I took several semesters of Jazz Improvisation in college. I chose it because of somewhat dubious logic. I needed a fine arts credit, the class was taught by a Computer Science professor, and I had dabbled a bit with jazz in high school. The first two semesters I was awful. I struggled with simple things like playing guide tones in 12-bar blues. Traditional practicing didn’t make me significantly better. What did help was listening to jazz for several hours a week over the course of a year. Learning improvisation required listening and absorbing the patterns of the genre and the things that stood out to me.
To me, public speaking is similar to jazz. Practice and formal study can help you get the basics down. It is worth the effort. But I’ve found that refining this craft and finding my style happens organically with regular exposure to good orators and speakers. I hope the “Talks I Love” series will let me share some of the folks who have influenced me over the years.
This post focuses on “technical storytelling.” Storytelling is at the core of all public speaking. A story is the backbone of a good talk. It gets the audience engaged, and helps tie everything together. But the story often is forgotten in technical presentations. It can be difficult to pair code with storytelling, but it is worth it. I’m highlighting two talks that I feel do a fantastic job at both storytelling and technical content.
Katrina Owen: Therapeutic Refactoring
This talk is fantastic. Many things are done well, but I want to point out a couple of things that stand out. First, the pacing of this talk is outstanding. The pauses and black slides make room for the jokes and keep the audience engaged. If you study public speaking, storytelling, or fiction writing the subject of pacing comes up frequently. Many speakers (like me) feel a need to fill every moment with slides, words, and excitement. Katrina shows clearly that sometimes the pauses are just as important to the story as the times we speak.
I also like the honesty and authenticity. Talking about pet peeves, copying and pasting from stack overflow, and many other things the audience has experienced themselves creates a bridge between the audience and the speaker. When I watched this talk, there were lots of times I laughed because I’d been in the same situation and made the same mistakes. I felt like Katrina understood me and the things I struggled with which made me more engaged. Making your story relatable is another aspect of good storytelling and the reason that many fairy tales show up in slightly different ways in many different cultures.
Lastly, I liked how Katrina organized the talk and made that organization clear to the audience. Early on, she states there is “a beginning, two middles, and an end…and a moral”. She uses slides to mark the start of each section and verbally refers to the sections as well. All of this helps the audience know where they are in the story which keeps them engaged.
Every time I watch this talk, I notice something new that I want to integrate into my speaking. For example, the way I show code on slides was influenced by Katrina. If you have the time I recommend checking out her other talks for more inspiration on both coding and speaking.
Sandi Metz: All The Little Things
Sandi is another speaker I admire greatly. This talk happens to have one of my favorite storytelling arcs even though it doesn’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Instead, the storytelling arc is the audience following how she tackled the Gilded Rose Kata.
One of the things I like about Sandi’s talks is how much energy she emits while speaking. She moves around the stage more than other speakers while she talks. In this talk, when she’s discussing the squint test she crouches down and squints. Acting out what she is speaking about helps the audience understand what she’s explaining.
This talk is also very relatable. Throughout the talk, Sandi points out that the confusing code she started with is the same type of code that most of us have to deal with in our day jobs. I especially liked how she called out that people sharing some of their ugly code also share “all the terrible things that caused you to write it that way.” I know I’ve been both the person explaining my bad choices and the person listening to the explanation.
The last thing I really like about Sandi’s talk is all the repetition. She repeats key points like “duplication is far cheaper than the wrong abstraction” many times. She also comes back to the same chart showing the flog scores again and again. Repetition is a basic storytelling technique. It is used in fairy tales, in ballads, and in plays and movies. Sandi demonstrates well how useful it is in technical presentations as well.
Sandi is a great storyteller. As she mentions early in this talk, she usually likes to have a beginning, middle, and end. To see how that plays out you can watch some of her other presentations here.