Monday, June 18, 2012

How I learned to make better presentations by paying attention to the performing arts

Cinema, especially documentaries, and the performing arts in general have a few useful lessons for presentations.

Of course, the main lesson regarding presentations is that preparation is key — just like with the performing arts. But this is a post about details rather than a rehashing of my big presentations post.

1. Have a script. A real script, like a movie script.

For blog post

In the past I used the Donald Norman approach: have an outline, annotated with some felicitous turns of phrase (those work better if you figure them out in advance) and important facts and figures. But now I find that having a script is a great tool, even if I tend to go off-script early and often in a presentation:

a) It forces me to plan everything in detail before the first rehearsal. Then I can determine what works and what doesn't and adapt the script. (Just like in a movie production.)

b) It makes obvious when there's over-use of certain expressions, unintended aliteration, tongue twisters, and pronunciation traps. Not to mention embarrassing unnoticed double entendres.

c) It creates a visual representation of the spoken word, which lets me see how long some chains of reasoning are.

d) It serves as a security blanket, a mental crutch, especially when I'm lecturing in a language different from the one I speak all day at the lecture location (say, speak portuguese in Lisbon, listen to Puccini arias in italian, read Le Monde in french, and then have to capstone discussion classes with english lecturettes).

2. Explicitly write treatments on script

By writing the treatments (slide, board, video, interactive, prop, handout, demonstration, discussion, etc) explicitly into the script I can identify potential problems:

a) If there's a block of more than 750 words (i.e. about ten minutes) that has no treatments, it had better be an interesting story. If I think that the story could use some attention-grabbing treatment, I have time to figure out what to do as I write the script.

b) If there's a diagram on a projected material that requires several builds, and is marked as such on the script, I identify that as an opportunity for a step-by-step construction on the board. That change comes at a cost of production values (upon seeing my drawings, arts teachers suggested I follow a career in text- or numbers-based fields); the benefit is the physicality of the writing and the motion of the speaker. (Note: draw on board, turn, then speak. Even with a microphone, speaking into the board is bad practice, as the speaker cannot gauge the audience's reaction.)

c) By having a cue to the upcoming treatment, I can compensate for lag in equipment response. For example, in the script above I want the video to start as I finish my sentence "money can't buy taste or style." Given my equipment lag, I need to click the remote when I say "money" so that the words in the video follow mine without noticeable pause. (The pause would distract the audience, and direct some of their attention to the technology instead of the content. Obviously I don't say "let's see a video about that" or some such.)

d) Explicit treatments also make it easy to check whether I have all the materials ready and to make sure that I don't forget anything in the mise en scène before I start. (This is a particularly useful reminder to set up demonstrations and double-check props before the event.)

3. There's only one "take" on stage – so practice, practice, practice

The first practice talk  is basically a check for design issues; many things that sound or appear adequate in one's mind ear or eye fail when said out loud, projected on a screen, or written on a board. After the first practice there's usually a lot of presentation materials rework to do. It goes without saying that failing to do this practice presentation means that the problems that would have been discovered during the practice will happen during the actual presentation – when it matters and in front of an audience.

A few iterations of this practice-analyze-rework (reminiscent of the draft-edit-redraft-edit- process for written word) should converge to a "gold master" talk. At this point practice will be for delivery issues rather than design issues: intonation, pronunciation, movement, posture, etc.

Full dress rehearsals, preferably in the presentation venue, are great tools to minimize surprises at the presentation time. I always try to get access to the venue ahead of time, preferably with the A/V people that will be there for the presentation.

If you feel ridiculous giving a full dress rehearsal talk to an empty room while the A/V people watch from their booth, just think how much more ridiculous it is to fail in front of an audience for lack of preparation.

(It goes without saying, but I said it before and will say it again, that practice is the last step in the preparation process before the presentation event; some presenters believe that practice can replace the rest of the preparation process, which is a grave error.)

4. Record and analyze presentations, even the practice ones

Given how cheap recording equipment is, there's no reason not to record presentations (except perhaps  contractual restrictions).

The main reason for recording is quality control and continuous improvement; a second reason is to capture any impromptu moments of brilliance or interesting issues raised during the Q&A.

Depending on various arrangements and the presenter's approach to sharing, these recordings can also be part of the public portfolio of the presenter.

5. The Ken Burns effect - it's not a spurious animation

I have railed against the profusion of unnecessary animations in presentation, so it's ironic that I'm advocating adding animation to static images. But there's a logic to it.

There are a few times when I have a few minutes worth of words that refer to or are supported by a photo. That photo is the projected material for those minutes, but I've started using very slow pans and zooms (the Ken Burns effect, after the PBS documentarian) to create a less boring experience.

My pragmatic guidelines for using the Ken Burns effect are:

a) Use sparingly: once, maybe twice in a presentation, and not in a row.

b) Very slow motion; the idea is to create a just-noticeable-difference so that there's something to keep the attention on the picture, but not enough to distract from what I'm saying.

c) The picture has to be high-resolution so that there's no pixelation.

d) In case of uncertainty, no effect. (Less is more.)

e) Since the photo supports the words I'm saying, and Keynote doesn't allow slide transitions in the middle of animations, the length of the effect has to be just short of the time it takes to say the words.

And a big difference from performing arts and documentaries: Every talk is new, even the canned ones.

Unless you're Evelyn Waugh, you don't want to give the same talk every time. Knowledge evolves, circumstances change, new examples appear in the media, and you learn new stuff from the question and answer period after a talk, or in the socializing period.

Having a script (and a master presentation a la Tom Peters) lets a speaker track the changes that a talk goes through over its lifecycle. It's an interesting exercise in itself, but also can give hints for how to adapt other "canned" talks one may have in one's portfolio.

Preparation, Practice, and Performance. Gee, it's like one of those management things where a complicated field is summarized by a few words that start with the same letter. But it's accurate.

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Related posts:

Posts on presentations in my personal blog.

Posts on teaching in my personal blog.

Posts on presentations in this blog.

My 3500-word post on preparing presentations.