Planning a presentation

One of the things about research is that sometimes you want to tell people about it (or need to tell people about it.)

The details of what makes a great presentation depend a bit on what you’re doing and who you’re presenting to, but since I just did one in March and I’m preparing another one for early June at work, now seems a good time to talk a bit about my process in case it’s helpful to anyone else.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

Preparing in advance

Among writers, one of the commonly phrased distinctions is between plotters (people who plot their writing in advance) and pantsers (as in ‘writing by the seat of their…’, who make it up as they go along.)

I think there’s something similar with presentations. I’m the kind of person who starts thinking about what I’m doing months in advance. I tease a friend who starts thinking about slides a couple of weeks in advance, if that.

On the other hand, if you’re putting together slides, you do need to leave some time to do that, because the process of making the things always takes longer than you think it’s going to.

(Or is that just me? I don’t think it’s just me.)

Timing

One of the biggest factors in presentations is the question of time, so that’s where I always start.

There are different styles of presenting – some of them are about personal preference, some are about the style asked for in whatever you’re doing, and some are a mix. Obviously, if there’s a set format (like pecha kucha, which is popular in tech conferences and some library settings)

The presentation I did in March was just me for a full hour, so I had a lot of freedom about how to structure it. The one in June is a panel discussion where I get maybe 15 minutes. Obviously, there’s a lot of difference in how much content I can fit.

Some people do relatively few slides, and spend a lot of time on them. I more generally prefer very brief slides, with about 30 seconds on most of them and lingering on them. (I usually fall into this, though it depends on the presentation.)

Another factor is whether the slides are getting distributed after. If my slides are mostly for the presentation factor and not getting distributed as notes afterwards, I usually go for fewer words (and I also generally do a text-based writeup – I often do this if I have lots of links or things I want to explain briefly.)

If my slides are the principle information people are getting, then I’ll use more words, and I’ll structure it so the slides and presenter comments sections cover the key information, and then I can share the notes and people can make sense of the content.

Arranging material

I find it really helpful to set up slides and then move things around as I develop the presentation. It usually looks like this:

1) Pick a theme if I need to (work makes this easy: there’s a set one we’re supposed to use.)

2) Set up the title slide and a slide at the end for questions and contact information. With professional presentations, I usually know what the title is by this point because I had to come up with something for the program.

3) Make a slide for each big point I want to make.

4) As I work through the content, make additional slides as I need to break things down more, or need more space. Doing this by clumps of content works best for me.

5) Periodically review the entire deck and see what needs to be moved around, or duplicates itself, or needs a bit more expansion.

(In the slide deck I’m currently creating at work, I realised that I really needed to back up and explain things for two slides before I got into the content, to put something in better context. I don’t want to dwell on it in detail, but I need to remember that most people in the room don’t live and breathe the details!)

6) Somewhere in here, putting some images in is good.

I’m not a visually driven person – I’m just as happy with well-chosen text-based design (like a big word or short phrase on a slide, with maybe some additional text below)

But other people like images, so I look for ways to include them (and then include alt-text and other appropriate captioning and description for accessibility.) The current presentation has images of the people and places I’m talking about. If I’m just looking for decorative images, Unsplash is a great source for public domain images.

7) Edit the presentation to a reasonable length

For me, this is no more than one slide per minute, and I may make further cuts depending.

8) Time the presentation.

This is when I run through the presentation (usually two or three times) to get a sense for timing and what information I need a bit more time on or what can be cut or combined.

9) Save in all the formats

Having had enough glitches, I bring a copy on USB, save a copy in a format I can get to via Google Drive or email, and usually save a copy in an alternate format (PDF) as well in both places. Just in cases.

Presenting

The actual process of presenting is pretty straight-forward:

1) Test the technology early.

The conference in March was great – they let me get in the room, get my file on the computer used with the projector, all when I first arrived. Sometimes that’s not possible.

2) Get to the room before my presentation with plenty of time.

I usually do a quick pause by the bathroom, make sure I have water, and then go there without lingering after the previous section. (If there’s 15 minutes between presentations, this usually works fine: I’m there at least 10 minutes in advance.)

3) Get the slides up, and any handouts out where people can get them. Check if there’s any introduction happening, and if so what I need to do about that.

(In professional settings, this usually involves correcting how you pronounce my last name. People insist on making it French. It hasn’t been French since the Norman Invasion, in terms of it being my family name.

4) Do the presentation.

