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Unpresenting

We all know what a presentation looks like: a slideshow, someone stands in front of it and talk, the audience listens, the speaker finishes talking, maybe the audience asks some questions, then everybody leaves. It’s about as tried and true a format as we have in the design community, the bread and butter of delivering projects, viewpoints, ideas, and inspiration. And it’s not just the design community, we’re all living in a world of TED Talks and powerpoint showmanship. But what happens if you start to toy with the format itself? Lots of people take presenting as an opportunity to broadcast themselves and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I liked the idea of trying to make presenting an opportunity to riff on the very nature of presenting. Let’s say this is the model of the presentation:

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The filled blue circle is the presenter and the un-filled blue circles is the audience. Is there a way to make the audience the more akin to the presenter, to level the playing field and engage the audience in the process of presenting and in the experience of being presented to?

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Could we even make something like this?

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One thing is for certain, you’ll never know if you don’t try. Here at Teague every Wednesday we have a Teague Talk that can be an personal get-to-know-me introduction, a talk on a topic that someone here has particular expertise in, or a guest. For my Teague Talk I decided to talk about experimentation and the wonder of not knowing what’s going to happen. I titled the talk In Praise Of Not Knowing and I decided to make the presentation a webpage hosted by a node.js server instead of the usual Keynote or Powerpoint presentation for a very particular reason: I wanted to give at least some control over the presentation to the audience and see what happened. I couldn’t really completely give over control of the content of the presentation itself to the audience but I could hand over control of the slides and the presentation itself and see what happened. And what happened was very fun, very silly, very frustrating, and an absolutely worthwhile exercise. I told anyone attending the talk that they could use the following interface to control the presentation itself:

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As you can see it’s pretty simple but also pretty effectively everything you can do in a presentation. The tech magic (which isn’t particularly magic, to be honest) can be summed up in a single word: websockets. Light real-time communication streams between browsers that can reside on different computers or even just in different browser tabs. My presentation itself was actually just a webpage written using a library called Reveal.js that is made for building presentations out of webpages. You can control the presentation itself with a mouse press, a key press, or with a little Javascript in whatever way you’d like. The controller page allowed anyone to move the presentation forward, backward, to a random slide, and a few other silly additions. I gave out the URI to the audience before beginning the talk so that anyone sitting there could control the presentation. The node.js server used socket.io to route signals from all the different controller instances back to the main presentation instance. The code is pretty simple and is all posted here at our github.

So what worked? Well, it was certainly interesting to feel like you were basically doing a Powerpoint Karaoke with your own presentation with the added weirdness of wondering whether people were flicking around in the presentation because they were curious or because they were bored. In retrospect I shouldn’t have put a story together and instead have put together some loose slides that I could riff on. I was interested in seeing what people would make of the chat and (un?)-fortunately one of my co-workers was really excited by dropping whole iframes into the chat window with scripts running. That basically broke the presentation and was a little madness-making but was also educational: when you invite people to play around and leave the door open, don’t be surprised when they kick it wide open. What went really well was that it was different and unexpected and, well, fun. It was really revealing to have conversations about it afterwards, most of which started along the lines of “that was really interesting; why did you do that?”. And the answer was (and always should be) because I didn’t know what was going to happen but I wanted to find out.

Take a look at the code, drop us a line if you decide to use it, and think about what talking to your peers and clients might look like if it didn’t look like what you’re used to it looking like.

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