Everyone has fears about regular public speaking, but what if you have to present someone else’s slides? And see them for the first time as the audience does? And only have 5 minutes? And the slides auto-advance?

I believe in the theory of trying something insanely hard to make normal work feel easier. As a public speaking expert I had to try this at least to see what I could learn for you readers.

Earlier this year I participated in what’s called Powerpoint-Karaoke (or BattleDecks) at the Makers co-working Space in Seattle (part of Seattle Creative Mornings). It’s as crazy as it sounds. I participated precisely because it’s crazy. Other space monkeys willing to try were Adam Tratt, Hillel Cooperman, Jon Culver (the winner) and  Michelle Mazur.

The rules were simple:

  1. We get five minutes to speak
  2. The slide decks are made for us
  3. The slides auto advance every 15 seconds
  4. There are no other rules
  5. Audience votes on the winner

Here’s what I learned in preparing:

  • There was no effective way to prepare. Surprise! Good advice for presentations hinges on having good material and practicing it. Neither is possible in this format. This was both terrifying and liberating.
  • I tried to  prepare anyway. I found videos of others doing PowerPoint Karaoke. They were strange to watch since the presentations are unavoidably bad in any formal sense, but the live audiences have unusual responses. They expect it to be bad and have an unusual set of expectations for what they’re going to experience. Some of the best received presenters disregarded the slides, which was effective but felt like cheating. Although there were no official rules, I decided if I did this I should buy into the spirit of it, at least the first time
  • Crash course in improvisation. A decade ago I took a course in improvisational theater. I reviewed the lessons, including a refresher on “Yes, and…” which is shorthand for the mindset of faithfully committing to whatever happens.Powerpoint Karaoke is at its heart an exercise in improvisational theater.

Here’s what I learned after I presented:

  • You play for comedy. There is no way to take the slides seriously since by design they are ridiculous. I didn’t realize the full extent of this, as obvious as it seems now, until later. At best you are making the audience laugh, at worst they watch in silence as you struggle on stage. It’s purely stunt presenting. No one is there to learn or be inspired, at least not directly.
  • The audience wants spectacle. Mid-way through Hillel’s talk he abandoned his slides, and the format. In what was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve seen at an event like this he politely, but firmly, confronted the audience about why they were there. As awkward as it was he was entirely accurate – it is a weird kind of theater that wants to see speakers work against so many difficulties. There’s  an element of wanting to watch cars crash in this event. It’s all in good fun, but also schadenfreudian.
  • The energy is weird. Good speakers (and comedians) build a rhythm with the audience through their material. The pacing of jokes, how certain facts are revealed, all build to something. But here since the speakers don’t know the slides the energy is weird – sometimes very funny things happen, but often there are complete misfires. Sometimes the audience laughs but the speakers don’t know why. Sometimes the speakers think the audience should be laughing, but doesn’t know why they aren’t.
  • Michelle Mazur is brave.  There were only 4 speakers on the agenda, with an extra battle deck for a volunteer from the audience. Michelle volunteered after seeing the four of us perform. I thought for sure no one would be brave enough, but she proved me wrong.

Advice:

  • There is no way to be good at this. This is liberating. It was very hard for me to say who of the five speakers did the best job. They were all weird, funny, awkward, and interesting in different ways. It really is more like experimental theater than anything like a public speech.
  • Make sure you trust the hostsLuz Bratcher made the slides for this event and did a great job. If the person making the slides wants to screw all the speakers it’s easy to do, as if the slides are thoughtless speakers won’t have much to work with. You want the hosts to make it a challenge, but to give you well crafted slides that are funny all on their own and give the speakers plenty to work with (You can see the slides Luz made below).

 What I’d change about the format:

  • Let speakers control the slides. If you kept the 5 minute limit, but let the speakers control when a slide advanced, they’d have slightly more power over delivery. That adjustment would dramatically improve their ability to make the slides work. It would still be very hard, but the auto-advance works against everyone’s interests in this case.
  • Do it at night, after drinks. We did ours as part of creative mornings, which means IT’S THE MORNING. People are going to work right after. It’s not the right time for crazy and absurd. Crazy works better after work, or at night, or following a happy hour where everyone is midway through letting off steam after a long day. Mornings mean people are going to work afterwards, they’re charging up, not winding down.
  • Use real presentation slides.  I’ve always wanted to get the slide deck from a medical conference, or a corporate retreat for a company  I’ve never heard of, and make up a presentation in real time for that. Real slide decks have a continuity built in to them that fabricated battledecks never do.

Here are the slides Luz made for each speaker:

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19 Responses to “What I learned from Powerpoint Karaoke”

  1. Steve |

    Where are the slides?

    Reply
  2. David Golden |

    Maybe I’m crazy, but my first reaction was “wow, that sounds cool, I’d love to do it!” I think with my own material I’m more nervous, but with something you have no control over, it seems liberating. If you hear of anyone in NYC trying it, let me know!

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Most of the ones I’ve heard of were part of other events: SXSW, Webstock, etc.

      Reply
  3. Mike Nitabach |

    I have tried to convince my science colleagues that an earnest variant on this would be really fun to try for one symposium session at a conference. The idea would be that the four speakers in the two-hour session would trade their slide decks–real 30 minute scientific presentations that they would have given themselves in a regular symposium session–and have one of the others present it. This could only work with people doing closely related enough work that they would be familiar with what each other is doing. But it seems like it could be really fun, especially as an after-dinner after-plenty-of-cocktails event.

