Ep. 173 Becoming a Superhuman Communicator with David Neal
Shane McAllister: Welcome to the MongoDB Podcast. I'm Shane McAllister, and as ever, whether you're a regular subscriber or a brand new listener, we're glad to have you tune in and join us. In this episode, we're joined by David Neil, or Reverent Geek as he's probably more familiar to many. David originally joined us on a MongoDB TV live stream back in late June. And although that was all video, live- streamed on YouTube and LinkedIn... Gentle plug. Check out MongoDB TV to find out more. His content was so compelling and his story so insightful that we thought it would be great to bring this to a wider audience. So we adapted our discussion for this podcast and are delighted to share it with you today. In our conversation, David talks about what started him on his journey and he shares his insights and tips on becoming a super superhuman communicator. Speaking of compelling and impactful content, our MongoDB. local series of events has already started and is coming to over 30 cities globally this year. So visit mongodb. com/ events to learn more about where and when our. local events are happening, and perhaps you can join us in person at a MongoDB. local event near you. And with that, let's get on with the show. Welcome, David, to the MongoDB Podcast.
David Neil: Hey. Happy to be here. Thanks, Shane.
David Neil: It's all true.
Shane McAllister: David, you're somewhat of a friend of MongoDB and a friend of the MongoDB podcast. You joined us back in... It seems like ages ago now, but it was July 2021 in the height of Covid when Mike Lynn, a colleague of ours, ran the MongoDB Community Day, and you joined us for the whole day basically, and did amazing illustrations on all of the topics that were covered and the guests that were there and it was stunning to see. I know I benefited from having my own illustration done by you which was superb. Thank you. You made me look far younger than I actually am, so I very much appreciate that. You're very good. So that's where we first met. And I've seen you at some of the other events in the meantime as well too. And I'm incredibly honored to have you on board for this MongoDB podcast live because I think the story you have and the insights that you have in becoming a communicator are incredibly resonant with anybody no matter what they're doing. This podcast goes out to a lot of developers, but also a huge wide variety of audience. So without further ado, we can get started by way of your background and your journey to where you are today and the insights that you've learned bringing illustrations to your talks and your events.
David Neil: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my story. This is a topic that I am super passionate about. It has transformed everything that I do from a communications perspective part in my career, and I want to encourage as many folks as possible to try some of these ideas for themselves. To make communications, whether it be presentations or blog posts or documentation, more fun, more engaging, so that we all can enjoy the things that we share more and have more impact on folks.
Shane McAllister: Yeah, I think so. Particularly at events and presenting at events. Particularly the larger conferences with many strands and many tracks that there's so much going on that people remember how you make them feel, not necessarily what you say and how you impact them and how they come away from their talks.
David Neil: Yeah. That's one of my favorite quotes. Maya Angelou said, " People will forget what you said, they'll forget all these things, but they'll never forget how you made them feel." And that has resonated with me and was part of the reason why I do some of the things that I do.
Shane McAllister: That's excellent. And so I think the key thing for me is to understand where you were at the start. This didn't always come naturally to you, and that's part of the journey to where you've come today, correct?
David Neil: Yeah. Absolutely. As I mentioned before, this is a topic that I am super passionate about and interested in. And my journey for how I came about this skill is in 2011, I finally got up the courage to give a talk to a local meetup. I was living in Nashville, Tennessee at the time. I love Nashville. And I was getting involved in some of the local meetups and user groups, and somebody talked me into giving a presentation on. Net rest APIs. Just some things that I was doing in my regular job.
Shane McAllister: That's always the way it starts. Somebody talks you into doing something and all of a sudden you've been volunteered. Or as an ex- boss of mine used to say, voluntold. You had no choice.
David Neil: But I came away from that experience like, wow, I didn't die and I enjoyed hearing the feedback and wouldn't it be amazing all these years that I've seen other speakers have an impact on me, what if I could have that kind of impact on other people? And so I started continuing the process of putting myself out there and speaking at events. So between 2011 and 2014 or so, I gave probably at least a hundred talks or more at meetups and conferences. And I got my first DevRel job in 2013. So it became part of my role to go to events, either working a booth or giving presentations.
