Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Media: State of Play 2009

It's been a while since I posted about the state of media - how we create, receive and make money from making stories.

In that time:
  • the mainstream has disintegrated (at least for me) (*)
  • the noun I use to describe watching a movie or a DVD is changing; I've started to saying
    I'm watching a 'show' or an 'episode'. I suspect someday I be saying I'm watching a file; the activity is being detaching from something physical like a tape or a disc.
  • the US writers' strike led to the creation of internet shows like Dr Horrible's Singalong Blog
  • someone I know has filmed a web-series
  • editing software and vid-cams are so widely available now that I have one.

(*) I no longer watch TV. I now have to have careful conversations with people when discussing shows like Lost and Supernatural to make sure we're not revealing spoilers to each other, because we're out of sync with our viewing.

And check out this comment from an anonymous commenter on Kung Fu Monkey, describing their set-up for downloading shows. Key quote:
If I'm out with friends and they recommend a show or movie to me, I can go to a public search engine with my smart phone, enter in the name of the film, and when I get home, that movie will be waiting for me to watch in blu-ray perfect HD.

... I'm a reasonably well-seasoned techie in my early 30's, and I set this system up in a weekend with a terabyte of storage for under $600. That means in 1 year, 18 months tops, the price will have halved, the installers will be polished, the software will STILL be free, and this sort of thing will be taking off in homes all over the country.
So, yeah, the situation has shifted.

Obviously, distributing and replicating shows is basically free.

Creators are now producing their own high-quality material, independent of major studios. Leverage, a heist show was shot and post-produced using domestic equipment. It has no major studio financing. It was successful enough to get renewed for a second season on TNT, a legitimate, well-thought of network.

Revenue? Well, that's still the issue - Leverage (I assume) is earning money through screening on TNT - and the basic rule still applies: the moment you release something, it will be available for free on the internet. If you're in this to make money, you need to confident of making it before that happens.

We have entered the era of DIY stories, pulled by readily available tech, and pushed by market forces and outmoded business models.

Bill Cunningham, over at Pulp 2.0 lays out a bunch of relevant links, which I summarise here.

Ted Hope over at Truly Free Film provides a list of 38 problems with the American independent film scene. Here are the ones that stuck out for me:
  • Too many leisure options for film to compete without further enhancing the theatrical and cinematic experience.
  • Too many "specialized" films opening to allow such films to gain word of mouth and audience's attention.
  • Too many films available and being distributed to allow films to stay in one theater for very long, making it more difficult to develop a word of mouth audience.
  • Distrib's abandonment (and lack of development) of community-building marketing approaches for specialized releases (which reduces appeal for a group activity i.e. the theatrical experience).
  • Distrib's failure to embrace limited streaming of features for audience building.
  • Reliance on large marketing spend release model restricts content to broad subjects (which decreases films' distinction in marketplace) and reduces ability to focus on pre-aggregated niche audiences.
  • Recession has reduced private equity available for film investment.
  • No new business model for internet exploitation at a level that can justify reasonable film budgets.
Recently, some of my friends (Winged Ink) have been telling me about how Kristen Hersh runs her music career now - from home, communicating with fans via the internet and providing them with customised products. It's very much in the spirit of the 1000 True Fans model. That fits with this article by David Byrne, describing a spectrum of business models that musicians can apply.

The 360, or equity, deal, where every aspect of the artist's career is handled by producers, promoters, marketing people, and managers. You achieve wide saturation and sales, while becoming a brand, owned and operated by the label.

The standard distribution deal. The record company bankrolls the recording and owns the copyright to the recording; the artist gets a royalty percentage.

The license deal. Similar to the standard deal, except the artist retains the copyrights and ownership of the master recording.

The profit-sharing deal. The artist gets a minimal advance from the label, and they share the profits from day one. The artist retains ownership of the master.

The manufacturing and distribution deal. The artist does everything except manufacture and distribute the product. The artist gets absolute creative control.

