April 28, 2008  ·  Lessig

Many have asked me about my Keynote (it is not PowerPoint) presentation style. I honestly don’t have much to say about it, as I’ve not thought it through. But Chris Tunnell, a researcher on the SNO neutrino physics experiment has, and he sent me his thoughts about how and why (and whether) the style works based on his own experience using it for physics presentations. Read about it in the extended entry.

This is a reply to a request that I explain why I’ve shifted to gradient backgrounds (reprinted with permission):

Before I describe my experience with the technique, first let me briefly tell you about the audience. In doing so, hopefully you’ll understand some of the choices I’ve made, but please do bare in mind that I have a negatively biased view of physicists since we’re grumpy and impatient.

I was talking to a group of somewhere between 50-100 physicists who either knew me and my work, or at very least knew of me and my work, so somewhat knew what to expect. This was apart of an all-day meeting that happens annually and everybody’s work is closely related to everybody else’s work; another way of phrasing this is that we know enough to be bored of each talk since we’ve heard it all before, but we know too little to follow the talk given that we’re tired of listening to the hours of talks before. I generally go into these meetings with the mentality of, “Most of the audience is annoyed that I’ve dimmed the lights and am talking to them while they try to check their e-mail”. You see, with the dawn of laptops, regardless of the size of the physics crowd only four people will be listening to you at any given point: one person who did something similar a while ago, two people who are doing something similar now, and one person who had their laptop battery die. My goal of the talk was to not only convince them that I was worthy of listening to, but also teaching them what I did and convincing them that what I did was fairly important (yet neat).

I decided to try a method similar to your’s after I noticed my speaking style slowly leaning towards minimalism (which was actually a result of me needing glasses at first and wishing people used bigger fonts on slides!). This style is contrary to the normal physics slide-style which generally contains four bullet points, one plot, and exactly a minute’s worth of talking while the slide is presented. The reason I like not having much information on any given slide is I find that people don’t listen to you until they’ve fully read your slide, so having single words like you do encourages people to pay attention to the speaker while visually emphasising key points during the talk. Also the control of information on the screen helps the speaker prevent the audience from running ahead and getting lost.

The exact things I’ve stolen from you are as follows:

Minimal text: I try to use the least amounts of words, and letters, as possible in each slide (that isn’t a plot). I find people can’t remember or process more than a few things at any given time, so whether it be text or an equation, it’s dangerous to display too much information. I had to work hard to keep equations as simple as possible in order to make sure that people paid attention to the information of interest. This is generally a good idea in physics and mathematics, and I’ll use a facetious quote from a friend mathematician to demonstrate it: “It’s theoretically impossible to verify more than a line’s worth of algebra”. So the majority of my slides were a word or two, after your technique.

XML tags: I like using XML tags to give the talk a tree-like structure, so accordingly my talk was XML parsable. I find it helps the audience know where they are within the talk. Commonly, I find that I have no clue where the speaker is going with a talk, and specifically where one thought ends and another begins. It also helps the audience realize when they should try to rejoin the band-wagon if they’ve gotten lost. This may be a bigger issue with physics talks than copyright or corruption talks. This also lets the older physicists know when they should wake up if you happen to have a section on something they’re particularly interested in.

Reusing images: I’ve noticed that you like to reuse images to remind people of what you talked about before and to emotionally connect the current part of your talk to previous points. I did the same thing. I reused slides frequently — even if just to flash the slide before them — in order to remind them of what they’ve seen and to draw connections to previous points. I did this because nobody remembers anything ever, so relying on people remembering a previous point — for which they were probably looking at their watch rather than paying attention to you! — is a sure way to lose people and make them hate you. I found that reusing images was a nice way to help people draw connections between what they knew from my introduction to current topics.

Reusing text: This is somewhat similar to the previous point of reusing images, but applied to text. This point is best explained with an example. I was guiding my audience through the physics of my work, and at a point during my talk, I demonstrated a problem I had faced with two possible solution paths. I had a slide which outlined both: “A or B”. I then had a few slides about why method ‘B’ was better than ‘A’ in this case, after which I redisplayed my slide of “A or B” but with the ‘A’ struck-through to indicate that was the bad choice. People like seeing things they remember because it gives them the sense that I didn’t waste their time for the first part of the talk and instead taught them something useful.