Shane McAllister: Excellent. And did that DevRel job come about because of your visibility at presentations and giving presentations at events?
David Neil: Yeah, absolutely. It helped that I knew the founders of this startup company, but when I joined the company, they wrote me a blank check and said, " We know the work that you're doing in the community, what is it that you want to do here?" And I'm like, " I want to stay involved in the developer community and not only support our platform and create APIs and do software engineering. I also want to be active in recruiting and just spreading the brand of the company." So that allowed me to do all the things that I wanted to do.
Shane McAllister: I think that echoes a lot of the stories we hear from people in the DevRel world. They were doing DevRel before it was a thing, but they were already involved. You cannot start a DevRel role day one without ever having been involved in the community or doing events and doing... You have to really bed yourself in. So all of your work led to this first DevRel role.
David Neil: Yeah. When I look for other DevRel folks who may have not been in a DevRel role, I look for those indicators of are they passionate about the community or are there things about the way that they give back to the community that would fit the category of DevRel whether or not they've been doing a DevRel role.
Shane McAllister: Excellent.
David Neil: So I got better and better as a speaker, but I just felt like I wasn't having the impact that I wanted to have. My typical audience was not always engaged. I got good feedback. People told me I was a good speaker, but I just knew that people weren't walking away from my talk being super inspired or really all that excited about the topic that I was talking about. And I think a lot of folks in developer relations and other areas can relate to this. That you pour your heart out into something, whether it be a talk or a product or something, and you just feel like, man, people just aren't excited about it as I thought they might be.
Shane McAllister: Yeah. We've all been there because you live and breathe this, and then you're excited to get out and to show it off to the world. It is quite hard as a speaker on stage because sometimes you're staring out into the audience and it's super hard these days with everybody looking at their mobile phones and more than multitasking, right?
David Neil: Yep. So by the end of 2014, I was feeling pretty burned out. I was thinking, man, is this the best I can hope for? And I thought about just hanging it up for a while. Maybe taking a year off. And I was having this existential crisis about all this stuff that I've been doing for the last few years, was it really worth it? Was I really making a difference that I really wanted to make? So I started doing some research at the beginning of 2015 and I came across a video on YouTube. I encourage folks to go and find it. It's called Show and Tell by Dan Rome. It's a presentation that he gave at Google. It's about 45 minutes long. And by the end of this talk that he gave, this presentation, I was convinced. I thought, man, this is what I want to do. This is amazing. It had the impact on me that I wanted to have on my audiences. I was fired up. So I had a brand new talk that I needed to create for the Orlando Code Camp, and the talk was on Kanban, which is visualizing work. And I thought, yeah, that makes sense. I'm giving a presentation on how to visualize work. I should have some visuals as part of my presentation. So those first drawings that I made, I had a cheap iPad and a$ 5 stylus, and I was just drawing. Instead of having bullet points on a slide, I drew my slides.
Shane McAllister: Excellent. I love it. Kanban, we all have to do it, but it's not the most exciting thing in the world so you're bringing some life to it.
David Neil: Yeah. I created these crude drawings of stick figures. I didn't have a whole lot of skill to work with when I started, but that didn't matter. As soon as I gave this presentation, people were like... I'd never seen an audience that was just mesmerized by my presentation. So engaged. Nobody was looking around. Everybody had their eyes on the screen or on me, and it was just amazing. And I even got to-
Shane McAllister: We've all been there, right? With the death by PowerPoint-
David Neil: Yeah. Death by PowerPoint.
Shane McAllister: And multiple bullets, tiny fonts, tables that you cannot read in the audience. This is refreshing, right?
