Hacking the Brain for Fun and Profit

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These are notes for a lightning talk.

Picture of a computer with a frown

If you have ever went to a technical conference, you have probably wondered the same thing as me: why are so many of the talks so bad? Many talks have excellent content, the speaker clearly knows the material and yet the talk falls flat. I was in a talk about a fascinating topic (making applications reliably restartable) by a speaker who did that for a living, and yet I was looking at my watch, waiting for it to end. I refuse to believe that this fate is inevitable, and I hope that by sharing some ideas on how to make talks better, we can all learn how to avoid failing.

Brain with a wire going into it

The problem is simple: talks are code meant to run on a human brain. People are born with an intuitive understanding of how to write code for that architecture, but the range in the quality of that intuition varies a lot. Unfortunately, programmers tend to fall mostly on the low end of the scale. Luckily, hackers are used to learning, and applying, technical topics. The fields of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science are working on reverse engineering the brain’s architecture. If we study those, and learn to apply their lessons, we can improve the quality of our code. In this talk, I intend to showcase some of the principles, and apply them to improving talks.

Egyptian Tablet

Human beings are storytellers. Many psychological experiments all show that humans respond better to an implausible story rather than plausible evidence. In order to use this to your advantage, make sure that your talk has a narrative. The narrative for this talk, in case you are wondering, is the “quest” narrative: the protagonist begins with a problem (needing to give better talks) and on the way he collects magical items (principles for improving talks). In general, Hero’s Journey-like narratives are usually easy to build and are well proven — think of them as a useful code library.

Baby in bed

Human beings are not natively wired to care about code — but they are wired to care about people. You want to make sure that your narrative involves people, not code. One excellent talk that I want to introduced a topic by the speaker relating the anecdote of his first day at the job where he learned this topic. Everyone was, of course, glued to their seats — first-day-at-job is a relatable experience, and always makes for a good story.

Messed up Rubik's cube

Human beings are visual creatures and puzzle solvers. The wrong thing to put on slides is the text you are talking about — as visual creatures, the audience will read the slide instead of listen — and the slides are not humans, so they will care less about them. The best thing to put on a slide is a “puzzle” — a hint or reference to what you are about to say. Attention will be drawn to the slide, confusion will settle in, and they will be forced to concentrate on you as you explain the solution.

Sailors in Panama teaching a kid how to ride a bike

Just like hacking, giving talks is a skill, not just knowledge. Understanding principles is important, just like in programming, but the more you do it, the better you will be at it. So go out there, and give awesome talks! For great justice!


One Response to Hacking the Brain for Fun and Profit

  1. […] This is a follow-up for my earlier post. […]

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