On writing talks

I can’t say that I’ve been somewhat MIA on my blog simply because I’ve been working super-duper hard on talks that I’m giving at the CCCCs and at the Jacobson Symposium in Omaha the following week. That’s only part of it. The week before last was winter break, and while I did blog and work a lot while in Florida, I also vacationed a lot too, which means that I fell too far behind on work things due this past week. And there was also a fistful of meetings and other obligations in the department. It was one of those weeks that felt like two weeks.

Anyway, even if I haven’t been working super-hard on my presentations, I have been working. I’m not completely done with either of these spiels but I have good starts on both and, in a sense, they are both written in my head already. This is not to say that I am ready to give these talks, nor is it to say that I am going to just “wing it.” But I’m getting there.

I know that I’ve written about this here in the past– actually, almost exactly a year ago— but it’s on my mind so I’ll say it again: in the choice between conference performance styles of someone “reading a paper” versus “speaking/talking extemporaneously,” I say “reading a paper” wins out. Listening to someone read something out loud that isn’t meant to be read out loud can be painful, but I think it is much worse to listen to someone, ah, “wing it.” Let me put it to you this way: just “winging it” often ends up being a bit like singing in the shower: sure, it sounds fine in there to you, but try that in front of other people and it usually goes poorly. So, IMO, unless you’re a really REALLY good public speaker and/or you basically have a presentation that you wrote previously memorized, it’s probably best to read something.

If my speaking role is small/short, obviously interactive, and/or extremely casual, I prepare some notes– possibly a hand-out– and that’s about it. These sorts of settings would include what at the CCCCs are called “Special Interest Groups,” workshops (which are basically the same as teaching and things like that tend to be too interactive to plan too carefully), roundtable discussions, etc.

But if my speaking role is not short, which is the case for both of the things I have upcoming, I need to write a script. And I say “a script” as opposed to “a paper” or “an article” because I think a presentation script has to sound good in a way that’s different from something meant completely for the page, and it has to be relatively short. In my experience, a 15-20 minute presentation should be about eight pages long, double-spaced. And better to be the speaker whose presentation is a little short than the one who is still rambling on after 25 minutes.

There are two different things I’m playing around with this year that are new for me. First, PowerPoint slides, and lots and lots of ’em. At last year’s CCCCs, I went to see a fantastic presentation by Lawrence Lessig. Most of Lessig’s fantastic-ness was the very smart things he had to say, but almost as impressive to me was the “show” of his presentation, which included about a million slides. Most of them were very simple– just a few words on a screen– but the effect was fantastic. So while I’m not hoping to imitate Lessig exactly, I am going to have a bunch of slides in the spirit of Lessig.

Well, that and Stephen Colbert’s “The Wørd” segments on his Comedy Central show. In other words, I’m hoping to have a lot of slides that are a combination of informative and entertaining.

Assuming the LCD projector works, of course.

The second thing I’m playing around with– probably after the conference, actually, though who knows, maybe before– is this software that Collin mentioned recently in this post which is supposed to make it easy to merge audio and PowerPoint (or Keynotes) presentations and end up with an mp4 multimedia presentation. The software is called Profcast, and other than what I just wrote, I have no idea how it works yet. If I get around to finishing my presentations soon, I’ll let you know….

One thought on “On writing talks”

  1. I’m somewhere between the two–I tend to prepare outlines, which is like teaching, or lecturing, in a sense. Some of the difference may be between being primarily a teaching professor rather than researching professor, and part of it, if I’m honest, is my personality.

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