7 Reasons To Present At a Podcamp Near You

This week, I put together a presentation called Get Klout: An interactive tutorial so that I could unveil my ideas at the fourth annual Podcamp Halifax. It was a lot of fun, and I think people really enjoyed the interactive part – we did an experiment to see how much we could improve three people’s Klout scores (to see the results, check this blog tomorrow). A lot of people showed up to listen to what I had to say, and I’m pretty happy about it: this was the first time I’d really put myself out there in the Halifax tech community, and no one booed me off my pulpit.

I’m incredibly happy about how it all went (seriously: I’m glowing. Haven’t stopped thinking about the day), so I thought I would share a few reasons why the experience was so awesome for me.

1. Practice. Or: Podcamp is the nicest way to fail.

I really enjoy public speaking, but please don’t think that if you don’t, that there’s no point for you to present. There is no better way to get better at public speaking than by practicing in front of live people. For me, I know there are a billion things I could improve. I wave my arms extravagantly and answer questions in really roundabout ways. I read slides until I remember what the hell I was talking about, then I talk off the cuff. My jokes are super lame. I prefaced my presentation by saying that what was to come would be deliberately bad.

Putting myself out in front of an audience is a fun sort of stress for me, and every time I do it, I get less terrified and manic and more and more focused and relaxed. I learn new lessons with every talk, and I really believe that knowing how to keep people’s interest is an important skill. And you can hardly beat the atmosphere at Podcamp: your audience is encouraged to use their phones, walk out on talks, and ask questions. They’ll let you down easy if your talk isn’t what they’re into. And you don’t have to worry about being good enough to make their conference fees worth paying, since Podcamp is free. What’s best is that it’s really democratic: anyone can be where you are. You don’t have to be a super-guru to be heard. You also don’t have to have a super-polished talk. You just have to have something worth saying, and if you do, people will seriously reward you.

2. Research. Or: excitement is contagious.

Unless you work exclusively in social media, you won’t often have either the opportunity nor the motivation to investigate a single topic for long enough to put together a 45 minute-long presentation on it. Here’s your chance. You get to focus in on something so damn interesting to you that you won’t be able to help but get excited about it. Believe me, this translates to actual excitement in the presentation, so let your own interest lead your efforts.

3. Friends. Or: to join a group, talk to them.

Don’t you hate that “making friends” has now become “building networks”? Jesus, why not just have some fun with people? Podcamp is a chance to do just that by putting your ideas out there. I talked about Klout and got to meet a whole ton of people who cared about what I had to say. I got to convince people that what I had to say was actually worth their attention. That sure beats sitting online and wondering why I’m not part of a community I care about. If you find yourself on the outside of a group you want to be a part of, then talk to them about something they care about too.

4. Enemies. Or: if someone likes what you’re saying, there’s someone else who doesn’t.

They’re probably not the ones attending your talk, but they’re out there somewhere. Learning how to deal with critics graciously is one of life’s toughest and most rewarding lessons, so let Podcamp’s otherwise encouraging setting be the place to learn it.

5. Dialogue. Or: the best way to convince someone is to give them a voice.

Social media’s supposed to be about listening and speaking. It’s totally changed the way we do things online, so why not change how we do presentations? Whether or not it was an effective means of communicating, my presentation felt like a conversation instead of a speech. Since it would be ridiculous for me to pretend I’m an expert on anything, I’m glad I got to at least bring a few people into a dialogue on something I care about.

6. Spontaneity. Or: how to have an awesome weekend with just one click.

I saw the Podcamp page on January 6th, and figured: “holy shit! It’s time to make an awesome presentation about Klout!” My most intense brainstorming session involved a few texts between me and my aunt. The commitment is minimal! Just make sure you commit, because otherwise you will never do it.

7. Fun. Or: let your freak flag fly.

The thing I’m most proud of, though, is that I got to let my personality show. I used profanity and spoke openly about why Klout sucked, and backed it up with a few good reasons about why Klout was worth using. I made bad jokes about science. I used clip art and Comic Sans. I had fun. I think the people who watched my presentation also had fun, so it was a win-win!

Bonus reasons (Or: the “what made my first Podcamp Halifax so rad” reasons):

  • Delicious food from The Local Source. For $11.75, I got an endless grab bag of local food. I’m pretty sure there were three whole courses in there plus apple cider and a pear.
  • Keynote from Julien. He’s got lots of amazing content flying around the web at a viral clip, but most important right now is his book, The Flinch (currently free for Kindle), and this blog post on 100 Tips About LIfe, People, and Happiness.
  • This ridiculous shirt, which was thrown into my welcoming arms before the keynote:
  • This review from Blog Nova Scotia, which has ranked me as somewhere between a Jedi Knight and Jedi Master for my presentation! Aw shucks!
  • All the super duper awesome people who attended my presentation. Check back here tomorrow for an update on our Klout experiment!

One Single Principle To Consider Before Buying A Gadget

I’ve been on a bit of a productivity kick recently. So far, that’s meant identifying the huge time-sucks in my life. A good place to start is by looking at your gear. I’ve spent a lot of my life checking notifications, reacting to buzzes or alarms, and generally having my thoughts interrupted by really unimportant information.

