The Art of the Presentation (Part 1 of 3)

In a post a few years ago I talked about The Art of the Conference, and what conference organisers can do to improve their conferences and make lives easier for their presenters. I was reminded of this post again recently as this is the sixth year that I am mentoring a rookie speaker at BSides London, and in my initial conversation with them I discussed a three stage approach to creating, practising and delivering the talk (the latter of which touches on the content of my previous post).

This post focusses on the first part of this process, the actual creation of the talk.

The Idea

This is actually the hardest part of the entire process (aside perhaps from actually standing in front of 200 people of course). In my experience many people try to not only come up with a wholly unique idea, but then try and explore it in too much detail. Given your talk will probably be competing against many other talks, the easiest way to make yours stand out is with it’s simplicity. Take the core of a topic, and honestly ask yourself what your view on it is; do you agree with it, if not why not, what could be better, what is your experience of it and how have you addressed it? By keeping it simple your audience will have more chance of remembering what you said. This process could take anywhere from minutes to weeks and weeks dependent upon your experience, knowledge and confidence. Don’t assume however that just because you have an opinion that everyone else is fully knowledgeable of it either; if nothing else you are bringing your own unique viewpoint.

The Creative

This is a point at which your approach may differ, but I have always found this the best way of actually inspiring myself and getting my story straight. I fill a sheet of paper with boxes (below) and then start to sketch out, not always legibly) the approach I am going to take on the deck I produce. I do this because it ensures I don’t write any actual prose on the topic; personally when I do this I find it very difficult to then pull myself away from the prose when presenting. It is a mental block of sorts of course, but this approach allows me to sketch out the story of my talk without having to get attached to a certain way of saying things

I try and avoid too many words as they are a distraction to the audience, and focus on high resolution images that help embellish my point or provoke an appropriate reaction from the audience. There are some very good books on creating slides for presentation that I have referenced, Presentation Zen and Slide:ology; I strongly recommend these to anyone who wants to up their game on the visual presentation side of things.

This approach also allows you to build a story; making sure your presentation has a beginning, middle and end help draw your audience in. What talk would you rather watch…

My talk is about a simple technology we used to allow someone to Tweet over a phone call.

or

John Doe is a man who was imprisoned on the flimsiest of evidence and with ludicrously high bail. He had restricted access to legal counsel and even family were not allowed to visit him. His entire campaign for justice was focussed around his significant Twitter followers, and given his elevated fame in his industry was where most of his support would come from. Here is the story of how we used a Raspberry Pi, two cans, a length of string and Python to allow him to live Tweet from his weekly phone call, directly and un-redacted, and ultimately beat the corrupt government that had arrested him.

Your approach needs to be simple, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be dull.

The Timings

Timing a presentation is very difficult, but after some experience I have found I can not only tell roughly what the length of a presentation created like this, but can also vary it in length, sometimes upon to 100%. The other rule of thumb is to dive the number of minutes you have by the number of slides. One slide for roughly every minute is a good place to start, but keep an eye out for when that number increases. Trying to cover more than one slide every 15 seconds is going to be very challenging.

The Takeaways

I often say that people will remember less than 30% of what you said less that 30 minutes after you have finished speaking. Not only is this where the simplicity of your deck is important, but also making sure you leave the audience with clear activities or advice on what to do next is vitally important. If you don’t do this, you will leave the audience somewhat nonplussed even if your content is great. As one close friend of mine said to me after I had asked for feedback:

It was a good talk, but I got to the end and thought “meh, so what?”

Your talk can be interesting, but if it doesn’t have a point, you will always be in the “meh” zone.

Next time (or maybe the time after), The Art of the Presentation (Part 2 of 3) – Practising.

One thought on “The Art of the Presentation (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Pingback: The Art of the Presentation (Part 2 of 3) | Thom Langford

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