Presentations in the Age of SlideShare

October 8th, 2012
by Matthew

One of the marketing platforms that has emerged in the last few years has been SlideShare. If you haven’t seen the site yet, it’s where you can post your slide decks for others to view, and follow a group of people so you know when they’ve posted new presentations. The site provides a way for people to see what you’ve presented if they weren’t at your speaking engagement, or as an easily linked-to repository for your slides after the presentation. To get an idea of the additional reach SlideShare can provide, consider a presentation I gave last month in Portland on Structured Data and Semantic SEO. This was at an SEMPDX event where I spoke to a crowd of about 75 people. On SlideShare, this presentation deck has 3,847 views. On a grander scale, this presentation on the Top Tools for Learning has over 55,000 views and was posted only five days before reaching that number.

The use case for audience members to have an easy place to access your slide decks is a clear benefit. However, I’m not sure how much people can get out of viewing the decks without actually being at the presentation. There’s almost universal agreement that the best presentations use slide decks as a visual sidekick to the real attraction: listening to the speaker. How useful can it be to view the slide decks without the critically important context of hearing the speaker? Can a deck serve dual purposes of being an entertaining presentation as well as coherent reference material on SlideShare?

Speakers in the search marketing world have come a long way

I think it’s a good sign that as presenters, we are even thinking about this. I certainly feel like I’ve come a long way since I started speaking in 2005. When I was getting acclimated to the SEO world, I felt like the two best speakers were Marshall Simmonds and Bill Hunt (Danny Sullivan doesn’t count. By this point he was mostly doing keynote style presentations that could afford to be more entertaining than informational. Also, he went to a terrible high school). Marshall and Bill were (and still are) able to present actionable search tactics in an engaging way, using Powerpoint as an enhancement rather than as the engine of their talk.

Fast forward to 2012, and Rand Fishkin and Wil Reynolds are two of our industry’s best speakers. Both have the ability to be passionate and entertaining in their talks, but also provide several higher-level strategic takeaways as well as tactical tips. It’s easier said than done. I tend to pack my presentations with info, but they can be very dry. If you’re not engaging the audience instead of stepping them through Powerpoint, even your best takeaways may be glossed over.

The bullet point era

That’s not to say our slide decks have necessarily evolved at the same rate.  I’m still seeing (and using) a lot of very dense screenshots and slides full of bullet points. Check out this beauty from one of my earliest decks in that era:

Oof. Thankfully, I didn’t read the entire list of spiders. As I refined my decks, I moved on to more screenshots than lists of bullet points. but these also lacked obvious context. Like many others in our industry, I keenly watched the evolution of Rand Fishkin’s Powerpoint strategy of striving for one thematic point per slide, with a contextual section at the bottom containing a snippet of text and any relevant links. Here’s what this looks like in one my current decks:

Rich Snippets Data

If you see this slide on SlideShare, you’d get the basic gist of it without hearing me speak. When I present the slide, I have a few useful talking points around it that aren’t immediately obvious, but people in the audience at my presentation shouldn’t be focused on reading that slide instead of listening to what I’m saying about it. Above the callout at the bottom? That’s a densely packed screenshot from hell. I don’t consider it a problem on SlideShare, but I really don’t want my live audience to squint and figure out what the hell is actually on that screenshot.

There are exceptions to this general trend in our industry. Check out Mike King’s deck from Mozcon this year. That’s a beautiful deck. It has a narrative, easily captured takeaways at the bottom of the deck, and it even works pretty well on SlideShare. I’d wager a guess that this deck came close to a hundred hours for Mike (and his team) to construct. It’s not trivial to build a deck that works live as a visually compelling aid to your talk, yet has value online after the presentation.