Knowing the next slide: Most physicists rely on their slides reminding them what they were planning on talking about. What I’ve noticed in your slides is that you knew what you wanted to say before you said it, which is a foreign concept to our community. For instance, you frequently have slides with a single word corresponding to the word you happen to be saying through the microphone. The advantage of this is that it makes it feel like the slides are an extension of the speaker, rather than having them seem disjoint. The disadvantage of this is that people complain about the talk feeling “rehearsed” since the audience wants to feel special and like they’re getting the inside scoop. I think coinciding slides with words spoken is a great way to emphasize points, but should be used infrequently as emphasis. In my particular case, this allowed me to speak much faster than I normally do, which means at a normal-person pace; I have a slow and lulling natural voice.

Blank slides: I have never seen somebody use a blank slide in a talk before I saw a talk of your’s. Edward Tufte would role over in his grave if he saw that! I made one slide in my talk blank just because it shocked people so much that they really paid attention to the words that came out of my mouth. I find that blank slides are a great attention grabber because the audience is left frantically trying to recalibrate themselves since they have no information to go on. I would have never thought of this without seeing a talk by you, and it’s a useful teaching device.

I may be forgetting something, but those are the key points I remember from giving the talk. I gave the talk a few months ago (I think? It was sometime this year I believe…), so I may be forgetting some points.

Let’s quickly talk about the public reception. While I was giving the talk, over half the audience was listening. This may sound trivial to you, but I was the most widely listened to speaker at the entire meeting by a land-slide (I think nearly everybody was paying attention!). These are record numbers! There were two motivating factors to this: the train-wreck factor and the quick slide attention-deficit-disorder factor. The train-wreck factor is that people see something new and are waiting to see you fail, crash then burn because it will make for good dinner conversation. The quick slide factor is that the higher slide rate (slides per minute) of a minimalist style helps the attention-deficit-disorder physics pay attention. While I was giving the talk, it really seemed like people were much more interested in paying attention because minimalism is a better teaching device since it allows the speaker more control.

After my talk, there was much gossip about how my talk went. In general, I was amazed by how well the public reception was. For instance, a senior colleague of mine walked up to me right after the talk to tell me how the talk went. He told me that this was the best talk he’d seen in years! That was rather flattering. I received quite a bit of compliments from a wide range of people, so the public reception was phenomenal.

It really did seem like people were able to follow the talk and also learn from the talk, which in my mind makes it a great success. I do admit that a good half of everybody who listened to me was more interested in the talking style than the actual information I was trying to portray, but I certainly think that this technique will influence my future talks given how well it can teach information. But it really was amazing how much a new talking style shook up the community since they saw a new way of presenting information.

I thank you for putting your talks for free online because otherwise I would have never been able to give such a successful physics talk.

Summary: the technique I stole from you works surprisingly well on physicists due to the high rate of information flow and due to the control it gives the speaker over meandering physicist minds.

As to your question — no idea. I’ve only ever been guided by what feels
right. I don’t know exactly why black and white seems less useful today.

Well that’s somewhat unclimatic. It’s wonderful you have a natural instinct in presenting then.

The reason I asked is because you sometimes use background color to grab attention (ie. changing to a white background to grab attention).

  • Stan

    As someone who was in the audience when Chris’s talk was given, I can confirm its effectiveness.

    One disadvantage to the format also is a product of the peculiar way in which physicists use talks. We often exchange the finished slides in PDF or PPT format with each other afterwards, and treat it as a record of the talk. This convention tends to bias speaker toward too much information per slide, and also formatting slides as an outline of the main talk points. So you will find that many physicists write talks for each other which are mediocre from a speaking perspective, but very good from a “you understand the main details even if you weren’t there” perspective.

  • Michael

    I have also used aspects of this style in a biology talk. The important point I learned in presenting this way was that it made me, the speaker, focus on the global importance of our findings and concentrate less on the details. I think the talk could have been even better, if I used the style consistently throughout – as I mostly used this style in the introduction and the conclusion.

  • Ross

    Just before anybody else panics, I am fairly sure that Edward Tufte is still alive. I understood the point that was made, but I did have a brief panic-attack.

