Fabulous Adventures In Coding
Eric Lippert is a principal developer on the C# compiler team. Learn more about Eric.
A few months ago an old friend had to give her first talk at a conference. Now, she used to do community theatre back when we were in school together, so she’s no stranger to standing up in front of a bunch of people and acting goofy. However there are at least a few differences between Whose Line Is It Anyway? and delivering a technical talk. So I wrote up Eric’s Advice For First-Time Technical Speakers.
Her talk went well. Any readers out there who have additional tips, please leave them in the comments!
PowerPoint gets a lot of flak from people like Edward Tufte, some of it deservedly, and some of it undeservedly. The thing that you have to remember about PowerPoint is that it is not primarily a tool for communicating dense information to a technical audience. As you can see from the PowerPoint Overview, PowerPoint is all about impressing your audience, which is totally different.
PowerPoint is an amazingly great product for producing persuasive presentations; I’ve talked to many a businessperson who makes their entire living building highly crafted three-slide presentations about why your company should buy such and such a widget or why your family should invest in timeshares, or whatever. It should come as no surprise to anyone that persuasive advertising is about emphasizing the positive and disguising the negative – or, in other words, dazzling and obscuring at the same time.
Now, I’m not making a moral judgment here. Getting people to buy stuff is what drives our economy, and if PowerPoint helps people who sell things make a living so that they can feed their families, I’m pro that. Rather, I have a practical concern in this little essay: it is very, very easy to use PowerPoint to inflate weak ideas and convey thin data. If what you want to do is present difficult ideas backed by rich data, you can do that in PowerPoint too. But to do so you need to resist the temptation to add a whole lot of dazzle-and-obscure chrome to your presentation – animations, wipes, fades, etc, are extremely distracting.
When I write a PowerPoint presentation I do two things that help to keep it information-dense. First, write the presentation in black-on-white Arial, with no background, fancy fonts, styling, wipes, etc. Second, every time there is a graph, ask yourself how many words would be needed to describe that graph. So often I see PowerPoint presentations where there is a whole slide showing a graph that could be summed up as "2004 Sales: $400K , 2005 Sales: $430K". If the graph is so thin that it can be described in a six words then stick with the words.
A common newbie mistake is to stand up and read the slides. Rather, the slides should provide talking points (to keep you on track) and key takeaways (for the audience). In a book you can go back and re-read tricky bits. In a live talk, you can't -- the slides should emphasize the triggers that will enable the audience to remember the details of your talk. Slides are the skeleton of the talk, not the meat.
The points on the slide should be very brief. Do not make hierarchical slides with multiple levels of sub-points. We invented hierarchies thousands of years ago in order to manage non-linear complexity through containment and abstraction. Live presentations are inherently linear because they unfold over time, with a clear beginning and end. It is very difficult to linearize a hierarchy and have it still be understood. The talk itself needs to have some kind of hierarchy and structure, but anything much more complex than Introduction – First Point – Second Point – Third Point – Recap takes too much mental energy. People are bad at keeping a stack in their heads.
Dealing With Nerves
Managing the Presentation
That's all I came up with off the top of my head. Anyone else have good advice for first-time presenters?