The new golden age of Haiku Deck

This brings me to Haiku Deck. In a nutshell, Haiku Deck gives you a wide array of well-designed templates to choose from. You write a headline and subhead, and then you can search for pictures available with the Creative Commons license that match keywords used in your text. Here’s an example slide I made for the SMX East show:

Haiku Deck Example

Haiku Deck’s visuals are high resolution, and you can usually find an image that resonates around the theme of your slide. People aren’t going to be trying to read through a mess. This is a huge improvement over the onslaught of Times New Roman bullet points that is the bane of every conference. There’s a catch though:

“The best way to design slides for SlideShare isn’t the same as the best way to create slides to actually use in a presentation.” - This whole interview with Joby Blume on the Haiku Deck blog is worth a read. His point is that if the slides are self-explanatory, they’re great for SlideShare but audience members can just read them and ignore the presenter. But if they consist of abstract visuals, you are in essence giving a speech, and the residual value of the deck on SlideShare is basically zero. Let’s hear from Joby again:

“We sometimes need our slides to help us get the point across, but we can’t do that if we put up a beautiful picture of a snow-capped mountain when we are talking about complex derivatives.”

Especially when thousands of folks are going to download the deck on SlideShare afterwards. That particular truth is why I’m struggling to do an entire deck with Haiku Deck without challenging screenshots or diagrams. I couldn’t find an easy way within Haiku Deck to include even a small numbered list or pop-out, so it doesn’t seem ideal for screenshots or pointing out additional resources. Since the better SEO presentations tend to revolve around tactics and tools, it’s tough to convey actionable information with only a pretty picture and a couple headlines. So while I do believe Haiku Deck is an improvement over the long national nightmare that is Powerpoint, I’m not sure how to use it for presentations that aren’t in the “entertaining/inspirational speech” category. One solution is to only use one slide per ‘Do/Don’t’ or tactic. That means if I was going over how to choose an appropriate structured data markup, I may use 20 slides to convey my talking points. If that’s just one part of my talk, we could be looking at 100+ slides to get all the information across in a 20 minute presenatation. Oy vey.

Is it worth it to make a version just for SlideShare?

Which brings me back around to SlideShare. I believe my best slide decks are geared towards audience members, but kind of lousy for folks on SlideShare who view them without any context. Upgrading my visuals with Haiku Deck may improve the transitional slides, but will probably make my instructional slides worse. They’ll appear to be full of one or two basic instructions at best, and total cliches at worst. Given that we’re talking about maybe 10x-100x as many people will view your material online than see it person, and it seems like a worthwhile effort to make a coherent online version.

Here’s what I think my answer is, to provide the best live presentations as well as useful recaps on SlideShare:

1. Make two decks. I know, even making one deck is a complete pain in the ass. The deck for the live presentation should be heavy on the visual aid slides and contain less Powerpoint diagrams and text. The SlideShare deck should provide slides that have screenshots with extended text and even actionable bullet points if necessary. On SlideShare, your bullet points aren’t fighting with anyone for attention.

2. Better screenshots. Someone please come up with a way to provide enhanced screenshots with legible text and beautiful popouts/callouts. For now, I’ll still be using Snagit and annotating the screenshot at the bottom of the slide, but it’s still visually unappealing compared with what you can generate with a tool like Haiku Deck. Big screenshots full of text look terrible. Smaller screenshots with big ungainly pixelated text? That can be even worse.

3. Less speaking gigs. Putting 100+ hours into the deck and talk for each conference is not a small endeavor. I can’t see myself doing this for a dozen conferences per year. Not to mention that you need to maintain this quality level for any client or in-house presentations. I’m thinking I’ll have to be very picky about where I speak if I’m going to put in significantly more work on the deck(s).

The reality is that you never know which speaking engagement is the game changer for you, whether it opens a door for a new career path, partnership opportunity, or any number of positive outcomes. Only now this could all happen via SlideShare or another online location for your presentation. None of us we’re satisfied with the bullet point era of last decade. Now we also need to avoid providing thousands of people online a deck of pretty pictures without any context.

I’d love to hear what other people are doing with SlideShare, or how they’re using Haiku Deck to create informational slides.

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