tagged by: presentation technique
A while ago Jon Udell characterized two modes of public speaking:
- Scripted: where you write out pretty much exactly what you are going to say and either read or memorize it.
- Slide-driven: where you produce detailed slides and use them to drive what you say.
Most of my public talks these days use a third mode - extemporary speaking. In this style I begin with little more than a rough outline of my talk, and compose everything else as I go.
Recently, via some blog, tweet or other ripple in the internet stream, I came across The Presentation - a free book by Andrew Abela on extreme presentations. It's a short and breezy book that outlines a particular style of doing presentations. I liked the approach he outlines. I think it's worth a look if you are interested in presentation technique and particularly if you are giving a presentation in order to persuade a small group to take an action.
A common problem in people's presentation decks is that they make text and diagrams so small that only the people in the front of the room can properly see them. Here's one simple thing I do to reduce the chances of that happening to me - when I'm composing my presentation I set the view size to 50%. If I can't read it easily at 50%, then the audience will struggle too.
When I rant on at my colleagues about the evils of Slideuments, I do hear a useful push-back. Many people now like to communicate through slide decks that aren't meant to be used for presentations, just to be read. People like me can snark about managers these days being unable to read anything that doesn't look like a bullet point, but there are advantage to these infodecks.
One of the side-effects of my success as a writer is that I've become a minor geek celebrity. It is very minor, usually only taking effect in geek conferences (although I have had people wander up to me in a restaurent a couple of times in San Francisco.) Before it happened I really didn't think much about it, other than a mild hankering after fame. Now it's happened I'm more aware of it - and all in all I hate it.
I've given lots of presentations, and since I go to a lot of conferences I see a lot too. This means I see a lot of problems, where people are doing things that reduce the efficacy of their talks. I've not tried to come up with a comprehensive list, so the ones I'm raising here are just a few things off the top of my head. Like most smells, these aren't always wrong, but should always make you think.
I've attended lots of panels at conferences, and organized a couple myself. When I organize one, I like to use a particular format based on the British TV current affairs panel "Question Time". I've done it a couple of times and much prefer it to the traditional panel.
PowerPoint wasn't invented in the Middle-Ages, when knights rushed around battlefields in full armor. But the slide decks of today share a common characteristic with those knights of old. Both need to be able to clearly distinguish symbols from a distance. We may not have mud and dust, but many projectors aren't all that great at contrast.
A slideument is a cross between a slide deck and a document. The idea is that you can use a single slide deck both for slides during your presentation and as a handout for people to read afterwards. The trouble is that those two needs lead to very different requirements on your slides, so you can't satisfy them both. The result is that slideuments usually fail at both.
During the last fifteen years or so, I've given a lot of keynote talks. I've always found these kinds of talks rather awkward. If you give a talk during a session at a conference, you pick one subject to talk about. You know that there's multiple tracks, so if people come to your talk that implies a certain amount of interest in your topic. But with keynotes you're speaking to the whole conference, so I feel I can't make my talk too tightly focused. I may like talking about the intricacies of modeling temporal events, but I feel that that's too narrow a topic for a broad ranged audience
I give a lot of talks, and like any speaker I'm always asked for a copy of my slides. Also like many speakers, particularly those who put some thought into their slides, I hate giving out copies of slides as handouts. When I use slides, I design them to be a VisualChannel: an accompaniment to my words, not as a stand-alone "Slideument". Such slideuments are very distracting when talking, as reading the bullet points takes the audience's attention away from the words being spoken. As a result my slides are graphic, minimal, and often involve animation that's cued into my talking. Such slides are meaningless without me speaking.
At the end of the 1990's I made a personal push-back against using slides in presentations, as I was tired by poorly designed bullet-points presentations. For around a decade, I gave keynotes with no slides at all. In the last year or so I've started using slides again - primarily inspired by watching my colleague Neal Ford who turns the dreaded slide-deck into a genuine enhancement to his talks (and is collaborating on a book project to pass on his techniques). As I've been working with slides again, I've also been thinking about what makes a set of slides an effective part of a talk. Thee main principle I've tried to follow is to think of them as a visual channel that complements the audio channel which is my spoken words. I find that thinking them of separate channels in this way helps me avoid common problems with presentations - many of which are rooted in the commonplace bullet point slides.