Good Work Deserves a Good Presentation

April 29, 2013

Once again i find the AERA annual meeting engaging and worthwhile. I gladly yield to the seductive pull of passionate people sharing what they know and do.

And, as usual, i have seen some really smart people give some really bad presentations.

Speakers talking at onehundredmilesanhour to squeeze in everythingtheywant tosay. Speakers going substantially over their allotted time. Speakers showing slides with paragraphs full of words in small unreadable type. Speakers standing facing the screen instead of facing the audience.

I think we can do better.
Most presentation problems can be solved by rehearsing in advance.

Timing. Practice your presentation before you come to the conference. Use a watch or stopwatch. If necessary, shorten your talk to allow you to speak at a normal relaxed pace and still hit the high points. When a speaker goes over time, that cheats the others and makes the audience restless.

Visuals. Powerpoint slides work best when they are simple and colorful. Paragraphs of words and complex tables are neither colorful nor simple. Save those for handouts or downloadable PDFs. You know those details, we don’t and we must fight to grasp everything while you’re saying something else.

Audience engagement. We would rather see your face than your back. If you read from your projected slides, we cannot see your face. And reading from the screen makes it appear that you don’t know your stuff. Write your main points on index cards, hold them in your hand, and face your audience.

Videotape yourself and critique. Use a smartphone or generic videocam to record your practice presentations. Check for the above points. Practice and record again until you’re comfortable with the way you come across.

If your work is important enough to present, it’s worth presenting well.



The Backchannel: The elephant in the room

December 28, 2009

Book review
The backchannel: How audiences are using Twitter and social media and changing presentations forever.
Cliff Atkinson.
New Riders, 2010.  222 pages.

You’re comfortable presenting to audiences and you’re well prepared for this conference.  But . . . . A minute into your presentation you notice that many people are busy texting on their mobile phones.  Are they checking email?

They’re certainly preoccupied. They laugh at the wrong time.

Chances are they’re using Twitter to message each other about you and about your presentation. They may love you, or they may be encouraging each other to leave and check out another presentation.

Welcome to the world of the backchannel, where your presentation is only one of the many interesting things going on in the room. In fact, this virtual conversation is not limited to the room. Because Twitter is public and open, anyone can follow or join in the conversation about your presentation, even when they’re in another state or on another continent.

The backchannel is a recent phenomenon. In fact, it’s impressive that a book has been written about it so soon.

A seasoned presenter, Cliff Atkinson provides anecdotes, case studies, a bit of communication theory, and how-to examples, to help you feel more comfortable as a presenter facing this new elephant in the room.

Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points (which I reviewed here) remains an important book on the subject of effective presentations. (It was named a Best Book of 2007 by the editors at Now, in The Backchannel, Atkinson describes how to how to prepare for the backchannel, how to make your ideas Twitter-friendly, and how to manage this virtual conversation.

This is an important skill for presenters to learn. At its worst, the backchannel can get out of hand and degenerate into harsh criticism of your presentation in real time. Atkinson provides examples of speakers falling prey to negative comments and how they have succeeded, or failed, in defraying the tension.

On the other hand, speakers can learn how to use the backchannel conversation as a rich source of information that can engage the audience and improve the presentation.

Create presentations that inspire

June 1, 2009

beyond bullet points

Book review
Beyond bullet points:
Using Microsoft Office Powerpoint 2007 to create presentations that inform, motivate, and inspire.
By Cliff Atkinson
Microsoft Press, 2008. 349 p.

“We don’t live our lives in bullet points,” Cliff Atkinson says, “we live in images and stories.”

Beyond Bullet Points is not a quick fix for your current approach to presenting with PowerPoint. Atkinson’s book challenges all us presenters to set aside our old habits and assumptions, especially if we have been using PowerPoint for years.

Time and again, reading this book reminded me of family slide shows. Dad set up his slide projector and a huge screen. In a darkened room he showed gorgeous color photos of our latest travel adventure. His narrative and the visuals produced a seamless entertainment.

Little did we know that years later, this approach would be endorsed by experts on how people learn. Without getting too technical, Atkinson artfully weaves cognitive science into the how-tos of using PowerPoint. Slides should complement the narrative, not try to duplicate it. Many presentations fail because the speaker’s slides are, well, too verbal.

Atkinson shares research realities that dispel the myths and break the habits that stand in the way of effective presentations.
Research reality #1: respect the limits of working memory. The limits of working memory have been acknowledged for decades, but our presentations often don’t honor those limits. People learn better when information is broken up into digestible pieces. Help your audience by “chunking” new information.

Research reality #2: address two channels: visual and verbal. People receive and process new visual and verbal information in two separate channels. PowerPoint presentations do not occur in a paper medium. They are like a movie, with a visual track and an audio track. The two streams of information don’t try to reproduce each other, rather, they complement each other.

Research reality #3. guide audience attention.  Your slides should guide your audience’s working memory. When preparing your show, give each slide a headline, then write out your full narration in the off-screen text box in Notes Page view. Finally, add a graphic in Normal view.

Use a story structure
Dad’s vacation slides illustrated a story about traveling. But whatever your subject, you can use a ‘story’ approach to guide you as you plan and produce your show. Your presentation should have a beginning, middle, and end. This powerful structure ties everything together and keeps one idea flowing to the next. No idea—or slide—is without specific meaning, context, and sequence.

