualization (e.g. typing Calvin and Hobbes), then moved to beginners visualization (e.g. using wordle, word clouds, concordance) and then to advanced visualization (e.g. tree maps, circular visualization). The content was very engaging – school results, Mahabharata, Calvin & Hobbes and the context was setup very nicely – personal experiments, business examples etc. It was all presented in his unique personal style, laced with wit and humour. I would urge everyone to re-look at the video. There was probably a bit too much switching between screens for my liking, but for a demo type presentation it was very well done.

The second was by Ashok Banerjee’s presentation. He used the lens of exponential growth to explain different tech and non-tech phenomena – from word of mouth to infatuation. The choice of the exponential model as the narrative tool really helped anchor the entire session. And add to that was his style, which was very professorial but in a good way. He carried the audience through his Q&A approach baked into the talk, ensuring a level of engagement and conversation unseen in any other session.

So what can HasGeek or other developer focussed event organizers do? Here are three things that I believe would really help them make these conference more alive and increase the overall engagement level.

1. Share the audience profile. Provide more information on the demographics of the conference attendees. Are there more statisticians or coders or product managers or business managers attending the conference. You can even make this information dynamically available as people sign up so that speaker understand how to position their talks and can prepare for this much in advance.

2. Create a (virtual) speaker corner. Make a curated best practice for conference speaking available on their site. I know there is tons of material available on the Internet on learning the art of good presentation. But it would still be very helpful to create a curated web page which brings this together for the speakers to look at when they start preparing for their sessions. For example, help them bring learn the lessons from the excellent talks on TED to their own session.

3. Conduct a storytelling bootcamp. Invite every speaker to a ‘storytelling for geeks’ session about a week or two before the conference. Work with them to instil the basics of good talks and improve their presentation. Better still get some external help to tear apart their draft presentations and build a much more impactful talks. Maybe only half the speakers will attend the bootcamp, but it will improve the engagement level of the conference by at least an order of magnitude. At the minimum, they would have thought about their presentation for a week longer!

I am sure they are many more aspects to creating a good conference, but getting the geeks to tell a good story is definitely one of essential ones.

Updated: With Ashok Banerjee’s video link and corrected for some typos. Thanks Kiran (HasGeek’s co-founder)

Credit: Potrait image from The Fifth Elephant website.

Comments {Moved from wordpress blog}

Kiran Jonnalagadda

Here’s Ashok Banerjee’s video: youtube link

Thanks for the critical feedback. Our goal is to help more geeks become public presenters of their work, so this is very useful. Some of this can be messy as we have to balance multiple interests (participants, speakers, sponsors, logistics, plus the arc from free sharing of information to privacy concerns), but we’re definitely pushing on all three fronts:

  1. Our guess on the audience profile comes from their job titles and company names. These are plain text fields and curating them into buckets (“Startup, Developer” vs “BigCo, Developer”, etc) has turned out to be too much work pre-event, so we will from now on ask participants to profile themselves. At Fifth Elephant, we required participants to sign up for a HasGeek account before they could RSVP for a workshop — a first attempt — and there’s more coming up.

  2. has been in the works for a while. It’s development has suffered because it’s a post-event activity — it’s not critical before an event, and post-event everyone’s tired and wanting a break — so it’ll be a couple more months before it goes out. That site is meant to put together a showcase of good speaking.

  3. Getting everyone together before an event is nearly impossible — most speakers don’t even have the time to make a two minute video of themselves introducing their talks — so for the upcoming JSFoo and Droidcon, we’re giving the program committee (PC) a bigger role: speakers must submit a video and/or draft slides which the PC approves before the talk goes on the schedule. It’s more work for the PC, who are already busy individuals themselves, but we hope it’ll both (a) help new speakers get feedback and advice on how to present and (b) improve the overall quality of the presentations at the event.

We also balance big events with smaller, lower cost events where new speakers can, essentially, fail fast and cheap, and learn to speak in public by actually speaking in public. We’ve had people return to speak at multiple events and we’re hoping many of them will graduate to being international speakers.

Of the four verticals we manage (participants, speakers, sponsors, logistics), speaking at international events is our yardstick for success with speakers.

My response

Kiran – Great to see you guys are thinking about a lot of these topics. And the intention to create international speakers is an excellent yardstick. My reflections are as much for the speakers themselves as they are for the organiser – as everyone needs to take ownership of their own actions (talks). It is just that the organisers have an opportunity to add the filter of good storytelling – either directly through the PC or maybe even a community linked mechanism – and hence the thoughts on what they could do.

Have updated the link for Ashok’s video. Keep up the good work at HasGeek.