Archive for the ‘presentations’ Category

(The following article was published in August 2006 in the IT Manager’s Journal. Since this site is no longer active, I am reprinting the article here with a few minor modifications to give it a more permanent home. If you find the article useful, you can republish it under a Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivatives license.)

For many, returning to classes means returning to slide shows. Once used mainly in business, today slide showsare equally important in education. Students use them in portfolios to share their mastery of a subject, and many consider them a basic requirement for class presentations. Yet, despite the ubiquitousness of slide shows, few people use them well. Here are some tips to help you improve your presentation skills.

Some doubt that slide shows can ever be used effectively. Among them are communications expert Edward Tufte, who satirically compares them to a May Day rally in the Soviet Union, and Peter Norvig, who highlights their shortcomings with the Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation. These criticisms are overly severe, but they emphasize the point that if you want to use slide shows effectively, you have to understand their limitations as carriers of information and the restrictions they place on design, and make them a supplement to your presentations rather than an end in themselves.

As their name suggests, slide shows were inspired by 35mm slides. They also owe something to overhead transparencies. However, like spreadsheets, slide shows are a product of the personal computer. The first slide show software was MORE, a Macintosh program for outlining released in the early 1980s. It was followed in 1987 by Microsoft PowerPoint, whose pre-installation on most new computers helped to spread the popularity of slide shows until, by the end of the 1990s, standing up to talk to a group without showing one became a guaranteed way of being noticed.

With the rise of free software, tools like KPresenter (now Stage) and OpenOffice.org / LibreOffice Impress became available. While these lag behind PowerPoint in support for sound and some advanced features, they are adequate tools for the vast majority of slide shows.

When to use slide shows
The most important point to remember about a slide shows is that it is a medium with serious limitations. With no more than 50 words per screen, by itself a slide cannot easily communicate complex information. Even more seriously, slides are designed for one-way communication from a single presenter to a group, and do not encourage conversations or questions. This one-way flow of information is perfect for a standalone demo at a trade fair, but not for a forum in which you want to encourage interaction.

With work, you can reduce these tendencies, although you will always be straining against them. However, before you choose to use a slide show (assuming that you have a choice), you should ask yourself:

  • Is one of your goals class participation?
  • Will members of the class require individual instruction?
  • Is an appreciation of language necessary for the subject?
  • Is your information complex or abstract?

If you answer “yes”  to any of these questions, then you should consider either not using a slide show or making it only part of your presentation.

Choosing and organizing content
The worst thing you can do when developing a slide show is to transfer all your notes to slides. Doing so may beconvenient for those who miss your talk — although less so than you might think  even the most detailed slide shows omit too much to stand by themselves. However, it almost guarantees a dull presentation.

Instead, resist the natural tendencies of the medium by delaying developing the slide show as long as possible.

Start by outlining your presentation in another program, and developing a detailed series of notes. Before opening Impress or KPresenter, go through your notes and mark:

  • Key words or concepts that need definitions or that might be misspelled.
  • Any material that might need illustrating through a still picture, animation, movie, or sound clip. You may be able to find usable content at Classroom Clipart or the Open Clip Art Library.
  • Points where you might want to display a quiz, discussion questions, or other interactive material.

By adding these markers to your lesson plan, you’ll know when you need a slide. If you’re using OpenOffice.org Writer, you can save time by formatting these markers in a Heading 1 style, then selecting File ->  Send -> Outline to Presentation to open Impress with a series of files automatically defined for you.

Another way to decide how to use a slide show is to imagine what you would do if you had no projector but could give your audience handouts or draw diagrams on a whiteboard. Anything that you would put in a handout or draw on the whiteboard can go into your presentation. Anything else should not.

The result of either of these methods is a slide show that lacks continuity — but, unless you are designing a looping demo, you don’t need any. The purpose of the slide show is not to be complete in itself, but to support what you say.

Designing a slide show
A slide is a very limited space. The fact that it is designed to be viewed at a distance makes it even more so. For this reason, the simpler you keep the design, the more effective it is likely to be. Also, if you resolve to keep the design simple, you are less likely to waste time on the chrome — impressive effects such as getting bullet points to doppler into sight in time to music — instead of on content.

You can find backgrounds for slides with a quick search, but you can also design your own using the master slide view (available in Impress from View -> Master Slide -> Slide Master). Whether you download or design, choose the basic color scheme for contrast: you’ll want a dark background for light text, or the other way around. At the most, you’ll want two fonts: one for the title and subtitle, and another for bullet points. To keep them readable, the smallest font you use should be about 22 points.

