Once you get a conference talk selected, you’ll want to put together the talk. There are speakers who can give entire talks without any visual aids, but most of the rest of us count on having some pictures to look at and prompt us. There are entire books written on slides – I liked Presentation Zen and Slide:ology. I can’t replicate everything all the books have to say, but I can tell you what I’ve found useful.
As you make more presentations, you’ll find your own style and voice. Be sure to watch what other speakers are doing and borrow the best of what you see. Some people do very rapid slides, and will have as many as 90 slides in a 25 minute presentation. Some people like to linger on a few key images. Some people use words, and some people avoid them entirely. You’re going to find your voice, but in the meantime, here are some things that would have helped me to know when I started out.
Slide software falls into two categories: WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) or visual design, and compiled, or coded design. The first category is things like PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Slides. The second category is more like building an HTML page, where you specify elements in Markdown or another language. These are RevealJS, RemarkJS, Deckset, GitPitch, and others.
I only use the first kind of slide software, but people who use coded design tools appreciate the reliability and customizing options of writing their own slides from scratch. My preferred tool is Google Slides because I can work across all the platforms I write on, I can easily send the link to an organizer, and I don’t have to worry about compatibility. In the last year, Google Slides fixed two major problems I had – you can now present offline, and you can use a Bluetooth presentation remote to advance your slides.
You’re going to want to get a presentation remote. They can be had for about $20, but you can get a really nice one for about $50. It depends on how much you want to invest in your speaking future. Practice using it to understand the range and direction that you can get away with. Having a remote means that you can get out from behind the podium and it gives you something to do with at least one of your hands.
I travel with and present from an iPad, which is more convenient for me than a full-sized laptop. I got an HDMI adapter, and that is a pretty standard expectation at this point. If a conference is using something other than HDMI, they’ll probably let you know. My entire presentation kit fits in the tiny hand-size case for my presentation remote (clicker).
I have some elements that appear on all of my slides:
- Twitter handle
- Talk name
That may be more information than most people need, but I have a reason for all of them.
I think the Twitter handle is most important. Very few people will remember the introduction slide well enough for them to accurately quote you 20 slides later when you say something they want to talk about. Putting it on all or almost all your slides means that if a picture gets taken, people can come find you if they want more information.
The talk name also helps people identify a picture of the slide, and sometimes it helps me remember which talk I’m in, since I sometimes re-use images. It’s especially helpful for times that I have changed the name of the talk.
Including the conference name is something I do because I re-work my slides for each conference. I don’t entirely rewrite them, but I do add and subtract slides to change the audience, the time, the technology emphasis. Adding the conference name also shows the conference and the attendees that I am thinking about them specifically. I also save each presentation separately, for my records on how talks historically evolve.
The hashtag is less essential, but I like to have it available so people can use it and I can unify my talks around it.
I like to put all these elements in one place so that I can change them easily – in this example, it runs along the bottom of all the slides in this presentation.
I also have fairly extensive speaker notes for all of my presentations – not because I read them, but because it makes the slides more useful whet they are distributed without video. That’s a personal preference, but remember that everything in the speaker notes will be visible if you distribute the deck, so you may want to be careful about what you say.
Don’t steal other people’s intellectual property.
Can I say it more clearly than that? Don’t use pictures without permission.
Conference talks are absolutely your intellectual property, and you’d be rightfully irritated if someone was on the conference circuit slavishly copying your talks, so don’t do it to photographers and visual artists.
Luckily, it’s actually pretty easy to be a responsible person about this when you assemble a presentation. Images come from three legitimate sources:
- Pictures you took yourself
- Pictures that you paid for (Getty, stock photo providers)
- Pictures that are licensed for re-use that you handle properly
Taking your own pictures is sometimes fun, and you can do a lot of interesting things with just your camera phone. With reasonable lighting, you can get snapshots that will look OK at conference screen size.
Buying the rights to pictures is expensive, but if you work for or are representing a large organization, they may already have a license that you can use. You can also find some relatively low-cost stock photograph suppliers, but if you’re a 60-slides kind of speaker, it’s still a lot of money.
The thing I do most often is use images that are licensed for re-use, and make sure I attribute them properly, either on the slide itself or at the end of the presentation. I mostly use the advanced Google image search. In fact, if you are in Google Slides and you say you want to insert an image and then search for it, you will get a search tuned for images that are licensed “Commercial Reuse with Modification”. Knock yourself out, just remember to attribute them properly. I have other ways to search for licensed-for-reuse images in the Resources section.
Not all technical talks have code. I promise that’s allowed, and I have never had code in one of my talks and yet they still let me up on stage and give me a mic.
If you do use code in a talk, here are some tips you might find useful:
- Make the font bigger. No bigger than that. Are the characters the size of your head? Maybe big enough.
- Use syntax highlighting. It reduces cognitive load at lets people focus on what you’re trying to say.
- If you’re talking about a particular section, make it bright and the other parts a bit greyed out. Or leave them out all together. After all, you’re not going to teach anyone to code from a stage, you’re just showing them that a thing is possible. They’ll look it up later.
- Murphy’s Law loves a livecoder. Although some people are virtuousic typists, lots of us get clumsy when we’re nervous. Instead of livecoding, consider taking a series of screenshots and stepping through them as slides. That way the wifi is not an issue, the remote servers are not an issue, and you reduce several variables.
Videos, sound, and other weird things
It may work. From my observation, your odds are 50/50 of getting a video with sound to work with the A/V system, especially if you surprise the technician. Do you really want to unclip your mic and hold it up to your laptop speakers awkwardly? I didn’t think so.
The medium most likely to work in a presentation is an animated gif, which is nice as far as it goes, but you need to make sure it doesn’t just…run…continously….behind you, because dang, those things are hypnotic. I have made this mistake myself, but nothing is as hypnotic as the slide I saw that was just a video of a massive domino layout, with spirals and collapsing towers, and…. yeah. It was a great illustration of the point, which was about how nothing works perfectly, but then we were all watching the looping dominoes, looking for the parts where the connections failed. Great illustration, but it completely distracted the entire audience. It’s possible to set gifs to only loop once or twice, and I strongly recommend you do that for your presentations.
Other weird things that sometimes work and sometimes just make the speaker more nervous or the audience less attentive:
- Selfies with the audience
- Physical humor
- Open coffee mugs, beer steins, or anything that can dump itself on your laptop
- Asking for audience response if you haven’t prepared them.
My new favorite resource for slide templates: Slides Carnival
A good roundup of CC0 and public domain image sites: WPTavern image resources
And of course, almost everything on Wikipedia has a reuse license, and if you go to the image page, you can get different sizes and a handy little attribution slug.
To sum up
There is no one Right Way to create presentation slides. It’s very dependent on personality and topic. I once saw a great talk that had hand-drawn slides, and one that had 8-bit art. It worked for those speakers and pulled the talk together in a memorable way. But the way you do it will come to be your style, so feel free to experiment while you’re learning. Just don’t stop learning!
Remember that slides are not the whole presentation – your topic and delivery are a huge part of it, too. Provide essential information on every slide. Do your best to be ethical in your use of intellectual property. Be careful of things that may fail and fluster you on stage. Go have fun!
O'Reilly Software Architecture/Velocity
The Lead Developer London
Full Stack Conference London
Texas Scalability Summit