The Slide Deck Tango

I’m sharing my process for preparing the keynote talk I’ll be presenting at the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference on March 18. This is Part Six; you can now find an index of all previous posts in this series on my new #ShareHuman page.

Giving a talk in the modern era means 99% of the time also preparing a visual presentation to go along with it. So it should be no surprise that, with only a couple weeks left before this conference, my focus has turned to getting my ideas out into a slide deck to support my thoughts. And this, for me, is really where I get the most stressed and the most intensely absorbed in the process, because these slides are really the final container for everything I’ve worked on. They are the structure and storyboard for the ideas and examples I want to share in my talk, and for anyone who isn’t able to attend my presentation, they may be the only way they get to experience this.

There is a lot I could say about putting together a slide deck, probably enough for another entire blog. I was originally titling this post as “How to Build a Deck” but the small part of me that pays attention to SEO thought that might end up disappointing people looking for details on how to build some kind of wooden platform off the back of their home.

The one thing I will share here that could apply to building slide decks or backyard decks is this: don’t take shortcuts. If you take shortcuts to save time—like say, taking something somebody else made and slapping your stuff on top of it—you may get a deck that meets your needs but it will also be obvious to everyone that you were lazy.

If you think of nothing else when creating a slide deck, remember that the software is just a tool you are using to convey an idea. They should not contain or repeat the idea itself, only reinforce it, enhance it, and make it stick. Seth Godin already wrote about this pretty wonderfully and I recommend reading that (you can also get a PDF version here).

My goal is to share something, and the slide deck is my primary tool for doing that. I want my visuals to support the context and mood of my talk, and occasionally to present a visual representation of data or relational concepts—things that are easier to convey visually than with words. The fonts and colors I use, the number of slides, the style and treatment of images—these all need to be consistent, and work in step with what I’m saying during the presentation.

What I say in a presentation expresses the ideas I want share; the slides express the feelings I want to share. The result should be like a well-rehearsed dance between two partners who know each other’s moves by heart.

And just like good choreography, a good presentation has pacing and a natural flow; slow, fast, slow, fast, fast, slow—whatever music your script provides, the dance of the slides should match in steps. As long as it’s not all just fast or worse, just slow, then you will keep the audience engaged.

It’s a cliché, but think of a Tango: a proposal is made, other ideas or information responds to those, or responds to the context or space in which it is being expressed. Then ideas and examples come together, find relationships, and eventually build to some kind of conclusion or revelation about those ideas that increases our knowledge or changes our perception from where we began.

A smart audience will be looking for these patterns, which is exactly what I want. If my slides and my script drop enough breadcrumbs as I go, an engaged audience will begin trying to predict where they lead before I get there, and I can then play into that expectation, or play against it, with each slide that follows.

I like to play that expectation in two ways that I think make any presentation better: humor and pathos. And if I can only get one of those in, I’ll choose humor every time, because it’s one of the easiest ways to engage an audience and help them pay attention. Drop in a funny image as an unexpected reaction to the slide before, or hide a portion of piece of information as you discuss it, and then reveal what was left out to change the meaning or context of what came before.

When I think I’ve finally got my slide deck complete, I’ll go back through my whole presentation and ask myself these three questions:

  • Would I still be able to give this presentation effectively, and make an impact, if I was forced to do it without slides at all?
  • Would this presentation be effective to someone who wasn’t able to see the slides and only heard me?
  • Would it be effective to someone who couldn’t hear me and only had the slides to go on?

I may not be able to acheive a perfect balance of all of these, but I keep them in mind. You never know when a technical issue may suddenly leave you without a plan. And even though I am building my deck in Keynote, I’m going to export a PowerPoint version and make sure that is still effective and consistent, plus a PDF version that loses any fancy transition effects. I’ll also create a unique version to share online that may have fewer slides, or a modified script, because they will potentially be seen by more people than actually saw the presentation and need to function more completely.

Putting all these parts together creates a delicate balance, trying to match words and pictures in the most effective way. Like a good dance, the relationships move and change as they progress, and I have to be the choreographer, the composer, the scenic, lighting, and costume designer, and the dancers, all in one.

As long as I remember to stretch first, I think I’ll be okay.


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