A rant about presentations

My company’s internal conference is in a couple of weeks, so this seems like a good time to have a quick rant about some presentation failings I’ve seen over the last year or so.

If you want to, or are planning to present at a conference (or even just a usergroup), please, please, please pay attention to the following.

Don’t read your presentation

Please don’t read the bullets on your slides one by one. Please also don’t read a speech off your phone. If I wanted to have something read to me, I’d get an audio book.

A presentation should feel dynamic. It is, and should feel like, a live performance.

If you need reminders or cue cards, that’s fine, but put keywords on them, points that need to be discussed, not the entire speech

Watch your font size

This is for the slides but especially for the demos. Font size of 30 is probably the smallest you should be using on slides.

In demos, if I’m sitting in the back row and can’t read the code, there may be a problem. My eyes are not the best though, so that might be a failing on my part. If, however, I’m sitting in the second row and can’t read the code, there’s definitely a problem.

If the conference insists on, or offers time for a tech check, take the opportunity to check your fonts. A tech check isn’t just ‘does my laptop see the projector? Yes, done.’ Walk to the back of the room, go through all the slides, start your demo, walk back to the back of the room. Make sure that everything is clearly visible.

Minimalistic slides

Please don’t put an essay on your slide. Please don’t have fancy animation (unless you’re doing a presentation on animation). Don’t have things that flash, flicker, spin or dance.

It’s distracting, and it probably means your audience is watching your slides and not listening to you. You should be the star of the presentation, not your slides. They’re a support character.

Themes

I like the Visual Studio dark theme. It’s nice to code with, it’s absolutely terrible on a projector. Especially if the room is not dark. For projectors you want strong contrast. Dark font on light background usually works. Dark blue on black does not, two similar shades of blue doesn’t.

Check that your demos are visible, check that the code is readable from the back of the room.

Learn how to zoom in, whether with the windows built in tools or installed apps. Use the zoom any time that what you’re showing may not be clear.

Repeat the question

Especially if the session is being recorded. Your voice is being recorded, the audience isn’t. It is so frustrating to listen to a recorded session, hear a minute of silence followed by the presenter giving a single word answer.

Even if the session is not being recorded, acoustics often make it possible for the presenter to hear a question while part of the audience hasn’t.

It also gives you a chance to confirm that you heard the question correctly and gives you a few moments to think on an answer.

5 Comments

  1. Arun

    What is your opinion on demos ? I do a few for Azure based presentations but I am split over pre recorded or live ? Thanks

    Reply
    1. Gail (Post author)

      If they’re going to add value, absolutely.
      Make sure the code’s readable from the back of the room, make sure you know how to recover (and when to stop trying) if something goes wrong.

      Reply
  2. George

    I enjoyed this very useful essay, thank you for posting. My advice is to always stick with standard PowerPoint themes. These were developed by interface expert and MS spent millions of dollars user testing. The average user is unlikely to come up with anything better.

    Reply
  3. Toby Ovod-Everett

    I would have one exception for animation, and that is to sequentially display parts of a slide. If you toss up a 3 bullet point slide, people will read the whole thing, and instead of focusing on your discussion of the first point, they will be waiting for you to get to the second and third points. When I’m teaching, I frequently pose a question and display it, but the answer doesn’t show up until after we’ve had a brief discussion. You can do the same thing in a presentation. Display the question you are going to answer, riff a bit on the question, and then display the answer and explain it.

    For sequential display of a single line (at least in PowerPoint), use boxes that are the same color as the background (use a single-color background) and have them scripted to hide on click.

    It really helps to have a clicker and to have your screen positioned where it is visible out of the corner of your eye so you can easily check that you and your presentation are synchronized. If there are specific points that don’t belong on the slide, but that you don’t want to have to remember, put those in the speaker’s notes. Use a large enough notebook that the notes are large enough to be easily read.

    Watch Dick Hardt OSCON 2005 presentation on Identity 2.0. This presentation is a great example of the Lessig presentation style. There’s a good write-up on it at http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/presentation-20-hardt-executes-the-lessig-method/ . I’m not saying that this is the appropriate presentation style for technical material (this was a sales pitch more than a technical session), but there are still a lot of takeways applicable to technical presenters. Technical presentations can easily become dry and somnorific. Injecting energy and connection with the audience is critical if you want them to engage with the material!

    A great addition for question and answers might be to have an assistant that can type in summaries on the fly and get that up on the screen (in addition to repeating the question).

    Most importantly, practice, practice, practice!

    Reply
    1. Gail (Post author)

      For simple animations like showing the slide bit by bit, absolutely fine.

      I’m more talking about gratuitous animation for the sake of animation. If the slide deck looks like Industrial Lights and Magic did the special effects for it, it’s probably overdone.

      Reply

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