  • http://colinm.org/ Colin M

    One of the more impressive talks I’ve witnessed in person was Jared Diamond (author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse”), who gave an ~1.5 hour-long talk completely without the use of slides, except to show a few graphs (maybe 5-10 in total). After being “raised” in the computer science tradition of boring PowerPoint slides, it was quite disturbing for some to actually, you know, look at the speaker and listen.

  • http://unitedhollywood.ning.com/profile/ScottEllington Scott Ellington

    I was introduced eleven days ago at Dinkelspiel to this style of presentation. The knot of intersecting agendas surrounding the catchphrase of Net Neutrality wasn’t made much less incomprehensible by learning of Stanford’s centrality in the history of the evolution of the internet, nor Tim Wu’s contribution of the term, nor Gerald Faulhaber’s citation of Adam Smith, although these points of reference continue to aid in my search for understanding.
    I guess I understood that e2e=NN to the extent that innovation and competition are not inherently advantageous to vested interests that presently control an increasingly uneven playing field they’re tilting covertly, and that ten years of waiting for the FCC to act decisively in the public interest to stimulate broadband penetration, innovation and competition has discouraged venture capitalists from investing in a future made uncertain by the FCCs failure to either shit or get off the pot. I guess.
    But the Keystone presentation drew my attention AWAY from the contentious ideas they masked with intentionally misspelled text and a curious concentration on style in the absence of clarity in defining key words like “competition”, “code”, “value” and “company”. And I’ve no idea why Powell’s ZPR is an inferior point to ZDS in terms of NN, given that “…productive discrimination facilitates competition…” seems to fly in the face of e2e. Or something.
    Clearly, I wasn’t in the target demographic for this explanatory pitch. It made me wonder who it was meant to persuade, and of what.

  • http://finiteattentionspan.typepad.com Curious Bunny

    I feel slightly ashamed that it’s only reading this post that has prompted me to step forward …

    I teach and research in a UK university and have tried out “Lessig-style” presentations on my students – the feedback I have received has been positive. Colleagues to whom I have described (and, more recently, demonstrated) the technique have been impressed (particularly those with short attention spans, it transpires!). I’m very interested in researching whether the method might actually serve students better than traditional PowerPoint slides – there are a number of compelling psychological reasons why this might be so.

    So, in summary, thank you, Lawrence, and I hope you won’t mind if I continue to explore the usefulness of your method with our undergraduate guinea-pigs … if I find anything, I’ll report back! :)

  • http://sparkplug9.com/ John Koetsier

    Stan,

    A good solution for both which I’ve used is that you put the meat of your presentation in the notes of your PowerPoint or Keynote presentation … so you have both great visual impact during your live talk and great data density when you distributed the deck later.

  • http://finiteattentionspan.typepad.com Curious Bunny

    I feel slightly ashamed that it’s only reading this post that has prompted me to step forward …

    I teach and research in a UK university and have tried out “Lessig-style” presentations on my students – the feedback I have received has been positive. Colleagues to whom I have described (and, more recently, demonstrated) the technique have been impressed (particularly those with short attention spans, it transpires!). I’m very interested in researching whether the method might actually serve students better than traditional PowerPoint slides – there are a number of compelling psychological reasons why this might be so.

    So, in summary, thank you, Lawrence, and I hope you won’t mind if I continue to explore the usefulness of your method with our undergraduate guinea-pigs … if I find anything, I’ll report back! :)

  • Mark

    Since I only see Lessig’s presentations online, it never occurred to me that he uses this same format live. I assumed he just recorded an audio track and then created visuals to go with that track. How does he sync up the audio and visual in a live presentation? Heck, how does he remember what slide is coming up next? Does he read from a printed speech, with little icons indicating where to click to the next slide?

  • lessig

    I sync on the fly when I do the presentations live. Keynote and PowerPoint give you a preview of the next slide. No printed speech. I’ve just worked through it enough that I remember it.

  • http://boulder2beijing.blogspot.com Micah

    It’s worth noting that Edward Tufte is alive and kicking.

  • http://unitedhollywood.ning.com/profile/ScottEllington Scott Ellington

    It’s also worth noting that Tufte’s primary criticisms of the typical PowerPoint presentation are not applicable here.

