inessential by Brent Simmons

Nerds in a Room

At the Yosemite conference — which was wonderful, which you should attend if they do it again next year — I did the kind of talk I’ve been moving toward as I get away from technical talks.

Technical talks are great and a needed thing, but I don’t love doing them, so I leave them to other people.

Lately I’ve been doing what I think of as nightclub act. The idea is simple: do 15 to 20 minutes on something non-technical but, hopefully, interesting. Tell a story and throw in a few jokes. Roll with whatever happens.

Get the audience involved. If the crowd is small enough (such as at Yosemite) I just go around and the room and have everyone introduce themselves.

(Mic technique is key, there, and I flubbed it at Yosemite. The rest of the audience needs to hear what each person is saying, and I didn't have the mic close enough in every case. Lesson learned.)

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I’m not necessarily suggesting this for anybody else or even giving advice. And I’m not saying I’m great at this — just that I’ve gotten to where I can reasonably pull it off.

(As Laura Savino said in her fantastic talk: let’s not be afraid to be mediocre in public!)

But people asked me about it, so I figured I’d write up how I approach it.

The Goal

A thing like this has to be the last talk, preferably on the first night, and my goal is to propel people toward the socializing that happens right after. I want the talk to feel intimate, relaxed, and fun — because that’s the mindset we should all be in as we stand up and start talking to other people.

I also want people to feel as if they can talk to anybody. They’ve just heard and seen me be a big dork who goes around and does exactly that — and they can do it too. It’s as easy as asking “What’s your name?”

How I Prepare

I’m lousy at slide management, and I’ve realized I don’t really like slides. So I try to use as few as possible. This one had four, and I cut the first one (the one with the title and my contact info) at the last second, and so I had just three. And almost the entire talk was done with just one slide. (It was a giant, blurry photo of a raccoon in my back yard.)

(I might go entirely without slides next time. For what I’m doing, slides are a crutch, and I don’t need them.)

I wrote out my talk first. Then I spent about six hours rehearsing it over two days (and many thousands of steps as I paced), and revising it as I went.

I do not try to stick too close the script when rehearsing — I let myself improvise. Sometimes those bits end up back in the written version, and sometimes not. But it makes me comfortable with improvising, which I then bring to the performance later.

(Example: in the delivered talk, I had a made-up-on-the-spot thing about how the folks in the room were the people who wrote the targeting computer that Luke Skywalker switched off before blowing up the Death Star. We had unit tests! It would have worked! But no. Luke’s a jerk.)

How I Perform

I like to swing my arms above my head a few times right before starting. It gets a little adrenaline going and it loosens me up. It makes me feel like I can move. I’ll do that right off-stage — or even on-stage — because it doesn’t matter if people see me doing it. If people think, “Hmmm, that’s oddly dorky of him,” then that’s fine.

I probably end up moving around during the talk more than I should, but I’d rather that than get trapped behind the podium.

Then I keep in mind a few things:

The audience wants it to go well. Of course they do! That’s why they’re here. They’re rooting for me and for every other speaker.

And: time flows at a different rate for the speaker than for the audience. It feels like ten minutes for me equals one second in the audience — so I compensate and slow down more than actually feels right. Also: when my brain suddenly goes multi-threaded, I just pause, let it go back to a single track, then move on.

My brain sometimes wants to comment on what’s happening — so while I allow for improvising, I filter out, as much as I can, the self-conscious things my brain comes up with.

(Just as time is different for the speaker and the audience, attention-to-detail is also different. When I’m up there, I’m hyper-aware — and critical — of what I’m doing, but nobody else in the room is in that position. So I don’t sweat if I flub a sentence or lose the train for a second or whatever. If I remain cool, then it’s like we’re just a couple nerds talking. Which is totally what I’m going for.)

So: having prepared, having rehearsed improvising, knowing that the crowd starts out on my side, having gotten ready to move, having slowed down my sense of time and turned on my self-consciousness filters, I then just hope that something happens.

I want that particular performance to be possible only in that room, that night, that hour, with those people.

And something always does happen. I went way too far stage-right and triggered some nasty feedback, and backed away slowly. (The subtext of every moment like that: we’re just nerds in a room! Total amateurs! Mediocre in public! We laugh and move on.)

Even better, though: since it was Yosemite, I could bring a pint of Stella on stage with me. And then — unplanned, and brilliantly executed — Jim Dalrymple snuck up and refilled my beer right as I was getting to the main point of the talk. I couldn’t have planned anything better. (Lesson learned: I should always require that Jim is in the room when I talk. We understand each other.) Sure, you had to be there — but that’s my point. It worked right there and then, and it was unplanned yet so right.

(I don’t actually recommend drinking, even beer, while presenting. It just makes the whole thing a bit more challenging, and if you go too far then you’re not actually going to give the audience their money’s worth. So let’s just say that it worked largely okay once and leave it at that.)


Then I spend a week thinking about how it went and how it could go better. Next time I’m sure I’ll have a different story to tell — or I’ll have modified the story in some important ways to make it work better.

And I vow to spend even more hours in rehearsal next time. The more prepared I am, the looser and more comfortable I will be — and the better able to roll with the room.

Funny thing: the more I do this, the harder I work at it. I’ve gotten to the point where it’s fun, and I hope it shows.