Presenting Telstar

A few years ago at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival I went to see Lawrence Lessig present on Copyright law (I know how to have a good time!). It was a transformational experience – not in my view of copright and intellectual property (although he had very interesting things to say about that), but in my understanding of how you could use Powerpoint to illustrate a speech. As you can see from my later comment on the eFoundation’s blog – I was left both amazed and jealous. If you want to see a version of this presentation by Lessig (which is well worth it for the content alone) you can see his TED talk.

I think I was a OK presenter, and I don’t think I was particularly guilty of just reading out the slides – but I would definitely say my slides tended to be text and bulletpoint heavy. To illustrate – this is a reasonably typical presentation from that time:

Lessig’s example really made me want to change how I approached using slides. Going back to my desk, and browsing the web, I came across the Presentation Zen blog, and from there Garr Reynold’s tips on using slides. On the latter site I remember particularly being struck by the example under tip 2 (Limit bullet points and text), where the point that the presenter wants to communicate is “72% of part-time workers in Japan are women” (I have no idea if this is true by the way). The immediate impact of the slide that simply had the characters 72% on it in a huge font was something I really noticed. This lead to my style evolving, and you can hopefully see the difference in a more recent presentation I did on ‘Resource Discovery Infrastructure’

I’m definitely happier with this latter set of slides, but there are some issues. Without me actually talking, the second set of slides have a lot less meaning than the first. I’ve also found that sometimes I end up stretching for a visual metaphor, and end up with pictures that only tangentially relate to what I’m saying (I find signposts particularly flexible as a visual metaphor). In some cases the pictures became just something to look at while I talked.

So, when I had the opportunity to present a paper on the project I’m currently working on (Telstar) at ALT-C, and they actually mentioned Lawrence Lessig in their ‘guidelines for speakers’, I decided I wanted to try something slightly more ambitious (actually the guidelines to speakers wound me up a bit, since it included a suggest limit of 6 slides for a 12 minute talk – this may have influenced what happened next).

I wanted to really have a slideshow that would punctuate my talk, give emphasis to the things I wanted to say, catch the attention of the audience, and try out a few things I’d had floating around my head for a while. So I went to town. I ended up with 159 slides to deliver in 12 minutes (it actually took me more like 10 minutes on the day).

The whole process of putting together the slideshow was extremely frustrating and took a long time – for a 12 minute talk it took several days to put the presentation together – and writing the talk was not more than half that. Powerpoint is simply not designed to work well in this way – all kinds of things frustrated me. An integration with Flickr would be nice for a start. Then the ability to standardise a size and position for inserted pictures. Positioning guides when dragging elements around the slide (Keynote has had this for years, and I think the latest version of Powerpoint does as well). Basic things like the ability to give a title to a slide (so it shows in the outline view) without having to acutally add text to the slide itself. A much better ‘notes’ editing interface.

I also realised how closely I was going to have to script the talk. This isn’t how I’ve normally worked in the past. Although I’d have a script for rehearsal, by the time I spoke I would be down to basic notes and extemporise around these. This works if you basically have a ‘point per slide’ approach – but not when you have slides that are intended (for example) to display the word you are saying right at the moment you say it – in that instance if you use a synonym, the whole effect is lost (or mislaid).

So, after I’d got my script, and my slides, I started to rehearse. Again, the issue of syncing the slides so closely to what I was saying was an issue – I had to get it exactly right. I had a look at various ‘presenter’ programs available for the iPhone, thinking this could help, and came across some ‘autocue’ apps. I tried one of these, and after a bit of a struggle, got the text of my talk (with indicators where I was to move on the slides using the word [click]). The autocue worked well, although I found having to control the speed, pause it etc. could be distracting – so I had to play around with the speed, and putting in extra spacing to try to make it as close to my natural pace of delivery as possible.

