HOWTO present like Lessig

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This Friday I gave a Lessig style presentation to a group of project managers about what free software is and how can they use ideas from free software project management practices in their projects. The presentation went well so I'd like to share the bit of experience I gained while doing it.


First of all, I will not be putting up the presentation here as it is in Latvian and thus will be of no use for those that do not speak Latvian. There are several examples of the style available online if you want to see that in action.

The basic idea of a Lessig style presentation is to have a huge number of slides where most slides has only one word, number or picture on it. Also key part of the style is to change slides in such a way that the word on the next slide appears in your narrative exactly at the moment when you put that slide up. The slides basically serve as a highlighter to your speech.

I found no good description on how to prepare a presentation in such style, so I had to figure out my own way, which is exactly what I will describe in this post.

At the start we need a topic for the presentation. A Lessig style presentation is no different from any other presentation in that you need a topic and a message that you a familiar with and that you want to convey to your audience in a way that would be familiar to them. I would suggest on deciding what effect do you want your presentation to have on your audience. In my case, I was presenting at a conference of professional project managers. Most of them were not even related to IT management. What I want to do is simple - I wanted them to start contributing to free software projects or making some of their subordinates contribute to free software projects. (Note: "contribute" and not just "use")

Now, like in every other presentation, we need to find a way to sell that action to our audience. In my case I choose to show them that free software project are more complex then almost all their usual projects (because of geographical disparity, lack of monetary incentives, lack of project management knowledge, ...) and still we have successful projects! From that I formed an idea that we must be doing something incredibly innovative management-vise, but we do not know what it is, because we do not have the project management expertise. So, if they want to take over something good free software projects to their own projects, the only way it to get deeply involved in free software projects to find out how it works first hand in our natural habitat.

Now that we have a natural flow of the presentation all worked out, we should start putting it down. First I simply wrote down the whole presentation as would now present it - a load of plain speaking text. Write down everything that you would want to say, including jokes, side notes, remarks and everything else you could possibly say during that presentation. Trim it down to ~1 A4 page for each 15 minutes of the presentation time (depends on your speaking speed).

When that narration text is done, go over it again and mark each important word in bold. It is ok to have three important word in a single sentence or to have one important word for 3-4 sentences. However if you have less then 0.5-1 important words per sentence then I would suggest you to try to get some water out of your speech.

Now we can finally open our OpenOffice Impress and start making a presentation. Make a title slide. Make an ending slide (with a call for questions and your contact information). Then make a slide for each important word in your narrative. I had 58 slides in the end that I went trough at a nice pace within 18 minutes, so do not be afraid of the numbers here. Do not forget to have a plain background (single color works best) and large and very readable font. However it is best if your text is always only one line on the slide - that way there is not need for brain to switch context for the second line.

Now that you have a heap of slides made from your narrative, forget the narrative and polish the slide flow. Divide your presentation into some kind of sections, for example, with a clear start slide "<examples>" and a clear end slide "</examples>" at which you can say "Let's look at some examples of what I just described" and "There are many more way to do that, but these were the 5 most popular" respectively. Lessig style of presenting demands a lot of attention from the audience, so you need a few breakpoints in your speech where people that have "lost you" midway of a section could catch up and still enjoy the following sections. Review if the slides are clear in their meaning and if they are in a logical order - reorder and clarify them as you see fit while still retaining one word, number or image per slide. This is also the place to replace words with images if you wish to. However, keep in mind that images must be extremely simple - no extra objects, only one thing or concept. I did without images - that way I had a simple presentation with a lot of consistency.

When you have optimized your slides, it is now time to rewrite your narrative using the new slides as the main flow line of the presentation. Include text from your slides literally into your narrative. Add some texts to say at beginning and end of the segments. At this point you should be up to 1-1.5 A4 pages of text for a 15 minute presentation. Do not forget to highlight your slide words in bold. We are almost done.

For Lessig style presentations printing out the slides is a useless waste of paper, the ideal handout is the final narrative document with the slide words highlighted in bold. however sometime it could be beneficial to handout the first narrative document, so that the handout does not have much correlation with what you present, so that the people would be forced to pay attention to your presenting and not just read from your handout.

Now for the tiny part of actually giving the presentation. Be confident and open. Do not stand behind a podium or a desk. Do not lock your hands or put them in your pocket. You will ideally have a wireless device to advance your slides - keep it in your hand ready to switch to the next slide without needing to give audience any indication that the next slide is coming. Be sure not to advance too far - it is very disturbing to your flow to have to find a way to go back a slide in the middle of your talk. Basically the impression should be that you are just casually talking to your audience (with all the passion and enthusiasm you have) and the screen behind you just reads your mind and highlights your words. For the best effect you should be starting to say the next slide word just a fraction of a second before displaying that slide and have the slide up when you are just finishing to say the slide word. Try to look at the screen or your notes as little as possible. The idea is that you are freeballing here and you only need to hit your slide words in their order along your speech, do not let your written narrative confine you. You are restricted only by time and the interest of your audience with guidance from your slides and some hints from your written narrative. I can not stress this enough - you must know by heart what is on the slide on the screen behind you and what the next slides are going to be. The other stuff can be changed on the run if you feel confident enough about it.

Such way of presentation gives you unprecedented flexibility - if you just say your key words your presentation could be over in two minutes, but if possible it can expand to fill an hour and adapt to a bunch of different audiences. For example, in my case I was presenting the second to last presentation of the day, so my audience was very delighted when I compressed my presentation from a half an hour to 18 minutes to compensate for previous speakers running late.

In addition to that you can have section that you can skip depending on the situation. For example, I was not entirely sure of how much the managers I was going to present to know what exactly free software is, so I have an intro section in my presentation. At the beginning of the presentation I asked the audience to raise their hands if they know what free software was. Half of them did. That was good in three ways: first, I was pleasantly surprised that so many 40+ year old non-IT managers knew what free software was all about, second, I now knew that I still need to go trough that intro section as half did not know what it was, and third, I immediately grabbed full attention from everyone in the room by asking them to do something physical. That is a very nice move. You can always ask people to raise their hand for something, but if you feel that you have enough authority you can do even crazier stunts, like ask everyone to stand up, close their eyes and point to where they think North is. Any physical activity request from the presenter gives him the attention of the room, so it is a nice trick to play in the beginning of the presentation.

It is always useful to have good presentation skills, so just live and learn.

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