It turns out you can just give presentations even if you’re not in school anymore.
If someone had told young me that, someday, she’d not only learn to love being in front of crowds telling them about her areas of interest or expertise, but that she’d miss these opportunities once they were no longer common, she would not have believed them. But life takes us in surprising directions, and four years after I completed my studies, the aspect of being a graduate student I miss is the chance to be on stage. But the great thing about being a huge nerd is, we all feel the same way.
Enter the presentation party.
The premise is simple: A group of friends get together and each give a short presentation about a topic that interests them. The attendees get to know each other better, everyone gets the joy of the stage once more, and niche or underused knowledge gets its time in the spotlight. For friend circles composed entirely of loveable dorks who each accumulate deep wells of knowledge about specific and highly diverse topics, this is a dream we get to inhabit far too rarely.
There are many versions of this idea in the Internet wilds. Some make it into a semi-competitive drinking game, using shots to keep people on schedule and offering prizes at the end. Some are tailored for online settings. Others might have topic themes or other stipulations. The goal throughout is to get people to talk about the things that excite them at lengths that are rarely workable in ordinary conversation. For folks who lose their trains of thought when they get interrupted or benefit from having time to organize their knowledge before sharing it, formalizing it all in this way is a wonderful opportunity. After all, this is effectively an infodump party, and anyone who doesn’t love a good infodump has no place in my life. I’ve thrown one party of this sort that was a rousing success and will be hosting another one to keep my friends entertained in these difficult pandemic times.
Seeing many different ways to structure an idea is useful for people who want to find their own spin. So, here are my presentation-party rules and suggestions.
Make it a Potluck
Queer potlucks are a tradition for a reason, and presentation parties benefit from this model for the same reason. It’s much easier and less expensive than trying to get a mid-sized event catered or making food for everyone, and one can get a diverse spread this way. As a bonus, this provides an out for people who would like to watch the presentations but are too anxious to provide their own. At my last party, I suggested a more substantial potluck contribution as an alternative to serving as a presenter. Whether the event is a potluck or not, it’s a good idea to survey your attendees’ food restrictions first so that people can try to accommodate them.
Know Your Venue
It’s a good idea to work out any audiovisual setup kinks in advance. Know what kind of space you have available and what workarounds might be necessary to use it to advantage. Fussing with tech is the least fun part of any kind of presentation party and it’s helpful for the pace and atmosphere if this happens early, during setup, rather than once people are already settled in and eager to bask in each other’s excitement. If you don’t have a dedicated home-theater space that can be easily put to this use, it may also be useful to move furniture to make more space for presenters. An event host should also warn their guests about the usual potential pitfalls of visiting, such as pets and parking rules.
People’s interests are varied, and not all of them lend themselves easily to a slideshow. If you can, make room in your event schedule for more unorthodox showpieces. At my last presentation party, two of the entries were hands-on demonstrations of hobby equipment, which went over at least as well as the more formal presentations. This is perhaps easier in virtual settings, which are usually more optimized for videoconferencing than screen-sharing. Attendees should discuss any visual and digital aids they intend to use with event hosts to make sure they’re compatible with the space and any equipment in use.
It’s tempting to follow the format of themed conventions and academic conferences and suggest a shared theme for presenters to implement. Most of the time, a more interesting party follows when this kind of guidance isn’t offered. Instead, ask your attendees to follow their interests wherever they may lead. The best presentation parties have a mix of real-world knowledge, sociological commentary, video-game lore, and near-absurdist pontificating about topics that only deserve this level of importance because it’s funny to treat them that way. The wild swings from one subject area and approach to the next provide a natural, if chaotic, rhythm to an evening that might become overwhelming if all presentations had similar content or moods. This also makes the home presentation party a natural venue for truly silly topics that would never fly in more formal settings, which can often be the highlights of an evening.
People will probably want to tease or announce their presentation topics to other attendees, especially if there’s substantial lead time before the event. This is a great way to build anticipation and enthusiasm. Let them, and don’t force them. Surprise is fun, too.
One thing to keep in mind is that this kind of freeform approach works best if especially heavy topics are either avoided altogether or treated with great care. It’s a good idea to solicit content notes, trigger warnings, spoiler warnings, and similar information from presenters and to potentially rule out certain topics for not fitting with the all-in-good-fun spirit of this kind of gathering.
Also, as a general rule, don’t put flashing lights or images in your presentations. Even when folks with photosensitive migraines or epilepsy aren’t in the audience, they’re obnoxious.
Keep It Short
This is not the time for 20-minute conference talks or 60-minute headliners. People can barely handle those when they’re within their professional specialty and eager to learn. Expecting that of partygoers is obscene, especially when several others are waiting. A good benchmark is 3 to 10 or 15 minutes, ideally with all attendees aiming for similar lengths. Whether one enforces that time limit or not is up to them, and each decision creates a different atmosphere. I prefer to let people go on until they reach their natural endpoints, in proper celebration of their infodumping bliss.
All in Good Fun
People should not feel compelled to get on stage. For some, this is an invigorating, even intoxicating experience; for others, it’s an anxious trial they would rather avoid. It’s okay to have people in attendance who aren’t also presenters. It’s not really in the spirit of this kind of event for people to attend without also sharing, but it can build interest for future occasions and provide a chance at sharing time with people whether they present something or not. This is a party theme, not a homework assignment. Similarly, presentation-party rulesets that incorporate drinking games (“take a shot if you go over your time limit”) or bingo cards can feel coercive or mean-spirited and should be saved for groups that can receive them as humorous rather than unpleasant.
Likewise, don’t send people on their way after the show, but leave space and time for conversation and other party activities. This is a festive and communal occasion and should not be rushed.
With these thoughts in hand. I hope my readers find many occasions to bring their nerdy collectives together for many shared presentations. For people like me, there are few grander joys, and I look forward to getting my friends together for many shared adventures in special-interest storytelling. Happy presenting!