How to create great technical presentations by avoiding these 5 mistakes

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After 10 years or so as a techie, I held two self evident truths: that I was smart enough to go to the office dressed as I wished and that stuff like sales, marketing and presentations were for other people.

Fast forward a few years. Some marketing roles, many public talks and a presentation training product later, I can tell you… I was wrong about the second part.

Today the way I describe my job is mostly with the word Marketing. But 15 years ago I didn’t use the M word a lot. I was a web developer and technology project manager and I was used to taking someone else’s PowerPoint and making it into a web app, seeing someone else’s strategy and making sure that system managers and developers were able to make that strategy a reality made of code and servers.

A few years into technology jobs, I was called to a role in Marketing. As technology had become more complex, companies understood the advantage of permeating their structures with technical people. So I landed a job title that would change the course of my career.

As a techie in marketing I tried my best to be exempt of presentations. It happened one day that my boss told me: “Good idea, Matteo. Do a presentation about it.” I did my best to resist, telling her that I did not know where to begin, that I had never done that before, that it was “not my job.” She was as kind as she was merciless: “I know you can do it. If you need help ask me or your colleagues.” And so my first presentation was born.

Even though I’ve created many presentations since then, the one thing that hasn’t left me is my interest in technology. Whenever I’m at a conference or meetup I rejoice when I realize that the speaker is a techie, a geek or geekette, a nerd, a hacker, a tinkerer.

Not because the presentation will be great: but because I know that I will be interested in what they have to say.

How they will say it, in some cases, will disappoint me. Mind you, I’m not expecting them to be polished extroverts with a clear message and visuals to match. But I at least hope they will avoid these 5 sins of technical presentations.

Focusing on the “What” instead of the “Why”
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CC-BY: Batman by Kevin Dooley

Imagine for a second that you’re watching a Batman movie where Bruce Wayne has no back-story. His parents didn’t die tragically and Alfred is just a house servant. He never fell in a cave full of bats, he was never afraid of them. All we see is a millionaire who likes to wear costumes, driving fast cars during the day and catching bad guys at night.

Instead of the multi-faceted, multi-layered personality of Bruce Wayne/Batman we are left with a mono-dimensional character that has no motive and does not inspire empathy. He’s just another over-privileged rich white guy with an expensive hobby. If we ignore why he does what he does, his vigilante activity loses meaning.

Many technical presentations are like that boring movie that ignores the motives driving the protagonist. These presentations focus on “what.” What technology, what stack, what solution.

Instead they could focus on the reason why that technology, that stack, that solution is interesting, is the best for that situation, is something we should care about. This would give more dimension to their “solution,” give more sense to their “stack” and give some motivation to their underlying “technology.”

Massive spoilers
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CC-BY: Pondering by Jason Eppink

Imagine that the first ever Star Wars movie was titled “Star Wars, the search for my father Darth Vader.” Would you watch that movie? Imagine that the sixth Harry Potter book was titled “Harry Potter, or how Snape kills Dumbledore.” Would you have read it? We all hate spoilers. They ruin the one thing that makes stories interesting. If you don’t know the ending you can use your own imagination, you feel more involved, you identify more with the protagonist.

Technical presenters do it all the time: they start their presentation in the same way they begin their academic papers, with their thesis. Usually the thesis contains a massive spoiler like “How I solved X using Y.” Right, so you solved it. All that you leave me with is the interest of knowing the how, but I already know the ending.

You are not in academia – and even if you are – your presentation is not an academic paper: keep your lost arc hidden at least until we see Indiana Jones flying to some remote location and fighting some bad guys. Okay?

If you don’t reveal the ending, your audience will focus even more on the journey that gets you there. They will participate with you when you find a problem, start your struggle, throw a lot of tech at it, encounter even more problems and finally find a solution (or an even better problem to solve). I would watch this movie, wouldn’t you?

Optical illusion

In many technical presentations there is a moment where I need to think about going to the eye doctor. Something appears on the screen that is so small, so lacking in contrast that I feel as dizzy as you are looking at the image above.

Slides are a low information density medium. They need to be laid out with the back of the room in mind, and big fonts are the enemies of huge chunks of code. Let’s face it: when is the last time you could see what happened on screen during a demo?

