Retiring the Road Show

Snake oil labelWhen you speak at enough conferences, you become extremely wary of repeating yourself. The first time you give a presentation, the material feels fresh and invigorating; by the tenth time, you feel like a guy trying to sell cough medicine. It becomes a spiel. So last year, I figured I could keep things fresher by developing a consistent aesthetic and slidedeck masters, then changing the content for every speech. It worked out pretty well, but even then I found myself bored with the look after two or three speeches. And as I began presenting at online conferences and national events, I realized that I was dealing with the stand-up comedian’s conundrum: the bigger the audience and the better the reaction, the more likely it is that you’ll never be able to use that material again. So when my picture of hipsters was followed by a picture of Vinny Barbarino as a means of explaining where I’m located in Brooklyn got a big laugh at EdmodoCon 2012, that was pretty much it: the joke was repeated on Twitter, the people attending EdmodoCon are likely to attend other conferences, and I was out two pretty good slides.  By my third presentation of the school year (back in November), I felt like the whole thing needed some tweaking. And I also realized that I’m not a comedian and don’t even need to have funny asides ready, which made the entire presentation process a lot easier.

Then I started thinking about copyright law. I can’t just use any pictures I find on the internet if I plan on sharing these slideshows; in fact, I shouldn’t even be showing students’ faces without a release. Come to think of it, that snippet of MGMT’s “Kids” playing under the video segment isn’t really “mine” to use. So I recorded some original music for accompaniment, took my own photos, learned some Photoshop and got to blurring faces, and banned Google from my presentation-making workflow. I would adapt the content to suit my resources, rather than the other way around.

Finally, I took a look at my actual slides and I thought three things: words, words, words. Some slides had five statistics and a citation, or a picture next to a text box of equal size with the title bold and heavy stretching across the top of the whole mess. What on earth did I want the viewer to focus on? The eye is drawn to the picture, but the title has the most relative weight, meaning the text box is probably going to be ignored completely. So after my fourth presentation, I scrapped some of the deck and went back to square 1 (well, maybe square 2 or 3). By the end of January, I had a solid if occasionally bland presentation (I had a Homer Simpson joke and image in my presentation despite the fact that I neither watch The Simpsons nor know anything about Homer beyond that he says “D’oh!”. The recollection still causes me great pain) that I was changing up on a monthly basis. Now, the entire deck, masters and all, is being relegated to secondary storage (if I were in the Mafia, “sent to Dropbox” would be my go-to murder euphemism; if I send something there, it’s because I truly don’t need it anymore, and it ain’t coming back) as I shift to creating an entirely new presentation for every speech this year.

If you’re an active speaker, I would love you to share presentation tips with me. What works for you? What have been some of your greatest speaking triumphs? Feel free to also include disasters. If you do, I’ll share my story of being attacked by librarians.

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