Writing & Things of Interest

March 13, 2020

No Time to Prep

A big beige blobby illustration

For a lot of reasons (COVID-19, restricted travel, a history with the organizers, etc.), I jumped in at the last minute to fill in for a speaker at UNSPAM (a Really Good Emails thang). Although I’ve filled in for other speakers plenty of times, there’s usually a week or more of prep time involved and I’ll sometimes recycle an existing talk so that I don’t have to create everything from scratch.

This time around, Mike asked if I could step in for a 3:30pm session at… lunch time.

Always up for a good challenge and happy to help, I gladly accepted. I was then immediately faced with the ridiculous question of, “How the hell do you put together a brand new conference talk in three hours?!?”

For anyone in a similar situation, I decided to document the process in the hopes of helping alleviate some stress.

Know Your Topic

When prepping for any talk, the biggest help is understanding what you’re going to be talking about. While I can confidently talk for hours on design and development topics, the UNSPAM agenda promised attendees a talk around subscriber acquisition, retention, and engagement. Three things I’ve thought a lot about over the years, but nothing I’ve ever given a public talk on.

Fortunately, the UNSPAM team and original speaker were happy to share the existing slides and Mike quickly walked me through what was originally planned (and bought me a great sandwich). Both allowed me to get up-to-speed on the topic, how it was framed for the UNSPAM audience, and gave me some valuable examples to use in my version of the presentation.

If the talk was on anything outside the email world (except maybe ukuleles or comics), my limited knowledge would never allow me to take on such a challenge. Knowing your topic—deeply and through various lenses—will allow you to tackle any presentation on the subject. Not exactly stress-free, but with reduced stress.

Mine Existing Resources

A lot of the prep for a talk (at least for me) is getting slides together. I freaking love a well-designed slide deck that doesn’t draw attention away from what the speaker is saying, but helps illustrate and reinforce those ideas instead. More often than not, it takes significant time to put a deck like that together.

On the flip side, I’m a designer and lover of design thinking, design systems, and problem solving. So you’d better believe that I’ve been working on streamlining my slide creation process. Over the years, I’ve built and rebuilt default slide templates for both personal and work uses. So, I hopped into Google Slides (my current tool of choice), made a copy of my default deck (which is still in progress), and started dumping in ideas loosely based on the original speaker’s structure.

Having existing resources to build on is a massive lifesaver. Without a slide deck theme largely built out, I probably couldn’t have delivered this talk on such short notice. And if I could, it’d be a much, much shittier version of it.

Building on that, I mined two of my favorite resources for content for those slides: My email account, where I keep a folder of interesting emails for exactly this type of situation, and the Litmus blog, where we keep a ton of resources on damned near any topic related to email marketing.

Combined, these three, existing resources allowed me to quickly work through ideas, find compelling examples, and design a presentation that looked good and supported those ideas.


I don’t normally get too nervous talking in front of people, but with zero prep time (or only three hours…), the butterflies were definitely acting up. I hadn’t given a talk on exactly this topic, I was sharing some ideas from another speaker (who I’ve never met in person), and I was doing it to a room full of email geeks (my people).

While outwardly calm, inside I was a mess of nerves.

Before walking on stage, I did two things:

  1. Focused breathing, concentrating on the feeling of my breath moving in and out.
  2. Reminded myself that everyone in the audience wanted me to succeed.

Whether or not you’re all-in on meditation or think it’s hippy-dippy bullshit, focused breathing is a proven technique for calming nerves and helping to manage strong emotions. There are a lot of different techniques for breathing, so pick the one you like best and work it into your speaking routine.

And, it’s always good to remind yourself that no one is out to get you (usually). Everyone in the audience is there to learn and have a good time, so it’s unlikely that they’re actively wishing for a speaker to fail. Because of that, they’re likely to be understanding of the situation and forgiving of any mistakes during a talk.

Feel Like a Boss

The final step is to feel like a complete boss afterward. It’s stressful getting up on stage in front of others in the most ideal situations, so you can imagine what it’s like without much notice.

People will praise you, call you a legend (thanks, Dan), and congratulate you afterwards. Don’t minimize what you did, accept that praise, and feel good about accomplishing something instead.

Even with little prep time, I hope that I was able to both educate and entertain my new friends at UNSPAM. Based on Twitter activity, I get the feeling that I did. It wasn’t my best talk ever, but I’m glad I was able to help out an awesome team and conference.

Note: Yes, the illustration up top is a reference to Cristina Gómez’s excellent design trends talk that kicked off the conference. Beige, blobs, plants…

February 24, 2020

Link: The Smartest Things Ever Said About Email Newsletters

I love this collection of quotes about email newsletters. Some really smart takes on why email newsletters matter from the likes of Austin Kleon, Seth Godin, Craig Mod, and Dave Pell. All men 😔 but good quotes to work into those presentations pitching for more resources from your boss or if you’re on the fence for starting up your own Substack publication.

Thanks for collecting them, CJ. See also: His resources for starting your own newsletter and his very own (and very good) newsletter.

Check it out →
February 18, 2020

Link: Kickstarter Workers Vote to Unionize

This is encouraging. Kickstarter employees just voted to unionize (congrats, Kickstarter United). It’s part of a growing trend in the tech industry (which encompasses a lot BTW), and Kickstarter United joins the likes of Buzzfeed, Vox, one Google office, and Instacart.

