battledecks advice

(Note: I wrote most of this shortly after ALA Annual 2010, scheduled it to post before Midwinter 2011, and have no doubt forgotten about it entirely by now.)

I have been watching the awesome videos of my co-competitors at Battledecks, and thinking about what I’ve learned doing this twice, and watching a whole lot of other competitors in preparation. Admittedly, I came in fourth — maybe you should be asking tiara-wearer Jason Griffey — but twice is an eternity of experience in internet time, right? and my 95 on the applause-o-meter must qualify me to say something on this topic. So! If you are wondering if you want to do Battledecks (fyi: the answer is yes) and looking for some tips, here are mine:

  • Never stop talking. Just don’t. (If you’re at a loss for words, let your mouth read the text of the slide on autopilot while your brain desperately spins for some traction. Slides with no text are harder, but you can always describe something in the image.)
  • Connect. Connect the slide you’re looking at to a meme, or something with buzz at the event, or to a previous slide. (As far as I’ve seen, connecting to a previous slide never fails to make the audience laugh, and to impress them. It’s also hard to do, but the connection can be pretty tenuous and you still get appreciation for it. You can set yourself up for it by, e.g., asking a question or leaving a sentence unfinished right before you advance the slide, and then whatever comes up will be your answer; of course you risk shooting yourself in the face this way, but if it works at all it’s hilarious. Don’t forget, too, that the slides you connect need not be contiguous; I think referring on slide 8 to something on slide 3 gets you bonus points.)
  • Interact. With the audience, with the slide. This may also be hard to do on the fly if you aren’t making a point of doing so, so it’s one of the few things worth reminding yourself of (with your adrenalin-and-panic-limited brainpower).
  • Develop a sense of time. Unless you are far cleverer than I, you will not be able to keep close track of time, or even which slide you’re on, during the presentation. You need to know how many seconds you have per slide and get a sense of what can be said in that time. Spend a while before Battledecks walking around mumbling to yourself and staring at your watch. (If anyone saw me at Annual and thought I was crazy…uh, OK, you were right, but for the wrong reasons. *cough*) Feel what 20 seconds is, or 25, or whatever, because if you’re like me, all you have is the feeling. (NB: I was expecting 15 slides/5 minutes; I got 12. I was ready for 25 seconds/slide. My talk came in at 4:09. You do the math.)
  • Swearing is funny. Look, no one expects swearing in a conference presentation. I’m not saying have David Mamet script your talk (please don’t), but swearing catches an audience by surprise, breaks an expectation, and people respond to that by laughing.
  • Don’t fear the stupid. If you’re holding back on doing something like this because you’re worried you’ll look stupid, stop that. I mean, I’m not saying you won’t look stupid. You will. I am saying that no one will care, because they’re all having a good time, they’re impressed that you’re up there at all, and the bar for humor and coherence in an impromptu thing like this is really very low. As with the SAT writing exams: what you say need not be true or logical or even, under any scrutiny, comprehensible. It just has to have the correct form. And the slides have taken care of that for you.
  • And all that said…don’t overprepare. In fact, basically don’t prepare at all. If you’re anything like me, your brain is going to have room for the slides, hyperkinetic speech processing, some sort of extremely vague and peripheral awareness of the audience, and the knowledge required to operate the clicker. Nothing more. I had these notes beforehand on techniques to try during the talk — they fled my brain the second I started talking. (Which is not to say I didn’t use them — I may have hit them once or twice — but I definitely did not have another track available in my brain for monitoring or planning my talk while it was happening.) I had a watch, but after the first slide I didn’t have the wherewithal to consult it. I thought about trying to come up with ideas to work into the talk beforehand, but realized if they didn’t go with my slides I would just get paralyzed, trapped in my preparation when I needed sheer reaction.

(Worth noting: the above paragraph is a lie. I prepared for Battledecks for five years, by teaching middle school. John Chrastka turns out to have an improv theater background. Pretty similar, really. But direct preparation is minimally useful.)

4 thoughts on “battledecks advice

  1. Drawing on my one (1) class in improv theatre, the only things I’d would be: 1, trust yourself and go with the first thing that comes to mind, and 2, let go of what just happened.

    Nobody will remember if you bombed on a given slide or even a bunch of slides. They’re going to remember, and keep talking about, that one perfect line you said about a slide, even though you will probably have NO IDEA where that thought came from — you just blurted it out.

    Clearly, we need a local TEDx-style gathering that has a Battledecks component. *nods sagely*


    1. Oooh, advice from improv! Awesome. I’ve never done any but clearly there’s a lot of applicable lessons there.

      Local battledecks: YES. An event planner is not me, but I would be happy to put together slide decks/emcee/publicize. (Local TEDx: also YES. And again, an event planner is not me, but I know people who have put on TEDx events, whose wisdom I bet I could gather if you have, or are, an event planner…)


    1. I have not heard of any at all! Which is very sad. Honestly, I wrote this post in July or August and scheduled it to post today and was, in fact, surprised by it.

      But ALAMW10 Battledecks was a nearly-spontaneous thing at the Uncommons, and there’s an Uncommons, right? So you could declare a time and place. It needs some advance planning with slides, but that can be as little or as much as you want, I think (not having put together decks myself, but from a competitor’s perspective). So ALAMW11 battledecks could be your call :).


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