Presentation Zen

So I've been critical of other people's presentations. Which naturally leads to a few questions:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

Because I know it’ll entertain me, which makes it seem more appealing than something more informative but harder work.

I had an entire paragraph in this post about boiling down my presentation advice to one refrain:

Entertain me.

But I deleted it, because I felt it was off topic. And I was worried about falling into the “all entertainment” side of the broccoli - pudding axis, as you note.

I don’t think providing a balanced presentation diet is necessary. Once you’ve engaged someone, they can find the broccoli themselves, on their own time. If you start with broccoli, they’ll never get past it – eg, Don’s advice.

You have to err on the side of entertainment. That’s the golden rule. You can sneak some broccoli in there, but always, always ask the “so what?” question on each slide. If it isn’t a bit entertaining, nobody will be absorbing it anyway.

Ian, this looks more like a blog post than a comment. :wink: Your blog cries out for your attention. “Feed me!”

I’ve just watched Dick Hardt’s Identity 2.0 presentation. It was indeed amazing ! I really consider that I have to choose a Lessig style for my next presentations. Looks like the best way to grab your audience, and not make them fall asleep…

I’d be interested in seeing the results from any research that took the same script, but the bulleted and the one point per slide styles and compared how much people learnt and remembered. While the one point per slide probably engaged me more, I remember a suprising amount from lists (though usualy when presented more interestingly than a static bulleted list) partly due to their sequential and ordered nature, when you can see how points relate. I’ve not experienced enough of the minimalist presentation to really judge the long term effects and benifits though. I will definatly give it a go in my next presentation.

I think this is good advice in certain contexts. However, having done a lot of presentation work, I’m familiar with a problem that is often overlooked in this kind of presentation advice.

If I’m in complete control of the presentation - if it’s me writing and presenting the talk, and I’m representing nobody but myself, I’ve been tending towards the “as few ideas as possible on the slide” approach. It’s actually amazingly constraining, because it forces you to give the presentation you had in mind when you wrote the slides. (Try presenting off either Lessig’s or Hardt’s slide decks in a way that makes the presentation your own, rather than a parrot-style copy of their presentation.)

I often find myself making considerable tweaks to the deck in the days leading up to a presentation as I change my mind about how I want to present it. However, it usually works out really well - you end up with a very personal presentation.

You also end up with a slide deck that nobody else on earth is likely to be able to work with.

And there’s the problem I want to talk about.

What if you need to create a presentation that other people will need to use? Most of the presentations I’ve had to write in the last few years have fallen into this category. The few that are just for me - conferences and user groups mainly - are the rare luxury.

Slides that take this minimalist personal approach are a total pain in the arse for anyone other than the author to work from. I’ve had to present this kind of talk myself - I’ve been given decks where I’ve seen the original, and it may have been a great talk, but I just can’t present it the same way because I have a different style from the original presenter. Your best bet at this point is often to abandon the slide deck almost entirely - pick one suitably neutral slide, and use that as a backdrop to build your own story and to show demos to support that story. Not exactly the best use of the available facilities, but at least you’re “showing” rather than “telling” if you emphasize demos over a slide deck. (And to integrate the slide deck into the talk, I tend to use it more as a recap, rather than the main event.)

A lot of the stuff you see at Microsoft talks is destined to be repurposed and reused time and time again. Indeed, this will often be an explicitly stated goal when the material is first developed - it intended to be taken by others and presented again. (Often by people outside of Microsoft.) And any given deck usually has several people’s agendas attached. This probably explains the slide you’ve shown above from Gates’ talk… The process used to create that would not have been a personal one.

I recently did some content development for a large software company in the pacific northwest, and I was actually told off for simplifying the content. (I wasn’t formally disciplined, but I did end up having to put the complexity back.) The relevant person complained that I’d taken 30 words off one of the slides I’d originally been given to work with. The grounds for complaint was that this talk would be given by lots of people all over the world, many of whom would most likely not know the subject material that well, and if the messaging wasn’t spelled out right there on the slide, it would get lost.

I think that’s a mistake. In fact it reminds me of Joel Spolsky’s writing on the difference between a gourmet restaurant and MacDonalds. This guy wanted the MacDonalds style slide deck: one that would enforce that the presentation came out with a totally consistent level of mediocrity… Two big dense paragraphs of messaging prose hammered out over weeks of meetings certainly feels to me more like a limp quarter pounder with extruded matter fries than it does a gourmet steak hashe.

However, I think it’s also a unworkable to go too far in the minimalist direction if the material is going to be retold by vast numbers of people. (Or indeed more than one person.) There are two reasons. First, chances are a lot of people won’t be talented presenters, and simply won’t know what to do with a minimal slide deck… (Sad but true.) More importantly, even if you presume the material will only be presented by talented presenters, a minimal style has to be matched to the presenter.

Ironically, the simpler the slides, the more they constrain the way you tell the story, in my experience. (Although that’s probably at least partly because when I’m confronted with a bad, overly-complex slide deck, I feel no particular obligation to follow it very closely… So there’s something peculiarly liberating about irredeemably awful courseware.)

