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Introducing new speakers

Aaron Kalin's profile picture Aaron Kalin on

I wanted to share a project of mine with you to help introduce new speakers to the tech conference stage. It's my effort to help increase diversity in speakers at tech conferences with a low barrier to entry. Before I show you the result, let me give you the background of why and how it was created.

Back in 2014 at Strangeloop in St Louis, I was sitting in the audience at a main stage talk listening to a speaker ask everyone "How do we increase diversity in speakers at these conferences". This immediately got me thinking about how I could help with this effort because at this point in my career I have spoken at a few conferences and being in one of those under represented groups in technology, felt a personal need to help this effort. The most terrifying part for me is always getting up on stage, noticing all the faces staring back at me and feeling an almost overwhelming level of anxiety until I begin speaking and get into the flow of my talk.

"Could I do this in the form of a two-person talk?" I asked myself. That way at least the new person would have an experienced speaker on stage to help support them. That is when the idea of "Overheard" was born. I wanted to make a two-person talk that was accessible and fun to deliver, while keeping it short so it fit within a 5 minute lightning talk format. This way even if I am not speaking at a conference, I can take a lightning talk slot and help introduce someone to the world of being on stage in front of others. I'd prepare the slide deck for them, have them read the presenter notes, and we'd deliver the talk together. They could even look at me the entire time to not focus on the audience to avoid that very scary part of looking out to the large crowd staring back at them.

I first started writing out a text outline like I do with all of my presentations, but what to write? At some point I remember hearing some programmers nearby talking about symbols in their programming language and the lightbulb went off in my head. Why not make a short dialog between developers? I immediately pulled up Jeff Atwood's post about programmer lingo. He translates a lot of the meta symbols into programmer slang with multiple variations for each. That's a pound sign? Some people call it a "hash", a "sign", or my personal favorite, an "octothorpe".

By the end of the talk, I had written out "Overheard" in a sort of movie dialog script format. This made it very easy to build the slide deck and put in all the notes later on. For accessibility, I color coded each "actor" in the dialog so when the new speaker comes on stage, I introduce them to the audience and ask which color they would like, blue or green. Whenever their slide comes up, they read the dialog into the microphone. In total, the talk takes about two and a half minutes to deliver, which will fly by faster than they realize. People seem to enjoy the jokes and humor. Every time I help deliver the talk I learn to adlib more reactions for the audience to make it more fun for both me and the new speaker on stage.

So, if you are an experienced speaker I'd like to share the keynote slide deck with you so you can do your part as well. I have also shared it on as well. Will your talk finish early? I encourage you to ask the conference organizers for permission to deliver this talk at the end of your main one to help introduce someone to the world of public speaking. Seek out people ahead of your talk who have never spoken and would like to try it, especially those from under represented groups.

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Aaron Kalin

Software and Server maintainer by day, board and video game geek by night.

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