Collaborative ideation

A number of people who saw the “Context first” presentation at O’Reilly Media’s “Tools of Change” or the Internet Archive’s “Books in Browsers” conference have asked me, “How did you do that?”

The visuals are presented using Prezi, a reasonably new program that uses a two-dimensional canvas and object scaling to provide a sense of panning and zooming. I found it helpful in escaping the “one slide after another” feeling that Powerpoint and Keynote can sometimes foster.

The story begins, though, not with software but with a conversation last July.

My oldest son, Frank, who graduated a few years ago with a degree in studio art from Skidmore College, works as an artist and a freelance designer. I was looking for a way to make this presentation less “texty”. Before he took me on as a client, though, he wanted to make sure he understood the idea.

We sat down twice, talking for a couple of hours each time. Frank kept asking me to explain the links across context, content and container, the central theme in a call to change publishing workflows. In those discussions, I can say I didn’t do very well.

To guide us, we had been using parts of Nancy Duarte’s presentation call-to-arms, Slide:ology. By the end of the second session, it was clear that I needed to do something central to Duarte’s methodology: spend more time working on the ideas.

So I wrote the first draft of the presentation (longhand; I was stuck on a plane too small to open my laptop), keyboarded it and sent it to Frank. He e-mailed back, “Thanks; now I understand”.

I thought he might have been rushed or polite, but two days later, he sent me storyboards, mostly pencil drawings scanned into a PDF, for the first third of the presentation.

They matched and extended my words. Soon Frank was inking the drawings, importing them into Illustrator, adding some spot colors and finally laying them out using Prezi.

The initial draft evolved into a somewhat longer script. We sat together several times to do partial and full run-throughs, collaborations that led to other changes in language as well as a few transitions.

Along the way, I shared the working draft with several colleagues, all of whom took the time to read and comment on the draft. I’m indebted to Peter Brantley, Kirk Biglione, Laura Dawson, Kassia Krozser, Don Linn and Hugh McGuire for their guidance here.

I really like the visuals, which help tell the story in a different way (not everyone agrees). But as Frank kept reminding me in our talks: the idea comes first. Working with someone who wanted to make sure he understood the idea made everything I did substantially better. That’s a lesson worth remembering.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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