The self-distribution model, where the music is self-produced, self-written, self-played, and self-marketed. CDs are sold at gigs and through a Web site. Promotion is a MySpace page. Within the limits of what they can afford, the artists have complete creative control.

For me, the key quote from Byrne's article comes here:
Radiohead adopted this DIY model to sell In Rainbows online — and then went a step further by letting fans name their own price for the download. <snip> ... As one of Radiohead's managers, Bryce Edge, told me, "The industry reacted like the end was nigh. They've devalued music, giving it away for nothing.' Which wasn't true: We asked people to value it, which is very different semantics to me."
Stories, created in a bunch of different ways, released into the wild, and then valued by the audience according to a business model that you decide on.

More on exquisite corpses

Just wanted to draw your attention again to the previous entry. It's an on-line story (told in 250 word installments). If you're interested in writing the next chapter, check it out.

According to Wikipedia, this sort of exquisite corpse (aka "exquisite cadaver" or "rotating corpse") was invented by Surrealists in France, just after World War 1 (and holy crap, was surrealism a reaction to World War 1? That seems completely reasonable now I understand the time frame). When Surrealists first played the game, their story contained the phrase "Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau." ("The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.")

Anyway, calling all bloggers. Here's a chance to have some fun.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Sleep Dep On-Line Exquisite Corpse

This entry is part of an on-line exquisite corpse - a short story told in 10 installments by 10 different authors. My 250 word installment is below; if you're interested in writing the next part, scroll down to the bottom of this post for details on how this all works...

--- --- ---


whistle three times if you find anything.”

“Anything, like what?” said a man Dianne didn’t recognize.

The officer explained, and by about halfway through her explanation Dianne had begun to recognize the dread of the situation, of what could’ve happened and what it could mean for who they were looking for. None of this stopped her from maneuvering her way into a group with Peter, but it did make her feel self-conscious and vaguely shitty about herself as they set off.

At first there were no words - just a focus on the task, taking seriously the idea that you had to search behind every tree, peer into every bit of the dense foliage. Added to that, the path up through the bush was slick from last night’s rain, and people’s attentions were divided between the search and just managing to stay on their feet.

So Dianne’s first words – “How did you find out about this?” - felt like they were violating the culture of diligence that had started to emerge in their group. But it was obvious that despite the awkwardness, no-one felt in a position to chastise her, and after a moment Peter realised that she was speaking to him.

“My mum called me last night. I had to get up at four to drive down here, but … yeah.”

“You had to come.” She finished his sentence and saw on his face that he wished she hadn’t. She started to apologise and then realised it would only

--- --- ---

This is part 2 of 10. You can find the other installments here (but DON'T DO THIS YET if you want to join in):

1. www.sleep-dep.blogspot.com (26 June 2009)
2. www.multi-dimensional.blogspot.com (27 June 2009)

WANT TO READ IT? Jump back to the previous entries using the links above.

WANT TO JOIN IN? This exquisite corpse operates on a first-come, first-served basis. If you want to write the next installment, FOLLOW THESE INSTRUCTIONS:

1.IMPORTANT - Don't read any of the previous entries! Read only the one you see here.

2.ALSO IMPORTANT - Post a comment here, saying “I claim the next entry”, followed by the URL/web address of your blog. If you don't do this, we'll never know where to find you.

3.Copy the text of this blog entry into a new post on your blog, but DELETE THE CHAPTER and write your own as the next installment. Start with the chapter number as I've done here, and start exactly where the last chapter left off (in mid-sentence if necessary).

4.Your entry should be EXACTLY 250 words long, unless you are writing chapter 10, in which case you must bring the story to a conclusion in 250 words or less.

5.At the end of the chapter, where the text reads: “This is part X of 10”, change this to the number of your chapter.

6.Add the URL/web address of your blog and today's date onto the list below that, so people reading later entries can jump back to your chapter.

7.Finish your chapter and post it within 24 hours of claiming your place. There – it's freaking easy! You can go back and read the rest of the story now.

