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The Pressures of 21st Century Presentation

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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, 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.

  • Mike Whelan Jr

    How big does a speaking event need to be for you to feel this production anxiety? I'm just a law student but I've been speaking all my life and feel like that ability will be a competitive advantage for me, but now I'm worried I'll have to produce KISS-like spectacles? I've been to enough CLEs to know that lawyers and law practice consultants are usually terribly boring. The flash and dazzle they employ usually are a pretty transparent crutch for them to avoid scrutiny as presenters. My sense is that most of us would be better off spending time with the book Presenting to Win than fiddling with our computer programs. Am I right? There is a peculiar difficulty with CLE in that you want to send people home with a bunch of papers, and reusing slides seems like the logical way to go so people refine slides even more so they can print them out, but that seems misguided. You'd be better off working on a thicker narrative that lays out your points in full in a handout, then using the presentation as the hook to send them to that narrative. No one can have a meaningful thought-changer at a conference (see Never Eat Alone for more on this). Use the 30 minutes or whatever to stand in front of slides that are just colorful photos and be funny and stirring. Save the dazzle for the take-home docs. Thoughts?

  • It seems that, as technology increases, the demand for more effort increases. However, I think it may actually be more relative than we realize.

    As technology increases, we see that our usual tasks can be made easier. So, our usual tasks require less effort than before. This creates an “effort surplus” that we then use to push our presentations further and further.

    12 years ago, I was a minion in an Army Brigade Headquarters where we compiled slides to brief to a General on a quarterly basis. It started with just handouts that consisted of bullet comments in memo format. Then we switched to an overhead projector that used the physical transparent slides. Well, instead of using this to make our previous task quicker and more efficient, we had to also make it prettier–much prettier. Plus, now we had to have “backup slides” in order to cover contingencies. Then, PowerPoint was put on all of our computers, and civilized life ended for all of us.

    So, you see Carolyn, you actually aren't expending more effort, you are merely reapportioning your effort. Doesn't that make you feel better?

    Frankly, I love spending time preparing presentations and trying to get the most out of my 30 minute or hour class. But, you are right, it is getting tougher. Whereas we once only competed with the wandering minds of our audience, now we compete with their under-the-table smartphones, laptops (minesweeper or solitaire), and sudoku (for those not in tune with their technological side).

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