Rest assured, presenting is just another learned skill
I've heard people call the BSDs "best kept secrets" for years and I was recently reminded of an under-appreciated contributor to this status: inconsistent (to put it politely) presentation tools and skills.
The reminder came when I wanted to literally throw together a few slides to start off a roundtable discussion using PC-BSD, a system that would play into the topic. Like clockwork, the OpenOffice and LibreOffice spell checkers failed to work in-line and deleted all of my slides when launched from the menu. Copied and pasted text seemingly took formatting cues from
/dev/random and the applications acted erratically overall. Being in a hurry, I concluded that a word processor would guarantee me a working spell checker so I turned to KWrite. My thought was to set a horizontal orientation, center my text and insert page breaks to define where the next slide started. From there, a save-to-PDF would make for a very safe file that I could use in any full-screen PDF viewer. This worked for the most part but somehow my ONE IMAGE left a ghost of itself where I originally pasted it and refused to let me delete it. Out of time, I simply used this anomaly to make a point in the presentation.
So what went wrong? I can't fault PC-BSD because these were obviously bugs in third party software that trickled down to PC-BSD and I do hope those projects are testing on the OS. I partly fault myself for not learning a more Unixey tool like LaTeX Beamer but I think much of the blame belongs to the whole attitude that we need "open source alternatives to proprietary applications". Search that phrase or a variation of it and you will find dozens of lists of just that, including dedicated sites of such as osalt.com. One one level, this approach makes perfect sense and I've even helped encourage it. Cloning mainstream software has also been a habit of the Free Software Foundation from literally its declaration that "GNU's Not Unix" onward. On another level however, this approach is a disservice to both the developers who are expected to chase high-speed moving targets and their poor users who are expected to use what are often at best version 1.0 workalikes of the proprietary software they are copying. I remember very clearly in 1999 when RedHat took their OS from the great Unix clone that was version 5.2 to the stunningly-bad Windows clone that was version 6.0 with Gnome 1.0. This approach will at best give us Apple's reportedly-good Keynote but NEVER in 1,000 years get us fresh, lightweight and stunningly-cool tools like reveal.js and imress.js.
impress.js integrated a JavasScript console for demonstrations!
Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Martin Luther King used visuals. 99.9% of the greatest, most-convincing speeches in human history haven't relied on visuals. The fact remains that for an open source project to succeed, we need to convince others to get involved and sacrifice their time just as we are doing. Inspiring professional-quality software using mostly volunteer time requires professional-quality presentations, ideally by the developers to know the software the best. The challenge therefore is obvious: Somehow the people who are most qualified to program are often the least qualified to present on the subject they know best.
Fortunately, good coding and presenting are simply learned skills just like driving or changing a diaper. Practice makes perfect and there is no substitute for simply trying, or in some cases being forced to learn them.
Personally... I suck less than before at presenting. I was outright terrified of it and none of my schooling prepared me for it. Every bit of advice I've heard was usually accompanied by a direct contradiction of it and no, picturing your audience naked does not necessarily help. Some of the more positive advice I have heard is:
To these I add:
We've all heard of Toastmasters but I suspect that reveal.js doesn't get discussed at their meetings very often.
The two best books I have found on the subject are Scott Berkun's "Confessions of a Public Speaker" from O'Reilly and any edition of Robert L. Jolles' "How to Run Seminars and Workshops" from Wiley. Nancy Duarte's "slide:ology", also from O'Reilly is very good about crafting slides that convey your message.
"Confessions" is fantastic and you will probably recognize quite a few of the tech people who share their stories. This book alone will cut your nervousness in half with its awesome and sordid tales of success and failure. Simply showing up is half the battle and not all speakers get that far. No matter what your biggest fear is, someone's had it worse.
Finally, beyond knowing your material, be passionate about it. The audience may have answers to its own questions but cannot provide inspiration. The lightest weight, most exciting talk about a subject will motivate more people than the driest, most technically-accurate one. The audience can go read the source code and it only takes a URL to get them there. The best talks I've ever attended resulted in the proposal of a new user group, the addition of a feature to, of all things, PC-BSD and occasionally the ultimate reward, invitations to come and talk again.
Thank you Aaron Williamson for inspiring me to drop everything and write this.
Copyright © 2011 – 2014 Michael Dexter unless specified otherwise. Feedback and corrections welcome.