Low Tech Talk Design

by Anthony Baxter


Anyone who's seen any of my talks beginning with PyCON 2004's
"Scripting Language My Arse" would have seen I've switched to the Larry
Lessig style of lots of short, punchy slides (typically 6 per minute).
I was pleasantly surprised at OSCON to hear from a number of people who
were inspired by this to also try this format for slides for their own
technical talks.


The people who talked to me about this found that this format worked
really well for them, but that it was a bit trickier to put the talks
together this way. I thought I'd talk about a couple of ways I've found
to do this.


The way I did this the first time was to start with traditional (boring,
awful) slides - multiple bullet points, the works. The day before my
talk I was staring at the slides feeling a sense of impending doom.
The slides were so dull I was sure the talk was going to die, and die
very badly. This was extremely worrying, as the title of the talk (Scripting
Language, My Arse) meant that I could expect a large crowd, and I wanted
to make a good impression.


Glyph Lefkowitz and I got into a discussion about talks, presentation
formats and the like, and I recalled seeing a flash version of Lessig's
"Free Culture" talk (available on the web
here).
This really inspired me,
and I sat down and rewrote the slides from scratch in a 2 hour frenzy,
starting with the original slides and using these for the structure.
The new format just rocked. It really freed up the talk, and the audience
seemed to enjoy it a great deal.


So that's method #1: Write a complete set of slides in a traditional way,
where it's easier to see what you're doing. If you're like me (lazy), this
is probably more work than you'd like. Writing one set of slides is enough
work as it is.


While I was putting together my tutorial and talk for OSCON, I tried a
different approach. For both of these, I had a lot of material. I also
didn't really have a plan for how I was going to slot these together.


I tried a different approach this time - I went to the local shops and
bought about 6 packs of 5x3 inch index cards. I then wrote down every
single idea onto a different index card, and then spread them out over
the kitchen table. I then found it remarkably easy to see all the material
in a convenient-to-manipulate format. It was very easy to group the slides
that went together, string them into a coherent story and figure out ways
to link the pieces together.


There were a few other advantages to this approach. One was that I always
had a small stack of the blank cards with me - so that if I was drifting
off to sleep and had a sudden idea, I could scribble it on a card and
then figure out how to slot it in the next day. If you're like me, you
find you're always having random ideas and then forgetting them before
you get to put them into your talk. This fixed that mental problem with
a (very low-tech) technical workaround.


Another was that it was very easy to reorder the presentation. As good as
OpenOffice is getting, it's still fairly painful to do massive slide
reorganisation.


This isn't an instant solution to the problem of putting together a talk,
but I found it helped me a great deal, and index cards are remarkably cheap.



Finally, I should thank Lessig for his magnificent example - it truly inspired me to try something outside the normal style of talk, and for that I'm very grateful.



What tricks have you found for preparing presentations that work for you?