Sunday, July 24, 2011

Three thoughts on presentation advice

As someone who makes presentations for a living,* I regularly peruse several blogs and forums on presentations. Here are three thoughts on presentation advice, inspired by that perusal.

1. The problem with much presentation advice is that it's a meta exercise: a presentation about presentations. And it falls into what I like to call the Norman Critique of Tufte's Table Argument (NCoTTA). From Don Norman's essay "In Defense Of Powerpoint":
Tufte doesn't overload the audience in his own talks—but that is because he doesn't present data as data, he presents data as examples of what slides and graphical displays might look like, so the fact that the audience might not have time to assimilate all the information is irrelevant.
It's funny that Tufte is actually one of the people who least deserve the NCoTTA; most presentation coaches make that error more often and to greater depths.

2. When an attendee of a short talk I recently gave asked me for quick advice on presentations I said: have a simple clear statement, in complete sentences, of what your presentation is supposed to achieve. He was flummoxed; I assume he wanted the secret sauce for my slides.

Here's a slide from that talk:

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It's obvious that there is no secret sauce here; extending the cooking metaphor, what that slide shows is a good marinade: preparation. Though many presentation advice websites talk about rehearsal and working the room as preparation, what I mean is what this 3500-word post explains.

For example, knowing what the 100,000 SKU statistic is for, I chose to put the size of FMCG consideration sets as a footer, to contextualize the big number. Different uses of the big number get different footers to put it into the appropriate perspective. If all I wanted to do was illustrate how big that number is, I could say "if you bought a different SKU every day, you'd need almost 300 years to go through them all."

Most advice on presentations will not be useful because the content and the context of the presentation are much more important to the design of the presentation than generic rules. (Hence the NCoTTA problem so much advice has. Ditto for this slide, since I didn't explain what the talk was about.)

3. Speaking of Tufte, one of the things that separates him from the other presentation advocates is that he takes a full view of the communication process (partially illustrated in this post): from the speaker's data to the receiver's understanding. Here's a simple diagram to illustrate the sequence:

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Most presentation advice is about the creation and, especially, the delivery of presentations. Tufte stands more or less alone as one who discusses the receiving and processing of presentation material: how to pay attention (not just being "engaged," but actually processing the information and checking for unstated assumptions, logical fallacies, psychological biases, or innumeracy) and how to elaborate on one's own, given presentation materials.

Other than Tufte and his constant reminder that receiving a presentation is an active process rather than a passive event, presentation coaches focus almost all their attention on the presenter-side processes. Many "Tufte followers" also miss this point: when processing a presentation by someone else they focus on the presentation itself (the slides, the design, the handouts) instead of the content of the presentation, i.e. the insights.

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* Among other things, like teaching, creating original research, and writing.