Then there’s the separate problem of the phenomenology of your device: what is the experience of using your phone like? Does it make you feel more strapped for time and focus, or does it make your life better? In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers makes the point thusly:

With every new device, there are three categories of issues. First, the purely functional: What can this device do for us? What are its best uses? Second, the behavioral: Are there old behaviors I need to change or new ones I need to acquire in response to this? These are all exterior questions, but beneath the surface there’s a third category that’s often ignored, especially early on: the inner human dimension of technology: How is this device affecting me and my experience? Is it altering how I think and feel? Is it changing the rhythms of my day? Does life seem to be moving more quickly (or slowly) as a result of this gadget? Is it affecting my work? My home life? If so, are the effects good or bad?

Most importantly for me, I wonder about the slow/quick factor. It seems that the more functionality a device has, the more potential it has to speed everything up into one big blog of information. The only devices that slow down my day now are my Kindle and my old hard-drive iPod. Both are almost archaically focused devices, and that’s what makes life better: closer, more intense focus. So next time you wonder about upgrading or buying a new tablet, phone, laptop or OS, wonder whether it will slow everything down, or speed everything up.

Two sides of social media

Now that I’ve managed a few different communities, I’m beginning to see a divide between two kinds of work that I do. One one hand, the individual tweets, updates, blogs and content-based work that I do ends up being a bit more creative – and definitely a lot harder to pin down rules for. I’m supposed to make great content, and reply sensitively to customers, and to sound authentic. To do this, I rely on a lot of common sense, with a few pretty well-established rules about what not to do.

On the other hand, I’m engaged in a data-driven project. I keep track of a handful of metrics that let me quantify causal and personal relationships, and I get a sense of what I’m doing well and not-so-well. It happens after I’ve already got an account and interactions. I have to start somewhere, and then I find out where to go next by looking at the metrics.

The difference between the liberal art of social media engagement and the empirical project of measuring what happens on social media is not a new one. TV writers are different from the people who rate at Nielsen. There are entirely different skill sets, but because everyone’s accountable to the bottom line, these two sides have to meet up. The writers must make something that’s more than good: they need to make something that can sell. Someone else is probably responsible for figuring out what that something is.

What has changed is that the person who writes and the person who figures out what to write about are now the same person. I have to manage what happens on twitter, and I have to measure what happens on twitter. I am the link between the data and the content, and that’s both super cool and very easy to forget. If you do remember, then you’ll end up getting feedback from your data that you would have otherwise ignored. Likewise, you’ll have the chance to make much more awesome content, and to see what makes it good. These activities can reinforce one another, so at every opportunity ask yourself: what does the data say? How can my content make a change in the data?

Canadian productivity is now at 1945 levels

Relative to the US, that is: (via Jim Stanford at the Progressive Economics Forum)

Now caught in a free-trade resource trap, putting all our eggs in the basket of non-renewable resource extraction (an activity which demonstrates secularly declining productivity), we have fallen back to where we were in 1945: barely 70% of U.S. levels in the business sector.  That’s a stunning failure that should give cause for a fundamental rethink of everything we’ve done since 1984.

Well, isn’t that swell. It seems that the move towards free-trade resource trading made for the problem – resources get harder to extract over time. Throw in an ineffective method of subsidizing R&D, and you’ve got an explanation for how, in under thirty years, Canadian economic policy undid the gains in productivity from 1945 to 1984.

Deep abiding love Thursdays: American Thanksgiving Edition

1. Dogs.

Three months ago now, I showed up in Strathroy, Ontario with my girlfriend to pick up her three year old mini schnauzer, Frodo. We’d driven for about 24 hours in the previous two days, and I really wasn’t sure what to think of the added company. Would he make us more anxious as we trecked to Nova Scotia? Would he pee on me? Would we ever get along?

It took a long time for us to warm up to each other. I was never a dog person (and have had, from an early age, the scars to prove it). Frodo’s also not exactly the most peaceful dog ever. He’s a ball of anxiety most of the time. Our advice to new people is to ignore him until he seeks them out.

At some point, he picked up a toy and brought it over to me. I picked it up and threw. We were in new territory – it was the first of many dog-man bonding moments. Every time I realized that we could do something cool together, we grow a little tighter. I took him out to Long Lake Provincial Park and we made our own trail. I brought him over to a friend’s place to play with some other dogs, and after three hours he stopped snarling and ended up having fun. We figured out how to look out for things that bother the other person. I’m there for him, and he’s there for me. Pretty sweet, I tell you.

I didn’t know what to think of Frodo. Now I really don’t know what life would be like without him.