    Presentations largely stand or fall on the quality, relevance, and integrity of the content. If your numbers are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers. If your words or images are not on point, making them dance in color won’t make them relevant. Audience boredom is usually a content failure, not a decoration failure.

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html

    Lessig presentations are riveting, but just as a spectacular photograph may galvanize attention without eliciting comprehension of a specific complexity, he requires an extremely hip room. And that’s not too much to ask.
    In other words, they inspire bootstrapping.

  • http://benfrantzdale.livejournal.com Ben FrantzDale

    Prof. Lessig, Do you know if Tufte is aware of you our your unusual presentation style? While it is not always high-data-density, like Tufte advocates, it is also not your typical low-content PowerPoint presentation. Personally, I find that it uses the medium to focus the audience’s attention on good

  • Chris

    Just curious: is there some element I missed in describing the “lessig style”? I’m just wondering if anybody has noticed some subtle aspect to his speaking that I failed to state.

    Also, does anybody have tips on how to give such a talk? The main advice I would give would be to make practice considerably the first time that you try out the style since it strains certain speaking skills. In other words, it’s much easier to crash and burn this way because the audience will realize when your confused, lost, or hung-over.

    John: Can you include notes in PDFs though? Also, I think that in our case, there is generally a paper reference associated with a talk, so it’s much easier just to distribute that instead. However, I guess you could — I’ve never tried this I admit — just have slides at the end of the talk with citations and references.

  • http://www.highprogrammer.com/alan/ Alan De Smet

    Rolling over in his grave? Hardly. I’m quiet confident that Tufte would agree: if you don’t have anyting to display, a blank slide is better than filler.

    As to the distributing decks as content, what you’ve got is slideuments. While distressingly common, it’s garbage; you end up with a mediocre presentation and a mediocre document. The better solution is a set of slides designed to support the speaker and a seperate written document. The only down side is that it really requires writing two works, not just one. This pretty much summarizes the problem; speakers are pressed for time, so instead of spending a few more hours of their own time, they make for a worse use of time for the dozens of people who see or read the presentation.

  • http://mediamind.org David Darts

    Over the past year, I’ve actually adapted and adopted the “Lessig style” for both my teaching and conference presentations. The feedback from students and conference attendees alike has been overwhelmingly positive.

    More recently, I’ve started watching and deconstructing Lessig’s TED talk with my Art & Media Ed students (most of whom are becoming teachers) in order to better understand the power of Lessig’s approach. We also review the critiques of PowerPoint put forth by Edward Tufte, Sherry Turkle, and David Byrne.

    As a point of reference, we view Peter Norvig’s PowerPoint reworking of the Gettysburg Address. If you haven’t seen it, Norvig’s presentation translates Abe Lincoln’s moving 1863 cemetery speech into a series of six generic slides featuring bullet points, bland colors and a nearly incomprehensible ‘Organizational Overview’ graph. It clearly illustrates some of the profound limitations of PowerPoint as a communications tool.

    In contrast, Lessig uses visuals (and selected text) in a way that truly compliments and extends the conceptual/pedagogical aspects of his presentations. As Chris Tunnell has pointed out, the multiple slides, repeating images, and minimal text allows the audience to focus on, enjoy (and presumably remember) the material being presented. This is further enhanced by the logical (e.g. 3 stories and an argument) and sometimes poetic (e.g. “the refrain”) structures that Lessig uses to organize his talks.

    Of course, another key ingredient to the Lessig style is Lessig himself. His research, organizational, and storytelling abilities ultimately make the presentations what they are: engaging, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

    I think all of us (and particularly those of us who teach) would do well to learn from and adopt a little of the Lessig style.

  • http://unitedhollywood.ning.com/profile/ScottEllington Scott Ellington

    Chris,
    There’s no business like SNO business.
    My opening statement obviously trivializes the vitally important and crucial significance of your work, demonstrating tremendous, unreasoned contempt for (among other things) a Wikipedia entry that begins:
    The first measurement of the number of solar neutrinos reaching the earth were taken in the 1960s, and all experiments prior to SNO observed a third to a half fewer neutrinos than were predicted by the Standard Solar Model. Yadada, yadada, yawn.