Simplicity also applies to slide transitions. Choose one and stick with it, unless you plan a change for dramatic effect.

Similarly, when designing individual slides, remember that:

  • Keeping your bullet points to a single line will help you to resist the temptation of reading them.
  • Slides only have space for 5-7 bullet points or 1-2 pictures. If a slide contains both bullet points and pictures, then halve these totals.
  • The more complex a diagram, the larger it should be. Many diagrams work best on a separate slide.
  • To keep the slide size readable, use another slide rather than squeezing more material on to one slide.

As you edit, your goals should be simplicity and readability. If you find your slides getting complex and cluttered,or requiring smaller text, then you need to reconsider what you are doing. In some cases, you may find the material simply doesn’t fit comfortably on a slide, and needs to be a handout or a drawing on the white board.

Delivering a slide show
You have two related problems while giving a slide show: Keeping yourself from reading from the screen, and keeping your audience from reading the screen when its members should be paying attention to you.

If you create your slide show as suggested here, both these problems should be minimized. However, you can reduce them even further if you:

  • Reduce your nervousness by arriving and setting up before the class starts, and carrying a backup presentation plan in case of mechanical failures. The less nervous you are, the less likely you are to let the limits of the medium control the presentation.
  • Know your material well enough that you only occasionally need to refer to your notes or slides.
  • Continually position yourself (from the class’s perspective) to the left of the screen you are using for the slide show. Since English reads left to right, their eyes are more likely to move toward you. If you are using a lectern, position it in that spot, if possible. You do not need to stay in that position, but when you start to refer to a slide, you should move to that position, and keep coming back to it as you continue to discuss the slide. With any luck, you will draw at least some students’ attention toward you and what you are saying, and away from the slide.
  • Move around as you deliver your presentation in order to distract the audience from looking at the screen. In fact, you can signal changes of topic by changing your position.
  • Get somebody else to change slides, or be well-enough rehearsed that you can set the slide show to advance automatically. The less you interact with the slide show, the less likely you are to start reading slides.

With these hints, you should have as good a chance as anyone of controlling your slide shows, rather than being controlled by them.

When desktop publishing programs became available in the 1980s, easy access to advanced design features created a mountain of documents that had been tweaked into unreadability by inexpert users. In the same way, the rise of slide show programs in the mid-1990s has been responsible for millions of presentations that bored their audiences into insensibility. In some circles, the inexpert use of slide shows has become so commonplace that people have been known to cheer when presenters announced that they were not going to deliver a slide show.

Now that their novelty has long worn off, there is less excuse for inexpert use of slide shows. Use them sparingly, and with an understanding of their limitations, and you can get slide shows working for you, rather than against you — and keep your audience engaged rather than stupefied.

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Slide shows have done more to reduce the quality of speeches than anything else. They encourage presenters to peak too soon by writing out their entire talk in detail. They chop logic into a series of small bullet points, none of which seem more important than the other. They tempt presenters to read their speech and ignore the audience. But probably their worst offense is that they encourage the tendency of presenters not to move, as though the soles of their shoes were crazy-glued to the spot.

Not that the average presenter needs much encouragement to be motionless. For as many as two-thirds, the purpose of a podium is to give them something to hide behind. For the other third, having found a spot to stand, they barely shift their weight from one leg to another, much less use the space around them effectively.

Why does being motionless matter? Because public speaking is performance. It’s not only performance – obviously, you need something worth saying, too. But unless you can entertain as well, what you have to say is going to be as flat as wine left uncorked in the back of the fridge of a couple of weeks. When you speak in front of an audience, you almost always have space to move, whether a stage or the front of the classroom, so you might as well use it to get your point across.

If you want proof of the importance of movement in speaking, go find a video of Bill Hicks on YouTube. Listen to him first without looking at the video. You’ll probably smile, maybe grin, and think he’s an okay comedian. Then listen while watching the video, and you’ll be wishing you spent more time building up your abs at the gym because you’re laughing so hard. The difference is the way he moves. As funny and as wise as his routines are, they’re not half as funny as the way he moves through the space around him, sometimes with exaggeration, and at others times with the economy of motion of a martial artist.

Very likely, your subject and tone are more serious than Bill Hicks’. But you still have opportunities to use your movement to bring your points across.

