Words and slides

When I am not in meetings I spent an increasing amount of time in Keynote these days doing, as I mentioned on Twitter yesterday, my ‘Asylum Pictures’ version of Russell Davies.

Writing talks, drafting team principles, presenting roadmaps all seems to happen via the medium of presentation software.

Today I have been working on something slightly different. Writing a presentation for Civil Service Live that will be given by four different people in five different locations.

I thought I’d share some of the guidance I keep in mind when I do this sort of thing and on this occasion it is helping more than ever.

As far as I am concerned Russell has written the definitive guide to approaching public presentations in a series of four blogposts brought together here. I was totally in the ‘slides as decoration’ crowd until I read these posts — feedback about my talks has improved since I started to follow these guides (though to be honest I seem to mainly get through the talks by being a little funny and sounding like a pirate!)

On a practical level Alice Bartlett has recently produced a brilliant set of templates for Keynote (and other tools) that are an amazing timesaver. They make following Russell’s guidance a breeze and add some really nice and well thought out touches (the approaches to showing webpages, spotlighting page elements and adding phone wrappers to mobile screenshots are all elegant.)

When it comes to the actual writing of the talk I tend to follow something I read from Christian Heilmann, the first ‘developer evangelist’ I ever encountered — we chatted because we were wearing identical specs! Christian talks about his ‘content first’ approach to presentations.

Christian writes his presentations initially as articles/blogposts. The slides become headings and he writes a couple of paragraphs per heading/slide including links to references or resources. This means there is something more coherent to share with people after a talk (how often do the slides just make no sense if you weren’t in the room or even two weeks later if you were!) but also means it is easier to share/handover the talk for others to present. If you provide enough and handover in plenty of time they can add their own personalities to the presentation without losing the message.

It also suits me as I find writing that way easier. What I need to get better at is tighter structure for the talks and being clearer about that — I am by nature a rambler!

I have found the combination of the advice from Russell and Christian syncs pretty smoothly for me — I start sketching out the points I want to make — making them clear in my own head — and that gives me the headings/slides and I work out from there.

When I am writing I try to keep a couple of pieces of advice from Giles Turnbull in mind as well. ‘Use the words normal people would use’ and ‘Use the human voice’ are always challenges worth giving to your writing — it is easy to revert to techy/management/civil service speak when writing for certain audiences but my experience is that people appreciate clarity and straight talking — plus you might as well start with nice clear language because at some point up on stage you are going to get into a tangle and change everything you meant to say!

Where I don’t totally agree with Giles is his approach to rehearsing for talks but your mileage may vary. I spend a lot of time making sure what I am writing matches my speaking voice, checking timings (I’ve got a good feel for my comfortable words per minute) and mumbling away as I write and then re-read (and re-read) the words but I find the act of rehearsal removes some of the spontaneity of my ‘performance’ (and there we do agree — it is a performance.) I certainly don’t wing it though and while the ‘one hour of preparation for every minute on stage’ formula I recently read seems a little extreme I imagine on closer examination I’m not far from that when giving a completely new talk (I often give talks that are a variation of a theme — and I gave pretty much the same talk more than 20 times internally on the run up to our launch!).

This works for me which isn’t to say it would for anybody else. What I have learned is doing this stuff well takes time and a fair bit of thinking but it is worth it.


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