I don’t get stage fright (there are advantages to growing up with a theatre professor and performer and lecturer as a parent), and I’m not really experienced in how to deal with it if you do.

But this is the point where you need to do the thing or you’re not doing the thing. If you think doing the thing is going to be a problem, sorting that out in advance is usually better if you can.

5) When you’re done, share whatever you said you’re going to share.

This might be your slides, a handout, a text version of the presentation, or something else. It might be passing out business cards or contact information.

RSS feeds and you

I’ve seen several people talking about a resurgance in independent blogs and RSS readers recently – so it’s clearly time for a post about what they offer and why you may want to make them part of your research and learning process.

Green leaves curling up around the word "productivity"

What are independent blogs?

This is a term used for blogs that people host themselves, that are not part of some larger social media network. That means that they control what gets posted, they can determine the layout of the site, and (other than some actual legal limits and the site host’s terms of service), they can decide what they include or don’t include.

The good thing about this is that if a site changes its focus, or gets bought, or changes its focus, you still have all your own content, under your own control. And modern tools make it pretty easy to share what you create on other social media sites.

Blogs are also great for putting up longer thoughts or posts (like this one) even if you then quickly reference them in a site where long discussions don’t work as well (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram are all designed to share things other than long-form content at a stable location you can return to and review easily.)

Back in the early web, you had to remember to go check blogs and see if they’d posted anything new. That meant loading lots of pages, and could get really annoying really fast.

What is RSS?

RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication. Basically, it looks for a particular kind of content on sites (a ‘feed’) and gathers all of that information in one place.

That means instead of loading all your different sites and checking them manually, you open the RSS reader, and you see all the new posts in the RSS reader. It’s particularly great for blogs that update erratically or rarely – you can be sure you’ll see posts when they happen.

Depending on a vareity of settings (some on your end, some on the blog’s end) you may see a short summary or beginning of the post, the full text of the post, the full post with any graphics, or something else. You can always click through to the actual site if you want to see the post in all its glory.

As you can guess from that, RSS readers can also be great if you want a simplified reading experience (just the text without graphics or flashy designs or ads), or if you have bandwidth concerns.

Keeping things in order

If you’re like me (or lots of other people, I gather) you read different sites for different reasons. You may want to group things in your reader to make it easier to keep up. Some things you may care about reading all the time, others you may dip into when you have some spare time, but mark as read when you’re busy.

Many people find it helpful to divide their feeds up into groups, to make it easier to find things, or to skim things they’re sometimes interested in, but don’t read all the time.

Here are my folders (and an explanation of the less obvious categories)

  • Academia
  • Authors (blogs by authors)
  • Business (blogs about business things – mostly small business or writing focused)
  • Comics
  • Divination
  • Food (recipe blogs, mostly.)
  • Legal issues (mostly copyright and intellectual property issues, since that’s a particular thing I’m interested in.)
  • Libraries
  • Pagan
  • Practicalities (where I put advice, finance, and lifehack type blogs)
  • Stories (authors focusing on folklore)
  • Technology
  • Thinky (see below)
  • Voluminous reading (also a see below.)

“Thinky” is my category for long-form writing I usually want to think about more. Longform.org is a good example (they link to three or so long-form articles every day), or John Scalzi’s blog Whatever (even though he’s an author, it goes in the Thinky category because a lot of his posts are things I want to chew on or take some time with.)

Voluminous reading is where I stick things that produce a lot of posts, or posts I mostly want to skim past and just read the ones that are interesting. Some people find very active blogs frustrating, because they want to read it all. I feel like that unless I put them in a special section that’s labelled so I know I’ll be skimming through. Metafilter feeds go here (they can produce 20-50ish posts in a day, depending on how busy things are.)

And then two sort of special categories:

  • Tumblrs
  • AO3 subscriptions

I find the Tumblr interface frustrating, and I also do a lot better reading through individual people’s blogs in order, rather than everyone’s posts intermingled (why this matters to me on Tumblr, I have no idea, because I’m fine with it in other contexts). Handling it this way lets me have a space to read a particular person’s Tumblr easily.

AO3 are my feeds for particular tags for fanfic on Archive of Our Own – mostly specific canons that get intermittent posts but not always very frequent. That way, when there is something new, I can check in.

Want more ideas?

There’s a great discussion post on Metafilter about one of the articles about RSS coming back, which has recs for different apps and tools, if you want more ideas.

Researching events: small events

Last in the current series of researching events, I want to talk a little about small events.

