I am speaking on Java Usergroups from time to time and recently started to speak on conferences. When I was accepted to speak on the ApacheCon EU I was a bit nervous. It probably was the biggest talk I gave so far. And it was on an important topic, Apache Logging. I wanted to do something to improve my presentation skills and finally bought the book “Presentation Zen” by Garry Reynolds. I already enjoyed Garrs Blog for a while and knew he is a great writer.
The whole book IS written very well too and easy to understand, even when english is not your native language. This book is not a “How To” in which you are learning how to make good keynote / powerpoint effects. Instead of giving you the fish to cook it, Garr shows you how to catch the fish. He shows you how to use various tools to develop your own creativity. He explains to you how you can plan your presentation. And he tells you not to be afraid to have less text on your slides. This all is brought to you in an entertaining mix of stories from his own experience, other people and (japanese) culture. I really enjoyed to read every page. This does not happen very often when I want to learn something for a book.
But images are more than words. Before a while I was speaking on Dart in Dresden. I was already thinking that I used a minimal slide style. Well, look at them yourself. On first look, they are minimal.
When I made these slides I started straightaway with Keynote, compiling slide for slide. I wanted black/white, because are colors really necessary? I thought, no. Text: I put everything on the slides which I wanted to remind on the talk. And, of course, I thought people would need to be able to follow me easily and text would help them. After all I was pretty happy with this slide.
But then I read “Presentation Zen” and even when I already knew about slide minimalism, I actually understood the meaning of it for the first time. Look at my new slide style.
If you compare these slides, you will notice that there are just huge images with a few words on it while on the “Dart” slides are a lot of bullet points and text which I would read.
These are the most important things I have understood from “Presentation Zen”:
Slides must not only be minimal, they must look nice. Otherwise nobody gets connected to it. I knew slides are only support for the narration, but this does not mean slides must look boring (my Dart slides are boring, I can say that now). In fact, using nice images would make stick the message better. Or playing with typography. By the way, Creative Commons search is fantastic to search for great images.
I don’t need a reminder of what I want to say. Let’s face it: when I have reminders for me on my slides, I am not well prepared. It was nothing I really wanted to hear, but it is the truth. I was not well prepared back then, even when I practiced. With the Apache Logging talk I practiced multiple times, because I would not have reminders. I made notes on my slides which I learned. Even when it was a bit different to what I actually said on the talk I felt much more comfortable. If you see my presenting with a lot of bullet points on my slides you’ll know that I am not well prepared.
Garr explained to use post-its (he also recommended other tools, like scratch books and so on). I tried it and was so happy about it. I made a tons of post-its, sticked it to the wall, reorganized them in an instant. Due to the limited space on a post-it I needed to focus on one message per slide. No room for bullet points. Just a small painting of the “emotion” I want to carry and the message. Nothing else.
A friend of mine called it “The wall of Logging”. It kept me focused. From now on I do not use Keynote first. I use post-its first and paint. On a side note: I am a horrible painter, but this does not matter.
I was used to give a mostly complete picture of what I want to present. Even when I knew it is not possible because it is too much to tell in just 45 minutes. My problem was my own Ego (I should have known): what would my audience think of me? They came to my presentation and didn’t they want to see somebody who is really into the technology?
I was wrong.
Too much information would bore them to death and finally they would go home without a benefit. Now I am focusing on the most important aspects. Garr Reynolds said people can usually concentrate for 20 minutes. I try to have that in mind when speaking and give a few seconds to relax in my talks. It is not perfectly, but the usual time for a technical presentation is around 45 minutes, I can’t change that. But I can try to make it bearable. And for the sake of a break and reduce the content to the most important.
I learned already in my psychology studies: people tend to use mental anchors. For example, if you find 100$ on the street, you are a glad. But what if you would find 10.000$ on the street and another 100$ on the next day? Would you be so glad as with only 100$? Probably not, because your anchor is set to 10k$.
Garr recommends a similar strategy when using statistics. For example, imagine the following phrases.
“To raise an animal for the food industry would cost 5116 gallons of water”.
There is no anchor in this sentence. 5116 gallons is a lot but…
“To raise an animal for the food industry would cost 5116 gallons of water which lets you taking showers for 1 year!”
There is an anchor. Now I can imagine how much it is. Another one, even better:
“1 pound of beef lets you shower 6 months”
(please bear with me, the numbers are somehow not accurate, its just for illustration - still its an immense cost to raise an animal for the food industry).
The book contains a lot of examples and many tips how to present. It does also give you an advise on your mental state when presenting. If you are interested in your mental state, please also read my other blog post “The 10 Rules of a Zen Programmer”.
I highly recommend this book if you want to improve your presentation skills. It is a great start into better slides, better talks and better feedback. I am talking of experience here and the book was worth every buck.
If you enjoyed this post and want to read the book now, you can use these affiliated links (I get a few cent for each selling on Amazon). If not, just go to your favorite book dealer and search for the title.