The presentation of technical content

Posted on 8/12/2008
My right brain is sore, but I'm told that means it's working.
If you are called upon to present technical content, and aren't sure of the best way to go about doing it, this lengthy blog post will hopefully save you hours of research and inspiration-searching. If you'd prefer to skip all the background information, feel free to jump to the top 3 things I learned.

My history with technical presentations

I've sat through many software development-related presentations over the years, and have even given a handful to small audiences. However, I've never given a presentation at anything like a conference before. That's about to change in a couple weeks however, when I'll be speaking about portals, systems integration and web development at the 2008 ILTA conference. In preparation, I decided to throw out what little knowledge I had about how to create a good presentation and started researching the topic.

I was at the 2005 Microsoft Patterns and Practices Summit and saw Harry Pierson's architecture presentation. His presentation seemed a lot simpler than all the others since it lacked a page full of bullet points. During the presentation he mentioned that he was trying out a new presentation approach he had recently read about in Cliff Atkinson's book Beyond Bullet Points (BBP). I didn't run out and buy the book back then, but I did get an idea about the concept from the free material available through Cliff's Webcasts and sample chapters.

Researching for the presentation

Collecting information

I started my research for presentations by looking up BBP to see what Cliff's been up to the last couple years. Since he recently published an updated edition of BBP for PowerPoint 2007, I decided it was a good time to buy. I created a new web feed folder for presentations in Snarfer and added his blog.

Next, I let Google guide me to the most popular presentation blogs, which immediately lead me to Garr Reynolds's blog Presentation Zen. I discovered that Garr recently wrote a book about presentations, also titled Presentation Zen (PZ), so I added it to the cart. If you'd like a quick overview of his points, watch the video of the metapresentation he made to Google employees. His post on technical presentations was very relevant to my needs, as well as a link he provided to an awesome booklet (partially funded by our federal tax dollars) on the subject by the Oceanography Society.

From these first two sources, I found references to Nancy Duarte's presentation work and her blog. Her team was the one that helped out Al Gore with An Inconvenient Truth. Nancy did a webinar on how to create powerful presentations for VizThink, a new visual thinking community that love thinking visually and creating mind maps. Nancy also recently finished working on her book, slide:ology, but it wasn't published until this month, so I couldn't get it in time.

Around the time I was doing my primary research in July, Dan Roam's book, The Back of the Napkin (BOTN), was still fresh off of the press. It created quite a buzz in the presentation circles, so I thought it was worth looking into. Almost everyone has something good to say about it, and the cover just looks cool. It wasn't a book on presentations specifically, but it was right up my alley in terms of relevance. Considering my topics, so I was intrigued about the possibility of being able to communicate my topics using simple pictures.

Garr's book begins with a presentation-style forward (a one-page series of slides) by Guy Kawasaki. Guy is a former Apple fellow and considered to have this whole speaking-presenting thing down by his peers. Guy's site was featured in his blog (of course you'd expect some self-promotion) as a service that makes it easy to find top blogs or sites on a subject. Browsing Alltop lead me to their speaking aggregate page, This has Nancy's, Garr's and Cliff's blog all on the page, which is a good sign so far. In addition to these, it has a bunch of others as well, which should point you to just about any other niche related to presenting/speaking that you'd need.

