The rectangle behind you

Choose your own (secret) adventure

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As a grandson of someone who worked on the railways I might be predisposed to extreme punctuality, but as a speaker it’d my job to be timely either way. Going over your time limit in a talk is unprofessional and disrespectful towards the organizers and — more importantly — the audience.

Practice makes better. However, recently, for my Beyond Tellerrand talk about creative uses of keyboards, that would not be enough. I wanted to try out a brand-new experimental exercise with audience participation… but I had no idea how long it was going to take. It was not something I had experience with, or something I could easily test beforehand.

What’s even worse, the exercise was highly dependent on good wi-fi and my code being bug-free, and those two are always in question. It was possible that I would skip the entire interactive portion altogether… but then I had to do something else during the suddenly empty time.

This situation was too complex for the simple “I’m running out of time” mode I tried out earlier, which allowed to quietly skip or show certain slides. I decided to design my talk as a “choose your own adventure” scenario — a bunch of possible pathways, from which I would choose just one… and the audience would never know others were even an option.

There were a bunch of pathways, ranging from “the audience part went so well we’re going to do it again” to “the audience part fails miserably and we jump into a special-made section that talks about failures” to “I already know it’s not going to work, so I will just never attempt this.” Here’s the entire chart, with black squares denoting decision points:

How was I supposed to choose my pathway as I was speaking? I went for the same cheap UI I’ve already tried before: the keyboard attached to the presenter’s laptop.

At the boundaries of each section, I blocked the arrow keys from being able to navigate forwards or backwards, so that jumping to each section was always a deliberate decision. And then I gave each section a secret keyboard shortcut — Shift+Ctrl+1, Shift+Ctrl+2, and so on — wrote myself a cheat sheet, and taped it onto my computer.

This worked well, and — if you watch the video — you will notice that there’s never any hint of me choosing a section, or quickly advancing through slides in a way that’s never too pleasant for the audience.

Alas, of all the scenarios I planned, I had to execute the “I already know it’s not going to work, so I will just never attempt this.” The interactive portion had a bug I only learned of minutes before the talk… so I could not fix it in time.

But the strategy proved itself: The only person knowing anything failed was me.

This was part of The rectangle behind you, a series of articles about interactive presentations.

By Marcin Wichary (@mwichary)

Designer/typographer · Writing a book on the history of keyboards: https://aresluna.org/shift-happens

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