Series 1: Speaking

Ep 1: Be Passionate - Suz Hinton

For the very first episode, I'm joined by Suz Hinton (@noopkat) to discuss how to make an engaging talk and her effort to break out of the one topic she is known for.

Show Notes


[0:00] (Mariko) I'm recording this in my closet and have no idea what I'm doing... but hope you like it!

[0:13] (Mariko) Welcome to the TOAST! Talk on a Small Thing. This is a little different from your regular tech pod cast. Rather than having a guest talk about many different topics for an hour, I'm going to interview bunch of guests about one single topic. Each episode will be 10 to 15 minutes so you can finish listening even over breakfast.

[0:34] (Mariko) The topic for this 1st series is "Speaking". More specifically, giving a talk at your local meetups and conferences. I started giving presentations at web developer conference last year, and got to meet a lot of brilliant speakers. They all have very unique styles, stories, and struggles about giving a talk in public. Often at a speaker's dinner or in a green room, we share our feelings and thoughts about speaking in general form "What do you feat the most about being on stage?" to "How do you make nice slides?" I wanted these conversation to be captured.

[1:11] (Mariko) This week, I sat down with Suz Hinton, creative coder and hardware hobbyist from Brooklyn. I am huge fan of her presentations. We talked about how she started in speaking and many approaches she takes to write fun talks.

[1:29] (Suz) I think my first web dev conference was... it was called NDC, which is the Norwegian Developer's Conference. That was 2014 in November. I was invited to speak at that and I was invited to speak about hardware which is one of my biggest passions.

I feel like it's important to actually say how that invitation happened because it's probably not what people are expecting. I have a really good friend of mine in the industry. She was initially asked to speak at the conference and she had to turn them down because she wasn't availabl. In stead of just leaving at that, she was really awesome to the conference and made recommendation as to who could take their place. Luckily for me that indebted up being myself that she recommended, so that's sort of how that came about. Often it's really experienced speakers that can give new speakers the opportunity to get this started.

[2:25] (Mariko) When you are invited to be a speaker, you have to first think abut what to talk about, and write an abstract which is a short description of your talk at the conference.

I struggle with writing those abstracts, because I have no idea what I would be doing in a month, and sometimes I'm not sure if I can meet the expectation of the conference. Seems like Suz deals with many of those too.

[2:47] (Suz) This is a really difficult problem. Part of it is because the majority of my conference speaking engagements have been through invitation, so it's almost like a double bind. You have this wonderful space to come up with proposal, and you have the benefit of the doubt from the organizer as well. But that also puts a lot of pressure on you because you feel like you have to always coming up with something new, and you always have to feel like one upping your last talk. So if I do a certain hardware demo, I always feel like I have to come up with something that's just even more mind blowing, if that make sense? I definitely think that it's amazing when you get to sit down, take your time, and plan out a talk rather than having to submit an abstract months in advance that you are stack to. But there have definitely been instances where I am in the middle of exploring something, that's 4 months to go into conference, and they basically say we really need your abstract now. In the case of one conference this year, I actually gave this really vague abstract because I felt like it gave enough freedom to just horn exactly what I was gonna speak about but hopefully didn't let down the audience and mislead them as to what the talk is actually going to be about.

[4:03] (Mariko) The other side of getting to speak at a conference is to submit a talk proposal, this is how I got started in speaking. While some conference invite speakers, many conference in our community select speakers from call for proposals, or CFP for short. I asked Suz if she does anything special when she submit to CFP.

[4:24] (Suz) What's really funny about is, because a lot of the time it's a blind proposal, I almost want to fly under the radar. I don't want someone to read it and say "oh this proposal is totally Suz". I feel that being an established speaker I almost have an advantage, so if I'm identified early on, I feel like that doesn't give equal opportunity to other people. Let's say we submit very smiler topic, I want that person having equal chance of been chosen. And if their proposal is better written, then I want to make sure that I'm not the one selected. So the last time I submitted for CFP, I not only spent 3 times as long on proposal than I do when I'm invited, but I pick the topic that wasn't hardware. I wanted to make sure that talk reviewers didn't have any sign that is me, so I actually americanized all the spellings of words in my proposal and I picked a topic that I'm just as passionate about as hardware but it was something that people weren't expecting for me that I might not talk about as often. I definitely feel that alters the way that I think about what talk I'm going to give. I definitely feel very endeded to a conference once they select my talk from blind proposal, because I want to say "I promise that I will make good on the choice you made to have me at your conference, and you will feel that you made the right decision".

[5:55] (Mariko) As we talk more about speaking, it turns out, Suz has been doing this for long time but in a different field.

[6:03] (Suz) I feel like I didn't start speaking at conferences until quite recently but I've been speaking just generally in the public speaking sense for a long time. I started when I was a teenager. I was mentoring a youth in disadvantage communities and I was asked to share my experience of that in front of a whole bunch of government members in Australia, and that was the scariest thing but that was when I realized that that was something that I was capable of doing. Since then, over the last 10 years, I've been everything from a teacher teaching people how to code which requires a lot of public speaking, and for a long time I would speak to artists and students about 3D printing from a technical standpoint and that's sort of what led to my progression into speaking at meetups and conferences after that.

[6:49] (Mariko) If she was already doing public speaking, I wonder why she didn't get into speaking at a tech conference until recently.

