Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Tools for Presenting

In late November, I stumbled upon an excellent informational blog called Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds. If you're ever in the position to give a presentation, I highly recommend you read through his posts, as they are all insightful and presented in an entertaining manner. Powerpoint is a great tool, but it is often misused, leading to bad presentations (numerous examples are discussed in the blog). Reynolds provides simple and effective strategies on how to make Powerpoint work for you instead of against you.

Having been in school for almost 25 years, I've given quite a few presentations, and I've seen many more. I think it's safe to say that most people, from college undergrads to tenured professors, could do with more training on how to present their ideas. At Cornell, I was lucky to take Comm 201 - Oral Communication in the summer after my freshman year. A lot of people dreaded the prospect of having to take that class, and I was admittedly nervous as well, but it turned out to be a great experience.

Even with that formal training in public speaking, and having presented in academic and professional settings, I still found a ton of useful tips on Presentation Zen. In the discussion section I taught last semester at RPI, I encouraged my students to visit that blog in order to up the level of their presentations. After that, I noticed a dramatic improvement in their talks.

On November 19th, I had the opportunity to give a presentation on otaku culture at Japanese Culture Day 2005, hosted by the Anime Gamers Alliance. Inspired by Presentation Zen, I tried out a new Powerpoint strategy, and I feel it went very well. When it is done right (and you're speaking about something you're passionate about) presenting is really fun and not a chore.

Right now, I am feeling really motivated to give more presentations. Just yesterday, I ordered a Logitech 2.4 Ghz Presenter from Amazon. For my talk in November, James made me a Powerpoint template which I look forward to using again.


  1. Powerpoint is an awful tool. Haven't you ever read Edward Tufte?

  2. I have read some, yes. In fact, the author of Presentation Zen holds Tufte in fairly high regard (see his December 12th, 2005 entry and the list of recommended books).

    Tufte makes good points about the bad habits PowerPoint often instills in its users. The templates provided with the program are clear examples of bad presentations waiting to happen.

    In the way that it encourages uninspired presentations, I would agree that PowerPoint is problematic. Yet, PowerPoint is decently flexible tool--meaning that there is more than one way to use it. That is why Garr Reynolds' resource is so valuable.

    Recognizing the common pitfalls of PowerPoint use, Reynolds gives helpful and creative suggestions on how to more effectively communicate ideas using that program (and similar software).

    From what I've read, Tufte focuses more on negative examples of PowerPoint presentations without providing very many positive suggestions, except perhaps doing away with slideware altogether. For some settings, particular audiences, and certain types of content, Tufte is right on, but slideware is still useful in a lot of venues, which is why I am sticking with PowerPoint. Of course, I think we can all agree that good content precedes everything else.

  3. Well, that Presentation Zen guy suggests to present one fact or quote per slide, in order to keep it simple. When you get to be that simple, then who cares? If you can say it out loud, don't put it on a damn slide. When I have to make a presentation, I use transparencies and draw a diagram on each. When you are actually drawing a thing with your hand instead of worrying about whether it is pretty or if you can do it on a computer, you can get a lot across. You are also explaining detailed stuff that the audience can look at and think over, and that you can reference to, rather than a pithy quote that just sits there.

    Also, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint does provide some hints about presenting data briefly if you look closely at it, but those are mainly found in his other, bigger books about graphic presentations.

  4. Although, I do like Steve Jobs' presentation outlined here. It invites the audience to draw connections, hardly uses any text (in the phots I only see numbers), and fades away when an added diagram would not be helpful to the presentation. The question mark is kind of silly, but it's better than Microsoft's presentation, which is both silly and does its very best to distract from the actual words being said.

  5. Reynolds' simple slides with very little textual content serve as points of emphasis, and are not meant to convey a lot of information (which people often try to do with text-heavy slides; Reynolds and Tufte both recommend handouts for conveying more densely presented information).

    Used mainly to emphasize certain points, the simple slides do not distract the audience from the speaker who is the actual presenter of information. That way, the slides do not break the connection between the speaker and audience.

    That said, I agree that diagramming using transparencies (or even just plain paper or whiteboards) to explain concepts is quite effective. I've known a number of professors who have used that technique to great effect. (One advantage of writing/drawing while talking is that audience feedback can be incorporated into the visuals. The audience also gains information by seeing the diagrams as they are being made.)

    A friend of mine routinely explained concepts to me by diagramming on napkins at restaurants, and I grew up with my dad drawing diagrams to help me with science and math homework, so I appreciate the value of that method.

    I find that type of presentation works best for technical material, and material where lots of separate concepts or names need to be interrelated. Such presentations also tend to be longer--like a one hour lecture instead of a 20 minute sales pitch or introduction of a new idea.

