Sunday, July 28, 2013

For better presentations, avoid most presentation advice

If you want to become a better presenter, you probably should avoid most advice about presentations.

Yes, here I am, an educator, apparently telling people to avoid sources of knowledge. The problem is that much presentation advice is not a source of knowledge; more like a source of sophistry that helps perpetuate some of the worst problems with presentations.

As an avid reader of books, articles, and blog posts about presentations, I identified a few pathologies from the mass of material available:

1. Presentationism. This is what I call the tendency of people who do presentation training or information design training to focus on the style and delivery of the presentation instead of the substantive material that the presentation is about. This is a form of professional deformation, but one that can become a serious obstacle to understanding the real value of presentation skills: usually that of changing the audience's mind, unless the presentation is being done for entertainment, legal, or other purposes.

2. Perfectionism. The idea that all presentations have to be done to the standard of excellence and that all presenters should put as much effort as needed into preparing, rehearsing, delivering, and clarifying every presentation. In reality there are many people who have to do presentations with minimal resources, for whom the time and effort required to create a better presentation represent a net loss of value.

3. Ideological purity. Instead of choosing the best tool for a given presentation, many authors are strict ideologues: the presentation should conform to their choice of tool and styles. This affects some famous authors in information design and presentation techniques, and has led to pointless arguments about which tool is better, tout court. Like arguing whether a hammer or a drill is a better tool, independently of the project, and equally pointless. This creates a subordinate problem:

4. Subject matter and audience independence. According to a plurality of authors, Einstein presenting to an audience of Princeton scientists and the Frito-Lay head of sales for northeast Kentucky reporting on the penetration of new chip varieties to a group of mid-level executives should prepare and deliver their presentations in about the same manner, with similar presentation support (typically, though not always, slides), and about the same effort. To be clear, these authors don't suggest that the substance of the presentation should be the same, but rather that the process of preparing and delivering these presentations and the style and design of the materials should be the same.

5. The "tricks and tips" distraction. Many authors offer only tricks and tips, which may be good or bad, but in general create a false sense of learning: the problem with most bad presentations is systemic, not something that a tip will solve. Similarly, a lot of authors use cherry-picked results from psychology to support their approach. As a general rule, unless you can read the original source and determine whether the result applies to your circumstances, it's better to ignore this.

So, what is someone who wants to become a better presenter to do? I've written about it (note the "most" in the title above, which is not "all" on purpose), and here are three further recommendations:

- James Humes's Speak like Churchill, Stand like Lincoln is a short, well thought-out book on public speaking.

- Edward Tufte's books, courses, and web site, despite a bit of ideological purity, are possibly the best source for people for whom getting complex messages across to their audience is important and worth the effort.

- Don Norman's critique of Tufte makes a good counterpoint piece for ET's works.

Above all, think critically about the advice being given; ask "does this make sense in my case?" Even the best advice has exceptions.