On preparing a conference talk without slides

Last week I came back from a lovely, if too short, trip to the American South that included me giving a talk in Atlanta. It felt fabulous to be back on An Event Apart’s stage and I’m humbled by every invitation. I gave a new talk, ‘A Modern Designer’s Canvas’ about finding your medium, not becoming intoxicated by your tools or a process and following your own, not someone else’s path. I gave it without a supporting Keynote slide deck.

That isn’t quite a new thing for me. The first time at the first Smashing Conference in Freiburg, I did it out of necessity. I really enjoyed the experience of speaking without slides and the audience seemed to like it too. I felt like they were able to focus better on what I was saying, without being distracted by whatever was on screen. Since then I’ve got better at speaking without slides. I think that shows in the talk I gave at the Handheld conference. I don’t think I’ll go back to giving talks using a slide deck any time soon.

Speaking without slides has also changed the way I prepare for a talk. Whereas before, a large percentage of my preparation time was taken up making slides, I now concentrate 100% on writing down what I’m going to say.

Jeffrey Zeldman coincidentally wrote about how he’s changed the way he approaches preparing for his talks:

For all my An Event Apart presentations since starting the conference with Eric Meyer in 2005, I’ve designed slides outlining the parameters of what I intended to talk about, and then spoken off the cuff.

But this year, inspired by the rigorous (and highly effective) speech preparation regimes of my friends Karen McGrane? and Mike Monteiro?, I’m once again writing a speech out word for word in advance. I will polish it like a manuscript. Only when it is perfect—logically structured, funny, passionate, persuasive—will I design accompanying slides.

I say coincidentally because we both changed the way that we prepared our talks for Atlanta. In the past I’d do pretty much the same as Jeffrey (and Eric Meyer who commented on Jeffrey’s post) described. I would:

1. Decide on a topic

I generally present one main talk during a year, plus another—often more design or technical focused—that’s more suited to smaller events.

2. Prepare an outline of key points

For a one hour talk I usually make four main points, joined up into a narrative. These translate into four sections, each fifteen minutes long, making up the hour. For a forty-five minute talk there are three points/sections, and so on. Twenty-minute talk times are a complete pain in my arse.

An introduction and closing summary cut into those times, often proportionally. There’s generally more time for audience warming banter in a longer talk.

3. Write a one paragraph synopsis

Mostly for a conference’s website, blog posts and the like.

4. Design and build a slide deck

I’d say that 75% of my preparation time went into designing slides and building a deck. I’ve felt enormous pressure—albeit often self-imposed—to design a beautiful deck, especially for An Event Apart where the bar is set so high. (Dan Cederholm, Ethan Marcotte, Aaarron Walter and Luke Wroblewski to name a few, all make slides that look like Rembrandts.)

I’d work on content, in Keynote, at the same time as I worked on the slides themselves. Instead of writing down precisely what I planned to say, I’d make a slide to remind me of the point I should be making. My deck then became the talk’s outline.

(In the back of my mind would be the thought that not everyone who sees the slide deck, perhaps on my SpeakerDeck, has heard the talk. Because of that, I’d make an effort to make the points understandable without my narration.)

When I’ve given a talk in the past, my slides were as much my cue cards as they were intended for the audience. Rather than talk from a ‘script,’ either reading from, or memorising one, I ad-libbed around the point on each slide. I never, ever rehearsed a talk prior to giving it because I felt too embarrassed to run through it even for friends and family. (Strangely I never feel embarrassed actually giving a talk in-front of hundreds of people.) Instead of rehearsals I did several mental ‘runs through’ a talk.

For my talk in Atlanta I used a different approach. For the first time I wrote down everything that I wanted to say in advance. I wrote myself a 7504 word script, everything from:

Thank you so much. I’m really happy to be here. I guess that it’s my job is to sum up these two incredible days of learning. I’m very happy to do that and to add some of my experiences and reflections.


Thank-you very, very much for two incredible days.

When the script was finished, I broke it down into slide-sized pieces and added them to Keynote. The recent version of Keynote has terrible Presenter Display options, so I carried on using Keynote 09. Even so, it’s Presenter Display doesn’t allow for the notes customisation and typographic control that I need, so instead I put my script on the slides themselves, slides that no-one but me is going to see. Because I need to read my script from a distance, to ensure that it doesn’t look nor sound like I’m reading, I made the words as large as is practical, white-on-black, like an auto-cue.

I’ve rarely enjoyed hearing people read on-stage. It takes skill and practice to make it sound natural. So that’s what I did before speaking in Atlanta, I practiced. I practiced in our hotel room, out-loud, to my wife, six times, from beginning to end. (By that point I think she knew the talk as well as I did.) I’ve not rehearsed that way before and although the first one or two times felt awkward, by the third neither of us were embarrassed. (I did have one rule, I wouldn’t let her see my laptop screen while I was rehearsing.)

The practice helped with timing the talk. As I was consistently five minutes over my hour the first three times, I went back and edited the material to bring the talk in just under the hour. It also helped with the flow of specific passages, with emphasis on specific words and pauses in specific places. By the end of rehearsals I didn’t know the talk well enough to give it without notes, but I did know it well enough for people in the An Event Apart audience not to realise I was reading.

I felt more in control of the talk than I think I ever have done before. I think I sounded more eloquent because I’d thought about the words I’d chosen for weeks, not moments. I think I made my points better because I’d practiced making them. After watching video of the talk, I’m happier with my performance than I have been in a long time, probably since I spoke about Handheld Web Design at DIBI three years ago.

(The people who organise An Event Apart always take incredible care of their speakers. This year, for the first time, they’re recording every talk on video, just for the speaker, not for publication or publicity, so that we can watch our performance and improve on it for the next time we give it.)

Working on the structure of this talk in such detail also had other benefits. At the end of the introduction and at the start of each section were slides that read “DRINK.” I’ve often been guilty of drinking water too often because of nerves and the even worse sin of holding a bottle of water while I talk. When I saw the prompt, I walked back to the podium and took a drink and a pause.

In the past I’ve also been guilty of nervously pacing and shifting on the spot. Because my notes were out front on a large fall-back monitor, I could stay firmly planted in the centre of the stage which I hope was less distracting for the audience.

I know that there will be times in the future when I’ll need to use slides in one of my talks, maybe for a demonstration, possibly to illustrate a point, but I won’t ever go back to the way I used to prepare a talk.


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