On presentation software: Keynote and better
I spend way too much of my life trying to make presentations compelling. My style is distinctive. I love it that others make money teaching it to others: I once met someone at Apple HQ who asked, “are you the Lessig of the Lessig Method? I just left a session where they were teaching us your style.” The web is littered with examples of me using this style in a presentation. And I was inspired to develop it by speaking at many tech conferences in which the audience sat glued to their laptops. I needed a way to get them to look up — so many slides, single words or just a few, was the trick. I think this was the first time I used this style — 21 years ago! (It’s says that was the next to the last time I would speak — I meant before I was to present an argument to the Supreme Court, not forever.)
Here’s a more recent example.
The idea of the style is that the screen should never be your competitor. It drives me nuts to sit in a presentation in which the screen begs me to read it rather than listen to the presenter. Why would you do that to yourself? You’re the speaker. You have total control of what the audience sees. Why would you put on stage something that makes it less likely the audience will hear what you’re saying?
My hope when I started this was that others would copy it (and best, without attribution). Some have. There are many who do it much better than I. But as I’ve thought about why it’s not more common, I’ve realized that dominant presentation software applications do not help. I first used Powerpoint. When the program lost file references when I moved my library between machines, I shifted to Apple’s Keynote. And while there’s much to admire in Keynote, it is not built to support the kind of presentations I make.
That’s led me to fantasize often about taking a year or so off to build a presentation app (with coders, of course) that would make this style easy. When (financial) reality breaks through (one teen about to enter college, two still at home — there’s no way I could afford that), I then fantasize about the small tweaks that would make it so Keynote did support this kind of presentation — or at least come close.
What follows then is both: a description of what the ideal (IMHO) would look like, and a map the the (relatively small) changes in Keynote that would get that app close.
But first, a disclaimer: I’m not writing this to persuade you about how you should do presentations. Do whatever makes you feel good. And I’ve too many other real-world battles that I’ve committed myself to (wisely or not) to be drawn into a debate about which method is best. There’s lots out there that engages that debate. (Follow this thread). My only purpose here is to describe (and as the post introducing this page describes, liberate myself from these thoughts, once they’ve been published), and to join the movement that practices giving ideas away, in the hope others with more skill or insight or time could do good with them.
What the ideal presentation app would look like
The theory behind my method is that people should give talks that are great talks, and that the computer should help them do that. A great talk is a narrative. It is beautifully constructed as a narrative, its words are carefully selected, it has a pace and purpose. It has a beginning and middle and end.
A computer should help you craft that narrative and build a presentation based upon it. And then it should help you present it. It helps you craft it, by giving you a clean and simple space to write what you want to say. It helps you build it by making it simple to craft what the audience will see based upon what you’re saying. And then it helps you present it, by giving you a clean way to show what you want to show, while supporting you as you present it.
Crafting a narrative
The crafting part is the most intuitive. I am affected fundamentally by the cleanliness of the interface for writing. I actually do tons of drafting on Medium, never intending it to be published on Medium, but just using the interface to inspire me to write. The crafting interface for the app should be similarly simple: clean, white, with almost no icons screaming their distraction. The margins should be wide. And it should give you a simple floating window that reports how long what you’ve written would take to present. (You set your speed in preferences).
The flow of the app should encourage the user to spend tons of time in this crafting space. The app should read out loud what the user writes; she should hear how it will sound. And she should be convinced before she launches into the building part that the story is compelling and that the audience would want to hear it.
That said, the app should not insist. Some people present from an outline. Some use their slides to trigger what they want to say. I never use a script, though at times I would, were it easier (see the presentation part below). Instead, my talks are always simply triggered by the words on the next slide. So the crafting part should allow people to simply write outlines or small phrase triggers of what they want to say next. Ideally, it would start at the highest level of generality (“introduce the idea, show an example, explain why better”); and then allow each idea to expand, to allow the crafting of a more careful exposition (“introduce: the problem I saw, how grandma clued me into the answer, why the answer is an answer”).
But whether a script or an outline, the first interaction with the app should enable a simple uncluttered way to craft what you want to say. And once you have a draft, the app would then help you build a presentation based on what you say.
