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January 21 2013

Four short links: 21 January 2013

  1. School District Builds Own SoftwareBy taking a not-for-profit approach and using freely available open-source tools, Saanich officials expect to develop openStudent for under $5 million, with yearly maintenance pegged at less than $1 million. In contrast, the B.C. government says it spent $97 million over the past 10 years on the B.C. enterprise Student Information System — also known as BCeSIS — a provincewide system already slated for replacement.
  2. Giving a Presentation From an Apple ][A co-worker used an iPad to give a presentation. I thought: why take a machine as powerful as an early Cray to do something as low-overhead as display slides? Why not use something with much less computing power? From this asoft_presenter was born. The code is a series of C programs that read text files and generate a large Applesoft BASIC program that actually presents the slides. (via Jim Stogdill)
  3. AirBnB TechTalks — impressive collection of interesting talks, part of the AirBnB techtalks series.
  4. Gawker’s Realtime Dashboard — this is not just technically and visually cool, but also food for thought about what they’re choosing to measure and report on in real time (new vs returning split, social engagement, etc.). Does that mean they hope to be able to influence those variables in real time? (via Alex Howard)

May 17 2011

Putting conference distractions to good use

DonahueLogo.pngConference presenters are increasingly faced with audiences that are dividing time between in-person presentations and web updates. Two presenters at SXSW 2010 noticed the growing trend and developed an app to harness that distraction.

Tim Meaney (@timothymeaney), partner at Arc90, and Christopher Fahey (@chrisfahey), founding partner at Behavior Design, launched the Donahue app shortly before SXSW 2011 in March. In a recent interview, they discussed how the app helps presenters and audiences stay connected and keep the conversation going.

Our interview follows.

How does the Donahue app work?

TimMeaney.pngTim Meaney: First, for a highly technical answer, we've posted a blog with a full technical walk-through of how we architected and built the app. For a more general description, Donahue is a presentation tool built upon the premise that certain conference presentations are best delivered in conversational format. The app allows the presenter to construct their points as a series of portable ideas, delivered through Donahue into a number of views:

  • The Presenter View of the point — For display in the room, this view is akin to a PowerPoint slide. We took care to remember that not everyone in the room will have a laptop or wish to view the "supplemental" experience of the talk.
  • The Participant View of the point — This view allows for easy interaction with the presenter's point. Donahue puts these points directly out there with the presenter's name and avatar attached. In the Participant View, anyone in the audience — in-person and web-based — can reply to the points or tweet to their network. This reduces the friction around the presenter's ideas, and allows the points to flow freely through the audience into a larger network.
  • The idea or point is also directly tweeted, from the presenter. This creates another opportunity for ideas delivered in a talk to reach others.

ChrisFahey.pngChristopher Fahey: From the moment Arc90's Rich Ziade thought that Twitter could be Donahue's engine, we knew that Donahue would have to be able to work for users who didn't want to (or could not) use Donahue. Users who are only on Twitter can engage with Donahue using standard Twitter functions, like hashtags and retweets.

Another view is the Projector View. We knew Donahue would have to work for people who wanted to experience the conference in the conventional way, sitting in the room sans laptop, phone, or tablet. The Projector View takes the speaker's tweets and any related media (like a photo) and displays them in a simplified view, suitable for projection on a screen.

Tim Meaney: Donahue also "works" by acknowledging that the audience wants to have a conversation. It's pretty standard today that the audience tweets during a talk, and then hours later the presenter uploads their slide deck to SlideShare, and then later elaborates their thesis or ideas in a blog post. With Donahue, that wall between audience and presenter, and the abstraction of a slide deck, is removed. The content and ideas are immediately shared, and the audience can immediately begin discussing them. People insist upon discussion, and instead of fighting that trend — "please close your laptops" — we went the other way and joined the conversation.

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How should conferences evolve? What needs to improve?