    Reply
  4. Richard Dalton |

    I ran a series (about 10) of Battledeck sessions at Vanguard for anyone who wanted to improve their confidence in front of a (very forgiving) audience, it was great (scary) fun.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Did you consider doing Ignite or Pecha Kucha instead?

      Battledecks was interesting, but since people didn’t make their own material they don’t get to practice the critical experience of developing material and presenting it.

      Reply
      • Richard Dalton |

        Yeah, that’s a definate disadvantage of Battledecks. As you say in your post it ends up being more about comedy and entertainment. If I was doing it again I might try an Ignite or Pecha Kucha format – although that obviously demands more of a time committment from participants.

        Reply
  5. Jon Culver |

    I think it plays to the best aspects of improv, which I’ve taken a few classes on, too. In improv world, I’d nervously brainstorm jokes before going out on stage. Then I’d always get tripped up if I came on with a funny punch line I had to work in; the whole thing would flop.

    Battledecks removes that completely, as there’s zero preparation, so nothing to psych yourself out over. And if your joke does bomb, you get a chance to start fresh with a brand new one in 5 seconds.

    +1 on the evening/drinks; that would get fun and silly in a real hurry.

    I enjoyed the spit out of it at any rate. Too bad there’s no video footage to show the world!

    Reply
  6. Michelle Mazur |

    Brave, eh? Scott you flatter me. Reading this post made me recall how absolutely insane I must of been to volunteer to do this.

    I’m a fairly good impromptu speaker, but this had to be the most challenging presentation I’ve ever attempted as a speaker. I agree that actual PowerPoint decks (and copious amounts of booze) would have made this experience better. There would have least been a narrative you could piece together.

    I also think your performance completely depends on how you related to your theme of your deck. I could have rocked the sci-fi or cat deck. Mine was a bunch of really bad stock photos about interconnectivity – I had no clue what to say. It was awkward, fun, and it did make me want to try the Ignite format. I don’t think I’d be “brave” enough to volunteer again!

    Reply
    • Scott |

      I was cranky about my deck at first, but in talking to Luz it changed my mind. Its really hard to make those decks. You have to guess what references and jokes someone will know and I don’t know how you do that. She worked really hard – and I’m not sure I could have done better.

      The only way to know if my theory of using existing decks from other fields would work better would be to do Seattle Creative Mornings BattleDecks v2 :)

      Reply
      • Michelle Mazur |

        Those decks had to be awful to make. I did notice that there was a pattern so as the last speaker, I knew what was ahead. It helped me 5% when I was actually up there. You did not have that advantage going first!

        I’d totally come out to BattleDecks 2.0! You’re going to speak, right? ;-)

        Reply
  7. Lisa |

    Hi Scott,

    A friend/former improv student of mine directed me to this blog post. I teach classes and do corporate trainings through Washington Improv Theater (www.washingtonimprovtheater.com). I found your experience really interesting, and was particularly intrigued by your statements that one should play for comedy, the audience wants a spectacle, and there’s no way to be good at this. I’ve done PowerPoint Karaoke before, and found that the following strategies worked:

    *Know what you’re about. You can’t control what’s on the slides, but if you have a message you have a filter through which to see the world. It’s about being willing to explore unlikely or less obvious connections.

    * The audience thinks they want comedy, but they want authenticity. I find that a one-line joke might make people laugh, but making it real for people helps them connect to your message and stay engaged. Anyway, in improv we say FTA – forget the audience. It’s really not about trying to get that guy in the second row to like you, it’s about communicating with passion and clarity. Playing for others can cause you to lose your integrity, and that’s no bueno.

    *The spectacle is in your willingness to be fully committed to your message, and what you are willing to do to communicate it.

    Just wanted to provide a different perspective on the activity. Thanks for writing about your experience :)

    Reply
    • Lisa |

      Just rethought my second point and I wanted to add that sometimes it’s less that the audience wants comedy, and more that we think that’s what we have to deliver.

      Fin.

      Reply
    • Scott |

      I agree with your points. The challenge in this case was the slides. It was hard not to play to comedy, since it was hard not to play to the slides since they were always doing something and are larger than the speakers are (physically), and given the slides leaned heavily that way (did you look at them? they’re at the end of the post).

      Reply
      • Lisa |

        I had similar slides — tarantula-eyed transvestite on a toilet, for example. Just wanted to share a different perspective and let you know I found your points interesting.

        Reply
  8. Kerry |

    When I’ve been in improv classes, comedy is often an easy default, because it’s far more difficult to be authentic – and act serious or sad, or [enter other emotion here]. It’s much more intimate to be authentic and serious in front of people. You need some good trust with your audience.

    Imagine using a slide like a tarantuala-eyed transvestite on a toilet to give a presentation on ending school bullying, but that’s a tough topic. When people are nervous, they laugh. We’ll be more likely when surprised by that to make something silly out of it.

    I’ve given two pecha kucha style presentations – the type that auto advance every 20 seconds. It’s definitely a different game. You have to craft your story is a much more specific way.

    Also, in improv class, they tell us specifically NOT to come to class drunk. Come with your a-game on, so that you can operate from your highest self and live in the moment. It takes some getting used to. It’s not about lowering inhibitions as much as it is summoning up the courage.

    After I’ve taken a number of these classes (not power point karoake specifically, but improv), I feel like I can handle just about anything anyone throws at me and work with it.

    Tomorrow will tell, when I give my next pecha kucha and hopefully either a) don’t blow the timing, or b) recover quickly when I do!

    Reply
  1. […] at the same time as mine – but that does not matter. I decided to look this up and found a good description (with tips) and this SXSW 2008 recording (they call it “BattleDecks” but it’s the same […]

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