David Neil: Yeah. And I even got to inject some of my own humor into my presentation because I'm not going to find clip art or anything on the internet that represents this as a user. I want to run with scissors. I was talking about how folks would write their features, whatever, onto index cards and everything. So that first presentation where I gave a talk with some hand drawn illustrations, and again, they were so crude, they were not well drawn for sure, but that didn't matter. The audience just was engaged, was amazing. And another thing that happened that blew my mind is I had no trouble at all telling my story or giving my presentation the way that I wanted to. When you're in school and you take notes, you might write down a word or a phrase. And when you go back and read those notes, however much later to study for a test, you realize just by looking at that one word or that one phrase, you can remember a lot more information than what you wrote on the page.
Shane McAllister: That makes a ton of sense, David, because I think people sometimes rely on the bullet points behind them as a crutch, and they default into reading. So they're putting the information up there as a prompt for them. But you as the audience can read much quicker than they can say it. So having your visualizations and your images and your drawings there is breathtaking and so different.
David Neil: And what I found was as I started to started understand what was happening is as I would draw a slide or an illustration for a slide, I would be thinking about all the things that I wanted to say. And when that illustration came up on the screen, I had no trouble at all coming up with the story that went along with that illustration to talk about the things that I wanted to talk about. It was the same kind of physical act of drawing or writing that helped me to remember the things that I wanted to talk about.
Shane McAllister: So they were like the way we make mnemonics and things that we use to remember things ourselves. So your illustrations, your pictures, your images were that for you.
David Neil: Yeah. At the end of the day that first talk that I gave I saw a person running across the parking lot, and at first I was like, what? That's strange. That's something you don't see. And then I realized they were running at me and I'm like, oh, what's going on here? They came up to me and said, " I want you to know that your presentation today was the best talk that I went to." And started asking me all kinds of questions. Was just talking about the subject, talking about my illustrations, just gushing over that. And I was almost moved to tears because I'd never gotten that kind of feedback from anyone before. And I didn't magically become a better speaker overnight. The visuals were the game changer. It did help me to be a better speaker because I was more casual. I was more myself because I was telling my story the way that I wanted to, and the visuals are what empowered me to do these things much, much better.
Shane McAllister: And so was that the aha moment for you then, David, that you were on the right journey here now? This act of visual storytelling was the way forward for you and the way to get that sort of impact and feedback from an audience.
David Neil: Yeah. Absolutely. I knew within the first 30 seconds of giving my presentation that this was a game changer, and this was something that I was going to latch onto and continue doing.
Shane McAllister: It's nice to have that moment that you've been building up towards and then it all of a sudden clicks. But you mentioned some dates earlier. How long was it from your start of your visual storytelling sketching journey to this aha moment? Was that a couple of years?
Shane McAllister: And you talk about complex ideas, data and showing, that they are very hard to describe, and sometimes we're used to seeing the usual flow diagrams, block diagrams, et cetera. For us in MongoDB, we talk about indexing and data sharding and queryable encryption. These are concepts that you need to visualize. It's very hard to get those across in any other way. I'd love to see your approach to those three topics, but maybe at another session.
David Neil: Yeah. Even representing those things, if it's a hand drawn illustration, it's going to pique someone's interest differently than just a graphic or your typical workflow diagram or something like that, which can be sterile, uninspiring or boring. Some of those visuals can be just boring to look at. They're just blocks with arrows.
Shane McAllister: Oh, totally. Yeah. I think your hand drawn visuals are... It's your character.
David Neil: Yeah.
Shane McAllister: Handmade content. Yeah.
David Neil: Yeah. Your personality comes out in whatever drawings you create no matter how good or bad they are. And I want to emphasize throughout our presentation is that there's no such thing as bad art, and I want to encourage people that I started very humbly with some awful illustrations, and that's okay. Whatever you create is still going to be so much more interesting to your audience, whether it's your viewers or readers or an audience at an event. They are going to be so much more interested in seeing the uniqueness of your illustrations and-
Shane McAllister: I think that's an interesting topic because look, we're all used to stealing things from the web to drop into our presentations or going to stock photo websites and getting those. I think everybody has an idea that they're no good at drawing. It's the same as I'm no good at singing, I can't play any instruments. It seems to be too much of a hurdle. It's a craft. I need to be good at this for a number of years before I'm going to expose myself to the world. But you're saying the opposite then, David. You're saying anything that you bring that has your personality, your stamp on it is going to have more impact, as you say, than something that you've just grabbed off the internet.
