Most all of the recent bloggery discussing transliteracy is focused on identifying positive instances. As I previously argued, this is a good thing…we need examples of transliteracy to help explain what, exactly, it is. Of course, positive accounts are only one option. I’d like to briefly point out the importance of discussing failures in transliteracy.
The SlideShare Problem
This morning, I had quite a few SlideShare presentations show up via Google Alerts, Twitter, and various feeds. I won’t name names, but some of the presentations left me scratching my head. Now, I don’t want to embarrass anyone, so I made a quick PowerPoint presentation to illustrate the type of sharing that confuses me. Go ahead and click, it’s only eight slides. From hyper-minimal text to bold backgrounds to vague, over-arching concepts, I keep seeing this kind of slideshow in my feeds. In the hands of a skilled presenter, this is exactly the kind of slideshow I want to see…I don’t want to be read to, I don’t want to stare at a sea of text, and I like when the flexibility of such design affords a presenter. But, when I see a link proudly exclaiming “look at my awesome presentation on the future of libraries”, and I get twenty photos with ten words, I see a failure to understand that many of the best presentations are meaningless without the speaker present. Moreover, I contend that this sort of practice on SlideShare is often an example of failure in transliteracy.
A Failure of Narrative
Oratory is an ancient art and whether the advent of PowerPoint is a boon or a curse largely depends on the communicative skills of the orator…the “slideshow literacy”, if you will. We know what makes for a bad slideshow: from hideous colors to whole paragraphs of text on each slide to presenters simply reading the slides to the audience, there is no need to rehash the litany of bad PowerPoint practices. As the most effective orators demonstrate, the key is to make sure that the narrative is provided by the speaker…the slides are for emphasis, organization, and impact. So, the best slideshow presentations tend towards high-impact slides with minimal text, freeing the speaker to extemporize, ruminate, and guide the audience. In sum, the “slideshow literate” presenter sets herself up as the focal point and the presentation is not overly determined by the slides.
But, when this “Jobsian” type of slideshow is exported to SlideShare, the narrative is often lost. In providing raw slides, with no orator to link them, a winning presentation at the conference can quickly become a puzzling string of non-sequiturs on the web. Blame this on the separate “literacy” of social file-sharing or hosting sites; this is a communicative practice that tends towards the asynchronous and the self-guided. That is, the “literacy” involved in communicating in the cloud includes some sort of requirement that the context of a particular message be included. You don’t just upload photos…you upload photos and annotate them. You don’t just blog a series of bullet points…you explain yourself. So, in the case of minimalist presentations on SlideShare, why is the narrative element often missing?
This is the important bit. The minimalist slideshows I keep seeing on SlideShare are often uploaded by people who are very “slideshow literate” and also very “social media literate”. These are people who can command an audience at a conference in the morning and then write a stunning blog-post later in the day. The problems occur at the intersection of these distinct literacies, in this case, SlideShare. In effect, certain SlideShare users conflate literacies and fail to take into consideration the proper means for communicating the same message across platforms. I contend that this is a failure in transliteracy: specifically, a person can be literate in two separate communicative areas, yet be unable to communicate across them, at their intersection.
It’s Not SlideShare’s Fault
The most effective presentations have their narratives provided in real-time by the presentation. This is a good thing. But, in the absence of the presenter, the narrative is lost. Even a Steve Jobs presentation would be difficult to comprehend without him there to walk us through it. Since SlideShare is a means of sharing a presentation with the speaker in absentia, it is clear that the burden of exposition must be shifted from the presenter back to the slides. But, this is the road back to the overly wordy slides that we should avoid in presentations.
Note that none of this is the fault of SlideShare. To its credit, SlideShare offers the ability to annotate or provide speaker notes for any presentation. There is no need to leave asynchronous viewers in the dark. Further, there are plenty of examples of SlideShare presentations that are (1) compelling when seen at a conference and (2) informative when seen at SlideShare. When just the right amount of narrative is included in the slides, the live presentation can avoid mere recitation and the shared file can avoid incoherence. Achieving this balance is an exercise in transliteracy.
The Transliterate Presenter
This long-winded post can be summarized succinctly: presenting a good slide-based presentation requires a certain “literacy” with respect to slideshows, expressing oneself well via social media requires a certain “literacy” with respect to decontextualized, decentralized, asynchronous communication, the ability to blend the two in one place requires the ability to understand the benefits and limitations of each communication platform and format the message accordingly. Failure to do so is a failure in transliteracy.