Going back to your Jobs vs Gates choice, I guess I’d rather see the simpler presentation. Although I’ve yet to sit through a Steve Jobs presentation without getting to a point where I think “I know what you’ve just said isn’t actually true, so I’m not overly inclined to trust anything else you’ve said today.” So I’d be hard pressed to choose between either Jobs or Gates - I don’t really want to listen to either of them all that much. (Also, in Gates favour, I’m looking at Jobs slide and I can see he’s not telling me anything I didn’t know. Looking at the Gates slide I haven’t the faintest clue what’s happening, which means if I manage to get anything at all from the presentation, it’s possible some of it’s new… But that’s about subject matter rather than style. Surprise! The Apple stuff scores high on style and low on substance. :wink: )

I’d certainly much rather listen to Lessig or Hardt. But I’d hate to try and present from their decks without first having the opportunity to edit them to match my own presentation style.

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Actually… another thing occurred to me.

I’d rather listen to the Hardt or Lessig talks despite the fact that I’ve heard them both before.

Isn’t that curious? I’d prefer to listen to stuff that I know won’t teach me anything. Why? Because I know it’ll entertain me, which makes it seem more appealing than something more informative but harder work.

This reminds me of something a friend of mine pointed out to me while we were at the PDC last year: the talks you enjoy most rarely tell you much of value.

Looking at the PDC as a whole, I definitely learned more from the sessions that were difficult. And it’s a while ago now, but I think that was true at University. In fact I know that the lectures where it took me a couple of days to work out what on earth the talk was about were the ones I ultimately learned deeper and useful truths from.

I think there are two dimensions at play here: 1) how engaging was the talk, and 2) how useful was the talk? These are not completely independent. As Don Box likes to point out, if you don’t engage the audience, they probably won’t listen, so the talk probably won’t be that useful to them.

Unless, like me, they’re prepared to spend a couple of days trying to decode the lecture. In which case it might actually be extremely useful despite being completely unengaging.

But for any given audience there is some minimal level you have to achieve on 1) before you can even start working on 2).

I think it’s unfortunate that almost all the focus goes on 1). Sure, it makes conferences more fun if you only select the speakers who have great presentation styles. (Not that all conferences do that…) But it’s no guarantee that anyone will get anything useful out of it at the end of the day.

A former colleague of mine talks about this in terms of brocolli and pudding. For a week-long training course, you’ve got to have a certain amount of fun stuff - pudding - to keep the students engaged all week. But in order to provide useful nutrition, you’ve got to have a certain amount of less engaging content - brocolli. And while a skilled chef can make healthy food palatable, it’s never going to compete with the unhealthy stuff. (Actually if you go to a gourmet restaurant, chances are that even the stuff that looks healthy has had something done to it that makes it extremely bad for you…)

The two main goals for the presenter are to present the brocolli as well as humanly possible, and to provide enough sugary treats to keep everyone happy.

Of course in a conference, you don’t usually have long enough to do more than one course. And speakers know they’ll get better marks in their evaluations if they serve up dessert rather than greens. This makes conferences something of a high-fat, low-nutrition diet.

Another one from that hideous “MS Live!” preso:

David – exactly. A commenter posted this slide as a counterpoint:

Which presentation would you rather be attending? Probably the one that doesn’t make your head hurt.

Sometimes in college, I wouldn’t even have any slides. I’d just hand out the paper I was presenting and go off of a few note cards. But scientific presentations are much different than tutorial type presentations. In scientific presentations, the audience often knows more than the presenter does!

Ian makes a good point about being entertained. I like reading Larry Ostermans blog despite not knowing what the heck he’s talking about 1/2 of the time. IMO, the effectiveness of a presentation has nothing to do with the slides, or lack thereof, and has everything to do with the presenter. Put Don Box up there presenting with the same deck as Bill Gates and I bet people take away more from the Box talk. Knowledge of the content has little to nothing to do with how effective the presentation is either. At the Seattle code camp I saw a presentation on designing frameworks by one of the architects of the .NET framework. Almost bored me to tears despite his using what was supposed to be an entertaining deck. Yet, I see Scott Hanselman give a talk about a bunch of 3rd party tools that he likes, most of which I already use, and I still come away learning something new.

The best lecturers at my college never used any overheads. They’d just walk in, usually still wearing a lab coat having come straight from their research lab, and start talking where they left off last time. Occasionally drawing a figure or graph on the chalkboard.

You know who the master of the minimalist style of PowerPoint presentation is?

Stephen Colbert. Seriously. Watch the Lessig presentation, and then watch “The Word” on The Colbert Report.

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What really impressed my from the Lessig presentation was the idea that you can repeat slides. I have done very few presentations but I have always tried to avoid any repetition in the slides and left reinforcing ideas to my talking. By having one point per slide he is forced to repeat slides… and this is actually a GOOD thing!

I will not be modifying my upcoming presentation to his degree but I will simplify a lot of stuff and allow duplicate slides. We will see how well this goes.

Thanks for all the great info from you Blog!

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Couldn’t agree more that “less is more”. On my trainging courses we allow people to develop a presentation/slide interittively; changing it one step at a time to get it as good as it can be.

Almost every time it boils down to “one concept: one slide.” If that concept can be done without words, so much the better.

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