Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

17 Dec 2007, 13:19 p.m.

Powerpoint Karaoke: Best Practices

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Danny O'Brien mentioned this concept and tried it out at a conference several months ago. So Leonard and I playtested it at Backup Thanksgiving (photos) at our apartment, with several of our friends. One of them, a hacker with a drama degree from NYU, mentioned that it's similar to acting exercises, which makes sense since this is a species of improv.

Before you play, you should do technical/logistical prepwork and select some Powerpoint slide sets ("decks") for the victims' use.

Technical/logistical: make sure there'll be at least 6 people participating -- 1 host/slidemover/timekeeper, 1 player, at least 4 audience members. I used a kitchen timer where I could set it to count down from some number of minutes. Make sure the video hookup to the laptop/computer works ahead of time.

Slide research: go to and bookmark a variety of decks. Languages the speaker doesn't know are GREAT. Leonard had success doing searches for buzzwords and jargon, but you could do well with art analysis as well. Look for decks that have around 10 or 20 slides each, with clip-art visuals & some text, and for a variety of topics -- not just all Web 2.0 stuff. Avoid:

  • Decks full of text with no pictures -- novices find themselves reading out loud instead of talking on their own
  • Decks shorter than 10 slides of simple stock photos -- it's hard for a novice to hang a funny narrative on them
  • Parody decks -- we got taken in by one!

For play: give each volunteer a time limit. Half as many minutes as there were slides worked for us, and going over 7 minutes got boring. If the slides run out but there's still time, have a Q&A!

Some slides suck in boring ways, but nearly every slide can turn into gold. I boo at on players who completely skip slides without giving at least a joking explanation.

Alternate versions that we didn't try:

  • Give the player a random topic that has to be the theme of her presentation.

  • "Translator": an improv exercise where one person gives the talk, slide by slide, in a gibberish language, and someone else "translates" into English. Akin to "chicken chicken chicken," I think.

And tell me how it goes!


17 Dec 2007, 15:38 p.m.

I really want to try this but I think I need a video or a podcast example to get it right in my head. Imagining it awakens fears of the speak-extemporaneously-without-pausing exercises from improv, which always left me with sweaty hands--and those only lasted sixty seconds. I'm curious as to how you guys handle it. Does the speaker get a few seconds to look at each slide before launching into explanation? Is there audience participation? Are you actually trying to apply some coherence to the non-English slides or is it just an MST3Kalike riff-fest?

Sumana Harihareswara
17 Dec 2007, 15:46 p.m.

No prob. The thing started in Berlin so a lot of the videos are in German, but here's the great English-language one that made me want to try it.<br/>

<br/>We were pretty flexible. Some speakers took a few second per slide to compose themselves, some were more fluid. We had only 9 adults in the room so a little heckling, Q&A, etc. was fun and didn't get out of hand. The speaker doesn't get to just mock the slides; think less MST3K and more Uncle Morty's Dub Shack.