Designing Presentations

Over the last few years I’ve spoken at a number of conferences and a raft of local meetups. Most of these events are developer focused, and as a designer I feel like a fraud when complimented on my slides. Of course I made them attractive. Just like you tidied up your project repositories before publicizing them on github. Besides, I have a professional rep to uphold.

Unlike code, design intents aren’t easy to decompile from the finished product. The indefatigable Jesse Noller recently started speakup.io, an excellent initiative to help more community members take the plunge and give talks (or just improve the talks they already give!) What follows is an attempt to distill my thought process on how to craft presentations.

It’s important to note that this is a scenario with no secondary goals. If you’re presenting, your goal is to engage your audience and inception some ideas into their heads while you have their precious, precious attention. Beauty is a means to that end, not a goal.

Attention

Presenting is the art of directing attention. If you’ve done that skillfully, the transfer of ideas is almost automatic. If not, it doesn’t matter how good your ideas were, because nobody paid attention.

Tech conferences can be a hostile environment for presenting. Everybody has four devices, three IRC channels, mail, twitter, and a commit or two in flight while you are doing your thing onstage. Attendees know that the talks are going to be available later online. They can afford to tune you out because they’re here for the “hallway track”. Attempting to harness attention can feel as futile as spooning back the tide.

Every design decision you make, from the talk topic to the slide design, must help you combat this reality by making it easier to acquire and retain audience attention. Learning how to write a succinct talk abstract is half the battle. Know thine audience, and make sure the first sentence or two will pique their curiosity and leave them with a taste for more.

Not sure how to go about this? Read the list of PyCon 2013 talks. Note the ones which catch your eye, and write down the similarities. It could be subject matter, it could be writing style. Was the abstract’s tone conversational or formal? Did it use a lot of active verbs? Was it just one sentence or did it require a full paragraph? Just thinking about these things will set your brain in motion and you’ll start to notice what makes good writing good, which is the first step on the path to better writing.

Once your audience has decided to see you and not somebody else’s talk, your work is just getting started.

You are the main attraction

People are not coming to see your slides. They are coming to see you. Everything about your presentation should reinforce that fact.

Like any good story, keeping a rapt audience involves doling out the plot in measured increments. Subtitling yourself on your slides might be a great way to organize your thoughts but it’s a surefire way to lose your audience. They read faster than you can possibly speak. You lose their attention twice when you show a slide with bullet points—once when the slide appears and their brain is muting you while they read, and once again when they return their attention to you, because now you’re just repeating what they’ve read.

Mitigate this by never ever using bullet points or animation, and writing your content in a fashion that generates more questions than it supplies answers.

I find that good slides fall into one of three categories:

Teaser Text

You know where you are headed, but the audience doesn’t. Dropping hints keeps their minds engaged and listening to you. Understanding is a powerful narcotic; we all love the “Aha!” moment. Prime your audience with a written teaser and give them satisfaction with your speech.

The vast majority of my slides are of this kind:

A brief title/subtitle is just enough room to set the stage, hint at where you’re going, and direct attention back to you.

Illustrative

You’re making a point and you need something visual to back it up: a small snippet of code, a screenshot, a chart.

Often you don’t need words here at all. If it’s a chart, consider leaving the axes unlabeled and describing the chart out loud—requiring the audience to return their attention to you, because the visual is meaningless without your commentary.

Interlude

All good narratives have a pace. You can’t be constantly climaxing or the audience will grow weary of you like the boy who cried wolf. Good thrillers have a moment of peaceful downtime or comic relief to break up the suspense.

This doesn’t mean that you must share your favorite cat photo and tell the audience to stretch for 30 seconds (though that isn’t a terrible idea.) Take advantage of the fact that you have two voices onstage and have your slides disagree with your crackpot ideas. Throw in some mild profanity, or allude to it with “%$#%^ing comic profanity”. Show a funny image. Flickr has a wealth of images which are available for use under a Creative Commons attribution license. Just make sure to stick a url link back to the original in order to satisfy the terms of the license, and don’t overdo it—an unceasing parade of memes dilutes your ability to give your audience a breather from your message and robs you of this technique.

If you’re using Keynote or Powerpoint, look into master slides. Basically, they’re slide templates. Make one for each of the three layouts and use them for every slide—if you want to make structural changes later, you can edit the master and forgo making changes to slides one-by-one.