The main character in the story should be your audience. Not your company, not your research. Your presentation asks your audience to take some action, or to believe something.  You create dramatic tension in your presentation by showing a gap between Point A (the status quo; your audience’s problem to be resolved) and Point B (problem solved, because your audience collaborated with your company).

Granted:  On the surface, making a business presentation may seem to have little in common with narrating a slide show about a family vacation. You have lots of money at stake, or you must use lots of numbers. You’re trying to persuade an audience to do something, or to believe something.

But what better way to keep their attention, and guide their decision-making, than by structuring your presentation as a well-illustrated and narrated story?

Improving presentation style: Good summer reading

May 12, 2009


I’m just back from a week in Paris. Having visited the Louvre, the Picasso museum, the Pompidou Center, and the Rodin museum, I’m feeling visually inspired. Now I’m talking with one of our graphic designers about cooking up a one-hour lunch time brownbag on the topic: “How to make better presentations.”

My friend Ron Dietl at UCLA’s CRESST is quite the evangelist on this topic and we have presented together.

Like you, we have seen so many potentially good presentations spoiled by godawful slide decks, not only on campus but at regional and national conferences: Slide after slide of bullet points and dense text. Research shows that text-heavy slides do *not* reinforce what the speaker is saying; this practice actually distracts the audience by messing with short-term memory and thus retention.

Our artist, Janet, and I are planning a workshop for researchers about presenting ideas graphically, and telling stories with pictures.

I’m proposing that we cite some of the fabulous ideas in these books

Presentation Zen


Beyond Bullet Points

The Back of the Napkin

Rodin, Picasso, and the Louvre have nothing to worry about. But maybe this exercise will add to effective communication of research.

Zen and the art of presentations

June 20, 2008

presentation zen

Presentation Zen : simple ideas on presentation design and delivery
Garr Reynolds.
New Riders/Voices That Matter. 2008. 229 pp.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by bad PowerPoint presentations,
starving, hysterical, naked,
dragging themselves through conference hotel hallways,
looking for an angry fix. . . .

Garr Reynolds poses a question I’ve asked myself many times: If people can’t listen and read at the same time, why do most PowerPoint slides contain far more words than images?

In this beautifully designed and well written manifesto, Garr Reynolds offers not a method, but an approach—think of presentation design as a road, a direction, a frame of mind, perhaps even a philosophy, but not a formula of proven rules to be followed.

In three sections, Preparation, Design, and Delivery, Reynolds illustrates how your presentations can engage and even inspire audiences, with just a little more effort and imagination in the preparation and design stages. Surprisingly, that may mean thinking in terms of creating a good comic book or a good documentary film. Why? Because a good comic strip is “amazingly effective at partnering text and images that together form a powerful narrative which is engaging and memorable.” And a good documentary film not only tells a story but also touches emotions.

Most presentations we see are lists of bullet points. They are entirely ‘left brain.’ The best presentations, he says, will be created by those who have strong “whole mind” aptitudes and talents. “I have learned much about the use of imagery in storytelling from watching virtually every Ken Burns documentary ever produced,” he says.

During preparation, he advises, get away from your computer. Use paper and pen to sketch out rough ideas in the early stages. Or get some 3×5 cards or some Post-its. Then arrange your ideas in storyboard format. Visualize the overall flow and “feel” of the presentation.

Your presentation should include three components—the slides, your notes, and the handout. The handout should not be a mere printout of the slide deck. Instead, it should amplify and expand on the slides.

Design is not decoration. Design is about making conscious decisions about inclusion and exclusion. Simplicity is powerful. Simplicity “comes from an intelligent desire for clarity that gets to the essence of an issue, something which is not easy to do.”
Make your audience feel something. Example: You’re explaining the devastation of hurricane Katrina. Do you use bullet points, data, and talking points? Or do you show pictures of the wreckage and flooding and human suffering?

In the end, Grasshopper: Do not rely on software to dictate your choices. Do not let mere habit—and the habits of others—dictate the your preparation and design.

Record your presentations

May 29, 2008

This is gratifying. I got a note today from someone who saw one of my presentations over a year ago:

“My name is Daniel . . . .  Just tonight I listened to the CD from your session at the ASCD conference in 2007. Your topic was Blogs, Podcast and Other New Communication Tools..
You mentioned two things in your presentation, 1. a resource list you handed out at the end of the session and 2. access to your powerpoint.

“You offered a number of references through the presentation.  I was driving and could not write them down.  If you wouldn’t mind sharing the documents, I would appreciate it. ”

I’m glad the conference session was recorded, and I was happy to point him to my presentations on Slideshare and to the bibliography posted on this blog.  That’s what this is all about.

Presenting and Tagging

May 28, 2008

I’m reading Garr Reynold’s book “presentation zen: simple ideas on presentation design and delivery.”  Reynolds discusses “really bad powerpoint” and “the scourge of the deck,” but spends most of his time on how to do things right, from preparation, through design, to delivery. The books approaches the art of presntation in terms of the aesthetics, mindfulness, connectedness one practices while meditating. “A new era requires new thinking,” he says. This book should be required reading for anyone who has to present at the conferences I attend.

Gene Smith’s new book, “Tagging: people-powered metadata for the social web,” is a geek’s dream. If you tag web content, you’ll love this book. You can sink your teeth into discussions of metadata, taxonomies, geotagging, tagging interfaces, and data models.  If you’re not a tagger (yet) you can appreciate what Smith has to say about the cultural underpinnings of social bookmarking, how and why people share media, and potential business benefits.