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Presentation Skills

Most of us geeks seem to think that presentation skills are something for the marketroids or the suits to worry about. Even if we do have to present something, we only have fellow geeks in the audience who ought to be able to understand what we are talking about. However, geeks are humans too and humans need you to take care of certain things in your presentation for them to be able to fully appreciate and understand what you are talking about.

For example, in FOSS.in/2005 most of the talks were about cool stuff but in my opinion many a presentation left a lot to be desired. Among the talks that I attended, Jim Zemlin's talk about the Linux Standards Base was one of the precious few where the speaker seemed to understand and care about the basics of presentation.

Here are a few suggestions for speakers based on personal observations:
  • Keep the points in your slides short - avoid verbiage. Use the points to drive your talk - do not expect the audience to read everything off the slides. You can annotate your slides with explanatory notes if you want to upload the slides somewhere for people who were not able to make it to your talk.
  • Find out how much time you will have for your presentation, factor in the time usually taken up for questions from the audience and possible delays due to the previous talk and structure your presentation appropriately. You can have "checkpoint" slides in your presentation that you can use to gauge how well you are doing with respect to your plan.
  • Use clear fonts (I personally prefer scalable sans-serif fonts) and use a relatively large point size. People in the back should be able to make out what is written on your slides.
  • Spread your points evenly across a slide. Try not to list more than seven points per slide; use continuation slides to break up long lists of points.
  • Use foreground and background colours that have create good contrast. Remember that what looks good on your computer under ordinary lighting might look quite different when projected on a big screen in a darkened room.
  • Fancy transitions get pretty distracting pretty fast. Avoid them as much as possible except for things like progressively introducing the layers of a system, the phases of a handshake in a communication protocol, etc.
  • Do not keep your hands in your pockets all the time (a worse habit is to move them about in there). Gesticulate while talking - it's sometimes hard to know what gestures to use, so observe good speakers while they talk.
  • Make eye contact with the audience. Do not stare at a single person or throw fleeting glances at everyone. Hold eye contact with some random person for a little while, move on to another random person and so on.
  • Try an ice-breaker in the beginning to make your audience comfortable with you instead of just diving into your presentation. Humour is the best ice-breaker in my opinion but it takes talent to pull it off well. Some speakers use a quick show-of-hands kind of surveys. For one of his talks in FOSS.in/2005, Andrew Cowie put on his DJ hat and played various high-tempo tracks from his playlist while the organisers arranged various things for the talk.
  • It is usually not a good idea to declare "Feel free to interrupt me when you have a question". You will quickly discover that this ruins your flow and that there are several jerks out there who would ask a question just for the sake of it and to make their presence felt. You can pause your presentation at various "milestone" points instead and check if anyone in the audience has any questions to make sure that they understand the stuff being presented before moving on to other things.
  • The people in the front row might just shout a question across to you instead of using a microphone. For the benefit of everyone else, repeat the question before answering it (possibly rephrasing it) so that they know what is being discussed.
  • Ask someone to record your presentation and watch the video later. You will discover a lot of things you were saying or doing that you were not even aware of and some obvious areas for improvement. For example, the first time I saw a video of my own presentation I was dismayed by the fact that I had put on a pretentious accent for some reason, that I kept saying "Ok?" irritatingly often and that I kept my hands in my pockets almost all the time.
  • Do not stand between the audience and the projection of the presentation slides obscuring their view.
  • Depending on the nature of the presentation, it might be a good idea to distribute supporting material (brochures, printouts of the slides, etc.) before the presentation so that the people in the audience have a little background information or a take-home refresher. Printouts of slides can also be used by people (given enough space) to write notes corresponding to the slides.
  • If you can help it, do not talk about something that you are not excited about yourself. You will very likely give a better presentation about something that you genuinely believe in and care for than otherwise.
I can go on and on like this, but most of these points are obvious if you have any common sense or if you observe a good speaker. You can also search the web for a great deal of material on presentation skills. If your company offers a training on presentation skills, take it instead of sniggering and dismissing it as something for "losers".

Finally, here are a few suggestions for presentation attendees:
  • Please arrive on time. The cavalier attitude of most people towards punctuality causes unnecessary delays in starting a presentation and this has a cascading effect on the presentations following the presentation.
  • Please do not ask questions merely for the sake of asking a question. Before you ask a question, ask yourself if the question makes sense, if the question is relevant to the current talk, if the question would require an answer that would be better off discussed in a post-talk chat with the speaker, etc.
  • When you do ask a question, please use a microphone so that everyone else is able to make out what you are trying to ask. Please talk clearly and at a reasonable pace.
  • When using a microphone, do not ask a question seated on your seat - it becomes very difficult for people to locate you. Stand up while you ask the question.
  • Please do not come to a presentation merely to check emails, chat with friends, browse the web, etc. on your laptop using the wireless network made available by the organisers. It is being rude to the speaker and distracting to your neighbours.
  • Please switch off your mobile phones during the talk or at least switch it to vibrating mode. If you absolutely must take a call, please leave the room and take it outside so that you do not disturb others.
  • Try to be a bit discreet before walking out of a presentation - try not to walk out at all if you can help it. It is disheartening for a speaker to see people walk out of his presentation.
  • Try to hold off on that urge to talk to your neighbour. It disturbs everyone else.
Once again, you would think that all of this is common sense but it is surprising how many people are willing to forget all of these when they attend a talk.

1 comment:

  1. On the money, Ranjith. here is a slighlty longish post from "Cognitive Style of Powerpoint" that talks about why PowerPoint is bad for communicating technical content.



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