8.IF YOU'VE JUST FINISHED ENTRY #10 and finished the story, DELETE THESE INSTRUCTIONS from the bottom of your post – they'll just confuse people. ALSO, let CG know by posting a comment on the first entry (on www.sleep-dep.blogspot.com), or sending him an email on squid.mohawk@gmail.com. CG will assemble a full version and send it round to all of the contributors.

Why I'm not writing - Damn you Chris! edition

Chris linked to this:

I spent 10 minutes after watching this (in broad daylight!) freaking out that one of my flatmates was sneaking up behind me with a big smile on their face.

To mellow out, I re-played You Have to Burn the Rope. Seriously, you should. And stick around for the end credits song. Portal's is better, but this is fun.

And if you liked YHtBtR, you could check out Fathom. Pay close attention to the fish.

I thoroughly recommend the Google Wave presentation by the way. Yes, it's 80 minutes long, but I especially the last 5 minutes, where the development team demo the app that's going to bring about world peace.

Here's a link to the highlights reel.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Presentation Zen: An Example (The Moons of Saturn)

Another presentation - this one comes from TED.com and shows us what it's like on two of Saturn's moons.

There's less reliance on slides in this presentation, more a focus on the passion of the presenter (Carolyn Porco).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Presentation Zen: An example (Inbox Zero)

Inbox Zero is a presentation about designing a system to deal with email overload. This youtube video is about an hour long. The presentation starts at about 2.30 minutes and goes for about 30 minutes (followed by a Q&A). The talk is good, the Q&A is so-so.

I have no assessment about the talk itself, although I did note a number of clean slides, and usage of the grid. I also noticed when bullet-point lists were used how my attention became divided between listening to what the presenter was saying and trying to read ahead on the list.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Test post: auto-publishing problem

This is just a test post - my last couple of posts haven't automatically published when I've scheduled them to.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Synopsis: Presentation Zen (Emptiness, Grids and CRAP)

A slide is composed of positive elements (such as text or logos) and empty (a.k.a. 'negative') space. The idea seems to be that you can use negative space to draw attention to the positive elements.

Having empty space in your slide seems like a simple concept, but it's hard to implement; it's very tempting to fill that empty space with lots of other stuff. From what I can tell, the principle to apply is this:

  • Start with nothing, and then add.

To begin with, look for the empty space in your slides. Once you can see it, use it. Reynolds demonstrates the difference between asymmetrical and symmetrical designs here. Asymmetrical designs activate the empty space and make your design more interesting. Symmetrical designs tend to crush the empty space out to the sides.(*)

* That's because symmetrical designs are centred along a strong vertical axis and are mirrored on both sides.
Guiding the Eye

"A well-designed slide has a clear starting point and guides the viewer through the design."

Presentation Zen provides a couple of tips here:
  • Make sure images (especially of people's eyes) guide the viewer's eyes towards the elements you want them to look at
  • Have a clear hierarchy that shows which elements on your slide are the most important, which are less important, and which are least important.
Reynolds also talks about using grids on your slides, and composing the information on them according to the rule of thirds.

The red dots at the intersections of these lines are called 'power points'. These are areas where you might consider placing the main subject of the slide.

Using grids to divide your page or slide into thirds will also help you align the various elements on them.


Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity.

This was another moment where I was reading Presentation Zen and realised that it was referring to a book I already own. In this case The Non Designers Design Book, the first book on layout and typography I ever bought. It's a great read, and it made reading about the principles in this section more like revision for me. To quote directly from PZ:

"Use the principle of contrast to create strong dynamic differences among elements that are different. If it is different, make it very different." Contrasts can create a focal point for your slide, clearly pointing out the one element that is dominant. This gives the viewer a starting point to process information.

"Use the principle of repetition to repeat selected elements throughout your slides. This can help give your slides unity and organisation."

"Use of the principle of alignment to connect elements visually (through invisible lines) on a slide. Grids are very useful for achieving good alignment. This will give your slide a clean and well organised look."

