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  • December 1, 2011

Designing a Presentation

In my list of career goals, “Public Speaking” was somewhere towards the bottom, under the heading: “Save for Later.” Decorative Illustration I imagined the audience would fall asleep, the floor would turn to lava, and I’d be left clinging to the lectern while the scathing tweets were projected onto the wall behind me. Terrifying. Despite these fears, I made my speaking debut three weeks ago, along with two of my colleagues, Michael “MJ” Johnson and Allison Wagner, at AIGA Philly’s 3rd Pencil 2 Pixel presentation.

Why did I take this leap? It was mostly out of curiosity. Would I enjoy public speaking, not to mention, be any good at it? Also, I love the work I do, and I felt compelled to share this enthusiasm with students and new designers.

What I learned was that designing a presentation isn’t that different from the same challenge we, as web designers, solve every day: “What is my content and how do I organize and craft it into a meaningful, enjoyable experience?”

Patterns and Repetition

Our topic, Designing for Content Management Systems, asked the question, “How can we create and implement design systems that allow our clients to easily share their content with the world, long after our work is done?” Our challenge was creating one story from the ideas of three presenters who all had vastly diverse backgrounds and opinions. Creating content was easy. We had all accumulated a mass of ideas, techniques, and advice to share. The hard part was refining, clarifying, and crafting this content into a unified message.

Content patterns are crucial to a clear user experience. Repetition creates rhythm, and rhythm keeps our audience engaged. To bring clarity to our presentation, we needed to take our scattered lists and create patterns. Our first task was defining our key themes. For us, these themes were: planning, modularity, collaboration, and extensibility. Similar ideas were grouped by theme, and ideas that didn’t fit were discarded.

Reducing and refining information was essential. Because our subject matter was so familiar to us, we risked delving too deep into minutia without clearly explaining our thoughts. Simple messages tied to our themes were the most effective.


Even with our content patterns in place, we had to make sure our narrative made sense. When our story felt murky, MJ began sketching the presentation on a whiteboard. Limited real estate on the whiteboard forced us to focus on our main points, dropping superflous detail. It was essentially an abridged outline, but the arrows linking the sections revealed that our job was to keep the story moving forward. The beauty of sketching a presentation, instead of making an outline, is that it gives you a map. It tells you where you need to start, where you need to end, and what stops you need to make along the way. With your map, you can decide if you need to add a stop or take a shortcut somewhere.

Interaction and Extensibility

Like a successful website, a successful presentation must facilitate discussion and interaction. It’s dynamic. The slides may be final, but the tone and pace must adapt to the audience. Without audience interaction, my practice sessions felt like I’d forgotten how to speak. I labored over words and stumbled often. In front of a crowd, though, the words flowed. The immediate feedback of people taking notes or laughing gave me momentum. The task of finding the perfect word was obsolete.

The audience also determines the value of the presentation. If we’ve done our job, our audience will continue to engage with our content long after the presentation is complete. Two years prior to our presentation day, I sat in the very same room, as an eager recent college grad, and watched Jason Santa Maria and Liz Danzico speak at the first Pencil 2 Pixel. I didn’t understand all of the concepts that day, but the ideas remained as a reference, to be extracted and adapted to suit my needs.

That’s the exciting part about ideas! They start to evolve from the moment they’re shared. I felt compelled to share the knowledge I’d gained from mentors, peers, books, presentations, and my own trial and error. Hopefully it inspired new designers to create great work and keep those ideas moving forward. Regardless, I learned that there’s nothing terrifying about sharing enthusiasm.

Seasoned speakers, I invite you to share any tips you’ve gathered along the way. Those new to the game, is anything holding you back?

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