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The "Lessig Method" of presentation

Sample_3The "Lessig Method" of presentation is not an official method per se, but many people who know about the work of Stanford law professor,Lawrence Lessig, have been inspired by his presentation style and informally refer to his approach as something unique indeed.
Those who have seen Lessig present have beentalking about his approach for a while. David Hornik at VentureBlog wrote a post entitledPutting the "Power" in Powerpoint over two years ago. In this post he heaps praise on the presentation style of Lessig. Hornik says Lessig's presentations "are a fantastic combination of content, art and brand...."
James MacLennan may have been the first to put a label on Lessig's presentation style, calling it the "Lessig Method" which he likens to theTakahashi Method in Japan because Lessig's slides often contain just a single word, short quote, or a photo. The Takahashi Method and Professor Lessig's approach do have similarities, though Lessig uses photos and other graphics, albeit sparingly. MacLennan does a good job of reviewing recent posts in theblogosphere concerning presentations and slideware.
Here is a good example of the "Lessig Method" of presentation. You can see the 243 slides and hear his narration along with them in Flash. Unfortunately you can not see the presenter himself at the same time. Still, judging from the live recording of the presentation, we can get a pretty good idea of the smooth way Lessig synchronized his visuals with his speaking, i.e., the story he was telling about his ideas on "free culture." You can even download the PowerPoint file(sans the Mickey video) on this resource page.
See Dick present "Lessig Style"
There are more videos of Lessig lecturing and presenting here. But there is even a better example available. Scott, a Presentation Zen reader, sent me a note on Monday pointing out the unique presentation style of Dick Hardt. Hardt gives credit to Lessig for inspiring the unique method he used in his presentation on Identity 2.0.
Hardt speaks for 15 minutes and synchronizes his talk quite smoothly to what must be several hundred slides. Most slides are no more than a word or two, a short quote, or a photo. Most slides are visible no more than a few seconds.
Hardt's presentation style is not applicable to every case, of course. Often we need to go much more slowly. But for this short kind of presentation, content, and audience, it worked well. For longer presentations it would be more appropriate to change pace — sometimes moving quickly, slowing way down at other times to explain a confusing point, for example. His introduction is excellent though and is a style many people may want to experiment with to grab the attention of the audience and make an impression, and then later slowing down a bit when needed as the presentation progresses. Also, I would like to see Hardt use a remote and move away from his PowerBook.
It's not the size of your deck that counts
I guarantee you there is no presentation book on the market that would recommend you use a few hundred slides, some visible for 1-2 seconds, for a 15-minute presentation. That's crazy talk, right? Yet, it works in this particular case for this particular audience and for the particular allotted time, a short 15-minutes. This is why I never recommend a specific number of slides, or even that a presenter must use slideware at all. It depends.
As we like to say in Japan, it all depends on TPO (Time, Place, Occasion). Who's to say what an appropriate number of slides should be? It depends on the content and the presenter as well. Guy Kawasaki is amazing with 10 slides in his PowerPoint deck at his popular speaking appearances. Tom Peters may wow a crowd with his content and enthusiasm with a deck of 100 PowerPoint slides (I don't suggest you copy Tom's PPT design style, by the way...more on that at another time). The number is not important. To be concerned with the number of slides shows that our head is in the wrong place. Because...it is the wrong question to ask.
     LEFT: Complete deck from Kawasaki's presentation. RIGHT: Partial deck from Peter's PPT.
Watch Hardt's 15-minute presentation and Lessig's Flash presentation. Ask yourself how you can incorporate aspects of the "Lessig Method" that will help kick the quality of your presentations up a notch. How can you use these simple visual techniques in slides and yet still keep your message conversational and your connection with the audience strong?



18 August 2006
A while ago Jon Udell characterized two modes of public speaking:
  • Scripted: where you write out pretty much exactly what you are going to say and either read or memorize it.
  • Slide-driven: where you produce detailed slides and use them to drive what you say.
Most of my public talks these days use a third mode - extemporary speaking. In this style I begin with little more than a rough outline of my talk, and compose everything else as I go.
I've never done scripted talks, but did slide-driven for a long time. Partly I got sick of boring bullet slides, which were mostly there to remind me what to say, but mostly I got tired of being tethered to the slides. With a slide-driven talk you have to decide in advance most of what you are going to say - months in advance for many conferences. If you don't have slides nobody complains about you not following your slides, so I'm free to decide exactly what to talk about close to the talk itself.
A talk like this doesn't imply no preparation. You have to have good stuff to talk about and it has to be firmly embedded in your mind. I've spent my whole life preparing for my ad-hoc talks.
Rather more concretely, I do like to have an outline planned out in advance. I usually sketch a rough outline on an index card. That way I have a rough structure to follow.