"Use the principle of proximity to ensure that related items are grouped together. People will tend to interpret items together or near each other as belonging to the same group." This reminds me of a basic rule of writing: help a reader understand a sentence by grouping related words and concepts together. As an example, compare the previous sentence to this one:
  • Related words and concepts can be used to help a reader if you group them together as this will make them understand a sentence more easily.
Grouping stuff together means an audience doesn't have to think about what you're trying to say. Instead, they can think about what you're saying.

That's it for Section 2 of PZ. Time to take another break -- but over the next week I'll link to a few of the presentations mentioned in chapter 7.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Synopsis: Presentation Zen (Remove clutter, use pictures)

Now we're getting into the principles that Garr Reynolds identifies as being useful for the good graphic design of slides.

First up is Signal to Noise ratio -- the ratio of relevant information on a slide compared to its irrelevant information. The goal is to get rid of clutter. If you remove as much irrelevant information as possible, people can understand what the slide is saying as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Some sources of irrelevant information that make it harder to understand a slide include:
  • inappropriate charts
  • 3-D charts (which often make it more difficult to interpret data)
  • ambiguous labels
  • distracting grids
  • footers
  • logos (remove these from all but the first and last slides)
Reynolds recommends using as few elements as possible on a slide. However, you should consider retaining or including elements that support the message at a more emotional level. That's the subject of his next principle.

Picture Superiority Effect

Pictures are remembered better than words, if you or exposed to the picture for longer than 30 seconds.(*) The picture and your words must reinforce (not repeat) each other for this to happen.

* This Picture Superiority Effect is strongest when the picture represents common, concrete things.

Historically, words have dominated presentations because we lack the technology to easily take or acquire pictures. Now we have readily available digital cameras, editing software and Internet resources. Some sources of rights-free images on the Internet include:

Morgue File
Flickr Creative Commons Pool
Image After
The everystockphoto search engine

As Reynolds established earlier, bullet-pointed lists of words usually aren't effective in a live talk. They should be used rarely and as a last resort. The three main techniques that come out of this section are:
  1. Ask yourself what information are you representing with written words that you could replace with a photo or other graphic?

  2. Find images with plenty of empty space around them (images that are scaled to at least 800x600) and place text inside those images

  3. Quotes or phrases can illustrate your points. Use them sparingly; keep them short and legible. You don't want to bore the audience by reciting what they can (or have) already read.
One thing that I have really appreciated about Presentation Zen is that it constantly draws on documentary and comics as examples of effective presentations to study. In fact, it actually spends quite a bit of time quoting from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. I think I have some further reading and watching to do in this area (coming soon: looks at Zenith and An Inconvenient Truth).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Synopsis: Presentation Zen (Designing for simplicity)

I'm going back to my summary of Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Presentation Zen (PZ) is about designing presentations that effectively communicate with the audience. Previously I have summarised Reynolds' ideas on creating the story of your presentation; now it's time to look at his ideas on visually designing the presentation.

He begins with the idea of simplicity - which he defines as a clarity that gets to the heart of the matter.

Achieving simplicity takes time, but it also makes the time that the audience spends paying attention to you far more worthwhile, as they will learn more from your presentation. Comparing the idea of 'simplicity' with ' giving the audience every bit of information', Reynolds makes the point that if you overload people with information, what (if anything) will they remember? He advises focusing only on information that illustrates your core point.

Similarly, if you overload a slide with information, pictures, charts, sidebars and borders, you force the audience to search for relevant information.

Simplicity makes it easy for the audience to understand the heart of what you're saying.

How do you achieve simplicity?

Each presentation's design will have its own logic, layout and rules (*). PZ recommends you: (a) design from the start, and (b) use design to organise information in a way that makes things clearer.

* I believe this - based on my experiences with writing scripts, songs and short stories, everything I've created has had its own internal logic. Once I've figured out what that logic is, it's made writing and redrafting far more effective. In fact, I do consider something to be finished until I figured out its logic and helped it live up to that as much as I can.

