Keynote Karaoke at NSNorth

May 22, 2016 · 3 min read

by Philippe Casgrain

For NSNorth 2016, I wanted to try something different. I had witnessed some variations of “throw random slides at an unexpecting presenter” at other conferences, but I thought I could improve on the formula.

I was inspired by our Lightning Talks (20 slides, 15 seconds each, auto-advancing), derived from the O’Reilly Ignite and the c4 “Blitz Talk” format.

The ground rules are as follows:

  1. The organizers will select a random, public, complete slide deck from sites like or
  2. The presenter comes up on stage, having never seen the slides
  3. The presenter sees the first slide of the presentation, then a random selection of 5 slides from the presentation, then the last slide
  4. Each slide is on-screen for 30 seconds (there is a visible timer) and auto-advances

That’s it. It’s three minutes of terror for the presenter, but 180 seconds of sheer delight for the audience.

Since people were perhaps unfamiliar with the concept, I asked my friend Joe Cieplinski if he could be my first volunteer, and he graciously agreed.

Here is Joe’s performance. You can see me opening the video, and the off-camera voice is our Karaoke Master and fellow organizer, Adrienne.

As soon as Joe left the stage to thunderous applause, I called for volunteers and multiple hands shot up in the air.

We had a prize table, so the earlier you volunteered, the more choice in prizes you had. Everyone is a winner, and Adrienne made sure that the prizes reflected Canadiana and our host city of Toronto.


We had two sessions of 30 minutes, just before lunch on Friday and Saturday, and the timing worked well to loosen up everyone before our delicious meals.

The most common first words spoken in the microphone by contestants were “This is a bad idea”, but they went along anyways. The audience is already on your side, and everybody that came up managed to entertain and delight.

Even after hearing that comment, people were still volunteering!

I fielded complaints from the audience that “their jaws hurt from laughing so much”.

I have never picked up so many sweaty microphones. This is more difficult than it looks.

Big Thank You

Thank you to all the volunteers for your courage and your selflessness, and to all the audience members for wildly cheering during the talks.

Technical Details

During the c4 conference, Jonathan “Wolf” Rentzsch wrote a small app that would read Keynote files and make them auto-advance, with an overlaid timer to force the presenter in the 15-second format. This app is Blitz, and I contributed a few lines in 2009.

The stroke of genius is that this app doesn't actually read Keynote files, it reads the multi-page PDF that is embedded in a Keynote file, and uses that to display. So it can read any PDF document.

That was in 2009. This is 2016. I had grand plans. So of course I had nothing ready in time for the conference.

The only solution left was to channel my inner MacHack, a conference which is in many ways the precursor of so many of the two-to-three day conferences we see today, including NSNorth, c4, SecondConf and Çingleton. Each year, that conference ended with a ridiculously entertaining hack contest of outrageous code developed during the conference.

The night before the conference, in my hotel room, I hacked and slashed the original source code to modernize it and make it run on El Capitan. I was fuelled by beer (thanks, Anluan!) and lack of sleep. Needless to say, not my finest programming achievement.

But it worked! Oh, it was glorious. The first slide, the random slides, the last slide. Funnily enough, I originally wanted to pick the first slide, then the slide at 1/5th of the presentation, then 2/5th, etc but I could not make the math work at 2AM because not all slide decks are 52 pages and modulus is hard.

So I wrote a random slide picker (without replacement) because as a trained statistician I always thought I could write that algorithm in my sleep and apparently I can!

It’s for the better, though. The randomness works against any kind of design or flow in the original presentation, and gives much more hilarious results overall.

I may clean it up and make it a real app. Some even suggested it should be an AppleTV app!

If you want to try Keynote Karaoke at your conference with this app, we can talk. I’m easy to find.

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