Processing information

Instead of providing yet another detailed book review, I'll just provide a simple chronology with oversimplified summaries. Overall, I don't regret purchasing any of these books. This may or may not have something to do with me being a book junkie. I would actually like to buy an additional 3 already. However, I think you'll agree with me on these.
The Back of the Napkin
I started by reading BOTN, which seemed to be more approachable because of the front cover, and also more of a prerequisite to books specifically about presentations. The main idea of BOTN is that pictures are the best for communicating and therefore the best for solving problems. Dan's argument is that everyone is still just as creative as they were during childhood and can still draw whether or not they admit to it. One of the coolest things I took away from this book was how the Visual Thinking Codex on page 141 brought it all together, and how you can "tune" your images based on your audience. BOTN inspired me to create a graph with a custom coordinate system to summarize a topic. This diagram made its way into my presentation which I'll be posting here in a couple weeks when the conference starts.
Presentation Zen
I read PZ next. The main idea of PZ is that slides should be as simple as possible and include stunning visuals. In agreement with the sources I'd read previously, Garr urges you to plan presentations away from the computer "in analog". Garr uses the term slideument to mock presentations that are also intended to present the amount of information in a document. He encourages us to create handouts or documents to free our presentations of unnecessary details (advice that I followed for the conference). PZ is full of examples of slides that promote simplicity and clarity over noise and information overload, which makes it the best resource for slide layouts and design ideas.
Beyond Bullet Points
I had read a couple of sample chapters of BBP before I received all my books, so I saved this book for last. Cliff makes a fantastic case for abandoning the way that PowerPoint and other slideware encourages you to use templates and bullet points to present information. He spends a good amount of time discussing the scientific research on how the brain receives, processes and stores information in the context of multimedia presentations. Specifically, the brain prefers images over text, and reading while listening is more challenging than most of the alternatives. Including the section on research was great, as it makes the issue at hand more objective than just some experts' opinions (However, I have yet to find anyone who holds a counter position). Cliff also advises to plan in analog away from the computer, and even goes further by providing template worksheets to fill out for help designing the flow of the presentation.
Book reading summary
Every resource I've come across stresses simplicity in terms of slide design. However, Cliff's approach is by far the most rigid I've seen. His advice, based on his research of course, is to never stray away from the same layout on a slide, to always use the same font and size in the same place, to always use complete sentences in active voice, and more of these types of recommendations. I loved BBP because it finally helped me pull the entire structure of my presentation together. It is very good at forcing you to whittle down your message to the core. However, once I arrived at my core, I sided with recommendations from others regarding slide design (such as PZ's recommendation of asymmetry). However, I did implement some of Cliff's suggestions, such as the first 5 slides overview and using motif (I chose a pyramid) for main topic slides. Overall, BBP is the best resource for the PDLC (presentation development life cycle).

Searching for inspiration

Looking for metaphors
You would think that everything I've mentioned so far would inspire me with more than enough ideas, but since this was my first attempt at using visuals to present information, I struggled with finding just that right picture to show. What image best describes portals or systems integration? Even though I settled on some images, I still have no idea. For me this was the most difficult thing about the entire process (remember my complaint about my right brain being sore?). I was prepared to pay for stock photos, but I still had a hard time finding ones I liked. Most likely the problem was me, not the stock photo sites (such as iStockPhoto). I actually ended up finding quite a bit of free photos from Stock.XCHNG, but not without a considerable time investment. You can waste hours looking for photos, which is why it's so important that you plan your slides and pick your image ideas before you start browsing photos (I didn't quite do it right, so consider yourself warned).
Watching presentations
A common recommendation I read was to watch videos of great presentations for examples. Garr's blog and book recommended watching presentations from the TED conference, which were awesome. I was also referred to Steve Jobs's keynotes as well. This really helps by providing examples of delivery and how to engage the audience. Also, for additional inspiration for slide design and entire presentations, check out the most popular presentations posted to SlideShare. However, keep in mind that SlideShare presentations tend to be designed to provide information without a speaker, so they're more story-like and usually include more words.

Top 3 things I learned about presentations

Presentations are a specific type of communication medium

Presentations are intended to be presented, not printed or read. Presentations should not be able to communicate independently from the presenter explaining and elaborating the contents of the slides. If the target medium is something that needs to be read, a document, not a presentation, is the most appropriate delivery medium. Creating a presentation is a lot more like storyboarding a movie script than it is like writing a document. Avoid the slideument!

Presentations are old, but slideware is new

Presentations have been made for years before PowerPoint came along. Have you ever stopped and considered how you might present without presentation software? Stay away from PowerPoint as long as you can. Do all of your storyboarding on paper, post-its or white boards. It takes far too long to sketch ideas within PowerPoint unless you have a Tablet PC and insist on using a computer.

Bullet points are bad

Have you ever questioned if bullet points displayed on a screen are the best way of transferring knowledge to the audience? If top educational researchers and experts such as Dr. Richard Meyer, John Sweller, the father of the cognitive load theory, and Edward Tufte all advise against this approach would you be willing to hear their arguments? Our brains cannot digest and retain the amount of information on a slide with bullet points. They prefer pictures over text, actually.

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