Behind the curtain

Photo of brick buildings in downtown Portland -- across the top of one of the buildings in tall block letters reads, "Long live the wildcards, misfits & dabblers"

The past month or so, I’ve been having tons of conversations with people formally and informally, short and long, structured and meandering. I talked with former clients, mentors, colleagues in various forms, faculty and classmates in my coaching training cohort, people I had just met at the conference I was attending, and longtime friends.

In some cases, I particularly sought advice from someone—whether I’d specifically reached out hoping for advice or simply asked in response to a topic of conversation. And, tactical questions aside (like, where should I eat in your city), the answer was almost always the same.

“There is no advice.”

That was what my extremely real, dear old junior high school friend said. But that’s basically what everyone else said, too. And these are brilliant people. People I respect and have learned from. People whom I saw as further ahead on the curve. Who perhaps, at most, shared what they did in a similar situation, and then that they really weren’t sure but it had seemed to work. And that they were still figuring it out.

One person I had intended to ask for advice actually opened the conversation by wondering out loud about something with me, and the conversation took a lovely turn I hadn’t expected.

In other cases, I observed someone do something in a particularly skillful manner (ways I wanted to be able to emulate)—only to hear them afterwards share that they had been very uncertain of themselves the entire time. I have taken mental notes of what someone did or how they handled a situation to squirrel away for future reference, and then heard them question how they could have done it better.

To be fair, I’ve also had my share of being on the other side. Getting complimented or having people think that I’ve got it all figured out feels…scary. Like they’re going to find out* that I’m just making it up as I go along. (Even if I have a pretty decent track record of figuring things out.) And yet.

The most valuable conversations were those where we let each other behind the curtain and reveal the rest of what’s really happening.** Where we let go of anyone having the answers—of there being right answers, of answers being some sort of magic passcode that unlocked the door to some secret garden. Where we could sit in those questions together. Be curious. Be real with each other. I am forever grateful to all the people who let and continue to let me behind the curtain. And I am grateful to have worked with a coach who taught me to ask whether there a right answer actually exists when I am exasperating myself in pursuit of one. (Not that this isn’t a lesson I continue to work on!)

No matter how much someone seems to have it all figured out – we’re all just figuring it out as we go along. And in my experience, the people who frequently wonder about how they could have done something better – those have been the people I’ve learned the most from, whom I’ve witnessed be the best at what they do. They are the people doing tremendous things, because they keep asking themselves that question. Because they care to question if they are doing the right thing, and if they are doing it in a way that they can feel good about. But they don’t let it stop them from doing the thing.

Are there people who are, perhaps, objectively better at a particular skill or more knowledgeable in a certain area? Sure. There are certainly service designers who are more skilled at designing digital services or knowledgeable about designing experiences. But I’ve actually implemented programs and services, and specifically within a nonprofit and community-focused context. There are more skilled instructional designers and teachers than me, but I’ve actually had to answer customer support questions and besides, people always come away learning something they can apply—and that’s my goal. Doesn’t mean I can’t get better, or that I won’t.

So I’m going to change tack.

Instead of asking for advice, I’m going to ask people how they would think about a situation. What are the questions they ask? What are the factors they consider? When do they take a particular type of action? Who are the people they learn from? To ask them what goes on behind the curtain in their brains as they work on a problem.

In fact, it’s the kind of thing I’ve seen time and again in coaching others – people know more than they realize. And that includes you and me. The trick is in clearing the other muck out of the way first so we can see it.

What do you think about this approach? Have you had similar experiences? Take a different approach entirely? I’m curious to learn more.

*While, yes, this feeling is the feeling of being an impostor, I no longer believe that impostor syndrome truly exists. Rather, after learning more (I suggest reading “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey), and after reflecting on multiple previous experiences where I was told that I didn’t know what I was talking about—sometimes publicly—by people who had significantly more power in the relationship, and the ways in which I’ve seen others knocked down for similar reasons, I’ve come to see this feeling as a preemptive protective measure against the ways in which insecure people attempt to maintain superiority. At least, I know that in my head—but I still feel it!

