Thursday, April 2, 2015

Thinking of a great conference talk

I really, really enjoyed #TestBash last week. As another senior professional pointed out, it was surprising that most of the presentations were experience reports - a style of presenting I usually have to go to peer conferences for. The stories were (supposingly) real even if in the presenter's perspective. Each experience had a lesson to learn. Just my kind of content.

This week I'm in #stpcon. And while I enjoy the conference, I'm puzzled. Out of my sample, I seemed to be the only one who delivered an experience report. My style of talking was clearly very different, and I started to think about if it was actually inappropriate.

This leads me to sharing a few ideas that a friend helped me figure out.

Don't forget the newcomers

Every five years our industry doubles. That means half of people has less than five years of experience. There's a lot of newcomers in the conferences. They have not heard the basic theory of risk-based testing, security testing, performance testing, exploratory testing, proper test documentation or the sort. A class that gives a theory instead of an experience on one of these topics could be really useful for them.

Where I go to conferences to learn about new ideas and deeper experiences, a newcomer might not be ready to absorb the same information.

There could be talks that have layers that make sense for newcomers and seasoned professionals. There could be talks that are targeted for an audience.

Scan Agile tried splitting things into basic / advanced in three layers, but as far as the people I interacted with saw it, did not do that good a job in sticking to the expected level. The basics had in-depth contents, and the advanced had basic concepts. It's really not easy.

New presenters model their presentations from majority of current presenters

When a new person starts thinking of steps to take to become a presenter, they'll be looking back to presentations they've seen. It's likely that a new presenter would model after majority of speakers. From #stpcon, the model would be a short class with a little audience interaction. From #testbash, the model would be an experience report that teaches through a story.

The conferences invite proposals, but seldom say which style they favor. And the blurbs don't really open up which type the talk will be.

There's a third format that we rarely see in testing conference sessions: something really practical, the show-and-tell of testing. Very few people show how they test. How they think and why. How you take a problem, apply a technique and come to a conclusion. Useful results instead of repeatable results, but modelling actual testing work. All hands-on sessions and simulations seem to happen in workshops, not conference sessions.

I've been thinking about presentation formats a lot as I volunteered with Speak Easy. I started mentoring someone who wants to speak, interestingly, about a topic I just talked about in #stpcon. His experiences would differ. But if we presented a theory based on what is said about that, our talks might be very similar. I got very excited about his case study, the experience report perspective. But listening to talk styles that others use, I'm thinking if I'm unfairly biased.

Do I really know what is the style that people enjoy? Is what I enjoy in any relation to what others enjoy, even seniors? And is the style needed essentially different for a newcomer? Do first time speakers deliver better talks in one style or another?  I really don't know and would love to discuss this.

As conference organizers, we should have a vision of what style we look for. And we should, as coaching of new presenters, have also coaching on the very different styles you might go and use.

The stories may not be true

The last of my ideas comes from Scan Agile. I listened to a great talk that was a compilation of project stories. My impression from the talk was that the stories of experiences were real, but that they were compiled into one imaginary project as it's growth story. I thought every story told was real.

After the talk, I learned that the lessons of the stories were real experiences, but the details were just made up. For a person leaving your project in trouble (this has happened), the reason why this happened was imaginary, one that made you feel more positive about the person leaving others in trouble and making a better, funnier story.

I asked around (¨10 people) to learn that the expectation of reality in story you tell was a 50:50 split in my sample. Some people thought that stories you tell in "I" format, must actually have happened to you. And some people thought that delivering a mark in audience memory is so important that you can just act out, that getting on stage is always a performance and you shouldn't really take it as reality but just delivering an idea you'd remember later.

Since this experience, I've become more suspicious. I also feel lying storytellers are wasting my time with their lies, when I could be spending time with someone who has an actual, honest story from their experience. And I'm recognizing there's a cultural difference on whether fake details of experiences are acceptable in technical conference talks. Then again, a great but false talk is much better use of my time if it invigorates my thinking, than one based on reality not delivered as wonderfully.

This is again something I would hope for better guidance on others' expectations.