Scripts and slides at dConstruct 2014

I spent last Friday in Brighton attending the tenth, but my first dConstruct. It was a fabulous conference, in an elegant venue, thoughtfully organised by Clearleft and masterfully presented by Jeremy Keith. Every talk was excellent in different ways and all of them had been brilliantly curated by Jeremy, following, loosely in some cases, the theme of ‘Living With The Network.’ I’m writing a new talk and dConstruct was exactly the inspiration I needed.


The talks were interesting for lots of reasons. Their content, obviously, but also for how many speakers used a script and, if they had them, their slides.

Reading from a script

Earlier this year, I listened to Jeffrey Zeldman as he tried out a new, for him, way of presenting from a script:

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.

Coincidentally, I approached my “A Modern Designer’s Canvas” the same way when I presented it at An Event Apart in Atlanta and Smashing Conference in Oxford this year.

It was clear that the majority of speakers at this year’s dConstruct read from a script. Some clearly read it from their computer. Warren (“fucking”) Ellis, I’m told, read his from a Kindle. These scripts meant that the talks at dConstruct were the most eloquent, intellectual, focused and above all professional that I’ve ever heard, at any conference, with hardly a word out of place.

I’ve seen speakers read from a script before and the results aren’t always good. There’s something different to the sound of a person’s voice when they’re reading. Unless they’re well practised, it can sound stilted and can lack the natural cadence and spontaneity of an informally presented talk.

Rehearsal’s clearly the key to making sure that a talk that’s read from a script sound natural and in the ideal world, an audience should be unaware that a speaker even has a script. Some dConstruct speakers managed this better than others. Although she often glanced at her laptop screen, Mandy Brown’s delivery was flawless.

It’s the glancing down that can give the game away for even the most polished speaker like Mandy. Needing to look down at a laptop screen on a podium, breaking apparent eye contact with an audience, isn’t ideal. Conference organisers should, at a minimum, place a large fall-back monitor at the front of the stage so that a speaker can read from it while still looking out at the audience. It’s time that conferences offered professional-level auto-cue machines—the type that politicians use—to speakers who need them.

Overall, I like the trend, if it is one, towards more carefully crafted, tightly scripted, talks. They show the audience more respect than talks that are improvised around the contents of a slide deck.

Speaking without slides

This year and last, I spoke without a slide deck, as my narrative didn’t need the support of slides and I wanted an audience to focus on my words instead of my visuals. Feedback from those talks was mixed. In the UK audiences were kind. At An Event Apart, American audiences were more critical. When he sent me his feedback from Atlanta, Jeffrey Zeldman told me:

As you will see from the attendee comments which follow, your bold decision to speak sans slides was polarizing. Several respondents (even one who disagreed with your overall position) gave you tremendous kudos for daring to speak without slides; but others found your ideas harder to follow without slides. It seems the gambit caused some folks to sit up and pay more attention, while others (perhaps visual learners) lost interest or at least lost the thread. Regardless of how they felt about the slides decision, most respondents found what you had to say challenging and inspiring.

Those audience members had told Jeffrey:

After going through a bunch of presentations with great slides, it was hard to follow Andrew’s presentation without them.

And:

First off, I loved Andrew’s presentation style. No slides forced us to pay attention to him or get out.

Finally:

I think it took a tremendous set of balls to go up on stage without any slides—after everyone else had slides—and he pulled it off very well. He kept my interest and found it to be a very impactful session.

As always, Jeffrey offered me some sagely advice:

Different people learn in different ways. Some people learn best by listening. Others need a combination of words and pictures. Your gambit may have inadvertently prevented some listeners from learning all that you had to share with them. As a possible update to the presentation, you might consider having a few slides that you pull up from time to time before reverting to a dark screen.

As yet I haven’t had the opportunity to put Jeffrey’s advice to use, so it was interesting to see how the speakers at dConstruct used their slides, if they had them, and how I felt listening to them from the audience, if they didn’t.

Both Warren Ellis and Cory Doctorow spoke without slides. They were powerful speakers, but as Jeffrey mentioned, I did occasionally find myself losing the thread, my attention drifting, without the anchor of a slide to remind my of the point they were making.

Mandy Brown, on the other hand, did exactly as Jeffrey had suggested. While Mandy spoke the screen was black forcing you to listen to her beautifully delivered words. When she presented a quotation, it was displayed as white text, then faded to black as she carried on speaking. Cleverly, Mandy also used on-screen punctuation, ***, to visually divide the sections of her talk.

I’ve spoken at a lot of conferences since my first, way back in 2005, but I know that I still have a lot to learn about producing a compelling presentation. dConstruct was fabulous for many reasons, not only because it gave me suggestions about how I can evolve my own speaking style and my use of a script and slides. dConstruct was exactly the inspiration that I needed.

  • * My one, yes only one, criticism of dConstruct was that while Warren Ellis and Cory Doctorow spoke, the branded sponsor-logo filled conference holding slide stayed on screen. I thought that was distracting and that the screen should have been black while they were on stage. (Back)

 
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