Nothing Left To Take Away

Keynote window, showing a slide of Steve Jobs holding up an iPhone

Greetings from the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Thanks to the 5624-foot altitude, EVERY night is two-for-one drinks night to anybody visiting from sea level, at least in terms of the effects of the alcohol.

I don’t know for sure how many years I’ve been speaking here. I think my first was in 1997, and I’ve missed only one of them since. That’s 14 years. Which is absolutely absurd, so I dismiss this as just another agenda-driven fiction of the Liberal-controlled basic math.

Actually, the scary thing is my realization that (oh, for the love of God) I’m now part of the Old Guard here. During my first years as a speaker, I was impressed by those people who seemed like they’d been coming here forever. They’d show up at the first party of the week and they’d immediately continue conversations that have been going on for ten years, picking them up right from where they’d left off at the previous Conference, it seemed. There I was on Monday evening, sitting on the steps of a patio with a plate of buffet food on my lap, talking with the same group of friends I’d been chatting with at the same party in the same place last year.

It’s great to feel so at ease, don’t get me wrong. The situation just makes it very difficult to maintain my self-image as The Dangerous Young Upstart Whose Radical Ideas Will Ensure His Early Ouster. It was hard enough when I was still in my Twenties.

(Jeez, I am old. I find myself walking through the U of C campus and thinking “in MY day, we didn’t need longboards. We rode skateboards, like normal people!” Please note that I road a board for exactly one year of my life and I would have traded my twitchy thirdhand deck for a longboard in a heartbeat.)

Speakers at the Conference on World Affairs contribute to seven to ten panels that cover a wide range of topics. Tuesday was fairly typical for me. In the morning, I talked about alternative definitions of journalism and in the afternoon I was on a panel about interstellar space travel. I write about space and I’m keenly interested in those subjects. But I know I’m just a dabbler. Two others on the panel were an astronomer and a physicist. After my ten minute contribution (which leaned heavily on my knowledge of history) I was smart enough to just be quiet and let those guys handle the audience Q&A.

During my solo ten minutes, I stumbled on the term “manned exploration.”

I asked my pal Seth Shostak (fab astronomer and educator) “Is there a gender-nonspecific way to express the concept of sending people, as opposed to probes, into space?”

“Crewed space exploration,” he replied.

“Crude? Who are we sending up there? Ricky Gervais and Seth Macfarlane?”

This got a laugh from the crowd. Which made me happy.

When a session ends, people often come up to the stage to start up conversations with the speakers while we’re packing up our pens, papers, and iPads. A group massed around Seth and the other Guy With Credentials, asking questions about dark energy and solar sails and space elevators and the imperatives of human exploration. A woman skipped past them and made a beeline for me.

“Every time I try to email my friend,” she said, thrusting an iPad forward, “It tries to FaceTime her instead. What’s wrong?”

I happily fixed her iPad. We’re all just here to serve.

I had a new responsibility this year. The organizers gave me a plenary session…one of only a handful of slots in which a speaker has the stage all to him or herself for the whole time. Panels are casual by design; the conference explicitly tells speakers that we’re meant to speak as extemporaneously as possible. Usually, all I do is prepare a rough, five-item outline of the major points I want to cover.

But this was a different thing. The audience was going to be stuck with me and only me for the whole 50 minutes. So I went ahead and wrote a whole new show for the event. I prepared for this just as I do when someone pays me to fly out and give a keynote.

The title of the plenary was “Steve Jobs and Apple.” I built the talk over a course of about a month. First I just kept jotting down thoughts and topics that seemed relevant. Then, I shaped those notes into a rough outline with some sort of beginning, middle and end trimming out anything that seemed irrelevant. Finally, I turned the outline into slides and started thinking about the best way to communicate all of this stuff.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on Steve’s philosophies. Item after item in my OmniOutliner file contained quotes about his design ideals. Each of them said “Simplify, simply, simplify.” One item was my observation the iMac’s power button is hidden away on the back, so that nothing superfluous can mar the face of the screen. I had Apple’s PR photo of the original iPod: it’s a stark whiteout.

I created another new slide, and pasted in a good quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that I wanted to use:

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away.”

This was the first presentation in which I’d used so many direct quotes. I changed my custom template and created a new master slide, basing “Quotation” on an existing master that I call “Statement.”

I looked at the new slide.

The font for the quote was Comicrazy, which is probably my single favorite Comicraft font. It was yellow. The attribution was in the same font, in white. At some point in life I’d come across a list of presentation design tips that suggested putting your identity on every slide, to encourage people to connect with you later. So my name and my Twitter handle were at the bottom of the slide, in a different font, on top of a dark box.

I re-read the “nothing left to take away” line.

Then I flipped back and forth, clicking through all of Steve’s quotes about the importance of saying “no” and simplifying things. I clicked through the slide which represented my cue to talk about Steve’s single-window design for iDVD’s user interface. My presentation contained image after image of Apple products, each with their clean, serene lines.

Well, goddamn it. Steve had shamed me from beyond the grave.

So in the days before my plenary, I built a whole new presenation template. It uses only one font (Futura) and there’s only ever one color on the screen, red. And I only use it for hairlines, to call the audience’s attention to a note). If there’s ever more than one thing on a slide, there has to be a very good reason. I try to use Magic Movies to redirect the audience’s attention instead of just slapping up a thick pile of stuff and hoping that I can steer through it.

I like the new template a lot. My next talk after Boulder is in Dublin, Ireland for Úll and I bet I’ll tweak this a little more. I’ll probably switch Futura for something just a little more interesting.

But, yes. From now on, every time I build a presentation I’ll look at each slide and ask myself “Does this screen look clean enough to contain a quote from Steve Jobs about his design ideas, or a photo of an Apple product, without making me look like a clueless idiot?”

Even when a slide contains neither of those things, it’s a good question to ask.

8 thoughts on “Nothing Left To Take Away”

  1. When I taught high school I tried to create PPT presentations along those ideas. I think I picked it up in Presentation Zen. Regardless, it made my lectures really stand out from my colleague’s and students actually seemed to enjoy the simplicity of the presentations. I know it made me a better teacher not to have to rely on bullet points.

    I’m a recent convert to your writing and your podcasting and am thoroughly enjoying everything. Thanks!

  2. Sadly, I give lots of lectures laden with lots of bullets.

    What do you mean by “use Magic Movies to redirect the audience’s attention instead of just slapping up a thick pile of stuff ”

    thanks, I enjoy the blog,

  3. @Chris: I believe there’s one at the top of this very page.

    Andy: Good job. I hope to attend one of your talks someday.

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