Back in the mid-1990s when I first started speaking about marine renewables at industry conferences, presentation didn’t involve much more than extracting the salient points of my submitted paper and dumping them into a standard, bulleted power-point template. As I added presentations about web resources and blogging to my repertoire, I adopted HTML and blogware as presentation aids, so that the form (or format) of my talks would follow the substance. Yet even the presentations that I regarded as so cutting edge at the time – Web for Energy Practitioners (1997) and What Can Blogs Do For Your Practice? (2003) – today pale by comparison to what my ten year old can create with power-point and other media tools.
Today’s technological advancements in media have upped the ante on presentation, converting an activity that I once enjoyed as pure pleasure into a high pressure challenge. Presentation is no longer linear; simply figuring out how to put points on a page but an out and out production. What color scheme conveys my message? Is this audience likely to have seen the same stock photos that are now pervasive on so many websites and blogs? Will this animation emphasize my point or distract the audience (and how many hours will it take me to get it right?) What emotions does the presentation as a whole evoke? For someone like me who’s a linear rather than visual thinker, putting together 21st century presentations pushes me way out of my comfort zone.
Still, even a polished slide deck alone isn’t enough. These days, speakers need to toss out Twitter-ready sound bytes or catch phrases for participants to tweet live to followers. A speech that’s not snappy enough to warrant a hash-tag may just as well have never happened.
In addition to Twitter, other websites and social media tools are raising the stakes for presentation. When it comes to presentation, failure is certainly an option – and thanks to YouTube, it’s far more of a public option than anything offered up in the healthcare reform bill. Many conferences are video-taped or even streamed live, and the thought of thousands of people watching you flop instead of just a handful increases the pressure.
Expectations are higher too, for two reasons. Conferences and in-person CLE are an expensive proposition, and today’s attendees have other options for information, like podcasts and web video. When they fork over the money and time for an in-person event, they feel entitled to top quality. And the gorgeous slide decks displayed on sites like Slideshare.net, and the inspiring talks playing daily on TED heighten those expectations even (not to mention, intimidate speakers of ordinary quality) further.
I’ve been thinking about all of this as I prepare for my upcoming presentations next week at the Minnesota Solo and Small Firm Conference in Duluth, Minnesota and then the Nebraska Solo & Small Firm Conference in Omaha. Using the new media challenges me to convey my ideas differently, and yet focusing on what font to use or which photo to select is so time intensive that it saps my energy from the content of my message. And yet for all the time that 21st century presentation involves, I’ve got to admit that it’s far simpler than the alternative: having the brilliance to paint a picture or evoke feeling with nothing more than words alone, holding audiences rapt for eternity.