Sunday, April 25, 2010

How to Create Effective Technical Presentations

One of my great bugbears in life is the dire nature of the average technical presentation produced by IT folk in general and architects in particular. I'm not saying all architects produce bad presentations or that architects are the only culprits. It's just that I tend to see more presentations from this particular group so am more inclined to comment on them. The main problems I see are:
  • Too much text/information on a slide.
  • Text too small to read unless you are in the front row and have 20-20 vision.
  • Inconsistent use of colour.
  • Poor layout.
  • Use of dreadful and completely irrelevant clip-art.
  • Far too many slides given the length of the presentation.
  • Unnecessary and confusing aimations.
  • I could go on...
Before I go any further I confess I have produced some pretty dreadful presentations in my time where I have fallen foul of most, if not all, of the above at some point. However I've recently been reading the books (Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design) and blog of Garr Reynolds and thinking how what he says can help with people who need to produce technical presentations. Here are five tips based on the advice from Garr's books that will help you next time you have to create a technical presentation.
  1. Don't put more than you need to in the presentation. The first, and I think best piece of advice, is to recognise the inherent limitations of presentations as a communication mechanism and try and mimimise the amount of information you present. Hopefully the audience is there to listen to what you have to say not to see how good you are at slideware. Presentations should summarise, mainly in pictures and in as few words as possible, what you have to say. If you do need to provide additional information then hand this out as a supplement at the end of the presentation. Never just hand out your slides, that's just cheap and shows you don't care! Anyway, a good presentation should, by definition, not stand alone. It should only work when the speaker is there to present it.
  2. Make use of all the space on a presentation slide. This means removing all the unnecessary garbage that can often be found on a presentation template. You know the sort of thing I mean, there is a header and footer showing various aspects of your companies logo that take up more room than the presentation content itself! The only place a company logo should appear is on the title page. After that you should have complete use of the limited space you have available to you. Whilst talking about space you should not feel you have to fill all of the space with content. Sometimes having empty space is just as important as the content as it can provide contrast and at the same time help direct the viewers eye to the positive elements.
  3. Use words rarely. This is the most difficult piece of advice to take. It is tempting to fill a slide up with words because you are worried you will forget some important piece of information so you have to write this on the slide. Unfortunately giving a good presentation does mean you should practice, practice and practice and memorise what you want to say as much as possible. If you are in a rush and don't have time then use cue cards but don't read the words on the slide. Where you do need to use words to summarise key points then I like to try and follow what I call the five by five rule. That's five words in a line and a maximum of five lines (yes really). Finally text should be viewable from people in the back row. To check this put PowerPoint in slide sorter mode, make the slides 100% and make sure you can read the text without squinting at the screen. This is the view people in the back row will have. Actually, I lied, that wasn't the final point on this. You should also use consistent and clear typography throughout. Don't go overboard with lots of different fonts and font sizes.
  4. Use colour, layout and other design techniques for diagrams. Technical presentations by there very nature often include lots of diagrams. By necessity these will usually need to be simplified in order to get the key points across. Make use of colour to show contrast, lay things out in a consistent and meaningful way and follow some basic design techniques such as the rule of thirds to ensure your diagrams have maximum impact. 
  5. Use pictures wherever possible. I'm a recent convert to this. I love the idea of using pictures to get across key ideas and concepts. As a keen photographer I try and use my own images wherever I can however where I need something that I don't have to hand I use stock photos (yes, which I buy with my own money). Don't be a cheapskate and download low-res images from the web. Spend a few £££'s or $$$'s and get good quality stock images from somewhere like istockphoto.  
This is a very short introductory set of ideas for making effective technical presentations. Try some of them next time you have to do a presentation and see what comments you get.

Finally, if you want to view some good quality presentations take a look at the technical presentations at slideshare.net.

3 comments:

  1. Some excellent points here. I also like the teaching practice of systematically varying the visual medium to maintain concentration and provide landmarks within the presentation.

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  2. THANK YOU!! I have been preaching this to my clients for YEARS (especially the point about removing all the header-and-footer clutter from slides), but the comeback is always the same: "That's what our policy is because that's they way we've always done it here." Most consider company logos on each slide as "branding." But if your audience needs to look at a logo on each page to figure out who's speaking to them, they have other problems to worry about.

    Also agree with your point about using few words. PowerPoint is a VISUAL medium, so use visuals! If there are just a bunch of bullet points on a slide, why not just email the presentation to everyone? You certainly don't need a presenter!

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  3. And just in case you needed any more convincing of the story telling power of photography see this wonderful TED presentation: http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2010/04/the-storytelling-power-of-photography.html

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