ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Speech of Forever: Talk Notes —

You are either a fan of my presentations I’ve given over the years or you are not. I am not here to dissuade you in either direction. But I figured that since a lot of people think presentations are “magic” or otherwise a talent they are utterly incapable of, and because I happen to have a nice artifact lying around, I’d talk a little about my process.

I gave a talk last August at DEFCON, called “The Edge of Forever: Saving Computer History”. The entire presentation is located on Google Video, and is about an hour and a half. Here it is in a window:

If you were to have attended DEFCON last year and looked at the program, you would have found this description of the talk, written by me:

Too often, “Computer History” gets shoved into a forgotten bin of irrelevancy, devoid of use for lessons and understanding. Even more often, people often fail to realize they’re making history themselves. Jason Scott will walk though the basics of computer history, what to save, how to ensure things last for future generations, or perhaps how to ensure it’s never found again.

Very general, and it was intentionally so, because I was leaving it open until the last possible moments to nail down specific details about the talk. I know computer history and I know about archiving (although my cousin would be quick to point out that I am not familiar with all the library science and archiving terms for doing so). The DEFCON call for papers happens a few months in advance (the starting date for submitting talks this year is March 1st, for example, with it closing on May 15th, for an August conference) so I knew things might shift between close and the conference.

In a case like this, I am relying rather strongly on two aspects to get my talk/presentation accepted. One is my reputation, that is, I actually show up and give the talk and it’s actually a talk, and the second is the relative obscurity/uniqueness of my topics. If you look at the list of speakers for DEFCON 15, there’s only a few in the same space: the UFO talk by Richard Thieme (which was an absolutely lovely historical talk and editorial perspective, and is available here), and Self-Publishing and the Computer Underground, which had several historical and historical-minded figures on the panel (and who I count as friends). That second talk is here.

As a result, my sort of talk is somewhat of use to a situation like DEFCON, where the talks are rather heavy with discussions of exploits, malware, and security. Security, in fact, dominates DEFCON as it does in a lot of other conferences, ostensibly because it packs them in. I don’t actually attend security talks all that often, because there’s nothing in them for me. I’m sure for people choosing talks, they look around for a little spice, and they know I will at least show up and give a cohesive work, so I get chosen.

There are two talk types I give, which I organize internally: narrative, and fact-filled. Narratives are talks where I have a story arc and move through the arc through the given time. The majority of my talks work this way. The others are fact recitations, which I enjoy less but which have more hard information for the benefit of the audience that wants this. I’ve probably given less than a half-dozen of these, whereas I’ve given probably two dozen talks of the narrative stripe over the years.

When I work on a talk, I try to understand what audience I’m working with. It helps if I’ve been to the conference before, because then I can recall the sort of folks and the sort of venue I was dealing with. If I haven’t, I try and listen to any talks or presentations given before and gauge the audience reaction, looking for what was liked the most. I am a very huge fan of racking back as far as possible and trying to understand the greater context of the talk I’m going to give and where I’m giving it. It is one thing to give a presentation before a slightly buzzed or loose audience and another to give one to an audience who feels they owe their employers maximum attendance and are therefore going to every talk they can fit in and I happened to fit in. The emotions are different, the reactions are different.

For my fact-filled talks, I will have a whole sheet of researched stuff. If I need to know the exact date of something, the populations of organizations, the exact names of people, then I have all this planning to do and research to do. I don’t enjoy these because they’re essentially book reports, but the alternative is making up facts and I won’t do that either. Ultimately, though, the fact-filled talks simply have more rigorous pre-planned flow notes, done weeks or months before my presentation. This is OK because I choose subjects not beholden to dynamic forces that will have an effect over that time.

The day or sometimes within the hour of my talk, I will assemble a flowchart for myself to keep myself in check, and to make sure that in the heat of talking I don’t skip an important point. What prompted this weblog entry was that we happen to have at ready hand both my video performance (available above) and the actual notes I wrote for myself two hours before my presentation. Here they are:

(Sorry for the photos instead of flat images; my scanner’s on a spiritual journey at the moment.)

Watching the talk and then browsing along with the notes I have in front of me will likely pull some of the magician’s trickery out from your eyes. What might look like I’m musing about where to go next is in fact me glancing over the page and deciding if I need to go further down the current line or jump over to the next big idea. Some of my notes are utterly incomprehensible, little codes I say to myself to provide touchstones. AUDIENCE SCAN is my note to do what I often do now, ask people where they heard of me or any projects I’m up to. The LOD in a little circle means “start that story of hackers and history, which includes the Legion of Doom as mentioned in Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling”. Not intuitively obvious, I guess.

I found out just before this talk that there was nobody scheduled after me. I then decided that it would be cool to have optional longer stories and shove them in the middle of the talk. This is how I bloated a 50 minute talk to an hour and a half. There’s three stories in there (Amish, ARC-ZIP, Aleshe) that are utterly optional. This is why they’re all grouped together in the notes. “Should you decide to, here are more quills in your quiver. Otherwise, skip.”

Some stuff, I hear at the same time as the audience. The story of the Saved By The Bell collection is, for example, composed on the spot (the story is true but it’s not mentioned on my notes). My reaction of “It’s a constant maintenance nightmare!” is improv. A lot is improv. The key is to move on, listen to how the audience breathes, see how they are, and realize you have to keep moving if you’re not grabbing them.

Some people might find it terrifying that three and a half hotel-notepad-sized sheets of paper are all that stand between me and an hour and a half of speaking. I don’t find it terrifying at all, but maybe it’s because I really know that given the need, I can jump off into any old subject and hold forth. The narrative structure might suffer, but at least I can pull something out that would be amusing.

Anyway, here’s hoping something in here gives you insight to my approach.

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  1. Jason Scott says:

    It appears that I’m not the only one to approach things this way.

  2. Jim Leonard says:

    Still amazed that three pieces of notes is enough for a 90-minute talk. It takes me 3 weeks to get 30 comprehensive minutes together.

  3. corq says:

    Did you have a cue card to bash your recorder, beeping from the podium? 😉

    I recall you seemed quite sad and frustrated that you’d done that. I very much enjoyed that talk.