I recorded myself giving the presentation so I could load it on my ipod and listen to it and rehearse along with it in the car. (I started recording myself presenting a few years ago and do find it really helpful in pointing up the places I don’t actually know what I’m saying)

Finally I was ready, and I gave the presentation to a polite audience in Manchester. How did it go? I’m not sure – I got some good questions, which I guess is a good sign. However, I did feel the tightly scripted talk, delivered with autocue, resulted in a much less relaxed and engaging presentation style – I didn’t really feel I connected with the audience, as I was too busy worrying about getting all the words right, making sure the autocue didn’t run away with me, and that I was clicking the mouse in all the right places! If you were there, I’d be interested in some honest feedback – was it all too much? Did it come across I was reading a script? What did you think? (I hope, at least, I managed to avoid falling foul of Sarah Horrigan’s 10 Powerpoint Commandments – although it may have been bad in several other ways)

I knew that when I came to put this presentation online it would be completely useless without the accompanying narration – so I decided I should record a version of the talk, with slides, to put online. This was a complete nightmare! Firstly I tried the built-in function in Powerpoint to ‘record a narration’. Unfortunately when you do this, Powerpoint ignores any automatic slide timings you have set – which were essential to some of the effects I wanted to achieve.

I then decided I’d do an ‘enhanced podcast’ – this is basically a podcast with pictures. I used GarageBand (on a Mac) to record my narration, while running the powerpoint on a separate machine. Once I’d done this, I exported all the slides from powerpoint to JPEG, and imported into GarageBand, and by hand, synced them to the presentation. This worked well, and I was really happy – right up until the point that I realised GarageBand automatically cropped all the images into a square – losing bits of the slides, including some of the branding I absolutely had to have on there. So that was another 2 hours down the drain.

I then though about using ‘screen capture’ software to capture the slideshow while it played on the screen, and my narration at the same time. The first one I tried couldn’t keep up with the rapidly changing slides, and the second crashed almost before I started.

I finally decided that iMovie would be the easiest thing to do – I’d re-record the narration with GarageBand, and use the ability of iMovie to import stills and use them instead of video, syncing their duration with the narration track. It took several attempts (not least because the shortest time iMovie will display any image seems to be 0.2s – and I had some images that were timed to display for only 0.1s – I eventually had to give up on this, and settle for the 0.2s for each image, which means that there is a slightly long pause at one point in the presentation)

Overall I’m much more pleased with this recorded version than with the live performance – which I think lacked any ‘performance’. The autocue application worked really well when sitting in front of a computer talking into the microphone. There are still some issues – you may notice some interference on the track, which comes from my mobile phone interacting with some speakers I forgot to turn off. However I think it works well, and actually as a video as opposed to a ‘slidecast’ is more portable and distributable than a ‘slidecast’ I think. It’s on YouTube, and there is also a downloadable version you can use on your PC, or your portable device.

Finally, once I’d put the video on YouTube, I was able to add Closed Captioning (using the free CaptionTube app – although not bug free) – and here, having the script written out was very helpful, and it wasn’t too difficult to add the subtitles (although I do worry whether some of them are on the screen just a bit too briefly).

Would I do it again? I suspect that I was a little guilty this time of putting style before substance – I’m pleased with the video output, but I felt the live presentation left something to be desired. Perhaps if I’d known the script better, and hadn’t been relying on the autocue to make sure I was keeping to the script, it might have been better. But, I guess that it isn’t suprising that something that works on screen is going to be different to something that works on stage.

I think the other thing that I’ve realised, is that although my powerpoint may be prettier, I’m probably still just an OK presenter. If I’ve got good content I do an OK job. Perhaps what I need is to look at how I present – my writing, and what you might call my stage presence I guess – afterall, if I get that right, who is going to care about the slides?

Anyway, after all that, here it is – if you are interested…

I’d be interested to hear what you think …

9 thoughts on “Presenting Telstar

  1. I gave a talk in Italy last week, using my white text on black background, short text, rapid-fire slide-changes, synced with what I was saying technique.