The trouble with standing still is that nothing changes. With you rooted on the spot, the audience relaxes, and sinks back in their seats, getting into the routine, and gradually – unless you have more animation in your gestures and voice than the whole of Hayao Miyazaki’s production studio – they stop listening.

By contrast, if you move from the podium to somewhere else, suddenly your audience shifts and pays attention. Chances are, that means they pay more attention to the point you start to make from your new position.

Similarly, when you are impersonal or logical, move to the back of the stage. When you want to connect with your audience on a personal level, move to the front, even down into the aisles (why do you think so many musicians do it?).

Or if there’s a table, sit on top of it when you want to be casual and intimate. When the time comes to be serious, or to emphasize your point, get up. If you are recounting a problem and how you solved it, pace and stop at random spots so that your movements mirror the confusion you are describing, then dart to the white board to jot down a keyword of the solution. You don’t have to move quickly – just move at all. So few speakers do that you’ll automatically have another way of connecting to the audience.

In fact, once you start being aware of the concept, you’ll soon find all sorts of ways you can use movement while you speak. Once, for example, I turned the fact that a college class wanted to be on the other side of the windows on a hot summer morning by moving up and down in front of the windows for much of my lesson, forcing the class to look at me as much as the window. Think a while, and you’ll find other impromptu possibilities.

In the same way, consider how a little choreography can discourage both you and your audience from spending the entire talk looking up at your slides. Leave the stage and face the screen, and you can read it without being obvious. You should also entice some of your audience to watch you instead of staring at your slides.

Sometimes, of course, you won’t have much space. Or, as happened to me when I spoke in Calgary a few years ago with a swollen foot, you might need the podium to keep yourself upright, and going across the stage just isn’t a possibility. Yet even when you can’t move very far, you can still suggest movement by shifts in your posture. In such cases, even a little movement is an improvement over the immobilization that reading your slides to the audience usually encourages.

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Having recently developed an anti-harassment policy, Linux.conf.au had to enforce it last week when a key note presentation included slides depicting bondage and a pig and a duck having sex. Both the organizers and the speaker apologized, and those involved describe both the conference’s actions and the apologies as what should have happened. I don’t question that description, but I can’t help making a few random comments and observations about the incident and some of the discussion surrounding it on the conference mailing list:

  • What is somebody thinking when they deliver an unnecessarily sexualized presentation? Even if a conference has no anti-harassment policy, common sense should be enough to make them realize that the result is going to be controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with the talk itself. Do they think it edgy and daring? That any attention is worth having? If so, the motivations strike me as less than professional.
  • During the mailing list discussion, most people who supported the policy said that the slides added nothing to the discussion, while those who opposed it said that they made it more effective. Both these responses strike me as intellectually dishonest, because in both opinion is overwhelming critical judgment. Actually, the policy violation and the quality of the talk are two separate issues, although only a few people on either side were capable of making the distinction.
  • At least one commenter insisted that bondage was not sexual. Unless I lack imagination, I think that the only way that you can make this statement is by selective literal-mindedness. It’s true that the bondage slides did not depict an act of sex, and that bondage (I’m told) does not always include sex, but nobody else thinks of that range of behavior as anything but sexual in nature.
  • The same commenter said that the presentation’s contents was not sexual but “adult.” Aside from the fact that “adult” usually seems to mean “adolescent,” this is an excellent example of what Gregory Bateson called “dormitive explanation” (The reference is to a scene in Moliere in which a doctoral candidate says that opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle). In other words, it pretends to explain or make a distinction when all it really does is rename.
  • Inevitably, charges of censorship were made during the mailing list discussion, describing the atmosphere as part of “New Salem.” Given the Internet, this argument always seems disingenuous. So one venue prevents you from a form of expression – what does that leave you? A few billion alternatives? People who are organizing and paying for a venue have every right to set the conditions they choose, and anyone who dislikes those conditions is free to go elsewhere. Anyway, the policy only dictates how subject matter is presented, not the subject matter itself.
  • Another defense was that what is offensive is subjective. In some cases, that may be true, but I noticed that this defense was made in the abstract. That was probably because the slides themselves were not a borderline case. They were in no way comparable to, for example, a slide showing a relevant female authority that, because of the angle of the shot or the lighting, was more revealing than intended.

If these observations add up to anything, I guess it’s the fact that – surprise! – the topic of anti-harassment policies generates a lot of special pleading and intellectually questionable arguments. If someone hasn’t already, they could easily create an anti-harassment policy bingo card, like the ones developed for anti-feminism or rape. I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more of these types of responses in the coming months.

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