The index card I used for my talk at RailsConf. (please send any remarks about my handwriting to /dev/null, I have to put up with it all the time.)
One tip that's been useful to me was one that someone else told me came from Tony Benn. Essentially this says to cover three main points in your talk, and let each main point have three main sub-points. I've often found this to be a useful starting point for the structure of a talk.
This style works well for keynote-style talks, which is what I'm most often asked to do these days. When I do give a talk with some detailed technical content I do use slides for code samples or diagrams. I've always used very few slides, however, so they don't give much more than an outline - but that is then fixed in advance.
With an extemporary talk I can decide on the exact content as late as a few minutes before the talk. If I'm at a conference I like to get a sense of the what's going on and what the overall conversation is before I choose my topics. Of course with such a rough structure there's still a lot of room for deciding exactly what I'm going to say - and all that is done only when I'm actually speaking.
One danger with this approach is being quoted. When I write I can think carefully about what I'm writing to express it in as clear a way as I can. With extemporary speaking there is a big danger of saying something that isn't really what you mean. In a limited audience that's no big deal, but it can be a real issue if it's broadcasted all over the Internet. This is a major reason why public figures don't like to be extemporary, which I think is a big shame.
This is not a style for everyone. Some people are more comfortable and able to do this kind of thing than others, and I'm lucky taht this kind of thing has always been one of my skills. I like it because I think it brings over a greater spontaneity and energy. I think it also contrasts nicely with the very polished scripted talks we are used to seeing in the media, let alone the mass of PowerPoint we usually see at technical conferences.


Pecha Kucha: 9 Beginner Mistakes

I gave my first Pecha Kucha today; I've wanted to do one ever since I learned about it. For those unfamiliar, it is a presentation in a 20x20 format: 20 slides, 20 seconds each, no exceptions. The intent of this strict 6 minute 40 second format is to focus your message, only give the necessary information, and end the monotony of typical PowerPoint sessions.

It seemed well received, I had everyone's full attention despite the post-lunch time slot. But all-in-all it was a nerve-wracking experience and I'm not sure I'll be doing it again anytime soon. Here's a few lessons learned in case you're feeling up to this somewhat odd challenge.

1. Don't underestimate the time commitment
I've given a lot of trainings in my life. I spent more time preparing for this 6 minute presentation than I have for full day sessions in the past. Part of the problem was that I wasn't familiar with the subject matter. But I'm also accustomed and comfortable with extemporary speaking, so rehearsing a script was completely foreign to me. The point is that rehearsing, timing, and practicing took way more time than I expected.

2. Lessig style slide synchronization is cool but doesn't mix
The Lawrence Lessig style of presentation is way cool. I love when the speaker's words synchronize perfectly with minimalist slides. And how quickly he whips through words and pictures is fun. I tried to do this and found it doesn't mix with a timed, scripted presentation. I spent a lot of time synchronizing animations with my script only to find myself getting out of sync with the timer or varying my script slightly. Either do a timed and scripted event, or do an untimed Lessig style event with an in-hand slide clicker. Mixing both was too difficult and didn't get delivered as nicely as I would have liked.

3. 20 seconds a slide needs to include breathing time
Budget for breathing time or your slides will move too fast: you'll get stuck playing a frantic game of catch up. 20 seconds a slide needs to include breathing time, don't short yourself. Practicing in front of someone would help.

4. Build in catch up spots
Build a sentence into each slide that can be dropped if you start running out of time. If you don't, you'll end up dropping the first sentence of the next slide, which is probably an important sentence. Just plan to screw up often and throw a few away.

5. Pre-record, it'll just be better
Who memorizes things anymore? I wish I'd just recorded my session instead. An alternative would be to stand to the side and read the script. The important parts are the visuals and the audio. Your nervous fidgets and uncomfortable stage presence will probably just distract the audience anyway.

6. Not all presentations make good pecha kuchas
My subject was actually 4 unrelated subjects globbed into one by the event organizer. This wasn't a coherent topic to begin with, so it made a somewhat confusing pecha kucha. It just didn't flow. Before doing this, ask yourself, "Would this really make a good pecha kucha?"

7. Don't forget slide transitions
In normal presentations I create my own slide transitions as needed. A presenter mostly just fills in the context between slides and relates them to one another. This is the "hidden" content that often makes or breaks a presentation. Well, at 20 seconds a slide, you have to explicitly make time for transitions. I'd guess 5 or 6 slides at least need to be light on content and simply explain the links between the other slides.

8. Intro and conclusion? Don't bother
Someone once told me to start a presentation by saying what will be covered and end it by giving a recap. This is questionable advice for a long presentation and almost certainly untrue for a pecha kucha. It's 6 minutes long. If your audience can't remember what was covered then they're on their own. Don't try to take responsibility for their attention deficit disorder.

9. Pick something you know and care about
Saved the best for last. Creating a pecha kucha was fun for the first two hours. Great, you only have about 6 more hours to go. I didn't care about my subject matter, so by the end I was wishing I hadn't spent so much time on it. It'd been way more fun if it was a topic of personal interest. Got a sales presentation coming up? Probably not a good choice for this. Presenting about your favorite language at their next user group? Go for it.

So maybe it was fun. It was challenging, that's for sure. And when was the last time you were challenged by a presentation? Maybe my second attempt will go smoother than my first... whowants to make a Groovy pecha kucha with me?

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