I’m from Metro Detroit and, as such, have seen unions do both good and bad via the automotive industry. For a while, I partially blamed unions for some of the auto industry failings and bailouts and generally thought they were a bad idea. As time has passed, I’ve seen that - while some unions do conduct themselves inappropriately - the right to unionize should be something that’s treasured and used liberally. So I’m glad to see more tech workers exercising that right.

There’s a lot of bullshit on Twitter and Hacker News about how tech workers are spoiled and unions are just introducing bureaucracy but I think most of those people are missing the point.

While tech workers are generally better off than most - with higher wages and better working conditions - that’s not the case across the board. You shouldn’t confuse your cushy job for everyone elses and, despite high salaries, many people face toxic working environments and toxic management teams. Unionizing and collective bargaining can help immensely here.

Finally, it feels like more people are realizing how dangerous capitalism and the growth-at-all-costs mentality is. That mentality is driven by leadership teams and can lead to disastrous results (i.e. FaceBook). Unionizing is a way for workers to have their voice heard and potentially shape a company’s values and methods. We shouldn’t overlook the importance of that.

Tech unions are an interesting and exciting development in the industry, and one I’ll be watching closely. Congratulations again, Kickstarter United. Hopefully it helps out.

Check it out →
February 17, 2020

Link: Improving the Prognosis of Health Care in the USA

This seems… important, to say the least. A study by Yale shows that a universal health system in the US would cost less, save lives, and provide large benefits for lower-income households. Any politician working against a plan like Medicare for All can get fucked. Worth quoting the article summary in whole:

Although health care expenditure per capita is higher in the USA than in any other country, more than 37 million Americans do not have health insurance, and 41 million more have inadequate access to care. Efforts are ongoing to repeal the Affordable Care Act which would exacerbate health-care inequities.

By contrast, a universal system, such as that proposed in the Medicare for All Act, has the potential to transform the availability and efficiency of American health-care services. Taking into account both the costs of coverage expansion and the savings that would be achieved through the Medicare for All Act, we calculate that a single-payer, universal health-care system is likely to lead to a 13% savings in national health-care expenditure, equivalent to more than US$450 billion annually (based on the value of the US$ in 2017). The entire system could be funded with less financial outlay than is incurred by employers and households paying for health-care premiums combined with existing government allocations.

This shift to single-payer health care would provide the greatest relief to lower-income households. Furthermore, we estimate that ensuring health-care access for all Americans would save more than 68,000 lives and 1.73 million life-years every year compared with the status quo.

Check it out →
February 12, 2020

Keeping a Speaker Profile

an illustrated rabbit in profile

The other day, I put together a speaker profile. It looks like this and contains a bunch of stuff:

  • My name, duh
  • My preferred pronouns, because it’s important
  • My contact info
  • Short and long profiles
  • A roundup of notable talks and publications
  • Some choice pictures for folks to download
  • And some nice things people have said about me

It may all seem like a vanity exercise, but I’ve found that a speaker profile serves a few purposes beyond stroking my own ego (although there is that, too).

First, I speak at a lot of conferences and routinely need to provide things like headshots and bios for websites and agendas. It’s a pain in the ass to write those things from scratch every time and hunt down headshots from old conferences. A speaker profile gives me one place to point organizers when they need something from me. It saves both of us a lot of time and allows them to grab what they need without having to bug me.

Second, a speaker profile allows people to vet me pretty quickly. If someone is trying to figure out whether or not they want me at their conference, on their webinar, or contributing to their blog, this is the quickest way for them to get a feel for what I’ve worked on. Providing a list of talk and article topics gives them something to quickly scan. Less back-and-forth on both of our parts and when a request does make it to me, it’s usually something I’m actually interested in since it aligns with my history and interests.

Third, it’s a great reminder of what I’ve accomplished. It’s easy to get burned out when you’re heads down on prepping for the next conference or workshop (not to mention organizing our own conference), and adding a talk to that page provides a kick in the pants in the form of inspiration. Although it’s not an exhaustive list of talks and publications, it’s cool to see a lot of the stuff I’ve done over the years collected in one document. Sure, there’s LinkedIn but who the fuck wants to troll that for inspiration?

Finally, it absolutely provides that ego boost. Yeah, yeah… I said it’s not just about vanity, but imposter syndrome is real for most people, including me. When I’m getting anxious about an upcoming gig or just don’t feel like I know what the hell I’m talking about, that doc is a great reminder that—although I make plenty of mistakes and get it all wrong sometimes—more often than not I know what I’m doing and people have faith in me.

I’ve created my speaker profile a few times: As a Notion page, a page on this very website, and a Google Doc. Right now, my about page links out to the Google Doc and I’ll probably keep it that way for the time being. Notion is an interesting tool, but I don’t think I can make it stick long term. And, while I like owning my data whenever possible and keeping things on my site, I like being able to quickly update my speaker profile in Google Docs as opposed to opening up the code in my website, making changes, and pushing a new commit.

I also know that there are tools out there to collect talks, like Speaker Deck, Notist, and SlideShare, but I don’t have faith in any of three to be around long term and I really like the simplicity of a simple doc as opposed to a full profile page with all the fancy graphics.

Use whatever tools you’d like, though, and put together your own speaker profile page. It will save you time, improve communication with organizers, and might just give you the boost you need when you’re feeling down.

Have one already? Send it my way, I’d love to see it.