Clarity in design is achieved by elimination and omission. In other words, good designs have plenty of empty space.
  • Aim to get the maximum effect with a minimum of graphic elements
  • Use negative space
  • Suggest rather than state
  • Subtract rather than add

Reynolds then lays out his essential principles of design:
  • Signal vs Noise Ratio
  • Picture Superiority Effect
  • Empty Space
  • Contrast
  • Repetition
  • Alignment
  • Proximity

I'll go into more detail about each of these in the next couple of posts.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Why I'm Not Writing today - Atmospheric B&W Afterlife edition

Closure (flash game) has kept me interested far longer than platformers usually do. It is slow where most platformers are fast; stark rather than gaudy; and creepy, not funny.

It also has a great central conceit: you can only see the sections of the level that are illuminated by the lamp you're holding. If you can't see it in your light anymore, then that section of the level literally disappears, and you can fall through it to your doom (or in this, to your level restart).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Fountain

scr. by Darren Aronofsky

A beautiful and (I felt) moving film, this is the first Aronofsky film that I can imagine myself rewatching.

Brief summary: It's a love story told in three time frames (15th century, modern day, and far future) about the search for immortality.

Something strange happened to me while watching this film.

*** SPOILERS ***

The movie begins with a sequence of a Spanish conquistador fighting and struggling to the top of a ziggurat, where he is attacked and apparently killed by a Mayan angel wielding a flaming sword.

Later, after establishing the other two time frames (far future and modern day), it's revealed that this 15th century South American sub-plot is actually a novel written by one of the modern day characters. At which point, we cut back to that sub-plot. And immediately I started wondering "Well, given that I know these people are just fictional characters, do I actually care about them less now?"

... which, after a few seconds, made me go "What the hell am I saying?" Every character in the film is fictional. Every character in every film I've ever watched is fictional. Should I care less about 15th century Hugh Jackman (15cHJ) just because I've had my face rubbed in his ... ah ... 'intra-fictional' nature?

And the answer I had to come to was 'Of course not'. As long as the script is making me care about them, then it doesn't matter what particular degree of unreality a character exhibits. In the case of The Fountain, not only did I enjoy the parallels between all three stories but I forgot that 15cHJ was a character in a story written by a character in a story to such a degree that I was shocked when he met his eventual fate.

It all reminded me of an argument (friendly but intense) that I got into with Sean and Andrew during the post-production stage of hopeless. I'd watched so much of the film's raw footage - actors pissing around on set before the 1st AD yelled action - that sometimes, when I looked at the film just so, the illusion of that it was a story would disappear. All I'd see was the moments we'd specifically selected, the moments where we liked the actor saying this particular line in this particular way.

What this meant, I argued, was that we were actually watching a documentary about things that had happened on set. And our brains were choosing (quite reasonably) to interpret that as a story filled with characters and plot, rather than the inter-spliced moments of reality that they actually were.

In the case of my 'films are actually documentaries' opinion, our brains don't really need to exercise much choice at all to create a story. In the case of The Fountain, I found I needed to make a real initial effort to buy into 15cHJ as a character I could care about (after all, if he's just a story, who cares if he lives or dies, right?).

There's something connecting those two points, but I can't quite see it at the moment.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Garden of Last Days

by Andre Dubus III

I'm about 40% of the way through this novel at the moment. Do you remember that sequence in Boogie Nights where everybody's lives have turned toxic and now things are going horribly wrong for them? It's a sequence that goes on for about 15 minutes, intercutting (if I remember correctly) between Mark Wahlberg, Heather Graham, and Don Cheadle - all of it scored with this slowly tolling bell, ringing over and over again.

The sense of doom is near unbearable. (*)

* In a film filled with great cinematic moments, this sequence is the one I find the strongest due to its ability to create and sustain that single emotion.

The Garden of Last Days has created and now sustained that sense of doom for 191 pages. I've had to stop reading halfway through a chapter because a character I at first thought was despicable (and have now come to feel sympathy for) is just about to accidentally do something that will get him into so much trouble with so many characters ...

