Presentation Fail

OSCON has reminded me over and over again this week that most people do not know how to give an engaging presentation. Worse still, OSCON in nature attracts a diverse crowd, making “deep dive” talks generally a bad idea, and yet so many presenters dive right into the deep end without offering the audience adequate context. Finally, far too many presenters fail to realize that entertaining an audience vastly improves the chances of educating an audience.

Three questions inhabit the fore of your audience members’ minds. Why should I care about this issue? What do you have to offer that others haven’t already? Why should I believe you? Sadly, many presenters jump straight into describing some system they built or research they conducted without answering the first question. Consequently, whatever they have to offer for the second question is lost. If they get around to the third question at all the audience has lost interest unless they were already domain experts.

A simple template for success follows:

  1. describe a real world problem that any layman could understand to offer context for why one should care
  2. go through some crude solutions and explain their limitations
  3. describe superior solutions and how they address the limitations of the simpler ones
  4. provide concrete examples of your solutions in practice, offer statistical data that support your thesis, and include rich yet elegantly compact visualizations

Also, please, please, PLEASE do not fill up all of your slides with a bunch of text. Your slides should exist as a conversational backdrop and a visual aid. They should provide complementary presentations of the words coming out of your mouth. If you must, use note cards for cues on where you want to take the conversation, not your slides. Filling your slides with a bunch of prose fragments squanders a valuable information channel.

Lastly, and before giving the presentation to a large audience, conduct the analog of a “hallway usability test”. Grab one of your hapless colleagues or friends, subject him to your presentation, carefully assess his involuntary reactions, and ask for feedback (maybe even quiz him on the key points). Was he board and fidgety? Did he fail to grasp and retain the key points? If so, then either the presentation is boring or your delivery is flawed. Refine the content. Practice the delivery on another colleague.

Too many people mistake “making slides” for “preparing to give a presentation”. Don’t be one of them. Don’t assume that people will love your talk just because you love the subject of the talk. Have some empathy for your would-be audience and then test your presentation theories. Don’t speak in a monotone. Have some showmanship. Give the crowd opportunities to be active participants. Your audience will thank you.


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