    My own work in Science and Technology Studies is primarily textual. With a few exceptions, my ideas are not really amenable to being diagrammed. Since I deal primarily in words, it's easy to go overboard with text-heavy slides, which is why I make a conscious effort to limit my slide text. Since my work on subculture is descriptive and comparative, I use a lot of images to emphasize what I'm talking about, and PowerPoint works well for that purpose.

  6. Additional reading:

    PowerPoint Is Evil by Edward Tufte

    In Defense of PowerPoint by Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things (which I really enjoyed)

    PowerPoint Usability: Q&A with Don Norman by Cliff Atkinson

    Secrets of a 'PowerPoint Virtuoso': Q&A with Lawrence Lessig by Cliff Atkinson

  7. I like Don Norman's conclusion:

    "When I show slides - and almost all of my slides are photographs that illustrate things I can't otherwise describe - then the lights go down. But for talking, it is best to have no slides, and all the lights."

    Atkinson says the same thing:

    "When I have points I want to illustrate, I use PowerPoint as an efficient way of presenting photographs and drawings. I don't use PowerPoint templates. I don't use bullet points and words in my slides, not unless I must."

    So basically, they both dislike 99% of all PowerPoint presentations, and yet they disagree with Tufte because they think he's criticizing the very idea of a visual aid.

    As your presentations are about subculture, I think anime images are helpful examples. Luckily, I don't see anyone putting that down. You don't need PowerPoint to pull up images-- you could use a slide projector for that, if you were a neo-luddite. Feel free to use PowerPoint to arrange them in an especial order. But that's no excuse for projecting topic headings, summaries, or quotes.

  8. Sorry if you think I'm accusing you of this, I've never actually seen one of your presentations :)

  9. Over the years, I'm sure I have given plenty of presentations that have been less than inspiring, so I'm far past worrying about being accused of having done them. The point is to try to get better over time, so I welcome constructive debate on these ideas.

    I've seen good presentations that used text-heavy slides. The content was good, so the presentation was good, or at least good enough. The question remains, however, as to whether or not those talks would have been better (maybe even much better) without such slides.

    The idea of not using text on slides except as a very last resort is compelling, but I don't think it's worth being dogmatic about. Even though we live in an age where images and sounds capture most of our attention, text has a power all of its own--and not just in books, essays, and articles--which is why I think including limited amounts of text is often more effective than having no text at all.

    Even TV commercials, which only have a limited amount of time to generate lasting impressions on viewers, do not completely eschew text (properly placed, of course). Even some documentaries and their less esteemed cousins--infomercials--rely on onscreen text to convey messages to the audience.

    Perhaps we can make a distinction between text and hypertext. Text as one would find in a book of philosophy essays might not be wholly appropriate for most presentations, but what about hypertext (or something like it)?

    Internet-savvy audiences are used to scanning for important keywords, words to be looked up later or immediately related to other words and ideas, or tags that quickly categorize the content for easy reference.

    When I look at Lawrence Lessig's presentation style, it seems less like text, which is unwieldy in a presentation setting, and more like hypertext, focusing on the key concepts, phrases, or even single words that demand greater amounts of reflection. People seem to like his talks. I do too, actually (even though I don't always agree with his content). So maybe we could describe his method not as textual in the textbook or narrative sense, but hypertextual in the sense that the words act as highlights, reminders, mental placeholders, triggers, or probes. In that sense, written words to present brief and impactful summaries and quotes are all right by me. Hearing a quote recited to you is pretty powerful, but some things work even better when you see them written down.

    Multimedia-literate audiences often like to see, hear, and read all at the same time to receive and process information, and it's not just because redundancy helps memory. Presenting the same idea in multiple ways lets us see things from different angles, providing a qualitatively different experience. Again, the optimal balance between spoken words, images, and text is probably dependent on the content of the talk. I didn't mention sound because I'm not a big fan of music or sound effects in presentations, but then again, there are situations where those could be appropriate as well.

    Back to PowerPoint, I really am not a Luddite. I find the program has convenient features even just for the presentation of images--in terms of laying them out, the ability to jump back and forth with ease using a presentation remote, and adding titles or captions which help give immediate context to the pictures.

    Regarding Tufte:
    Given that Don Norman is fully aware of the sad state of most PowerPoint presentations, he isn't disagreeing with Tufte about that, and given Tufte's chosen field of expertise, Norman surely knows Tufte isn't against visual aids per se. Rather, Norman seems to be taking exception to Tufte's negativity regarding PowerPoint itself. In one sense, I agree with Tufte's indictment of PowerPoint and its inherent "evils" (bad templates and interfaces that encourage bad practices, which encourage further bad practices), but at the same time, I agree with Norman's (and Reynolds') emphasis on improving the practices instead of blaming the tool, even if we all agree that the tool is misused a great majority of the time.

  10. That's something I certainly hadn't thought of. If you want to create keywords for your talk, no better way to drive it home than to slam it up on the screen when you get to it.

    Thanks for explaining it all out in detail.