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I have always looked upon Apple’s most excellent presentation software, Keynote, with a sort of lingering dread. Prior to last month, opening it and starting a new slideshow meant that I had committed myself to spending the next several days building a lengthy conference talk. With delight, then, did I discover a new use for Keynote in my day job as a freelance developer. Lately, I’ll spend an hour or two every week or so to create tiny, meaningful slideshows for just a handful of people, and in such a way that it remarkably improves the confidence with which I work.
Last month I began an unusually complex project for a client. Not only does the work have to meet technical goals within a set time-and-materials budget, but its release depends on the launch of certain other projects within the client’s organization, and yet more projects await my work’s release in turn. My client must therefore put lot of faith in me to get this work accomplished on-time — but since I work remotely, the project’s managers can’t see my continuous progress, and they quite naturally feel a little on-edge about all this. It falls to me to stay in regular communication in order to keep my client appraised of my progress, and give them a chance to offer mid-stream critique and course-correction.
I’ve practiced this communication pattern with clients before, especially since reading Subramaniam and Hunt’s Practices of an Agile Developer, the book that first taught me about it. Where my clients in the past have tended to be small businesses or nonprofits, though, this one is a large company with many technically apt managers and an affinity for gathering frequently in conference rooms for presentations both local and remote. This encouraged me to think of a check-in style a little more involved than the weekly phone call or emailed report I’d grown accustomed to.
And so, when I arrive via VoIP in my client’s offices every Monday to discuss this project’s progress, I start the meeting with a very short slideshow, never more than ten slides long. (My conference talks, in comparison, invariably stretch into triple digits.) It acts as a microscopic keynote address, setting the tone for the rest of that check-in meeting, which itself gets both my client and myself caught up with the state of the project and our mutual expectations for the next leg of work.
I have found that this works really well. The slides give my client something to visually focus on in lieu of my physical presence, of course, but they also summarize recent-past work and set near-future expectations via a short, dynamically illustrated, prepared monologue that ends before it can get boring, and gets everyone looking forward to whatever comes next.
Allow me to show you one such scene-setting slideshow, exactly as I presented it to this client (but for a handful of redacted URLs and product names):
Despite these presentations’ miniscule length and tiny audience, I still apply my usual preparation techniques. As you might have detected from my tone of my voice, I really do treat the slideshow like a monologue, writing out the spoken parts beforehand and embedding them in the slideshow as “presenter notes”. Keynote displays them to me slide-by-slide on my second display — out of sight of the main display, the one broadcast to my client’s conference room — and I just read as I go. The short length lets me rehearse the talk at least a couple of times before the meeting, catching typos and establishing a flow at the cost of mere minutes.
And while I don’t lean into the frantic, flipbook-speed slide-transition style I favor when trying to keep a large audience attentive for twenty minutes, I do add a minimum of animation and illustration — even if just click-build bullet lists with a few emojis sprinkled in — to keep things interesting.
Having presented my slides, I can mix it up a bit: if I have a live demo to show, as I did with this example, I can transition into it confident that I’d adequately primed my small audience’s expectations. I might instead offer a couple more slides with annotated screenshots showing recent work. But even on weeks when all my labor went into purely backend development with nothing obvious to show off, a slideshow still gives my clients the sense of seeing progress. And in any event, the flow proceeds quite naturally from this canned presentation into live conversation about the work at hand.
And, at least as important, it gives me a reminder that I really did make enough happen over the past week to fill out at least a couple of short bullet-lists. Creating the presentation encourages me to gather these thoughts together well enough to explain them to myself, let alone to my clients, and makes me feel that much more confident in my course for the coming week. So, yes, I have found this technique a very good use of an hour or two every week, and I plan to keep making use of it whenever applicable.
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