**(Spoiler alert!) The phrase “behind the curtain” comes from The Wizard of Oz, in which there is a scene where they find the big, scary wizard, and it turns out to be just a regular human guy behind a curtain operating a machine for special effects. While in the case of the movie (I don’t recall if that scene is in the original novel), the curtain is used for deception, I’m not talking about people putting up facades intentionally—although that happens, too, of course, and is simply human. But what I’m referring to here in terms of “what’s really happening” is that it’s easy for any of us to see things on social media or hear fragments of what’s going on with someone in a short, passing chat and come up with an image in our heads that is at best incomplete and, at worst, very skewed or completely misreading a situation. It’s natural to fill in any blanks and to want to connect the dots we can see—but important to remember that there’s always a lot that we can’t see and don’t have access to.

A few things I’ve learned about creating accessible slides

Apologies if you came here expecting that I was a playground designer, although there are people who make accessible play areas!

View seated for a conference talk in a room set up with tables and chairs and printed materials on the tables. At the front of the room is a glowing projector screen with a blank screen. No one else appears to be in the room.
Are you typically creating slides that you’ll present online? In person? (This photo was taken before someone else’s presentation at a conference several years ago.)

There is no perfect way to make things 100% accessible to everyone because people are different. I state that upfront as a reminder to myself as much as to anyone else that this work is not perfect, that it is messy, and that none of this should stop us from working to make things more accessible to more people right now.* I do not and I am not going to get everything right. I’m sure I’ve failed on a lot of these points in previous slide decks and I will continue to make mistakes. None of these tips are foolproof, and this list is not exhaustive. Perhaps you’ll read it and say you knew all these things already—and that you have some things to teach me! (Which would be great! Please do.) But, hey, maybe some of this will be new to some people. So, I will continue on with my imperfect notes on how I’ve been trying to make my slides more accessible.

Some of these things I learned from the speaker guide for NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, some from a class in graduate school on making information accessible (taught by the awesome Dr. Renee Hill!), some from independent learning about accessibility, and some things by trial and error.

The context of this post is creating slides that I’m preparing to present, such as for a conference talk, as opposed to other purposes. Although I may sometimes mention things related to presenting, the focus will be on the slides themselves. I most often use PowerPoint, so I mention some specific things in the version of the program I have, so if you have a more recent version or use something else for creating slides, those functions might be called something else or work a little differently.

Here are some things I’ve been learning and working at incorporating in my slides:

  • Always check the template (and any other colored elements you are choosing) to ensure you have sufficient color contrast. Unfortunately, those default templates are not necessarily accessible – even when they are labeled as such. You’ll want to check things like the color contrast for people who are colorblind or have low vision. If you like to create your own templates, start with a color palette that has sufficient contrast. Of note, color contrast is not only about the colors, but sometimes about the size and font weight. Black text on a white background will work at any legible size, but certain color combinations that are readable at font size 40 will not be readable by everyone at a font size 20. While it’s not perfect, if your combination doesn’t work if printed in grayscale, you should probably adjust the color palette.
  • Make sure every slide has a title. Occasionally, I will not use the template title area, or because I am not using a template, it is unclear which text is the title of the slide. While it might be obvious to a sighted person, it’s important to make sure someone using a screen reader would be able to use titles to help navigate through the slides. In PowerPoint, if you turn on “Check accessibility,” an Accessibility tab will be added to the ribbon at the top. You use the button for setting the slide title to set a specific text box to be the slide title.
  • Include an agenda and let people know what point in the presentation they’re at. This is more of a presentation tip, but it’s helpful to orient people to what’s going to be covered and to give people a sense of where they are in the agenda. This can be especially helpful for people with cognitive or learning disabilities, but it’s helpful to everyone. I usually include a slide with a numbered list of the topics or sections, and then each section starts with a section header slide that references the section number and where we are in the presentation. (If it’s hard for me to break it out this way, then it probably means the presentation needs some further organization.)
Slide that shows the section header: "1 / 5 What is service design?" followed by some footer information with the name of the presentation and the presenter
In this example of a section header slide, the title of the section, “What is service design?” follows “1 / 5” to indicate that this is the first of five sections in the presentation.
  • Use a font size of at least 18, but preferably larger! Using a larger font size also prevents you from putting too much text per slide, as slide are intended to be presented. If you truly need to write that much, you are writing a report! Or at least an article or blog post. They’re fine formats, but they are formats that meant to be read at your own pace instead of at the speed at which someone is giving a presentation.
  • IF YOU WRITE IN ALL CAPITALIZED LETTERS FOR VERY LONG PORTIONS OF TEXT, THIS IS VERY DIFFICULT FOR EVERYONE TO READ. That took you an extra moment to read and comprehend, didn’t it?
  • Leave the bottom 20% of the slide blank so that captions won’t cover up any content. Occasionally you might be presenting within a platform where the captions are not on top of the slides, but if you’re not sure, the bottom is often where captions are placed on a screen. (Unsure if there will be captions? Ask! It doesn’t matter whether you personally need them. Other speakers and attendees might, and they shouldn’t have to ask.)
  • Include alternative text for images, videos, diagrams, and other visual elements that are relevant. Avoid text in images; simply use the text. (This is inaccessible both to people using screen readers and to people using translation software or other text-based tools.) For videos, you’ll need to consider both captions and video descriptions (a description of what is happening visually) so that the content is accessible to audience members who are blind or D/deaf. You can mark decorative images as decorative and skip the alt text, although it’s worth asking the question of what those images are adding to your presentation.
  • Plan to describe the images verbally if they’re relevant. Okay this isn’t about the slides, but during the presentation, make sure you verbally describe the visual elements that you created alternative text for. Or if you are demonstrating something live, then describe what you’re doing – like if you were on a cooking show.
    • Speaker descriptions: Some people say the speakers should describe themselves, and others say this isn’t really useful information. Within the blind community, there are a lot of differing opinions on speaker descriptions. Unless I’m asked to describe myself visually, I tend to use the guideline of whether it is relevant. If the topic is related to career development, then the fact that I am an Asian American woman in my mid-30s is relevant. If I am talking about working remotely, then it makes sense to reference my surroundings. If I am showing people how to create diagrams, then a description of my visual appearance and what sighted people can see in my background feels performative rather than adding anything to an understanding of the topic.
  • Review the order of object order on your slides. If someone is using a device like a screen reader, you’ll want them to go through everything on your slides in the correct order. An easy way to test this is to use the Tab key to tab through each object (title, text box, image, etc.) on each slide. You can usually right click to move an object forward or backward. (Reading order starts in the back and moves forward to end in the front.)

My process for creating slides

Sometimes it’s difficult to take a collection of tips and figure out how to apply them in practice. My process for creating slides and presentations may be different from yours, but here’s a rough summary of my current process:

  1. Draft learning objectives, usually as a document.
  2. Use the learning objectives to draft an outline, usually in the same document.
  3. Start a new slide file and pick a template.
  4. Check that the template color contrast is sufficient. (Turn on accessibility checker to help me with this if it’s available.)
  5. Edit the template if needed.
  6. Start building out the content in the slides – usually putting the bullet points from the outline as the temporary slide titles.
  7. Work on developing the text and the speaking points in whatever order I can get it to come out in. Usually I put in placeholders for visuals that I need, but also sometimes information that I need to go find. I typically turn off or ignore the accessibility checker during this part.
  8. Lots of iterating, editing, filling in those placeholders, refining speaking points.
  9. Once the visual elements are finalized, I write alternative text. (I usually turn the accessibility back on at this point because it helps me tick off images that need alt text.)
  10. If I forgot to describe something in the speaking points, then I incorporate the description of visuals.
  11. Review and address any other accessibility issues that come up – with the exception of slide order, which I leave until last in case I need to make other changes.
  12. Go through the presentation as a whole, both the slides and practicing the speaking, to make sure everything works together as a whole (and within the allotted time).
  13. Check the slide order by tabbing through each object on each slide and adjusting the object order as needed.
  14. If there’s a method for making the slides available to attendees ahead of the presentation (so they can review as needed, at their own pace, using the appropriate tools, ahead of time), then I do that.

What else? I’m open to learning how to do things better! Email me and let me know if you learned anything new from this post, have suggestions, or what your process looks like for creating slides.

*While there’s no such thing as perfect accessibility, there is indeed possibility to do things that make the situation worse. For example, using an accessibility overlay on your website often makes a website less accessible than say, if you had forgotten to put alt text for images. (Okay, that’s not great, but at least it doesn’t break the other parts of your website.) Better to keep things simple, and to keep working at making your website more accessible.