In fact, that's the reason I've stopped reading. I feel that the book is just about to change up: from a sense of doom, to the situation exploding. Not only am I nervous about finding out what happens, I'm also nervous about the dynamics of the book (which I've been enjoying immensely) changing so dramatically.

Brief summary: The Garden of Last Days, so far, has taken place entirely over one night at a strip club in Miami. It rhythmically switches between characters at the club - including an elderly widow prone to panic attacks, and a three year old girl - slowly building up a sense of character identification and momentum. The overall impression is of a book about people whose lives are in the process of not turning out well, and the story seems to be in the process of turning from a drama into a thriller. (**)

** Ian McEwan meets Carl Hiassen, I guess.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Terminator Salvation: more constructive

OK, so I found the film deeply annoying. Annoying enough that before I went to sleep last night, I had to figure out what I would do with it. Rather than exercise any original thought, I took the premise of the film as my starting point and here's what I came up with.

*** SPOILERS ***

It's a trilogy.

Rather than focusing on the plot of each film, what I'm most interested in is setting up interesting arenas for each film to explore. The first film is about friendship, the second film is about loyalty, and the third film is about achieving victory when you're not protected by destiny anymore.

Movie 1: Is all about establishing the relationship between Marcus Wright and Kyle Reese. Maybe the movie starts the same way, or maybe it starts with Marcus walking out of the desert. Either way, Movie 1's mission statement is make Marcus/Kyle the coolest post-apocalyptic duo ever. Make their friendship legendary. Kyle is the boy with the plans; Marcus is the guy who can pull them off.

John Connor is an off-screen figure, a legendary inspiration who is essential to the Resistance.

During Movie 1, much of the same stuff happens to Kyle, giving Marcus an against-impossible-odds rescue mission. During it, he discovers pivotal information about himself (and what he's supposed to do to Connor). Movie 1 ends with Kyle rescued, Marcus reeling, and both of them forced by circumstance to team up with Connor on a mission of pivotal importance to the war.

Movie 2: Is all about playing with tensions and loyalties. Kyle grows to know John Connor, but still thinks of Marcus as his best friend. Connor grows to know Kyle and Marcus, trusting the two of them. The question of what happens when the switch in Marcus' head flips on is present throughout the film - which is mostly a kick-arse action setpiece that incorporates many of the moments we saw in 'The Terminator '. A central question that's often asked in this film would be "We don't understand the enemy, so how can we destroy them?"

This second movie ends with Marcus turning on them, and Kyle and John teaming up to try and execute him. The film finishes with the cliffhanger of Connor's team beginning the assault of Skynet's time base.

Movie 3: Starts with the assault on Skynet and getting Kyle into the time machine. After that, everything is in play - Connor can die, the war can still be won or lost. Let the action ensue; hell, bring back Marcus from the dead if you can think of something interesting to do with him.

... or you could send giant robots back to London 2011 to beat the sh!t out of everything.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Terminator Salvation: if you haven't seen it yet

The answer is no.

But before I start talking about Terminator Salvation (no colon), let's review John Rogers' three principles of writing a good scene:

1.) Who wants what?
2.) Why can't they have it?
3.) Why do I give a shit?

OK, no spoilers.

This isn't John Connor's movie. Connor is a sidekick in this film. That's right: a sidekick. Actually, he's less than that. The film not only doesn't establish why John Connor is special, it doesn't even provide a compelling reason to keep him alive. This is a Terminator film in which John Connor lacks a destiny. ... And actually, it's even less than that: Connor is a LIABILITY to the Resistance - he gives away their position and their plans, and doesn't seem to have learned anything about Terminators, ever (*).

(*) There may be a little bit of hyperbole in that last sub-clause.

OK, Connor is a sidekick. Fine. Now I've got that out of my system, I think my rage is spent. This was going to be a long rant but I think I can summarise it now.

The movie's not all bad. While the first act rushes through a whole bunch of stuff and doesn't give us any reason to care about anyone, it does do a great job of establishing that terminators are badasses. Well done.