My religious community is the modern Pagan community (or rather communities: there are a lot of overlapping ones), and one of the things I know confuses people new to this thing we do is how to find out about and learn more about smaller events – the ones that happen weekly or monthly or seasonally.

(The same thing goes for people exploring new religious communities in other places, too. Or any other place that has its own culture: an exercise studio, an arts activity, moving into a new school as a kid or a parent, all sorts of places.)

Researching events: loaf of bread and bowls of grain and lavender on a table, ready to share

Tacit knowledge

There’s a concept called ‘tacit knowledge’ – if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve seen me refer to it before.

Tacit knowledge is, by definition, hard to explain in words or examples. It’s the things we pick up by doing things or sometimes by watching other people (either in person or through TV or movies) It’s what can help us feel like we know what we’re doing in a new situation – if what we’ve picked up is accurate and helpful for that situation.

You can probably see right away how this can also be a big problem.

Not everyone has equal access to tacit knowledge. Some of it depends on experiences you’ve already had (it’s easier to make a leap of understanding if you’ve done something similar).

Some kinds of tacit knowledge require you (or your parents or someone else near you) to have time, money, or resources to expose you to a particular thing – for example, how attending a live theatre performance might be different than movies or a sports event.

Exploring a new community involves lots of tacit knowledge.

Knowing yourself

Exploring a new community also works better if you know yourself well. Some people find entering a group of people they don’t know stressful at best and upsetting at worst. That makes it hard to relax or enjoy what’s going on. Other people like the chance to meet someone new, and don’t find entering a group event very intimidating at all. (I am not that person, but I am assured they exist.)

Some people are intimidated by a classroom or workshop setting, and find it makes them very anxious. Other people find the structure of that setting (which usually comes with a reasonably good idea of the topic to be covered, how long you’ll be there, and some of what you’ll be doing) to be very reassuring. I’m one of those people.

Some people don’t mind large groups, and like the chance to observe and interact as they choose, without people pressing them for conversation. Some people really prefer small groups, where a new person is noticed and welcomed (well, hopefully welcomed.)

Finding out about small events

This depends a lot on the community.

If you’re looking at a particular organization, start with their information. Depending on the org, that might be a website, a Meetup group, a Facebook group, some other form of social media, a mailing list, or something else.

Whatever form it is, a well-run event will do a few things. They’ll tell you when the event is happening, a rough outline of what will happen at it, and what you should bring or expect. If you don’t see the things below, with enough advance time for you to make appropriate plans, then either give the event a pass this time, or at least go into it a little cautiously.

1) When the event is happening (with enough warning)

People have busy lives, and may need to schedule other things – if you tell someone about an event that takes place a few times a year a week or two out, a lot of people may already have plans, or have been scheduled for shifts at work, or need to sort out children’s schedules, or all sorts of other things.

The same guidelines go for special events at something that has a regular schedule (for example, special services at a religious community that has weekly meetings.)

If an event is always at the same time, and happens monthly or more often, you can just let people catch up when they can. If it’s something like a Sabbat ritual (eight times a year, roughly 6-7 weeks apart), then letting people know when it’s scheduled at least a month in advance is nice, even if you follow up with additional details later.

2) The event’s schedule

Depending on the event, there may be a time people gather (i.e. the space is open and you can get in the building), a start time (maybe after this time no one else is allowed in) and often a time that everyone has to be leaving the site.

There may also be a time for a social hour or potluck or other community event (often with food, that’s my next topic.) and it’s nice to let people know the split between the main activity and the social community time (which is also important, but usually more flexible if you need to leave early.)

3) Tell you about what to bring and expect

Different communities have different customs. Some places pass a donation bowl (so in our increasingly cash-free society, you may want to make sure you have a suitable amount of cash to drop in). Some places have a potluck. Some may want you to wear certain clothing or not wear certain clothing, or bring certain items or not bring some items.

A well-planned event will tell you these things, or at least provide some way for you to find out. It’s also great if they provide basic accessibility info and how to find out more, too.

Sometimes this information will be in the announcement itself. Some events (especially ones with the same general information most of the time) will have it on the website (maybe under a link for first time visitors).

If you have questions, events should also have a way for you to check in with someone in advance.

Once you’re there

Of course, part of evaluating an event involves being there. Usually there’s less sizeable investment on your part in an event that happens regularly or repeatedly. At the same time, that’s no excuse for not looking for how things are going.