Building a presentation
Based on the draft, the app should make it simple to build a presentation. The screen should split between the narrative and the presentation, narrative on the left, and it should give you an easy way to highlight the words in the presentation that would appear on the slide that will be visible while you’re saying what you are saying. At first, it shouldn’t worry about style in the slides. And it should allow the user to easily pick a freely licensed image or gif or video that explains the highlighted words, if the words themselves won’t do it. The interface would offer a simple tool to break to the next slide. Again, transitions are suppressed during this initial building. The only aim is to ensure that the ideas being expressed in the narrative are complemented and supported by the text or image the audience sees.
Once a draft is completed, the split screen flips, so the narrative is on the right, and the presentation is on the left. The app should then allow the user a simple way to improve the style of the slides being presented. Simple transitions, beautiful graphics: it should be easier add and change these; it should be trivial to create common patterns across slides. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more convinced that less is more. Fewer fancy transitions; fewer efforts at drama. But all that’s a matter of taste. The app should make whatever taste is desired accessible.
Presenting a presentation
Then finally, there is the presenting part. The screen the presenter sees should be the stuff that makes speaking easy. For some, that means a well-structured teleprompter, with text that’s large and visible. For others, that’s just the outline or words that trigger what you want to say. But prominence of place should be given to whatever makes it easy and comfortable to present. It should be training wheels to give you confidence you’re not going to fall.
And ideally, the app would be smart enough to listen to you and to adjust the teleprompter based upon what it hears you saying (so the speed becomes automatic to your speaking), and based upon what you’re saying, the slide advances, automatically. Of course, like Tesa FSD, I’d be terrified to depend upon those automatic advances, so there needs to be a simple way to adjust each as you go. That’s not a trivial design requirement, I recognize. But a presentation must be live and it must build in the chance for stopping and adjusting and shifting to purely manual mode. (Someone once told me about someone who had adopted my style for their dissertation defense, but set the slides to advance automatically — 1 minute in, someone asked a question, and the rest was then a disaster…).
Ok, so all together, the idea of this app is to help the user, differently, at the three stages of presenting — help her craft the narrative, help her build a presentation based on that narrative, and then help her present in a way that gives the presenter confidence as she presents. If done perfectly, it would invite us to allow the speaker to present as if she were reading a presentation again, but with case and ease, but complement that reading with images and text that frames what’s being said in a way that reinforces what is being said.
How Keynote Could Be Tweaked to Get Close
Hundreds of times after I’ve presented, I’ve been asked: “What software are you using?” And people are astonished that it is nothing more than off-the-shelf Apple Keynote. But the reality is, Keynote blocks this way of presenting, in a million obvious ways. Yet as I’ve thought about these flaws in Keynote (at least from the perspective I’m offering), I’ve realized, many of them could be solved by Apple with relatively little effort.
In no careful order, then, here are the things Apple could do to make Keynote wildly more useful for presenting styles like mine.
The most obvious way in which Keynote is not compatible with the app I’ve described is that presenter notes are tied to slides, rather than living independently of slides (so that slides can be linked to the notes, rather than notes linked to the slides). This makes the design of crafting, then building impossibly difficult, as each step in writing is the building of a new slide.
One simple way to minimize the consequence of this limitation would be to make the presentation mode display more flexible. As it is, you can easily set up the presentation mode to look like a teleprompter without the prompting, and the slides set next to it. E.g.,
On the left is the Presenter Notes. On the right top is the currently displayed slide; below it, the next slide. It would seem to be a simple task to allow the Rehearse mode to facilitate easier editing on both sides. As it is, you can click the Edit button on the Presenter Notes window, and edit the presenter notes. (And if you’ve set the style for Presenter Notes, it will be the right size.) But the default should be to permit me to edit the Presenter Notes, and also to add at least simple changes to the slides themselves. If both were trivially easy, then it would come close to the Crafting stage described for the app.
Even better would be if you could highlight a word or phrase in the Presenter Notes, and with one-click, generate a slide based on that text. That would make Keynote almost identical to the Crafting stage described above. All that would be missing then is that in the actual presentation (“Play”), the presentation view would need to include an indicator showing that Keynote understood where you were in your narrative, and an indication of when slides would be changing, if auto advance were selected.
