How I’m learning to create effective presentations

Creating effective presentations is really hard. Here’s a short summary of my journey and the two books that helped me. (This started out as a book review and I realized that what I really wanted to write about was how I was learning to create presentations.)

The number one thing that has helped me give effective presentations is giving lots of presentations. Practice makes perfect.

My very first professional presentation was at an HP Unix conference. My boss’s boss’s boss was in the room. He told me later that he wrote "SLOW" really big on a piece of paper and held it up over his head. I missed it.

My topic was interesting though and people hung on through my 100mph presentation and stayed after wards to ask lots of questions. That’s how I got hooked – you can pass on lots of interesting ideas and start lots of interesting conversations through presentations. (Hmm. My parents are teachers – think I got this from them?)

I also got the chance pretty early on to take a two day executive presentation class from Communispond that gave me a lot of really concrete tips and tools to remember some basic presentation skills. Things like how to make eye contact, "clear a slide", face your audience, etc.

So a couple of years ago I felt like I was doing pretty good but that there was still a lot to learn and no obvious place to learn it unless it was one on one coaching.

Then during GUADEC 2007, I was suddenly struck with the fact that my slides were old fashioned and ugly. (And that meant that part of my message was not getting through.) I resolved right then and there that I was going to get rid of all the words and ugly templates.

Luckily Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen came out shortly after. By my keynote at LinuxConf Australia, I managed to recreate my GUADEC presentation into a nice picture and word per slide format. I got a lot of great feedback on the style AND on the message I was trying to tell.

I got quite a bit out of Presentation Zen and I mean to reread it. Things like:

  • one concept per slide
  • how to pick an effective image
  • where to get images (flickr and istockphoto)
  • very few words on a slide
  • slides used during the presentation should not be the same as standalone slides that are passed around
  • use a remote to advance your slides
  • skip the long intro, you have the first couple of minutes and the last couple of minutes to make your point – that’s when the audience is listening
  • spend a lot of time on your message and your slides – think about how much audience time you are using (100 people times one hour is a hundred hours of other people’s time)
  • get feedback after every presentation

I learned a lot from Garr’s book. However, it felt like I’d learned one style (image and word per slide) not that I’d mastered the art of putting together an effective presentation. I mean, I knew how to keep it simple and how to use images, but I was figuring out that wasn’t always the answer I was looking for either. My slides still looked ugly sometimes and they didn’t always convey exactly what I wanted.

When I saw that Nancy Duarte had published a book, slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, I jumped on it. (And I ordered a hard copy – I just couldn’t imagine reading about slides and images would be effective on the Kindle‘s screen.)

slide:ology has a lot of really good information. (Although what has impressed me the most is how much work goes into an effective presentation.) slide:ology is about the nuts and bolts of designing the presentation. (Nancy Duarte is one of the founders of Duarte Design.) Nancy covers things from how to brainstorm image ideas, create effective graphs, draw stick figures, lay out your slides in a consistent style, pick colors, fonts, etc.

So look for a new style coming from me soon as I figure out how to put the Nancy’s advice to work.

It’s going to take me a while though. When I first started using the one image, one word style, one of the most common questions I got was "how long did
that take you?" A long time. Turns out Nancy Duarte recommends 20-60
hours of slide prep time for a one hour presentation. Creating an
effective presentation takes a long time. Learning how to create a presentation in a new style with new concepts in mind takes even longer.

The next book on my list is The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Got any others for me?