David Neil: Yeah. That's the common thing that I hear a lot is I don't know how to draw. I can't draw. And this is the case that Dan Rome makes in his presentation, Show and Tell, and there's a book associated with it too, called Show and Tell: How to Have Extraordinary Presentations. And he says, and I agree, that if you can draw shapes, lines, arrows, blobs, letters, numbers, you can draw just about anything that you need to be able to draw. You can start with stick figures. They are so expressive. They are so entertaining. No matter how poorly drawn your stick figures are, they super fun to use. And there's different ways to draw stick figures. There's different approaches to that. If you can draw basic shapes, you can create something that you may not realize you can make. A city landscape that represents something. Or maybe you can draw something you didn't think you could like a bicycle. Is this the most realistic bicycle you've ever seen? No. But you recognize what it is.
Shane McAllister: Instantly. Totally.
David Neil: These are circles, triangles, and some lines. And the point I want to really make is that it doesn't have to be art. Anything you create is super engaging and your audience will love it. It's just an icon. It's iconic. If you can make it where you recognize what it is, that's as good as it needs to be. You don't have to pour hours into trying to make some kind of painting. That's not the point.
Shane McAllister: And isn't the case then, David, that abstracting it down to, in your case, your hand drawings even forces you to refine the message better? As you say, they help you in, you never get stuck in the presentation because you've got this memory of when and how you created that. Do they also help you create that message, create that story?
David Neil: Oh, absolutely. It gives me a lot of freedom to express things the way that I want. See, in the past I would be like, this is the topic, or this is the things that I want to say. Either I go the route of just having bullet points on the screen, or I write a post that I want to emphasize that this is more than just presentations. I either go that route or I go find some clip art. And if I go the route of finding a clip art or an image on the internet, then my story is compromised because I now have to ... I find the best thing that I can find, but now my story is compromised because I have to use the visual that I have found to talk about that thing.
Shane McAllister: You probably waste a ton of time trying to find a suitable piece of clip art or stock art as well too. Probably much more than it would take you to try to sketch your concept or your idea.
David Neil: Yeah. I am much more efficient now that I can create whatever content I'm creating, and at the same time, I'm not wasting any time. I'm thinking about how to refine my... Like you said, refine a message or refine your story as I'm sketching the illustration that I want to make.
Shane McAllister: And how much of your process, David... Is the sketch already formed in your head before it hits the tablet or the paper or the whiteboard, or are you refining it as and when you're doing it?
David Neil: I don't know it. There's different approaches to the creative process. I may think in my mind, what is something very simple that represents something that I want to say about this? And it may be an object, it may be an animal or a scene or some kind of scenario. And if it's a scene or a scenario, it's like, what is the simplest thing I could do that would represent that scene that I could draw using simple shapes? Another thing that I do is that I am very purposeful in most of the time the drawings that I create are black and white. So I want them to be high contrast, no ambiguity or less is more. When I use color, it's very rare, and it becomes a highlight or something.
Shane McAllister: Okay. For emphasis.
David Neil: For emphasis. Like a key takeaway. Oh, the color is important. It's an added visual. Yeah. So there's certainly different approaches to thinking about how you could represent something that you want to talk about. And if it's an object or something, I'll go and look at images on the internet to see if I could find something that's close that I could use as a reference so that I can look at that and go, okay, I'm going to sketch it. Or there's nothing wrong with tracing. I've done so much tracing. Because I use a digital format, I use an iPad, I can import a photo into my drawing app and trace over the top of it, and that's my starting point. That way I can do get going.
Shane McAllister: Would that be a suitable way for people who want to get started doing this? That's a nice little bit of a headstart. Tracing over something that pre- exists, right?