2. Snow.

It snowed this week. I was smiling that whole day, and the whole next day, and now that it’s melting I’m not smiling as much, but that’s fine. There will be more. We are in that time of year. I can now go run around with Frodo and come in and drink hot chocolate. Katie and I can toboggan. Snowballs will be thrown. Icy roads will be drifted. Ponds will freeze over and citrus fruit will be in season, caught in the air alongside the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Snow also means eggnog, but I’ll save that piece of heaven for another post. Winter is a long and rewarding time, with a large but finite number of things I can incorporate into (a) my day and (b) the blog format. In other words: people who think Christmas is a season that starts in November are dumb. They’ll be burnt out by Boxing Day.

3. Pizza.

“C’mon Andrew! Come up with something more obvious!”

OK. I will. Music is rad! Food is tasty! The world is round! These are simple features of the universe that were once unexplored possibilities. And yet, their present obviousness does not diminish their importance. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge a fundamental, self-evident truth: that pizza is fucking DELICIOUS.

It doesn’t matter what kind. I could eat pretty much everything. I could eat it cold. I could eat an American-style pie. A New York-style pizza. A deep dish pizza. A Regina-style pizza (which is to say, absolutely loaded in toppings, cut into squares, and made by someone Greek). I would eat all of these things, and then I would check out Serious Eats’ Slice blog for more happiness in wedge or circle form. I have hacked ovens to produce enough heat to make the right sort of neapolitan pizza, with withering basil leaves and puddles of buffalo mozzarella that hide thin slices of tomato.

I love pizza, don’t you know.

4. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Good book. I’d recommend a read to any David Foster Wallace fans. I’m using that to sucker you in to reading it: it’s a book that is so goddamn good that you’ll forget about worrying about whether Leonard is really DFW, and if this is really a roman à clef, and if you should be looking to the back for footnotes.

Most reviewers, being English majors, focus on the funny little things that the English majors in this book say under the spell of semiotics. “Books are about other books” being one of the frequently cited lines. I guess I’d take that as a textual hint that it’s a bad idea to take what Eugenedies does – a super damn good realistic account of the social lives of one small group of people – and pulverize and juice it for literary meaning. And I’m very happy to not do so. I read books like this (Jonathan Franzen makes books like this too) because I really enjoy the topics they treat. It’s full of conflicts and worries and people that you can point to and say, “I’m kind of like that.” Let yourself wander down the path that this other-you finds.

5. Canadian Thanksgiving.

Americans may have Black Friday, but I’d love for someone to tell me why it’s smart to add in the stress of shopping to the myriad ways in which a Thanksgiving gathering can be bungled. Canadian Thanksgiving has all the turkey and none of the proximity to consumerism or Christmas, and that is something to be thankful for.

Author’s note: I posted this on Friday, not thursday. But a convention is a convention, and even reality must bend to it.

Unemployed PhD grads and college football players are the same

Prompted by this blog: “No, You Cannot be a Professor.” Thanks, katiestockdale

The thing about grad school is that everyone else is at least as special as you, and most of them are more so. They all had 4.0 GPAs, they all have gone through life in the same insulating cocoon of praise, they all really, really love history. Hell, some of them shoot rainbows out of their butts and smell like a pine forest after a spring rain–and they mostly aren’t going to get jobs either.

The blog post links to an article on The Economist site about why, exactly, doing a PhD is a terrible idea: there’s a huge oversupply of new PhDs and a declining number of tenure track jobs. The major problem with this picture? It’s not just that you can’t get a job with a PhD: it’s that the smartest people in any given country are wasting their time being unsatisfied with their life as an un- or under-employed person with an advanced degree. And what about re-tooling for another job? “Workers with “surplus schooling”—more education than a job requires—are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs” (ibid).

Think about it in more football-y terms: not everyone makes it to the show. After all those years and years of practice, with all the glorious praise of your football-crazy parents and coaches and friends, you might never make it to the grand stadiums that you’ve been promised. According to the NCAA, eight in 10,000 high school football players will eventually be drafted by the NFL. Wouldn’t it be neat if people put the sort of energy they have towards something that could at least give you a chance at employment?

Getting a job with a PhD isn’t quite that hard, but if there’s a problem in the ivory towers, it probably has to do with the same things that drive a person to try to get into the NFL: culture. To see how similar the scholarly life’s proponents are to the NFL boosters, imagine Timmy(1) and Timmy (2). Timmy(1) is raised in a family of people who inculcate an appreciation of academia: he cares about books because he’s raised amongst books and their fans. He sees the distant goal of college, and then more college, as a mark that affirms his own worth in his community. If he works hard, he can become what his family values; along the way, he’ll find a society pleasingly arranged to treat his goal of pursuing an advanced degree as a very important one.

Ditto for Timmy(2), but he’s playing football, which might also get him laid, so society is really rooting for him.

Anyway, this is all a very roundabout way of saying that the light at the end of the tunnel – the possibility of snagging that tenure-track job, or that spot in the draft – is so blindingly important to a whole society that the well-being of the people who actually pursue that end is dismissed as irrelevant. They’ll be rewarded along the way, sure. But the happiness of these seriously driven academics and athletes depends on us, as a society, giving them aspirations that will reward them (and our society) indefinitely. Nothing could be worse than to rob them of their drive and then leave them unemployed too.