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How I prepare for talks


Among Jaimee Newberry’s fun daily video diary entries is an especially useful one on how she prepares for giving talks. Graham Lee offered his take on preparing for giving talks.

That got me thinking. What do I do? I’m more a Jaimee-Talker, but I don’t really do a single idea in a talk that often. I have a note in the Notes app with all my talk ideas where, every time I encounter a problem or question, and every time I e.g. find myself answering a question on Stack Overflow or at work, I make a note of it.

I try to group them by topic, and that usually quite naturally turns into a way too long talk outline. Then when it’s time to give a talk, I pick the choice bits out of one or more of these outlines, and make that my outline, sometimes changing the focus. E.g. once I had the mandate to add a missing beginners’ talk on Quartz to a conference, so I took the most basic, most practical graphics issues from my notes, prefixed them with a general tutorial on how the Quartz framework is organized and that was my initial outline.

Then I built a first rough slide deck based on those notes and just started holding the talk using Keynote, with the audio recording function on, in the privacy of my own home. Sometimes, once the talk has advanced a bit, I even (similar to Jaimee) set up my iPhone or iPad to record myself.

So, how does a talk “advance”? Well, it’s simple. First and foremost, I make notes for every slide about the things I’ve said. Also, at some points giving a talk, I will get stuck. Or I will repeat something I’ve already said earlier. Or I’ll explain something in words that would really need an illustration. At that point I drop into Keynote and either re-arrange the slides, or do a first rough illustration.

Once I’ve done this a few times, the talk will feel much more fluid, but will be running horribly long. So I try to do a full run-through without interruptions and time it. Once I have my time, I’ll try to find things I can cut and mercilessly cut them. Things that feel like a detour, or boring, or too trivial. Things that the intended target audience would know already. But sometimes I also realize that I haven’t explained something that needs explaining and add a slide.

Then I do the talk again. Rinse and repeat, until the timing and flow is right. When the slides have stopped moving and disappearing, and I’m happy with what’s in the talk, I’ll start refining the illustrations. Adding builds that reflect my description. Usually that on one hand forces me to go through these slides at “the speed of build”, but it also shortens my descriptions very much, so often it evens out.

If it doesn’t, I might have to cut some more slides, or find a way to simplify what is there to make it go faster.

As you can tell, this is an approach best suited to more technical talks. More “philosophical” talks sometimes can be analyzed enough that this approach works. Other times, they’re more like stories, making them harder to re-arrange and to cut out stuff. I generally still use the same approach, but it doesn’t work as reliably. What can I say, it’s a work in progress, and I’ll work at sucking less at the not-a-story-not-technical-either kind of talks as I can.

I haven’t mentioned the title yet. Usually, it comes at the end. I have a working title (e.g. Memory Management Fundamentals), and then look at what is actually in my talk and pick a better name (e.g. On graph paper and memory).

Sometimes, I need to provide a title when I sign up as a speaker. As I already have the notes, I’m usually pretty good at picking a title that works. Sometimes they let me change it afterwards. Sometimes they don’t, and I go for that title with a byline that narrows it down to what the new title would be. (Don’t put a different title on your first slide than is announced in the programme, attendees won’t find you)

One thing I sometimes do in the end is I record myself doing the final talk (with the iPhone camera or whatever) and watch myself doing it, watching out for how I look. Am I scratching my nose? Do I say “umm” a lot? Then I try to remember to turn that down.

Abusing Keynote for Animations

I’ve been working on several Keynote presentations in the last year or so, and one very interesting feature of Keynote are its “builds”. A build is essentially a way to show/hide/move an object or group of objects. But if your GUI pain threshold is sufficiently high, you can do great things with them.

To create a build, select any object on the current slide, bring up the inspector panel and click the “Build Inspector” icon. Click the “More Options” button at the bottom to see a chronological list of all builds on your slide pop out in a drawer.

There are three kinds of builds, each under their own tab: “Build In” decides when and using what effect your object will appear, “Build Out” when and with what effect it will disappear, and then there are “Actions”, which let you move/rotate/scale and change the opacity of an object.

When you specify anything on one of these tabs, a new entry will pop up in the list of builds, where you can drag it around to control in what order it happens relative to the other builds. By default, the next step will only happen when you click, but you can set them to happen automatically after the previous build has happened, at the same time as the previous build happens, or (for the first item) right after you open the slide.

This may not seem like much, but actually is all you need to make very complex animations. I’ve made dropping domino stones, showed numbers being transferred from one place to the other, replacing an existing number and much, much more (for examples, see any of the movies in my Masters of the Void C Tutorial, for example in the Memory Tutorial). Not to mention that Keynote’s seemingly simple user interface actually contains a beautiful and rather powerful vector drawing program.

Another not quite obvious feature is that you can also set up delays when a build happens after a previous build, and you can specify the speed for the various effects, and in the Slide Inspector you can even specify that it should automatically advance to the next slide a certain time after all builds have finished, not just upon a click, with a transition effect (the Magic effects really deserve their names), or without one.

Depending on how complex your animations are, you can keep things manageable by duplicating the current slide and then doing half your animations on one slide, and the other half on another, which reduces the number of overlapping objects you have to fiddle with. You can also group items and animate them as a single unit on one slide, then have them separate on another slide to animate only part of them.

Another way to cheaply get great-looking animations is using effects on text: You can set up many of the effects so they affect each character or each paragraph separately. With a little fiddling with paragraph settings, you can even make things look as if each line was transitioned separately. And of course the “Insert” menu contains Smart Builds that do some really neat effects quickly and easily.

And don’t forget that you can use this for more than Keynote presentations: Just use the “black” or “white” theme, set up a custom Slide Size in the Document Inspector, do a “Record Slideshow” and then export to a QuickTime movie without sound, and voila, you have a great-looking animation for a screencast, web site or other opportunity.

The main difficulty with complex builds is that, instead of a timeline, where you can select the current point in time, and people will only see the objects visible at that time in the locations they will be in at that time, we have this darned drawer, and objects are generally always all visible (in some cases an object is even visible in several positions at the same time). This makes it hard to hit the right spot (particularly the red dot that indicates an Action is attached to an object is a bit hard to hit occasionally, and you need to hit it to e.g. see and set the destination for a move).

Do you have any Keynote tricks?