David Neil: Yeah. Absolutely. And sometimes early on, I'd feel guilty about that. I know real artists don't trace, but really, there's no shame in it at all. I do it all the time, and the point is in the end, it's still something that's my art or my creativity that takes shape.
Shane McAllister: How does the saying go? All great artists steal or something like that as well, David?
David Neil: Yep. Exactly.
Shane McAllister: You're only following in those grand footsteps.
David Neil: One of the things I want to emphasize is that... I've alluded to this before, is that I started my journey in illustrations with public speaking, but that's not the only way you can use visuals. There's lots of things that you can do that you could add some of your hand drawn things too, and lots of different types of content. And I've enjoyed figuring out creative ways to add those visual elements into other areas of communication. One of my favorites is social media. I've had so much fun. Because I can't create a new presentation every week, I need some kind of excuse to draw because I fell in love with it. I use social media as my learn in the open. I would create these terrible illustrations and post them on Twitter or Instagram and people would comment on them and it was encouragement to me.
Shane McAllister: People love to comment on the internet. You're open yourself right up there.
David Neil: Yeah. Mostly good. But I use social media for me to be like of an accountability partner, as an incentive to continue creating and improve my drawing skills. I know there's been some people referenced my Illustrated Guide to OAuth that I created when I was at Okta. That's become one of the most popular videos and blog posts on the subject. Because the visualizations that are in there help folks to understand a very difficult subject. There's terminology and there's things that are unique to OAuth that that's difficult to grasp. And so the visuals that's in this content that I created really resonated with a lot of folks. I still have people coming up to me at events today who say, " Hey, you're the person who did that video. Thank you for doing that."
Shane McAllister: I think simplifying difficult concepts or theories and simplifying them down to their bare bones is so powerful and impactful. And as you said, we are a visual being. Everything we see and we do and get involved in, it's across the board. And I think if you can take something that's really complex... And this is the world that we occupy a lot of the time in dev. Sometimes there are complex problems that we're trying to do. And as I said earlier, sometimes you can rely on too much texts and bullet points as a crutch. And I think if you can do as you do, take it down to what actually matters, what is the simplest way to get this message across is incredibly powerful.
David Neil: Yeah. One of my favorite quotes, Arthur Doler is a speaker from the Kansas City area, and he's spoken at a lot of tech conferences all over. He's a friend of mine. He's got a excellent talk on how our brains learn different ways. And one of the things that he said that really resonated with me is our brains love to be surprised. And that's it. That's exactly what these illustrations are doing. It's like every illustration that you create is unique. And when people see it, it's like brain candy. Your brain is, oh, wow, I've never seen that before. And that's what makes it just all the more engaging.
Shane McAllister: Yeah. You honestly never hear somebody come out of a presentation going, " I think the third bullet down from the paragraph was really super insightful." But they will talk about something visual that they've seen.
David Neil: Yeah.
Shane McAllister: I love that. To be surprised. We love to be surprised. And I know you'll get into some of the tools as well too, but you're very open in sharing all of this up on your website as well, David.
David Neil: Yeah. And I'm Reverent Geek everywhere on social media. My website is reverentgeek. com. There's lots of different ways you can get in contact with me. It is my honor and privilege to answer any questions that folks may have. I would love to encourage you and to help you in any way that I can.
Shane McAllister: Yeah. No. That's superb and definitely check out David's site because a lot more up there. You have books and other things up there as well too, which we probably don't have time to get into now, but check out your website. Definitely.
David Neil: Yeah. So just quickly, I don't know how much time we have left, but I want to-
Shane McAllister: Take your time.
David Neil: Share with folks maybe some things about getting started in doing all this. Hopefully I've convinced you by this point that you should give this a try. But I want to share that learning any new skill, whether it's drawing or a language or musical instrument or a new programming language or a new database like MongoDB, there's some ingredients I believe that are common on learning any new skill. One is a determination that I am going to do this. However painful it may be, I recognize that there's benefit on the other side of learning this new skill, and I want to be determined to work through it. Number two is having some deliberate practice. It takes time and no one is great at any new skill when they first do it. Yeah, there might be a little bit of natural talent in a few things, but really what makes the difference is continued practice. The more you do, the better you get. If you're a programmer, you know this because you're using a language or a platform or whatever, and you look back at code you've written six months ago or even three weeks ago... Who knows?
