Adam Blades, a Publishing Media student at Oxford Brookes writes about his experience running a series of digital publishing masterclasses for his fellow undergraduates.

This winter I was confronted with the challenge of occupying a class of Publishing Media undergraduates at Oxford Brookes University for 4 hours on the topic of digital publishing.

What resulted was a set of three free masterclasses held a day apart covering everything from consumer digital magazines to enterprise apps.

The experience was eye-opening, and stood up for a generation known for being more obsessed with Snapchat stories than world politics.

Here I want to reflect on the main things I took away from the experience.

Slides: more is less

Each masterclass had about 80 to 100 slides. Wait what?! A millennial audience is not going to sit through that many slides and stay engaged, surely.

On the contrary. Whilst each masterclass did have a lot of slides, many only had one icon or symbol. Not only did this make it far easier for eyes, and brains connected to those eyes, to absorb information, but it also made me (the presenter) the key focus of the presentation. After all, the slides should only be a visual aid to your performance. I inherited many of these ideas from David JP Phillips’ excellent TEDx Talk on avoiding death by powerpoint. Seriously go watch it!

Surprisingly when asked after the masterclass how many slides students thought they had seen, some estimated as low as 13!

I found Keynote to be the absolute best tool to convey my ideas onto the screen. It does many of the little tasks for you automatically, such as easing in and out animations, while providing the needed flexibility to convey complex ideas.

Animations aren’t the devil (if done right)

Back in secondary school, being given the task to create a group presentation was an opportunity to cram as many erratic, explosive animations on the screen as possible; all to our IT teacher’s dismay.

But animations don’t always have to distract away from the content of the slides. Instead they can be used to boost engagement and give the performance some flow.

I found that subtle fading, smooth transitions and even some more complex movement helped illustrate my ideas rather than detract from them.

Presenting lots of data doesn’t have to be mind-numbing

I was determined that my masterclasses wouldn’t consist of mindless conjecture, and so wanted to ground ideas using relevant data. That meant charts, graphs, industry metrics, the lot.

But how do you do this without the audience feeling overloaded or switching off completely?

That’s where I hand it over to the master of data visualisation, Hans Rosling. I may not be solving world poverty like he does, but the techniques he uses to gradually introduce new analytical data to build a larger trend worked incredibly well in my masterclasses.

Adjust for your audience

“Why is this relevant? Why am I here?” I felt these were the unvoiced questions being directed at me from the many staring eyes as I took to the stage.

Mark Ritson really nails it in his presentation at 2015 Media Forum where he tailors the entire presentation towards his Canadian audience that helped drive home the passionate points he was trying to deliver.

Conversely, I found with my second masterclass on Unlocking Innovative Digital Publishing within companies and industries, students didn’t quite see how what I was saying was relevant to them. One piece of feedback I received was that the presentation felt more like something that should be delivered to a HR department as opposed to a publishing class, and I couldn’t agree more.

Really putting my audience first would have helped me avoid disenchanting some of my audience in the second class.

Tell them what you told them

This is perhaps one of the best pieces of advice I was given while preparing for my masterclasses.

The most impactful parts of my performance were when I stopped, and reflected on the progress we had made. This fleshed out the narrative arc of the performance, and gave greater context to the parts that followed.

Tell them what to feel

If ‘tell them what you told them’ was the the best piece of advice I received, ‘tell them what to feel’ would have to be second best.

“That statistic is shocking!”

“What a fascinating discovery.”

“This is excellent news.”

I found using these phrases helped guide my audience through my narrative rather than leaving them to pick up on the subtle hints and clues I left in my wake.

Trust in your audience

This was one of my greatest fears when going into these talks. The word ‘masterclass’ connotes a certain level of interactivity and engagement. It couldn’t just be me preaching for 90 minutes.

Therefore I attempted to integrate co-operative activities in each session to help students apply what they had been learning. This culminated in the final masterclass where the whole room grouped together to reimagine a traditional print magazine story for digital. Rather than limit creativity with computers, I found it was helpful to give everyone pens, pencils, tape, scissors and an iPad template to go wild (encouraged by the odd HobNob). My initial anxiety fell away as I saw each team of 4 students share and collaborate together on awesome ideas.

This became the defining moment of the whole series, and generated a feeling i’ll never forget. The lesson I walked away with was that if you construct the right environment, your audience can be the best show there is.

You can view slides and watch a version of Adam’s masterclasses on his website at


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