Well run events usually stay roughly on schedule (or if they’re running late, they’re specific about why). They’ll often build a little bit of flexible time in the beginning, so that if something runs late, they can adapt.

Again, you’ve likely been to other events sort of like this, and you can use all that past experience to evaluate how it’s going. Do people seem welcoming? Do they explain where things are or help you figure out what you need before things start? Does the event do what they said they would? The specifics are going to depend a lot on the type of event – a networking coffee meeting is different than a religious service is different than an educational workshop, of course.

 

Researching events: Warning signs

In my previous post, I talked about researching events. This time, let’s look at some specific things to evaluate when considering events.

Why am I going into this in this much detail on a blog about research? First, it’s helpful (and I like being helpful!) but it’s also a concrete thing to evaluate, because we all have some experience in the physical world, and how some things work there.

Learning how to evaluate specific points with things we know something about helps us learn skills we can use when we’re evaluating things we know less about (like new information or subject areas.) It also helps us learn to ask better questions, which can guide our research.

Researching events: loaf of bread and bowls of grain and lavender on a table, ready to share

Information wants to be available

(Or rather, people planning an event should want to make it easy to find the important things about the event.)

One big warning sign – for events, for people, for research – is information that is seriously insufficient for what the resource wants to be able to do.

A well-planned event will want to tell you important things so you can make decisions about your plans in good time. They won’t make it terribly hard for you to find things like where and when the event is, practical details like what you should plan for, or any costs.

A poorly planned event, however, will often talk up guests or big plans – but they won’t mention exactly what those guests are going to be doing or focusing on (which makes it hard to plan.)

They may mention dozens of panels or activities, but not provide any kind of schedule in advance. They might talk about accesibility or inclusion, but not actually provide advance information about accessibility resources (or ways to ask) or think about different parts of the community.

No event can be all things to all people – but the good events will give you lots of information up front so you can figure out if it’ll work for you, if you need to ask some more questions, or if it’s not a great fit for you (at least at the moment).

You’ve probably known people in your life who talk up a thing, and don’t have follow through. You can apply the same skills here. If something seems a little weird to you, follow up further.

Where is that information?

Another warning sign is for an event of any size that doesn’t have some sort of stable web presence. Facebook and Twitter (and other forms of social media) can be good ways to get the word out, but there are plenty of people who don’t use them, or who don’t use them for parts of their life.

(I use Facebook for professional reasons, but avoid things that make my religious life obvious there.)

It can be really hard to find current information on a lot of social media sites – so if that’s the only place an event has a lot of information, people may miss important things or necessary details. That’s no good for anyone.

When is that information ready?

Obviously, it takes time to put together the details! However, if information isn’t available roughly along the timeline in the last post, that’s a good time to think about some alternate plans.

First time events often don’t leave quite enough time for programming information to be finalised, or they may have changes up to the last minute (if they have open slots, they may add things, or people may need to change plans and can’t do what they signed up for.

This is somewhat less common with large well-established events, but even then guests can get sick or have unavoidable conflicts come up.)

The plans are based on a sensible foundation

It’s a rare event that starts out and can have a couple of thousand people there the first year. Most first year events start with a couple of hundred people at best – and sensible event planners will start there.

Ambitious plans can be very attractive – but they’re one of the easiest ways for events to go wrong.

Think about the money

Some of it’s about money. If you are touting an event as really big, you need a place to put those people. Big event spaces cost a lot of money, and come with a lot of other complicated commitments (like AV and technology rental, stages, things like tables and drapes and chairs.)

With smaller groups and smaller spaces, you often have a bit more control over what you need to spend money on, and what you can find some other options for.

Even a small event (off-season, in a modest amount of hotel space that is not competing with wedding parties) can run $10,000 very easily, and often quite a bit more. So just because an event has raised a lot of money, doesn’t mean they have enough to make a huge event.

Some costs associated with the event are things that it’s hard to estimate if you’re not familiar with event planning in general (to have a sense of the range of things that will cost an event money) and the place the event is taking place in specific (because there are tons of regional or even neighborhood differences).

But you can spot some of them, like “More guests probably involves a lot more money” and you can make some rough napkin calculations about likely amounts for plane fares and hotel room nights for guests based on details the convention tells you. If those don’t seem to add up, you can tell other stuff might not either.

And about the infrastructure

It’s not just about money (though the money is an issue too). A big event needs a lot of infrastructure.