Shane McAllister: It's best not to look back at old code David.
David Neil: It's best not to look back. But if you have to fix a bug or something, you go, what was I thinking?
Shane McAllister: Totally.
David Neil: I wouldn't do that today. And that goes the same with learning any new skill. You've got to give yourself time to practice, and over time, you will recognize, oh, these are the things I should have done three months ago. And third is a whole lot of patience because we've got to give ourselves grace. We're not going to be good at something right away. We've got to have patience to allow those skills to develop.
Shane McAllister: Yeah. It's easy to get put off at the beginning. It's like that curve of the adoption and the value of disenchantment and then back up again.
David Neil: Patience is key. One of the ways that you can get started is just traditional pen and paper, sketching things. And a lot of apps are available for your phone or whatever to scan in a document. And you can use that to scan in a sketch or an illustration that you've created and plug that into your presentation or your documentation or anything like that. Similarly, you can buy lap boards that are dry erase boards that are smaller, about the size of your computer, that you can draw on with a dry erase marker, and you can get different colors if you want to. And that way if you make mistakes, you can just wipe it and keep going. And then again, use some type of scanner app to scan that in so you can use it however-
Shane McAllister: You have no excuses. That's a pretty low cost, low tech way to get started, right?
David Neil: Yeah. You can go down to Office Depot or OfficeMax or Staples or whatever your office supply store of choice, and not much investment to give that a try.
Shane McAllister: I love it.
David Neil: What I recommend that if you want to do digital illustrations is one of the later iPads. The newer Apple iPads support the Apple Pencil, which is fantastic for drawing. And there's an app called Sketches Pro. I think it costs something like$6. So the typical Apple ecosystem, the hardware's expensive, but the apps are really cheap. And you can find even refurb iPads. But this is the route that I've gone. I used Sketches Pro for a long time. It's an easier, more simple app to learn. And I was just talking to someone last week in Kansas City that he took my advice, he got Sketches Pro and he's been loving it. So it's good to hear the feedback.
Shane McAllister: Excellent. Most people... Maybe not the Apple Pencil, but possibly most people have a tablet of some sort around and can get started then too.
David Neil: And these are just my personal recommendations. I use iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, and I use an app called Procreate to do all my illustrations. But there's a guy that I follow on YouTube. His name's Brad Calbow and he does reviews on tech or hardware for creative professionals. He does reviews on Android, Windows, Apple products, and the different apps that are available for those things. So on Windows, I know you can use something like Sketchbook or Adobe has a free product that's really good. Concepts is another one that I've used for doing sketch notes for events because it has an infinite size canvas that you can work with. So those apps are available on other platforms besides iPad. You can get that on Windows or Android. So there's lots and lots of options available. And there are tons of videos on YouTube where you can figure out how to become a better illustrator if you want to. There's courses that you can get on 21 Draw. There's all kinds of stuff. So there's plenty of resources available without spending a whole lot of money that you can learn to do illustrations. So that's pretty much my story. That's what I've been doing. That's what I've been encouraging folks now for several years. I love what it empowers me to do. This has given me such a incredible opportunity to have more of an impact on people through whatever types of content that I create.
Shane McAllister: It's been excellent. Thank you for taking us through that journey. For me, obviously the visual impact of what you're creating is important and the style and your personality as we spoke, that comes out. At what point does the humor come into it, David? We can draw something, but you've got a quirky way about your illustrations. What weighting would you give towards the humor element as well too, for something that's memorable?