    Several non-English speakers came up to me afterwards to say that having key bits of text up on the screen, synced closely with what is being said was very helpful in terms of them understanding the (to them) foreign language.

    I hadn’t thought about this before.

  2. Very good analysis and account of the different ways presentations can be done. I also am looking for better ways to present, getting rid of too much text and bullet points, and using images instead. This what Stephen Abrams does very well too.
    But instead of images, I like what you have done much better.
    Problems is indeed that you need to hear the speaker accompanying the slides.
    (By the way, have you looked at Prezi?)
    I loved your story about all the heavy work involved in getting this recording right 😉

    The result? Well, I like the slides, together with your text they make perfect sense, I could even understand what you were saying 😉 (although I had been following your reference research on line already, so I was prepared).
    I agree with you that reading a script makes everything quite formal, no room for improvisations or interaction with the audience, which in my experience makes a presentation always more lively.
    Can there be a “third road” in between freely commenting/speaking with “traditional” text based slides and this visual illustration type of style accompanied by scripted text? I hope so

  3. Thanks Andy. I should really have said that the changes in the way I present stuff is also informed by a community – and your Does Metadata Matter presentation ( was one of the examples that I guess encouraged me to move in this direction.

    Do you find the need to script these presentations more closely an issue as I did, or did you do this anyway, or have you found the issues disappears with the right script, preparation and practice?

  4. Hi Lukas. Yes I tried Prezi for a short talk I did at the last mashed library event. It suffered from lack of preparation on my part, and also a lack of time to really become familiar with Prezi in the time available.

    One of the issues I found with Prezi was that actually I ended up as using it as just a different type of slide transition – pretty but not adding to what I was saying. This is slightly odd, as when I first saw Prezi, I thought it was what I’d been looking for in terms of the ability to ‘move around’ a space – but in practice I wasn’t able to carry this off (in this case anyway)

    At the same conference I presented on Telstar I saw David White ( present using Prezi extremely effectively – his presentation clarified in my mind the issue I had with my tightly scripted approach – he had a great rapport with the audience (it seems he also does some standup, which I guess is pretty good practice!)

    I do think Prezi would work really well for some types of presentation, I’m not quite sure where to start with my ‘performance’ – something to think about 🙂

  5. Owen
    Some really interesting reflections on presentation style – and a great introduction to telstar. I don’t think your doubts about your performance are well-founded. I recall the presentation you gave to the resource discovery infrastructure task force as outstanding. You had a personal visual style in the slides and a great mixture of being relaxed and enthused in your speaking.

    I share your concerns about working from a script, though. I’ve had to do it once or twice when being simultaneously translated (and once because a nervous boss refused to believe I could keep to time without a script) and it bizarrely requires much more practice to carry off successfully when done live.

    And I would second Andy’s remark about synchronised text having different uses when speaking to a mixed-language audience. It’s also helped me when listening to presentations in other languages where I’ve got a half-baked knowledge of them – the eye and the ear each take in about half if I’m lucky.

  6. Hi Owen
    I don’t think the fact that it was scripted spoilt the ALT-C presentation. It was obvious that you’d done it that way in order to sync with the slides. I found it entertaining and refreshing to see a presentation done in this way.

  7. Thanks Kevin and Liz – I appreciate the compliments and feedback. This really has been a useful exercise and I think at the very least has made me more ready to experiment with different approaches.

  8. I really like the sync-ed presentation. At first it did sound a bit ‘read’, but the punchy image swept along giving it a momentum that made it more than just a script, it felt like a performance.

    Then again, maybe it just added a tension waiting to see if it would all go wrong… 🙂 That could be a device to use to break the formality – pretend the slides have a life of their own, that they are running off ahead, and pause the slides to explain a point more freely off script. Of course talking to your slides would risk sounding like a mad ventriloquist…

    Still you have inspired me to think about creative approaches to Powerpoint. I do generally use lots of simple slides and mix in some images, but clearly there are much bigger ways to be creative than that which I am now going to investigate. I like that presentation zen link.

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