Whenever you have code on a slide or make a demo, be sure to follow these layout rules:
Tech presentations can be great OTS Learners Meetup 04122014.011
Code has to be this big + properly highlighted.

Slides are not an inherently low bandwidth medium. The thing with slides is that they have a low data density, but a huge emotive capability. Look at the emotional effect of this picture for example.
So you shouldn’t use your visuals to explain chunks of code, but rather to get us involved in your story with the power of visuals.

Time travel
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CC-BY: Back in time by JD Hankock

When I see a presentation – and this does not happen only to technical presenters – I am often witness to the most powerful time distortions. I share the same time with all the audience, but the presenter is often talking from a different temporal zone.

This distortion comes to life in statements like “I don’t know if we have time for…” or questions like “How much time do I have left?” voiced out loud to the organizers and the audience alike. This really should not happen.

Time tracking has been a geek art for centuries and we now all carry the proper technology to keep track of time. Meetings and conferences all have set schedules with precise time slots. The combination of defined time slots and time measuring devices should provide a workable solution to keep your presentations in check.

One technique can help: rehearse your presentation (many times!!!) with a timer.

Hidden Identities
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CC-BY: Late for Work / Tarde pa’l trabajo by Eneas De Troya

It happens sometimes that technical presenters fail to introduce themselves properly and start their talk straight away. This often translates into a really interesting talk where only bits and pieces of the hidden identity of the speaker are revealed.

Towards the end you discover that the speaker is the world expert in what they are talking about, that they studied for 15 years, that they only recently had the breakthrough of their career.

A lot of techies have bragging rights and should say beforehand, I am X and this is my relationship to the topic I’m talking about it. I’m Matteo and I’ve studied presentations for the last 10 years.

Does this mean that beginners should not give presentations? On the contrary. With experts, the long-term, seen-this-done-that point of view is what is most enjoyable. The beginner offers a fresh look. The beginner’s mind sees many possibilities that are now precluded to the expert’s mind.

But everyone, beginner or seasoned professional, needs to properly contextualize their talk by introducing themselves. It’s not about bragging; it’s about giving your audience the information they need to get the most out of your presentation.

These were just 5 tips about what not to do. If you want to adopt a geek approach to becoming a better presenter I have 3 things for you to do. You don’t need to do all 3 but I ask you to pledge to do at least one.

One: Buy one of these 3 books and learn about presentations

The first book I feel I need to suggest is Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun. This is THE book to read if you are dealing with fear of public speaking. Confessions reads like a novel, it’s short and full of anecdotes.

The second book is Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. It’s a very practical book that focuses on a design process that I subscribe to 100%. The pages are beautifully composed and the book is full of examples. When in doubt, copy Garr’s slides.

The third book is The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte. This is the perfect book if you feel that, as a scientist, you can’t deal with the anecdotal Confessions and if you feel that Zen is too new age. Tufte’s book is a treat: it’s magnificently edited, beautifully written and full of intellectual curiosities that will tickle the neurons of your scientific mind.

Go to a presentation meetup or a toastmasters and practice presentations

The second suggestion I want to give you is to sink your teeth into the presentation arena by training on the side stages. Toastmasters, although they use a hierarchy that is a thousand years old, are a great place to practice. Also search for “presentation” or “public speaking” on meetup.com to find events in your area. A lot of them, you will discover, are free.

Go to a boss, meetup or conference organizer and tell them you want to give a presentation

The more extreme option is the 100% learning-by-doing approach. In this case you can give yourself 30 days to jump-start your presentation and public speaking abilities by signing up to talk at a meetup, share your work at a conference, or your present research to your colleagues. If you have the chance, record your talk on camera or even just on a sound recorder so that you can critique and improve your work.

Whatever you choose, put yourself in position to become a better presenter.

Why would I invite you to do that? Because if you do great things, you deserve to share them. Because if you’re an expert, it’s not fair to keep your knowledge bottled up: we deserve to know! Because if you’re a beginner, you can help me overcome the first obstacles that I would find as a beginner. Because – even though the written medium is still hugely powerful – when we present, we are communicating with our voice, with our bodies, with our slides, and conveying a vast amount information. Because presentations can be captured on camera and multiply your reach.

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