    If I correctly understand your description of the audience before which your talks are typically presented, trivializing, unreasoned hostility and distracted, cynical contempt generally characterize the room…anyway.

    I think you’re seeking a tutorial in showmanship in order to present information that entertains the attention of your peers without violating the parameters of decorum set by a governing body that (inexplicably) likes its physicists routinely bored to tears.

    There are thousands of unemployed, union screenwriters and actors with whom you might collaborate in punching up your presentation. Short of that, take another look at Wag the Dog with an eye to Dustin Hoffman’s character, whose contribution to the presentation of unpalatable informational material is to orchestrate a riveting, spectacular, extravagant pageant. It’s the (frequently immoral) role of a producer.

  • Scott:

    Scott:

    It may be worth saying that I am being playfully cynical when describing the audience. However, I do think it’s an accurate assessment, and I know that when I’m in the audience I’m as bad — or worse — than them. I say this just because I’m not positive that you picked up how facetious I was being, and I’m having trouble figuring out the tone of your reply.

    But I think you make a good point. Part of what I am describing is “showmanship”. I am going up there to teach about my work, so there are many ways that I can make it easier for them to learn about my work. For instance, I could do as you say and make a show to make sure that I capture their attention. However, I could also — this was the central point to my e-mail above — figure out how to make the information clear. There are many ways to help people learn information.

    Half of my work is communicating the other half of my work.

    To All:

    Ooops. So Tufte isn’t dead. My mistake. That was certainly a joke which completely failed and demonstrated some level of Tufte-ignorance on my part. Sorry.

  • Chris

    The last post was me, not Scoot. Oops.

  • http://unitedhollywood.ning.com/profile/ScottEllington Scott Ellington

    http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=00001B&topic_id=1
    Another resource.

    Chris,
    my suggestion was less than half-facetious.

  • http://mylovepills.com Chris Bullok

    A good solution for both which I’ve used is that you put the meat of your presentation in the notes of your PowerPoint or Keynote presentation … so you have both great visual impact during your live talk and great data density when you distributed the deck later.

  • Sam

    Long-time listener, first time caller.

    A recent college grad, I’ve only been teaching (at a secondary level) for a year now, but I’ve found Lessig-style presentations an extremely useful tactic with my audience as well. Whenever a lesson requires me to deliver a lot of new information to my students (being lucky enough to work at a school which has projectors in most classrooms), I try to support that information with a Lessig-style presentation. While people have already mentioned its usefulness with regards to “short attention spans,” I think there /is/ a significant aspect of Lessig’s presentations that Chris missed out on: visual humor. In numerous talks of Lessig’s, he’s managed to get a laugh from his audience based on the graphic he’s chosen, while the content of the talk can remain to the point (and on its own maybe even dry). (For an example, consider the story he tells about the Sugar lobby pressuring the W.H.O.) Experimenting with a similar technique, I’ve found that including a visual pun or other joke periodically draws audience members who might have been drifting away from the talk back in. Without following the talk carefully, such images don’t always make sense. For people that haven’t been listening carefully, an unexpected, seemingly unrelated graphic is enough to rekindle their interest–everyone wants to be in on the joke.

  • Chris

    Scott: Sorry, then I’m really confused as to what your point was. There was a failure in communication on one of our ends.

    Sam: I think you’re right. Nice catch.

  • Matt

    Can you give an example of the use of XML tags in a presentation?

  • Chris

    Well… it wasn’t quite properly parsable XML, but in his first ChangeCongress talk (I believe…) he starts and ends points in this manner:

    “And that ends my first point…,” then ” appears on the screen, “so now onto the second point,” then ” appears on the screen.

    Follow?

  • http://uspolitics.about.com/ Kathy

    Watch TED Talks clips. :)

    More suggestions:

    Presentation Zen

    Deliver a Presentation Like Steve Jobs

    The Art of the Pitch (mp3)

  • Vasco Castro

    Went for a Lessig style presentation for my phd defense. I’d say that beforehand it felt a bit scary to not have the traditional slides with different points to guide you, but it’s actually rather easy to deal with it when you have all your ideas organized in your head. The feedback was very positive!

  • andrew

    Funny you should mention Tufte and blank slides. He does it all the time!

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