There's some nice future robot shooting action, and a 30 or 40 minute sequence in the middle (from the gas station through to the swimming lesson) where the film has: (a) momentum, (b) characters with understandable motivations, and (c) an interesting central dilemma. Well done.

From that point on, I was sniggering at the film until it ended. That's about 30 minutes of mocking something I once loved.

Not. Cool.

And the film has two other big problems:

First, John Connor wasn't even supposed to be in this movie! This link has much spoilerage in it, but is pretty essential to figuring out why the Connor scenes don't work, don't advance the plot, and don't make you care about anyone.

Second, the whole way the Resistance works is completely implausible (and I say this acknowledging that they are fighting a war against AIs and cyborgs). They have jets, and airbases, and helicopters, and a base that's two days walk from Skynet that's surrounded by ... well, you'll find out if you see the movie, but the fact that these characters survived more than two or three minutes ASTOUNDS me.

Here are two other spoiler-filled reviews to read before I ask the question: Poland. Quint.

So the question you need to ask yourself after reading all this is, "Should I see Terminator Salvation"?

Synopsis: Presentation Zen (How to Build a Story)

The act of preparing your presentation and finding your core message is the first step in finding your story.

Step 1: Brainstorming

· Write down everything - be messy, explore every possibility that occurs to you, examine every aspect of your core point

· Mind map, word associate

· Don't settle for the just the obvious or starting ideas you come up with; push

· Approach the presentation with a beginner's mind; don't worry about making mistakes or failing. Instead, adopt an attitude of experimentation and exploration. Try to rid yourself of preconceived ideas.

Step 2: Group and identify.

· Transfer ideas to post-it notes and chunk the post-its into themes.

· Look for the one key idea that is central and memorable to the audience.

Sections of your presentation can start to emerge here (3 can be a good number). Remember: each section needs to serve the core point.

Now begin to create a storyboard that will give your presentation a 'shape'.

Don't go to PC; stay analog - use post-its or a whiteboard.

Step 3: storyboard your presentation (away from the computer)

· One idea per post-it note

· Lay out the post-it notes - rearrange and then rearrange the post-its again, until the flow feels right

· Sketch pictures from the ideas

Step 4: Storyboard on the computer

· Create distinctively formatted slides to demarcate each new section.

· Add visuals to each of these section slides to support your narrative.

Step 5: After creating your presentation, edit

· Eliminate elements that aren't crucial to demonstrating the core point of the talk.

Huh. I've become aware that despite PZ saying that it's not offering a methodology to rigidly follow, what I'm synopsising here is starting to look like just that.

However, I'm not sure that this has really gotten to grips with how to create a story; the book hasn't lived up to its promise in that regard. As I mentioned in a previous post, I'll be taking a closer look at Elements of Persuasion, writing by a experience scriptwriter / pitcher of movies to Hollywood studio execs.

That's it for the story side of things, though. Time for a break from Presentation Zen. I'll come back to it in a week and break down the Design section of the book.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Presentation: Brought to you by Debbie

As Debbie suggested in the comments, this clip will show you the true power of Powerpoint:

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Synopsis: Presentation Zen (Stories and Stickiness)

Bad Powerpoint presentations consist of bullet-pointed recitations of facts. But audiences don't just want answers, they want meaning. So Presentation Zen (PZ) encourages you to tell the audience the story of your facts. (*)

* This reminds me, I need to re-read Elements of Persuasion, a book co-written by a Hollywood screenwriter about how to pitch movies.

The advantages of stories include:
  • they're more attention-grabbing and memorable than lists
  • they explain complicated ideas through examples and metaphors
  • they connect with audiences, especially when they are personal and authentic.
Make your presentation unforgettable

PZ uses ideas from 'Made to Stick' - a book which describes qualities that can make an idea or speech more memorable(**) - and applies them to presentations.

** One thing I've noticed is that PZ draws off many recently published books. It makes me wonder if this methodology has really been tested.