[6:57] (Suz) I was quite terrified to talk about code. That was probably what stopped me from even applying for conferences until I got reached out to for the first time. I did so many local talks about creative coding and 3D printing and things like that because I felt that I knew the domain really well. And I felt like the people who were attending were at the beginner level, but I think that talking about coding is a lot more scary because I do that for my day job. I'm a front-end developer, and then on top of that, everybody knows exactly what you're talking about. We all do code, we're all immersed in it and so providing material when you're up there on stage that people can learn from but also emotionally connect with is just really challenging.

[7:39] (Mariko) She mentioned providing the content people can learn and emotionally connect with. It is really difficult thing to do. Suz try to do that by bringing audience into her experience.

[5:52] (Suz) We get up there and we think, well, we're not just educating people about code, how are we inspiring that person or how are we making them feel like they're not alone? I think that's definitely a big theme in our talks. How do we get everybody feeling like we're all in this together? And then how do we make them not afraid to try new things? And also just take away a whole bunch of ideas. Like, there's no greater compliment I think for either of us than somebody coming up to us and saying, "I saw your talk and I was really inspired so I made this thing and I just wanna say thank you."

[8:24] (Suz) If you tell stories from the trenches of where you struggled, that I feel is doing a better service for the audience than being highly polished. You can have a presentation where you were super prepared to give it and I think that that is incredibly respectful to the community and you should do that. But it shouldn't be necessarily making yourself out to be this person that can be put out on a pedestal or this perfect wizard or witch at code. It should definitely be approachable at the same time and inspire others. You know, saying "Hey, I didn't know any of this six months ago but all I did was get excited about it and now I know all this stuff."

[8:59] (Mariko) As you deliver more talks, you start getting recognized for certain topics you often talk about. In my case it was making textile with JavaScript. I feel very fortunate to get a chance to talk about my passion, but after a year, it started getting a little uncomfortable. I felt like people heard enough about my project and I also found other interests. Suz is an active member of JavaScript robotics community, and frankly, she's known for doing hardware talks. I asked one question I always wanted to ask her.

[9:34] (Mariko) Do you get tired of being hardware person?

(Suz) This is something that I think about a lot. I've definitely actually been here before I did coding talks. I would say for about four to five years, I was known as the 3D printing lady. That was my previous specialization, you could call it. It's wonderful to be recognized for something that people see you're really good at, like you're specializing, at the same time, you sometimes have a lot of difficulty coming up with lots of original content within the same topic.

So you start feeling like you're just this broken record even though you're trying to diversify the different things you talk about within that topic. So I started turning down invitations to talk about 3D printing and said I'm not the 3D printing lady anymore in a very polite way.

I feel that I've definitely run into the same thing giving hardware talks. I feel that it's probably easier to diversify the things I talk about within hardware but at the same time, I worry about being that one trick pony or I worry that I won't be recognized for being technical in other areas. I think it's important to challenge yourself to talk about lots of different topics. I think it's good if you can find things that you're good at right across the board. I think people benefit from hearing your character and the way you speak on stage, like from a more generalized topic bag, I guess.

So recently, this year I've been doing something very similar to you and I've been trying to just move things around a little bit. So for Dinosaur.js I submitted an accessibility talk for front-end frameworks which is super different from hardware and that was the blind proposal that was chosen. And I was invited to speak at JS Conf Budapest and it was mentioned in the invitation that "we saw your other hardware talks and we just think that it would be great if you could do something like that here." and in the end, I negotiated something with them saying what if there was a hardware element but some of the focus was distributed towards something else.

So I ended up doing a hybrid talk about creating art with the Web Audio API and then a potential hardware outlet for that art afterwards. That sort of really helped me become a better speaker but also make sure that I'm not just sticking with the same topic, in case people aren't super into that.

[12:03] (Mariko) I hope, by now, it's clear that she is an awesome speaker. If somebody want to start giving a talk, how could one deliver a talk like Suz?

[12:13] (Suz) Talks always end up better if you are really really into the topic you are presenting. I once had somebody tweet at me, something like "I just think that hardware stuff you do is mind blowing. I could never do that". And I said "Well, I think that you are pretty amazing at writing automated scripts and making deployment process much more efficient." you know I don't know the first thing about that. I feel like we know enough about certain topic simply because we were just so excited about it, and it's really just wanting to make the time to sit down and learn it. That's really the only difference.

I feel like people don't really realize there is really valuable lessons in every thing they do, even if it was just this really random bug that shut the website down. You know when you worked for a day and you just found this hilarious chain of bugs. I think that those kind of story telling talks are really valuable. If you take away the scary "it has to be about JavaScript and code" and "it has to be this thing no one has never seen before", you can definitely move people into public speaking.

[13:22] (Mariko) Everyone have interesting thing to say, and be passionate about what you talk about. I took away a lot of positive mind sets from conversation with Suz.

[13:34] (Mariko) Next week, I'm taking to Nolan Lawson. He is very good at explaining technical concepts and demo he use to do that is always fun. I sat down with him to find out how he prepare his talk.

[13:48] (Nolan) I think a lot of people make mistakes when making presentations that they pack too much detail on it, just way too much detail. So my personal policy is I might put up 3 lines of code in gigantic font and I don't expect the audience to read it.

You do the kind of presentation that you could not do out side of the browser, and that's what I really like to see. Whether you are making your own JavaScript framework for presentations or using revel.js, actually having interactive demos and having Codepen inside of there. That's what the web is good at, it's perfect for doing presentations.

[14:21] (Mariko) I learned a lot of tips and tricks so make sure to tune in next week. To get updates follow me or the show on Twitter. Links are in the show notes.

[14:37] (Mariko) TOAST is written, produced, and edited by me. Thank you Suz for being my 1st guest and thank you for listening. See you next time!