Tim Meaney: It's hard to make a general proscription for all conferences, but we do believe that conference presentations, like all other forms of media, are being impacted by "the conversation revolution." And much like all other forms of media, bringing the benefits of the conversation directly into the conference will suit presenters, organizers, and attendees alike. Those benefits are engaged participants, frictionless sharing of ideas, better learning through discourse, and building new connections among all participants. It's very likely that conferences will begin to better design for conversations — the audience is demanding it.

Christopher Fahey: Speakers also need to ask themselves a few questions:

  • What can I get from this audience? — Can the speaker improve his or her own ideas by really hearing audience reactions and feedback? How? The best feedback is likely to pop into the audience's heads during the talk itself. How can speakers harness that?
  • What can this audience do with my ideas? — If the ideas are any good, the speaker should desire and expect those ideas to grow, spread, and evolve immediately. Again, this might happen in real time.

Complexity is important, too. In our talk at SXSW, I mentioned that most conferences are not theoretical physics and that most audiences can understand everything that a speaker is saying without devoting their full attention. Two days after getting back from SXSW, I went to a theoretical physics lecture — and I was right: theoretical physics is far more complex than web design or project management or search engine optimization. I tried to tweet during the lecture, and when I looked back up I was completely lost. I couldn't keep up with the speaker if I allowed myself even a moment's distraction.

But what I learned from that experience was this: Even a complex topic should permit audiences to let their minds wander. You just can't come to understand and master a complex topic through listening to a lecture alone. Learners need to read and study at their own pace. Conferences and lectures augment and inspire those materials. But most of all, conferences should connect both speakers and audiences with the subject matter and with each other. This enables learning by empowering people to pay attention together, think about ideas together, and most importantly talk about them in the same energized moment.

This interview was edited and condensed.


April 04 2011

Ditch the jargon and back away from those tired slides

There's nothing worse than sitting through a dry presentation about a new business product or concept. And there's nothing worse for a presenter than seeing negative reactions to his or her dry presentation broadcast in realtime Twitter streams. But the good news is that presenters and audiences both are realizing there's an art to presenting, and when it's done right, even the driest topic can engage an audience.

Nancy DuarteIn a recent interview, Nancy Duarte, author of "slide:ology" and CEO of Duarte Design, talked about bad speaker habits, great presentations, and the importance of storytelling.

People approach their presentations the same way they do a research paper, and they shouldn't. Presentations should really be about story and about human-to-human connection.

There's almost this otherworldly ability for a human to connect to another human, and yet that's all left on the table. We use our slides as a barrier to protect ourselves from having to connect at a human level.

There's a lost opportunity to connect deeply to people. People hide not only behind their slides, but behind their jargon — people stay in their industries for years, and there's this other weird language that develops around their own subject matter, and that makes them unaccessible and not human. They have to break that down. People won't be able to identify if they don't.

For more on business presenting — what we're doing right, and what we're doing wrong — and how not to get banished from the presentation stage, you can view Duarte's entire interview in the following video:


February 11 2010

Four short links: 11 February 2010

  1. Mimo Monitors -- USB-powered external monitors for your laptop or desktop, and you can daisy-chain them for multiple external monitors. Opens the possibility of task-specific monitors (one for chat, one for email, one for shell, one for code, ...). Monitors are 7" (800x480) and there's even a touchscreen option. (via James Duncan)
  2. The Secrets of Malcolm Gladwell -- how to give a talk like Malcolm Gladwell. A short read and interesting. (via thestrategist)
  3. Plupload -- a nice widget to handle file uploads (drag'n'drop, resizing, etc.). Has backends for Flash, Gears, HTML5, Silverlight, and Yahoo's BrowserPlus, selects the best that's available. (via Simon Willison)
  4. The Coming Data Flood (Sunlight Labs) -- Three and a half years after their launch of They're looking at incredible exponential growth. Last year they saw more than a doubling of new datasets being released. It isn't crazy to suspect we'll see the same exponential curve of data growth coming out of the federal government and other municipalities as they follow suit.

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