David Neil: Yeah. My personality is that I do not want to sit through a boring presentation or read a boring blog post tutorial. I want things that I create to be fun. So as I am thinking through the goal of whatever I'm communicating, it's always top of mind for me to think, how could I make this more fun? How can I have more empathy for the person who is going to consume this content and make it as enjoyable as possible? Because I've spent so much time thinking about that, I think my delivery of humor and making it fun and engaging has improved. It's another skill that I've had to learn. I remember when I first started speaking, I want to be fun, I want to be humorous. I saw other speakers seem to pull it off as, hey, that person could be a comedian. Or, I love going to that person's talks because I laugh at so many things that person says. I want to be that way. And so my initial approach was to read some books on standup comics or how to be funny. I don't think any of those helped, really. It just pointed out that I'm not funny.
Shane McAllister: I don't know where you would start in creating a book about how to be funny. I understand the references you made earlier to the other books and things that you've come across. But how to be funny is... Yeah. That's a difficult challenge.
David Neil: I remember hearing stories of how maybe speakers at Microsoft went through some coaching to try to help them to incorporate jokes or humor into their presentation. It was like, that just sounds terrible.
Shane McAllister: Yeah. You can spot that a mile away. You can nearly see it coming. I remember I used to work in the e- learning industry a long time ago, and I remember we talk about comedians and comedy. John Cleese from Monty Python used to have a company that did e- learning videos essentially for companies about what not to do. So they're talking about safety and hazards and things like that. But in the wrong way, given their background from Monty Python. And I remember being at one particular event, David, and John Cleese was doing the keynote. But I heard his voice a coup the day before, and I went in and snuck in the back, and he's rehearsing the keynote. But he rehearsed it as if his life depended upon it, and as if he hadn't had 20, 30 years of Monty Python and Fawltyy Towers. All of the jokes, all of the calamities that were happening through his presentation. So at one point, the lights go, or the projector goes, fully rehearsed. Even the most seasoned comedians practice. It goes back to your slide about practice, right?
David Neil: Yeah. Practice and just being comfortable. There's a level of confidence that my own illustrations give me because I know I'm doing something that's different and that the audience has already... I don't have to win them. My illustrations have already won them. It just makes me even more comfortable to speak comfortably or to speak with my own personality. And so if I want to throw in some humor or things that I... And again, like a rehearsal, think through those things when I'm drawing illustrations. Oh, wouldn't it be fun to say this? It might be funny to... And some of my visuals are visual gags. I'll set them up and say... There's a talk that I give called Public Speaking without Barfing on your shoes. And I have a series of slides and the first slide is a picture of the Grim Reaper. And I say, there's three inevitable things in life. There's death, taxes... And I'll show an illustration of a bag of money. Death, taxes and PowerPoint and then a logo of PowerPoint pops up on the screen. And it never fails. People love that. It's a visual gag just as much as it is humor because of the delivery or the timing of showing those visuals.
Shane McAllister: And so that confidence that you have presenting now comes from your experience. Was it a month, two months, three months after you said this is starting to gel with audiences? How I'm getting these concepts across via illustrations? That must have been a great relief moment for you as well too, going I'm doing this, it's working. I haven't gone down a cul- de- sac dead end with this.
David Neil: Yeah. So around that time, I was giving some talks on Node. js and Electron and a few other technologies. What I was doing was I was adding just little icons, little stick figures, different things on the slides. The slides still had code or bullet points on them. I was just adding some visual entertainment to go along with those instead of using stock photos. I would throw up a visual gag or something like that as a transition between topics. It wasn't until probably a year after, sometime in 2016, that I felt like this was a turning point where I was given the opportunity to give a keynote. My first keynote was in 2016. And that was an opportunity for me to really dig into creating illustrations. The keynote was not technical. It was encouraging folks to get involved in the community using their skills. It was just a long pep talk of... I end every presentation with a slide that says you don't need permission to be awesome. And that resonates with a lot of people. I've gotten so much feedback from that over the years. And so my keynote, that first keynote was basically a 30- minute presentation on why you should be involved in the community and why you should do things that help you to be more awesome. And so the illustrations were like... I felt so good about creating that keynote because I was confident at that point in creating some slides and things that I knew the audience would love.