Let us set the defaults
The most obvious improvement — and not just for this style of presentation—would be for Apple offer an interface that allows the user to set the defaults within Keynote. This interface could just be a separate program.
Obviously, you can set some defaults by specifying styles within a presentation and then saving that presentation as a template. (What that “some” is is never clear to me: Somehow my default has the ugliest default filler color for my shapes imaginable; haven’t seen where/how I change that.) But that option is not available for everything: You used to be able to save transitions in Master Slides. No more. (I have just a handful of template slides I use, and used to be able to specify what the default animation with that slide was; that ability was removed.)
But the defaults I mean are more fundamental choices that Apple makes that often make no sense at all. For example, when you set an Animation within a slide, Apple has a bunch of defaults. Here’s an example.
I find the duration always to be too long. Maybe others don’t; I don’t know. But an app that allowed me to specify the default duration for animations within Keynote would be super helpful. Likewise with the Start option on the Build Order. (And btw: why is this the Build Order a separate panel by default? There’s tons of space in the animation panel where this could be placed without forcing an additional click.)
Almost never is “On Click” the right option for animations. Or again, at least for me. Why not give me a simple way to change that default?
The default-builder app could enable such a choice with every default — like a spreadsheet that specified the default, and gave you a way to enter a different default. Your Keynote would then become customized to your own preferences, without the preferences panel becoming huge and unwieldy for beginners.
Better tools to organize
It used to be that you could indent slides as deeply as you want. I can’t imagine that cost much to enable, but for some reason, Apple has now limited it. That’s really unhelpful in the crafting stage of building a presentation, as some points are really subservient to others, and that depends on the point, not on how many prior subservient points there were.
Even better would be to allow these logical units to live between presentations, and be insertable within a particular presentation. Here’s what I mean:
I make lots of presentations. All of them are different—sort of. I am constantly updating/improving/modifying the argument in whatever context I’m speaking. And it would be really helpful for the updates for a particular subroutine (that’s how I think about each section) to be callable elsewhere.
So imagine I had a bundle of slides about a particular topic — say, ranked-choice-voting. Imagine I could close that (as in collapse all the slides within that bundle) to a single slide. And then imagine I could designate that bundle as an “idea template.” Keynote would then save that bundle in an idea template directory. In a later presentation, I could then INCLUDE it. But here’s the key: when I modify the slides within the idea template bundle in the new presentation, the template file is updated automatically to reflect the new version. (Maybe a dialog box to be sure). And so when I include the bundle in another presentation, it reflects the latest version from the earlier. As it is, I have to dig around for earlier versions of the same point. And sometimes, I’m frustrated to see that an earlier version put the point better than in a later version.
Other apps do something like this, but: I should be able to have a floating pallette of style attributes that I can click to apply to any slide. For example, I have a limited set of transitions I use. I could be able to drag them to my pallette, and then be able to click that icon to apply it to the slide I’m working on. The pallette should mix every kind of style — text, animations, transitions.
One consequence of Creative Commons that I’m very proud of is its supporting the norm of attribution. Every Creative Commons license requires attribution (even though copyright law itself does not). I think attribution is an essential good.
It is also often very hard to do. I love Unsplash images, and I love the simple way it enables you to give credit. Keynote should enable that facility more generally. Whenever I use an image or video, there should be a simple way to embed attribution information in the metadata for that slide. That information should include whether the image was freely licensed or not (as Creative Commons and Unsplash images are). That would help filter presentations that can be easily shared from ones that can’t. It would also enable the generation of a simple credits screen at the end of the presentation. (I’m really bad at that, as most of the time I am building/editing all the way up to the moment I present.)
Concluding (for now)
That’s it for now. But this is meant to be a living document. If you have feedback or other suggestions, please comment below and I’ll add them as it seems helpful. Again, I don’t have cycles to engage the “but this isn’t the best way to present” argument. Feel free to say that, but don’t expect me to respond. Otherwise, I’ll respond as I can.
And wow, I feel so much better already!