Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why I'm not a fan of "presentation training"

Because there are too many different types of presentation for any sort of abstract training to be effective. So "presentation training" ends up – at best – being "presentation software training."

Learning about information design, writing and general verbal communication, stage management and stage presence, and operation of software and tools used in presentations may help one become a better presenter. But, like in so many technical fields, all of these need some study of the foundations followed by a lot of field- and person-specific practice.

I recommend Edward Tufte's books (and seminar) for information design; Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, James Humes's Speak like Churchill, Stand like Lincoln, and William Zinsser's On Writing Well for verbal communication; and a quick read of the manual followed by exploration of the presentation software one uses. I have no recommendations regarding stage management and stage presence short of joining a theatre group, which is perhaps too much of a commitment for most presenters.

I have already written pretty much all I think about presentation preparation; the present post is about my dislike of "presentation training." To be clear, this is not about preparation for teaching or training to be an instructor. These, being specialized skills – and typically field-specific skills – are a different case.

Problem 1: Generic presentation training is unlikely to help any but the most incompetent of presenters

Since an effective presentation is one designed for its objective, within the norms of its field, targeted to its specific audience, and using the technical knowledge of its field, what use is it to learn generic rules, beyond the minimum of information design, clarity in verbal expression, and stage presence?

(My understanding from people who have attended presentation training is that there was little about information design, nothing about verbal expression, and just platitudes about stage presence.)

For someone who knows nothing about presentations and learns the basics of operating the software, presentation training may be of some use. I think Tufte made this argument: the great presenters won't be goaded into becoming "death by powerpoint" presenters just because they use the software; the terrible presenters will be forced to come up with some talking points, which may help their presentations be less disastrous. But the rest will become worse presenters by focussing on the software and some hackneyed rules – instead of the content of and the audience for the presentation.

Problem 2: Presentation trainers tend to be clueless about the needs of technical presentations

Or, the Norman Critique of the Tufte Table Argument, writ large.

The argument (which I wrote as point 1 in this post) is essentially that looking at a table, a formula, or a diagram as a presentation object – understanding its aesthetics, its information design, its use of color and type – is very different from looking at a table to make sense of the numbers therein, understand the implications of a formula to a mathematical or chemical model, and interpret the implications of the diagram for its field.

Tufte, in his attack on Powerpoint, talks about a table but focusses on its design, not how the numbers would be used, which is what prompted Donald Norman to write his critique; but, of all the people who could be said to be involved in presentation training, Tufte is actually the strongest advocate for content.

The fact remains that there's a very big difference between technical material which is used as a prop to illustrate some presentation device or technique to an audience which is mostly outside the technical field of the material and the same material being used to make a technical point to an audience of the appropriate technical field.

Presentation training, being generic, cannot give specific rules for a given field; but those rules are actually useful to anyone in the field who has questions about how to present something.

Problem 3: Presentation training actions are typically presentations (lectures), which is not an effective way to teach technical material

The best way to teach technical material is to have the students prepare by reading the foundations (or watching video on their own, allowing them to pace the delivery by their own learning speed) and preparing for a discussion or exercise applying what they learned.

This is called participant-centered learning; it's the way people learn technical material. Even in lecture courses the actual learning only happens when the students practice the material.

Almost all presentation training is done in lecture form, delivered as a presentation from the instructor with question-and-answer periods for the audience. But since the audience doesn't actually practice the material in the lecture, they may have only questions of clarification. The real questions that appear during actual practice don't come up during a lecture, and those are the questions that really need an answer.

Problem 4: Most presentation training is too narrowly bracketed

Because it's generic, presentation training misses the point of making a presentation to begin with.

After all, presentations aren't made in a vacuum: there's a purpose to the presentation (say, report market research to decision-makers), an audience with specific needs (product designers who need to understand the parameters of the consumer choice so they can tweak the product line), supporting material that may be used for further reference (a written report with the details of the research), action items and metrics for those items (follow-up research and a schedule of deliverables and budget), and other elements that depend on the presentation.

There's also the culture of the organization which hosts the presentation, disclosure and privacy issues, reliability of sources, and a host of matters apparently unrelated to a presentation that determine its success a lot more than the design of the slides.

In fact, the use of slides, or the idea of a speaker talking to an audience, is itself a constraint on the type of presentations the training is focussed on. And that trains people to think of a presentation as a lecture-style presentation. Many presentations are interactive, perhaps with the "presenter" taking the position of moderator or arbitrator; some presentations are made in roundtable fashion, as a discussion where the main presenter is one of many voices.

Some time ago, I summarized a broader view of a specific type of presentation event (data scientists presenting results to managers) in this diagram, illustrating why and how I thought data scientists should take more care with presentation design (click for larger):

Putting some thought into presentations - backward induction approach

(Note that this is specific advice for people making presentations based on data analysis to managers or decision-makers that rely on the data analysis for action, but cannot do the analysis themselves. Hence the blue rules on the right to minimize the miscommunication between the people from two different fields. This is what I mean by field-specific presentation training.)

These are four reasons why I don't like generic presentation training. Really it's just one: generic presentation training assumes that content is something secondary, and that assumption is the reason why we see so many bad presentations to begin with.

NOTE: Participant-centered learning is a general term for using the class time for discussion and exercises, not necessarily for the Harvard Case Method, which is one form of participant-centered learning.

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.