These principles are:
  • Simplicity: be ruthless in your efforts to reduce your message to its core
  • Unexpectedness: Suprise people. Ask questions. Open up gaps in their knowledge (and then fill those gaps)
  • Concreteness: use natural speech and real examples, instead of vague abstractions
  • Credibility: put statistics into terms people can visualise
  • Emotions: you need to make an audience feel. Images help.
As a presenter, you need to fight the "Curse of Knowledge", which is your inability to imagine what it's like to NOT have any background knowledge about your topic. The above principles are weapons that can be used to fight the curse of knowledge and create a story.

So next up I'm going to summarise PZ's process for giving your facts a logical structure and then finding their story.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Why I'm Not Writing today - Bad Voodoo edition

I've been playing Pandemic and Pandemic 2, two flash games where you take the part of a disease, and your objective is to kill as much of humanity as possible. I've tried to tell myself it's educational, that I'm learning about vectors of transmission and the components that make a virus more lethal ... but increasingly a superstitious part of my lizard brain is getting activated, telling me not to mess around with this sort of stuff lest I bring on the germ-pocalypse.

I link in the belief that you're more enlightened than I am.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Synopsis: Presentation Zen (Finding the core)

If designing a presentation is a creative act, what will help you be more creative? That's the thrust of the next section of Presentation Zen (PZ). The book spends quite a few pages convincing the reader about the value of creativity, and then provides some strategies to enhance it. The ones I particularly liked were:

1. Approach the presentation with a beginner's mind; don't worry about making mistakes or failing. Instead, adopt an attitude of experimentation and exploration. Try to rid yourself of preconceived ideas.

2. Take things slowly. Spend some time alone, stilling your mind, contemplating the problem. Hopefully you'll then start to see the big picture of your presentation, and figure out what its core message(s) are.

I don't think PZ argues its case quite as strongly when it comes to the value of having restrictions. The author believes that if you're not given restrictions, you should impose them on yourself. While I'm not totally convinced, I am a fan of pecha kucha, so I'm prepared to buy into it for the rest of the book.

However, there is one restraint that feels right to me: reducing your presentation down to its absolute essentials.

What's the point?

... of your presentation? If you were to condense your talk down to 5 minutes, to 2 minutes, ... if you were to shorten it to 30 seconds, what would be left? What is the core message(s) you're trying to get across? (*)

* Apparently, you'll be lucky if you can get your audience to remember even one point from your presentation.

That's one question that PZ hammers on again and again. The other is "Why does it matter?" To make people care about your presentation and the point(s) you're trying to make will require persuasion, emotion and empathy, as well as a logically constructed argument.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Synopsis: Presentation Zen (Introduction)

Here's a weird bit of research: people find it more difficult to process information if it's delivered to them verbally and in writing at the same time. That means that most Powerpoint presentations (*) actively interfere with how people actually learn and communicate.

* The stereotypical 'speaker reciting from the bullet-pointed list on the slide right in front of them'.

This is one of the starting points for the book I'm reading; Presentation Zen is about making better presentations - ones that help you communicate more effectively (or at least not bore your audience). This is something I've been interested in for a while; it ties into one of the potential new things I'm going to do.

Designing a presentation is a creative act

A presentation involves transforming facts or opinions into a story. I haven't read very much of Presentation Zen yet, but I suspect this is going to be one of the fundamental principles of its approach.

And now I think about it, that transformation can be applied to a lot of things: advertising, editorialising, propaganda. Reflecting on it, I realise that makes me a little uneasy: communicating in order to share your insights is something I'm fine with; communicating in order to persuade the audience brings up memories of feeling manipulated. I guess presentations can have an ethical dimension to them.

The author, Garr Reynolds, suggests that the first thing to do when given the opportunity to create a presentation is to slow down. Take the opportunity to think about what is important and what isn't. This leads into ideas of:
  • Restraint (in preparation)
  • Simplicity (of design)
  • Naturalness (of presentation)
Reynolds suggests that applying these three principles will lead to greater clarity in your presentation. I'm about to reach the point in the book where he explores the first of these: restraint.