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Tech Life

Off-The-Shelf Hacker: Hack Your Own Tech Talks

Mar 26th, 2016 11:17am by
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Every Off-The-Shelf Hacker should work to master the art and science of giving a tech talk. Success often hinges on the ability to effectively pitch your ideas, promote your projects and sell your ideas.

This past weekend I had 20 minutes to explain my Steampunk Presentation Machine to the Orlando Robotics Club. When I gave the 45-minute version at the Future of Education Technology conference, back in January, the audience never really warmed up to the material. This time, I went a lot more interactive.

Audience participation and enthusiasm was a lot better.

Today, we’ll examine the changes I made for a more positive presentation outcome. Audience response can change markedly using different presentation techniques.

In other words, don’t be afraid to hack your own talks.

Reflection And Observations

A few things stuck out from my FETC experience:

  • The audience included teachers, school administrators and a couple of physical computing enthusiasts.
  • Several audience members were clearly newbies, with the Raspberry Pi and DIY projects.
  • I set up the Presentation Machine before I started the official talk.
  • Walking around the conference, carrying the Presentation Machine and wearing the Steampunk Badge drew tons of attention.

Similarly, observations from the Orlando Robotics Club session included:

  • The audience was composed of hackers, engineers, artists, academics and a good mix of highly curious laypersons.
  • One attendee confessed to having absolutely no experience with Linux or the Raspberry Pi.
  • Due to the short session time, I walked the audience through setting up the Presentation Machine during the first part of the talk.
  • Club members know that I’ll bring one-off DIY projects to the meetings.

Analyzing The Sessions

The two audiences were pretty different. Although both groups had very knowledgeable people in their own fields it was apparent that the Robot Club group were much more interested in the “nuts and bolts” of how the Presentation Machine functioned. The Robot people leaned forward in their seats as I answered questions and demonstrated features.

Surprisingly, after the FETC session, attendees were most intrigued with the Presentation Machine clicker. It is nothing more than a couple of industrial-strength push-buttons, mounted on a common everyday door striker plate (since the shape was correct and the switches fit the holes) with an attached copper pipe handle. It also has a piece of CAT 5 cable connecting the switches to the GPIO pins on the Raspberry Pi. Working with a Python program and LibreOffice, the clicker allows me to move forward or backward through the slides.

Steampunk Clicker

Steampunk Clicker


Newbies in the audience are a golden opportunity to educate and endear yourself to the audience. Let me explain:

No matter where we are on the Off-The-Shelf Hacker continuum, an individual can never know everything and we don’t want to come off that way. We all started out not knowing much about electronics, fabrication techniques, sensors or the Raspberry Pi. Don’t ever talk down to, embarrass or make anybody feel stupid. Be conscious of phrasing and words, because it’s very easy to give those impressions, even by accident. Best to just be patient and friendly, while sharing your hard-earned knowledge.

Both the FETC and Robot Club sessions had a healthy contingency of newbies. One Robot Club attendee openly admitted that he knew almost nothing about the Raspberry Pi, much less Linux.

Naturally, I seized the chance to talk directly to the attendee. We had a quick exchange about how Linux, a mainstream alternative operating system ran on the Raspberry Pi, which I explained was actually a credit-card sized nano-computer. The person seemed grateful that I took the time to help him understand why I chose the Raspberry Pi and Linux for the Presentation Machine.

Of course, talking with the curious newbie drew in comments from other knowledgeable members of the audience. We all had a nice, pleasant and productive exchange of information.

After all, that’s what talks are all about…right?

Pre-Session Equipment Setup

One FETC commenter wrote in their speaker survey, “When I saw the presenter booting up a Raspberry Pi, I knew I was in the right session.”

Wow, that’s awesome feedback.

What I usually do with a longer talk is get everything running, then launch into my slides. Sadly, during the FETC session, I had trouble getting the wired clicker to work, so I had to use the wireless keyboard/mousepad, as my slide changing device.

As I prepped for the Robot Club session, I eventually figured out that in order for the clicker to work reliably, you have to position the cursor on the slide pane in LibreOffice, before you click the slide show button. Otherwise, the Python program reading the buttons on the Pi will send the up or down arrow characters to other parts of the Impress screen. You’ll be changing the slide formats or something similar, instead of moving up and down through the slide stack. Simple, once you figure it out.

I took the FETC comment to heart and reasoned that if an audience member enjoyed watching me get the hardware ready, the Robot Club might appreciate me integrating actual set-up activities into the talk.

Here’s a list of the steps I covered in the first 10 minutes of my talk.

  • Boot the Raspi Presentation Machine
  • Start LibreOffice
  • Load slides into Impress
  • Start slideshow button-press Python program
  • Bring up guvcview
  • Start slides
  • Demo the slide button clicker
  • Demo the parts camera using guvcview

I was right! They loved it and it was a great opportunity to cover the Presentation Machine operation, up front. Over the years, I’ve only seen two other presenters use the technique of demonstrating the talk setup phase and both times the audience was attentive and focused. It’s certainly different than the way most speakers start their talks. Seems pretty effective and attention grabbing.

Attention Grabbing

Years ago, before I started specifically designing hardware for physical computing talks, I’d carry around an Arduino or some other hardware device and hand it to people I met at a conference as a conversation starter.

During one of the now-ancient LinuxWorld conferences, I was reviewing the OQO Palmtop computer and happened to run into Rob Malda, head-honcho at Slashdot. Since we’d never met, I simply handed him the little machine and told him I had hacked SuSE Linux onto the disk and even had WiFi working. He immediately started asking questions and we had a pleasant conversation about some of the latest tech.

Fast forward to the 2016 FETC conference. This time, I had my little cart with the Presentation Machine conspicuously on top and my Steampunk Conference Identification Device (name badge) clipped to my jacket’s lapel.

Talk about attention!

The combination of the two devices made it easy to recruit people to my session. Perhaps, I should have put a better advertisement video on the conference badge’s LCD screen.

After the talk, audience members took pictures of the Presentation Machine and the Conference Badge. I was even invited into a few selfies. With any luck, the teachers shared the pictures with their classes, back home.

Gen 4 - Steampunk Conference Badge display unit

Gen 4 – Steampunk Conference Badge display unit

I strongly suggest harnessing the “coolness factor” of your projects to promote your talk. Find ways to show off what you’ve built before, during and after your presentation. As a technology writer, I frequently prototype my idea, publish a story and after it’s up and running go out and find a conference that caters to people interested in the particular topic.

Lessons Learned

Like everything else, you can always hack your talks to make them better.

I like to research the audience to try to identify their interest and motivational needs. It’s also good form to support and encourage the tech newbies, attending your session. Presentation set-up walkthroughs work well for hacker and physical computing topics. For an extra boost in session attendence, be sure to use the physical “attention grabbing” power of your project to promote your talks.

Oh, one last thing. Always put on a classy show, while being helpful and humble.

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