Christian Heilmann

⚡️On controversial slides, talk distribution and lack of context

Saturday, October 29th, 2011 at 5:03 pm

My life lately revolves mostly about going to conferences and presenting. This gives you an interesting insight into how they are run, how other people present and what impact it has on the audiences.

I’ve done this for a while and I think I am pretty good at it. I also see other people who are incredible at it, I see a lot of potential in others and I see a lot of failed presentations.

I also see problems with the way we distribute presentation content on the web afterwards and this is what I want to discuss today.

Powerpoint hell is just not us

Presentations on web technologies (and generally covering our market) are a very strange beast. We are in a “new media” environment where we despise all the things that IT and office life was before we started linking documents with each other over the world wide web or load cool apps onto our smart devices.

A sure-fire way to fail presenting at a web-related conference is to use old school power points with headings and bullets and reading them out to the audience. Therefore we go to other extremes: the “inspiring pictures with a single word”, the “typography heaven with awesome transitions” and the “I have no slides, let’s get to live coding on the CLI or in my editor” are the most common ones.

What we lose by doing so is the context. Our presentation materials become part of the talk and not an information resource. This is good – it means you as a speaker get the attention. But it can be a problem further down the line.

Our “new media presentation style” is very different to what we did before. I use a lot of humour and comparisons with the real world in my talks. Some of my slides seem totally disconnected until I explain their angle. Aral Balkan does similar things. A lot of times he explains the usability of interfaces by showing ticket vending machines at airports. This is great. Real life frustration makes it easy to remember not to do that online.

Slides are backdrops

The gist is: our slides are not the talks, our slides aid the talks we are giving. They are a visual catalyst for the things we talk about. When you see something and you hear about it at the same time it is more likely to stick. It is as simple as that.

The dangers of re-use and distribution without context

Once the talk is over you can bet your life that the first question (unless you covered that already) is “are the slides available for download?”. And this is where it gets interesting.

For the people at the conference it makes a lot of sense to get the slides and check them later on reminding themselves of your talk. Conferences are jam-packed with talks and it is good to have a reminder to re-focus after the party. This is also a very human trait – we are hoarders and want to get our hands on everything we get offered. Free stuff never stays behind – people take it. Wether they need it or not is not the question. Better to get it in case we need it later than not have it.

I’d love to think that people download my slides and read them and all that (which is why I share them) but I am quite sure that this is very rare occasion.

It really breaks when the slides are just that – slides. The aid to support the talk that without the talk lacks a lot of context. If I look at the PDF of a talk a few weeks later and only see pretty images without remembering what they meant at that time I get confused and frustrated.

Even worse, if you distribute slides of that ilk, people will find and watch them when they haven’t seen your talk at all. And this is where it gets dangerous as people can make their own assumptions as to what you tried to achieve.

Attention getting devices can backfire

In our quest to be different to the dreaded talks we had to endure in school and office life we tend to push the boundaries of presenting.

People in web tech swear on stage, make outrageous demands in a ironic manner, and show things that are very much the direct opposite of what you expect. These are attention getting devices that – paired with a good speaker – can be very effective and also very entertaining. They can also cause controversy and misunderstanding.

The other day I had quite a back and forth with a presenter on Twitter about a slide deck he published. I’ve seen the speaker talk and respect him for what he does. I am very much sure that in the context of his talk the slide deck brought the point home and made a lot of sense.

But, as it is right now on the web without notes or any other information, a NSFW picture of an almost naked tattooed lady with taped nipples and massive breasts as your first slide is likely to cause more trouble than it is worth.

He had his reasons for using it, no doubt about that, but with the distribution being disconnected from the rest of the talk, what are the effects of this?

Why shock when you can convince or show?

There is a lot of talk about gender diversity at conferences and in IT. I am not going to poke this hornet’s nest, but I am sure that a slide like this one is a great way to keep an endless discussion with continuously mounting emotions going for months instead of concentrating on solving the issue.

Shock slides and campaigns can work. They also have been done in the past and are to me a cheap way of getting attention. Web sites like rotten.com and ogrish were a very successful thing in the past and Benetton in the 80ies had massive success with their controversial campaigns in magazines. Heck, every boulevard paper has some nudity on their covers to sell issues. Page 3 girls appeal to the audience they try to reach.

So, in essence, this is an old hat. It only works when all you want is attention and your product doesn’t have much to do with the shock content. Benetton sells clothes, something very personal that people buy and own for themselves. They wanted to get their name talked about and expected people to find out about their products on their own. We can not assume people to do the same about our slides, design ideas or code tricks as they are not as excited about our them as we are.

The question we should ask ourselves is what we achieve with this. You get attention quick and you probably get talked about a lot. What people talk about though is that there was “some guy on some conference showing a naked lady (run over puppy, open wound, vomiting child, whatever…)” and not what you wanted to bring across in your presentation.

Using shock slides is the equivalent of kicking someone in the shins and then asking for the way to the station. Yes, you have their undivided attention, but you are not likely to get out of them what you wanted.

By all means, if you want to keep using them – do so. But be aware that when you fail to provide context you will not get your message across. If you use nudity or sexist material you will also contribute to an already existing problem.

If you publish things you are as responsible for their content than when you are on stage presenting them.

Saying that “nobody complained” is not an excuse for offensive material. Not all people who are offended say so and confront you. Actually most are intimidated and will not say anything but tell others how they felt and what your behaviour did to them instead. This is how discrimination and bullying works – you shock and intimidate by coming from a position of power. And you being on stage is a position of power that can be used to inspire others or for personal satisfaction.

So, to me at least, we should stop using any shocking materials in our slides as an attention getter. We are better than that. Our messages should be the “a-hah!” moment, not the packaging they come in.

The best of all worlds

As to the overall distribution of our talks, I think it is time to reconsider our ways.

If our slides are only a backdrop to our talk and we don’t even have notes or a transcript, let’s not give them out. Let’s wait for the video to come out and distribute them together with the video – even if it means that people have to wait. In essence this is a good test to see if people really care about them or if they just want them right on the spot for hoarding purposes.

If you want to release them immediately, try to give them more context. Have notes on your PDF or presentation document. I tend to record the audio of my talk while I give it and publish it along the slides. I always want to sync the slides with the audio but it is a lot of work so most of the time I forget about it so I am not sure just how effective this is. If you use keynote you could do that automatically as it records a movie of your slides if you ask it to. In any case, I can point out what was said and debunk accusations that way.

I also started to go the other way around. I wrote my Fronteers 2011 talk as an article, then split it up into paragraphs and created a slide for each. That way I could publish it as a blog post that makes sense and with accompanying slides.

The new HTML slide format I use based on DZSlides allows me to have the talk as a searchable, printable page with support for old browsers and as a slide format at the same time. I am cleaning this up and adding some new features to release soon.

Let’s be professionals

In essence, it boils down to one thing: if you want to be inspiring and an educator, don’t leave things online that lack context or cause controversy. It confuses people, causes misinterpretation and helps neither you nor the people you try to reach. This is about the people you talk to – not about you.

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