Content

Less.

Forcing yourself to ruthlessly trim your slide content is the best way to evaluate what really matters to your message. Can you cut the slide or merge it with another one? Is there a better combination of words to illustrate the point you’re making?

Less content also has another nice side effect: you can make your text large. Enormous is good—people in the back are often quite far from the projector screen. Make their lives easier and they’re more apt to give you their attention.

Don’t bother with clipart, animation, and other little visual embellishments. Better to have something clean, typographical, and timeless than a powerpoint cliché.

Stick to bright, contrasty colors. Unless you’re the kind of geek that likes to color-calibrate the projectors you’ll be using, you can expect them to be pretty terrible. Subtle colors can be indistinguishable, highlights blown out, shadows choked up. What you see on your laptop will arguably not be what the audience sees. If at all possible, hook up to the projector, in the actual room, with the actual lighting, and check out your slides before game time. Barring that, some defensive slide design is just good sense. Keeping your design simple is less work for you and offers less opportunities to fail.

Speaking

Everybody will tell you to practice. A lot. They’re right, but I have an addendum.

There’s no substitute for knowing your slides backwards and forwards. If you’re like me, then you’ll be obsessively tweaking your slides right up until you’re shoved onstage. Memorizing your talk structure is a concrete goal which I find to be easier than “practice over and over.” Just go over your slides until you can’t stand the sight of them. The more bored you are by the end of preparation, the more free cycles your brain will have onstage for being a great presenter, which is important, because everybody becomes about 90% stupider the moment they step out in front of a crowd. Every cycle counts.

Oratory

There’s no way to get better at the speaking part of speaking without, y’know, speaking. As much as possible.

Every talk starts out rough. The first time you give it, you are beta-testing your talk. The second time you give the same talk, you’ve already figured out where the rough spots are, what makes the audience titter with laughter, and which bits fall flat. Giving the same talk multiple times was critical to my growth as a speaker.

One thing I’ve learned is that pauses seem a lot more awkward to the speaker than the audience. Don’t be afraid to speak slowly and leave a few moments of silence. Wilson Miner’s famed “When We Build” talk is a fantastic example of good talk pacing. His delivery is neither rushed nor slow, he pauses often, and every sentence feels deliberate. Music has rests to provide contrast with the notes, and speaking is no different.

Don’t feel obligated to stay stuck behind the podium. Check in with your conference A/V team to see if they can supply you with a wireless microphone. Part of getting into the speaking groove is connecting with your audience, and I find that it’s easier to do when there isn’t a chest-high obstruction in the way. That being said, don’t abuse your freedom. Pacing onstage like a leopard or shifting balance from foot to foot is terribly distracting.

Look out at your audience. Make eye contact. Use your hands and gesticulate! They’ve probably sat through more bad talks than good ones. Show them right away that your talk won’t be a snoozefest. Their mood will mirror yours. Broadcasting confidence will cause your audience to see you as a confident speaker, which in turn boosts your confidence. Fake it if you don’t feel it and the audience will make it real.

Being animated doesn’t mean you need to be loud. Last Pycon, I flew in to town on the tail end of a nasty flu which left me voiceless the night before my talk. Remember the dream you had as a kid where you show up to school for an exam without your homework, and suddenly everybody is pointing at you because you’re also naked? That’s pretty much how I felt.

The story had a happy ending because I unwittingly discovered an extremely effective conference hack: speaking softly. I delivered my talk in hushed tones, relying on the microphone to get my voice out there. The overall volume of my talk wasn’t quieter than others thanks to the amplified sound system, but the tone created an atmosphere of quiet. There was no background hum of whispered conversations and even typing seemed loud and jarring.

Conclusion

My presentation-fu is not without its downsides:

  1. It tends to produce a lot of (brief) slides. This isn’t good or bad—it just is. My presentation style meshes well with this approach. I usually end up with 1.5-2× the slides as minutes I have to present.

  2. It makes the slides inherently less useful without the accompanying talk, because most of the information I’m imparting isn’t in the slides.

I can live with these tradeoffs, and I have a presentation technique that I can work with. This isn’t religious dogma. Pick the parts that mesh well with your style, and most importantly—get out there and give talks.

If your interest was piqued and you’re looking for more, make sure to get in touch with the folks at speakup.io for help.