Running operations takes some people – someone’s got to register people or check them in, and be available for operational help (the AC is on too high, it’s too hot in there, we’ve run out of water, do you have some tape?) But someone also needs to be on hand for more complicated needs like managing high-demand lines or events, or providing security.

If there are party rooms, alcohol, competitions, or special guests who attract a lot of attention, you probably also need some kind of security or at least a plan for people to circulate and make sure things are going legally and smoothly.

Who’s providing medical support if medical issues come up? Smaller events in hotels or other rented buildings may not need anyone specifically focused on it, but bigger events or outdoor events do. Even in a hotel-based event without particular physical risks, a group of a few thousand people has a decent chance of someone having a significant medical issue during the event. You want the event to be thinking about safety concerns, and especially to be clear about options for events that are at campground or festival sites, have significant outdoor activities, or at times of year when things like heat exhaustion or cold might be a problem.

Competent staff don’t grow on trees – so where is this event getting them from? A lot of events run on a lot of volunteer help (especially for things like badging, supporting programming or panels, or the vendor/dealer room or art show). Where are those volunteers coming from? Is there a known number of people who are steady, going to show up for their shifts, and ask questions if they’re confused?

This list is woefully incomplete, but it gives you an idea of what to be looking for.

Follow the numbers

There are three sets of numbers you should pay attention to, especially for a new event. These are the advertised number of attendees, the number of guests, and the cost for the event.

Number of attendees

I touched on this one above, but it’s not that common for events to start big. Most events – even the ones that are now 5,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 people, started much smaller (often just a couple of hundred). Plenty of successful ongoing events started with a hundred or two hundred people in a reasonably sized rental space, and grew from there.

If an event’s success depends on it starting large – or if you see lots of urgent pleas for significant numbers of tickets – that’s a time to look closely at your options. Make sure you won’t get stranded if something goes wrong.

Number of guests

Bringing in guests is usually a significant expense for a convention – even the ones that are not big media conventions. It has to be worth it to the guest to give up their time (and for authors or other creators, it can often be a big disruption in their work schedule to be away from home from Thursday or Friday through sometime on Monday.)

It’s common for even very small conventions to offer their guests of honour at least housing, a food stipend, and often also transportation and at least a small honorarium. (Extremely popular guests, guests associated with big media productions like movies or major TV series obviously may have a lot of additional requirements).

Guests also involve time and infrastructure from the committee – someone needs to be focusing on where the guest is and needs to get to, that everything is ready for them, and to make sure the guest gets a chance to eat and sleep without disruption.

You can see why most small conventions often have one or two guests of honour. They may have other featured presenters, panel moderators, or people doing other programming, but usually those people are not getting the same sort of support from the convention.

So if you see a long list of special guests or guests of honour, be a little cautious. Or maybe a lot cautious.

Unrealistic funding streams

A lot of new events want to give everyone a discount! And yes, rewarding your early backers is great, but doing it with things that take money away from your event is not so great.

Take a look at similar events in the area, and what they charge for memberships or tickets or specific kinds of activities at the event. The chances are pretty good that a brand new, unknown event is not going to make a better deal for space rental or other kinds of expenses than a known event that’s been doing this for a while.

(Known events who bring in solid income for a hotel or conference center every year can sometimes make some really great deals – that can help them keep costs low, or bring in more guests, or do more special activities. But you need to build up a reputation of being easy to deal with and lucrative for the other businesses involved, first.)

If you see an event that’s half the price of similar events in the same area – what’s different? Sometimes you can figure out (One event is not doing a lot of expensive things that are at the other event. They’re in different seasons, and one of them is high tourism season or during some other regional big event when hotel prices are high, or whatever.)

If you can’t figure it out, be cautious of events that seem too good to be true. They quite possibly are.

Similarly. if the event is relying on crowdfunding, look for what the rewards are, and if those make financial sense for the event. It doesn’t make sense for an event to give rewards that take a lot of the money it needs for the event, does it? (That’s things like highly discounted attendance, or hotel rooms, or other big discounts.) Those things make sense if someone’s pledging a lot of money (like 10 times the amount of the ticket) but not just for the ordinary ticket price.

You will often see a wide range of ticket prices over the course of the event – that’s normal. Many events have an early bird registration that’s significantly cheaper, sometimes half the price of a later membership, to encourage people to register early and give them seed money for deposits for the event.

As it gets closer to the event, prices go up. But events should be pegging the costs so that their cheapest prices still would cover the expenses per person of the event, at a bare minimum.

Next in this series: evaluating smaller regular events.