Shane McAllister: I'm interested to hear your take on everywhere you look, it's AI, AI. You see some amazing things created online now and people pulling together illustrations and movies even, and storyboards. What's your take on all of that, David? What's your take on the direction that's going?
David Neil: I think AI is as any other thing that's available for us to... It's another tool. I have no fear that AI is going to replace me and the things that I do. So I've been playing around with it some myself. It helps me if I use an image generator and say, give me an illustration of a bear typing at a computer, and it'll generate several of those. I'm like, that one's interesting. I will take that and use it as a reference to create my own drawing. It's a better starting point for me to create my own illustration. And so in that way, man, I think this is great. I'll be able to go faster, I'll be able to do more. And the same goes with programming. It's like you can get ChatGPT to create some code, but unless you know how to code, what good is that? Because you've lost that creative touch of, oh, that's an interesting approach to solving that problem, but I recognize where it's not and I can take that as a starting point to create something that helps me to move forward faster. So that's what I'm most interested in with artificial intelligence is it's another tool that we can use to do some cool things. I will say, I was at an event, it says, David Neil Code Cog Smith. They took the speaker profiles for the conference and they ran it through this AI illustration tool. And I said, that is really cool. That's a great use for AI image generation. Not all of them were very accurate or very similar to the people that they were assigned to, but it didn't matter. This was just something fun and really got people talking.
Shane McAllister: Yeah. I think you're right. I think in the context of we need to view it as a tool. A very smart and clever and deep tool, but it's still just a tool. It helps you get started in what you're trying to do there. I know very much so with it comes to code. Yeah, it can write code for you, but you need to know whether that's good code or not, to be perfectly honest. I think this was fabulous. David, thank you so much for your time and joining us and getting across this story. I think for me, as I said at the intro, going to presentations where you're in the middle of the row, you're stuck, you're going, oh my God, I'm stuck here. How do I get out of this death by PowerPoint? I haven't been to one of your presentations in person. I've seen a lot of the work that you do online, but I very much look forward to that opportunity. And you're very good in sharing so all of the things that you are doing and even the presentations that you have given are all up on your website, right?
David Neil: Yeah. There's links to all my slides on Speaker Deck. The links can be found on my website, reverentgeek. com. And yeah, there's lots of recordings of my presentations. I stream every week, but that's coding. Occasionally I'll do some drawing as part of the stream. So there's ways to find me.
Shane McAllister: I think this has been superb. I love the journey. I love the concept behind just get started, practice away, have a lot of patience, and bring a bit of life and a bit of humor into what you're doing. And thank you so much, David, for joining. Hopefully people will jump over to your website and follow you on Twitter.
David Neil: That would be awesome.
Shane McAllister: It's been an absolute pleasure. David, from all of us on the MongoDB podcast and at MongoDB in general, thank you so much for sharing.
David Neil: You're welcome.
Shane McAllister: Your experiences with us.
David Neil: That you for having me.
Shane McAllister: Many thanks to David for joining me, and I'm fascinated by his journey and the simple but powerful impact that bringing his personality and illustrations had on his developer and community presence. For the links we mentioned during the show, do check out the show notes, but definitely visit reverentgeek. com to learn more about David and to see his work. As ever, if you enjoy our podcast, please don't forget to subscribe and also leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps us and we really do appreciate it. And so for me, Shane McAllister, and the rest of the podcast team, until next time, do take care and thanks for listening.
In this episode, we’re joined by David Neal, or ReverentGeek as he’s probably more familiar to many. David originally joined us on a MongoDBTV livestream back in late June, and although that was all video (check out MongoDB.tv to find out more), his content was so compelling, and his story so insightful that we thought it would be great to bring this to a wider audience, so, we adapted our discussion for this podcast and are delighted to share it with you today. In our conversation, David talks about what started him on this journey, and shares his insights and tips on becoming a Superhuman Communicator!!
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