Series 1: Speaking

Ep 3: Talk as a Performance Art - Justin Falcone

Could a conference talk be a performance? Justin Falcone (@modernserf) answers his approach to making his unique talks.

Show Notes


[0:00] (Mariko) We made it! We made it to third episode.

[0:09] (Mariko) Welcome to TOAST, the Talk on a Small Thing. This week, I interview Justin Falcone, a writer and programmer from Brooklyn. Justin has this very unique style of presentation that you don't really see often in tech conferences. In fact, he started giving presentations before he got into tech.

[0:31] (Justin) The first talk I gave was at a meetup called Presentation Party Night, which was like an open mic, but for power points. The theme that night was Valentines Day. The one I was giving was on the culture around pickup artists. I start off in character as a pickup artist. I was giving talk to people who had paid a million dollars for my seminar. I had a big furry Russian hat, and a velor jacket that I lost that night. I still miss that.

I think a lot of people in our community who do talks, it's something, they've been doing tech for a while, and they see talks, and they think, "Is this something I connect with?". I actually came from the opposite direction, where I started with talks, and then got into tech from there.

[1:22] (Mariko) Justin says watching talks and listening to podcasts turned him to the tech industry.

[1:26] (Justin) When I was still working at Walgreens and living in Boston, I was really into Merlin Mann, and Mike Monterio, Paul Ford. People who were, you know... thought leaders. I was following a lot of these people who were in technology, or technology adjacent, and listening to podcasts, watching their talks, and reading their blogs. It was something that was really shaping my thinking as I was starting to get back into programming. Dipping my toe into Ruby on Rails, or working through Why's Poignant Guide to Ruby.

The people I was following, they're very performative in their talk. They have interesting ideas, but they're not trying to teach you about technology. They're not even really trying to inform you or persuade you about something. It's more like they have, they're trying to connect in a way that is much more a performance than a class.

When I moved to New York, my great ambition was that, "Maybe I can work at the Apple store or something". I was already thinking about, "What are the talks that I'm working on?".

I ended up becoming a programmer, and I started, I was following a lot of New York people on Twitter, like Jenn Schiffer especially. Jenn Schiffer was a big influence on my work, and I feel like I'm just, I'm trying to be half as funny as she is.

[2:57] (Mariko) Jenn is an artist and programmer who is very good at making satire. She also organize a meetup in Jersey City called JerseyScript, where Justin found his first stage to give a talk in front of tech people.

[3:11] (Justin) JerseyScript actually was the first Boro.js meetup I went to. I went one month, and then the next month I presented.

[3:20] (Mariko) Of course, he didn't want to do a quote unquote regular talk, so he brought in a performance element.

[3:26] (Justin) I was doing a lot of data visualization stuff at work. I wanted to talk about the stuff that I was doing with work, but I didn't want to give a talk that was about data visualization. I wanted to talk about the ideas I found interesting, as opposed to the ideas that were relevant to the business.

What I ended up talking about was breakfast visualization, I guess. I was using the same techniques I was using at work for doing stuff with SVG. But instead of drawing charts, I was drawing eggs and burritos and stuff. I went in there, and I had a story about, "Like all young people who live in Brooklyn, I'm completely obsessed with brunch. I wanted to share some of my brunch thinking, and my personal brunch system with you". This is the tool that I use for visualizing a brunch.

It had all of the bells and whistles of, you can adjust the parameters on stuff, but you were adjusting how cooked the egg was, or the spread of the sofrito you were throwing on top.

[4:30] (Mariko) The style of talk in which he lays out a story, and follow it through as if he's a character in it, is definitely part of his wheelhouse. This year, he surprised us with a talk called The Origin of HyperCard in the Breakdown of the Bicycle for the Mind. He came on stage with a '90s outfit, and spoke as if we were in 1991, trying to look ahead to what the world of programming may look like in 2016. This was his homage to the style of talk he enjoyed watching.

[5:00] (Justin) HyperCard was this programming tool for non-programmers, designed by Apple in the late '80s, early '90s. When I was a kid, I wasn't really doing a lot of real programming, but I was spending a lot of time in HyperCard. It was a combination of that early formative experience, and also, there's a talk by Bret Victor called The Future of Computing. It was at DBX in 2013, and the talk takes place in 1973. I figured my talk would be an updated version of that, because 1973 would have been his early childhood, so I figured 1991 is my early childhood.

I found some pictures of my dad, who in 1991 was into big sweaters, and aviator style glasses. He also had a perm, but I wasn't going to commit that far to the bit.

[5:54] (Mariko) How does he write these talks? How do you find interesting topics? How do you decide what the performance is going to be?

[6:03] (Justin) I can point to where the ideas came from, but I don't really know what order they came in. I'll start reading about something, and that will lead me in a different direction. I have a bunch of post-its on the doors here. Those are all, I think each one of those might be a talk. Each one of those might be part of a talk. I do a lot of exploration and research. I'll have an idea of, "I want to give a talk on this subject", but I won't really know what the shtick is until I start working on it. I'll have a vague idea, and I'll put that in the abstract, then that will turn out not to be what I end up doing. I do a lot of exploration. I think the HyperCard thing, I spend months and months and months, collecting more and more ideas, and then eventually throwing out almost all of them. I read about every single hyper media system from 1960s from Ted Nelson's Xanadu and Doug Engelbart's SRI oN-Line System. There were bunch of them in 70s like NoteCards, and yeah, none of this made it in. It's not usually until I start working on the slides, which is usually a week before the talk is due, that I really know what the performance is going to be like.

[7:29] (Mariko) Presenting an idea in an interesting format is something he tries to do in his talks. Some people think talks have to be educational, but he thinks there should be different approaches, depending on what you are good at.

[7:41] (Justin) Because I believe that talks are like performances, 22 minutes, the length of an American sitcom, is a pretty good length for a talk for me. A sitcom has enough time for an A and a B plot. I feel like, if I can do an A and a B plot, and get everything in there with a good density of jokes and ideas, but not trying to have more than one or two big ideas. I think that's a good target.

There are some people who I think do really good educational talks, but education is a completely different skillset. You need to both have the mind for programming, and be a good educator, in order to do that effectively. The talks that tend to work well are the ones that are either inspirational, or have one provocative idea and then back that up. Because you're trying to persuade somebody, not necessarily educate, if that makes sense. I am not an educator. I am much more of an entertainer. But I want to talk about my ideas in a fun way. But hopefully, the points that I'm trying to get across are still syncing.

[9:02] (Mariko) In the next episode, I'm talking to Ashley Williams. She gave a very popular talk last year at JSConf, which then led to a lot of invitations from other conferences.

[9:12] (Ashley) I actually found out I got accepted to JSConf on the Amtrak, on the way to Boston. I was so excited, it was ridiculous. Funny enough though, I was so nervous about speaking at it, but then everybody seemed to really like it.

What was interesting is, after that, people saw this talk, it was very popular on YouTube. But I didn't even know that conferences invited speakers. I just didn't even know that was a thing, and the emails just started coming in.

[9:42] (Mariko) We chat about what her experience was like getting those attention.

[9:51] (Mariko) TOAST is written, produced, and edited by me. We had some technical difficulties this week, so Justin let me interview him twice. Thank you. I hope you enjoyed the episode, and hope you come back next week.