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June 2009

Who says technical presentations can't be engaging?

Presenting_science People often ask if technical or science-related presentations can be as compelling as presentations covering other less technical topics. Now, not every presentation has earth-shattering, Nobel-Prize winning significance, but I assume if you are talking about your research or current issues in your field, etc. that your words have a benefit for someone else. I assume it is important, otherwise why waste your time and the time of others? And if it is important, then being effective matters. No one ever said that clarity and a connection with the audience were sufficient conditions for an effective talk; we only ever said they were necessary conditions.

Three years ago I gave some advice for people giving technical presentations in this post. The money quote I still believe is from engineer and scientist Dr. Jay H. Lehr in his 1985 article "Let There Be Stoning" (download article in PDF).

"Failure to spend the [presentation] time wisely and well, failure to educate, entertain, elucidate, enlighten, and most important of all, failure to maintain attention and interest should be punishable by stoning. There is no excuse for tedium."

                                                            — Jay H. Lehr

This week I heard from Naveen Sinha, a graduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University. He too has noticed three things that the good lectures/presentations share. In his words:

  1. They have an outline near the beginning of the talk, which they repeat along the way so the audience can become reoriented with the larger-scale structure of the presentation.
  2. The slides use a full sentence at the top to summarize the key point, or none at all. Shorter titles are rarely effective. I learned about this from "The Craft of Scientific Presentations" and it's been good advice so far.
  3. The slides are as simple as possible.

Naveen noted the presentation skills of one of his professors Richard Losick and Princeton professor Bonnie Bassler as good examples. "Both seem to focus on telling a story that the audience will remember, rather than simply showing all their data."


TED Talk: Dr. Bonnie Bassler
Naveen's right about Dr. Bassler; she's fantastic. This is an excellent TED talk below. Dr. Bassler is really good at speaking in a very down-to-earth, conversational manner. There is great clarity to her narrative. For example, she often says "The question is then _______" or "So the question is this: _______." Along the way she also answers the two questions we often have as listeners but that too often go unanswered: "So what? and "Why does it matter (to me/us)?" I love her style. She never relies on the confidence monitors (that we can tell) or bullet points (there are none) but instead she moves her eyes naturally around the room, clearly engrossed in what she is explaining but also very much in the moment. She references the screen often but only to illustrate her point. She uses her hands a great deal to explain processes, just as you would in ordinary, natural conversation.

Sample visuals
Dr. Bassler's visuals are quite simple and for the most part they were a good companion to her talk, yet the attention was on her and her descriptions. At times when she was not speaking about something on screen behind her, TED put up her video which gets all the attention back on her. You can do something similar in a classroom or at smaller conferences by placing black slides in between sections or using the B key on your notebook to make the screen black (don't worry: the room will not go dark because you still have the lights on, right?).


Vibrio   Intra

Yes, Dr. Bassler is talking to a general audience here, albeit an extraordinarily educated one. But I think this supports the notion that talks on science-related fields can posses both important content and great clarity that connects with an audience.

Specifically, what should I do?
Each presentation case is different. Audiences vary as do presenter personalities. What you actually do will depend on many things. But if you want tips from a scientist on how to give a good talk at a conference, this PDF by Jay H. Lehr (Let There Be Stoning) is still very good advice. Also remember to look for the story of your content. Information alone is not story. Look here for more info on the power of story.

The Excitement of Science
NOVA Science Now piece on Dr. Bassler (video)
The Craft of Scientific Presentations by Michael Alley
Trees, maps, and theorems Effective communication for rational minds by Jean-luc Doumont
Advanced Presentations by Design: Creating Communication that Drives Action  by Andrew Abela
Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis  by Stephen Few (new: highly recommended)

This week I'm in Wellington, New Zealand for these Webstock workshops. You can follow a bit of what I'm doing by following me on Twitter (Posterous links to Twitter.)

Twitter link

Belinda wrote a nice post here about her day at the first seminar in Wellington.

Simplicity in Las Vegas

Simplicity As our world gets more complex, discussions about simplicity grow. Yet, ironically the issue of simplicity itself — what it is, how we attain it, etc. —  is not at all simple. Or perhaps we should say it is not at all easy. Simplicity means many different things to many different people, and it seems difficult to ever get people to agree exactly what it is. Simplicity is elusive and words are often inadequate to illuminate its essence, yet most rational people agree that simplicity (how ever you define it) is a worthy goal so long as "it is not too simple." Like you, I'm very interested in simplicity. Yet, I still have little idea what exactly simplicity is. All I know is that it's something we — designers, educators, engineers, business people — need to spend more time studying, thinking about, and discussing. The problem today is not just that complex issues are made too simple, but rather that simple things are made unnecessarily complicated with layers of obfuscation and the superfluous. We're not there yet, but clarity and simplicity are the goal.

Las Vegas: an odd place to talk about simplicity?
A few weeks ago, I opened for the Synergy Conference at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Below is a recording of that 43-minute keynote presentation. There were about 3000 people or so in the audience. It was 8:30 am and part of my goal was really to get the crowd warmed up and ready for the presentations that followed, including the presentation by one of my business heroes Citrix CEO Mark Templeton.

I'm not sure what simplicity is yet, but I know that it's not easy to obtain and it's not something to be confused with simplistic (or "dumbed down" or "too simple" etc.). I think "simplistic" and "simplicity" are different things and come from a different place, a different approach. This is what I was trying to say at least with this crude visual below.


A couple of more slides:
Kimono   Elvis

Behind the scenes
If you ever wondered what it's like on stage the day before a large conference like this, you may enjoy this amateur video taken at rehearsal the day before. (Just two days before this same arena was the site of the Pacquiao v. Hatton boxing match.) I originally posted this video right after the event in May.

Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren
The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda

Fast Company article on simplicity
Nancy Duarte's blog post about this talk

TED talk: How social media is making history by helping citizens report the real news

Clay Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, has a new TED talk that is not just appropriate for our times in general, but given what is happening in Iran, it's actually perfectly poignant for this particular week. The Internet and social media changed everything, as we know. For generations communication was one-to-one or one-to-many — the one-to-many being largely the domain of the professionals. Today, as Shirky points out, the new dimension is the many-to-many, where people for the most part have the ability to bypass censors. This talk below was recorded just last month, but the contents are especially relevant today if you consider what is happening in Iran at this moment. I'd love to hear Shirky give an updated version of this talk, but for now this TED talk from last month will do. The end of top-down control of news is changing everything. This political cartoon on the use of Twitter in Iran sums up this point well.

Felix Jung's Pecha Kucha presentation Tips

Nick1 Recently Felix Jung gave an interesting talk at Pecha Kucha Chicago, Volume 9. Felix told me that he became so interested in the process of developing his 6-minute and 40-second presentation that he created his own guide of sorts to help others. I think there's some good stuff in there worth sharing. First, let's take a look at Felix's presentation below. (The presentation is good, but the audio capture was very poor which is a bit of a distraction; try to get past that and just imagine yourself there at the live event in chicago. Go here just to see the slides with the same audio. You can download the slides and videos as well.)

Pecha Kucha Chicago: Repetition and Variation (Live) from Felix Jung on Vimeo.

Felix Jung's tips for a good Pecha Kucha presentation
Felix Jung's common sense advice can be applied to Ignite talks as well and even more generally to other types of presentations where you stand and deliver to a large crowd with the help of multimedia. Felix broke his advice down into four areas: Getting started, Slide design, Practicing, and finally tips for what to do at the actual Pecha Kucha Night (The big event). Start here to read Felix's tips in detail. Below I summarize some of his main points at a glance.

(1) Getting Started
• Choose a topic for which you have great passion. This does not necessarily have to be anything related to your work. "Think passion not portfolio" is the ol' Pecha Kucha mantra.
• Go analog at the start. Felix uses note cards and paper clips to capture and organize his ideas.
• Remember: "it's about removing, not adding, content" in this phase.
• "Just because your slides are in sequence, it doesn't mean they have to be linear."

(2) Slide design tips
• Use large images (he gives links to his favorite image websites).
• Use as little text as possible.
• "The slide should be an addition to, not a summary of, your ideas and concepts."
• "No more than four images per slide."
• Have a consistent look across the slides.

(3) Practicing
• "Pecha Kucha isn't the same as any regular speech... it's closer on the side of performance."
• Practice against a timed version.
• Practice standing up.
• Look at various points in the room, when talking.
• Add in silence, remove "filler" noises.
• Remember: your slides can do a lot of your talking for you. "I didn't need to give all the backstory - just enough to establish context, and enough to be able to make my point."
• Felix has more tips on practicing here.

(4) At the Event
• Get comfortable with the mic.
• Try not to drink before you talk.
• Volunteer to go early.
• Remember: The crowd is on your side.
• Go slow and steady (e.g., pauses are OK before the next slide if you're done with current point).
• Make eye contact with audience.
• Take business cards for mingling after.

Take a look at Felix's discussion concerning his experience preparing his talk; I think you'll find a thing or two in there that will help you. I really love the Pecha Kucha Nights and the Ignite events. I'll be presenting at Ignite Nishinomiya (Japan) on July 2 and I hope to attend the Portland Ignite (as an audience member) on July 16 in the USA, though I'll be flying into Portland from Japan on that afternoon.

Photo of Felix above by Nick.

Portuguese & Finnish PZ books now available

The Presentation Zen book is now out in about 13 languages other than English. Portuguese and Finnish versions have just been been released.

Apresentação Zen: Idéias Simples Sobre O Design de Apresentações e Performances
I have a couple of copies of the Portuguese version of PZ. The Alta Books people did a great job with the design; the book feels really nice in the hand. Below is an iPhone snap of the cover and the opening to Chapter 3 (Planning Analog). The book is available here.


Esityksen suunnittelu - zen ja pelkistämisen taito
I have not received a copy of the Finnish version yet, but the image below is of the back and front covers. You can see more information on the Finnish version here.


Other news (sort of related but not really)

Videos of the presentations are up from the From Business to Buttons conference held in Sweden last week.
One of the design students in Malmö, "Soo" (Sunandini  Basu), drew these sketches of all the presentations to give you a feel for the content. Check out Soo's other sketches on her website.

The power of emotional contagion

Jetcoaster The day after the From Business to Buttons conference in Malmö Sweden, I spent the day in Copenhagen with Bill DeRouchey and Scott Berkun and his wife Jill. We spent a couple of hours in the famous Tivoli Gardens across the street from the train station. It's said the Walt Disney got his inspiration for Disneyland while visiting the park; Tivoli opened in 1843. While in the park I received a strong reminder of something we all know but too often forget: that emotions are contagious and our emotional displays can and do influence those around us, often in ways we're not even aware of. We spent several minutes in an area of the park under and next to a couple of white-knuckle rides complete with screams and shrills mostly of joy and excitement, but mixed with a touch of terror perhaps (see/hear an example). Everyone on the ground was really enjoying just watching the fun the other people were having on the attractions. I was too. It was a surprisingly enjoyable atmosphere; I could have spent much more time just sitting and watching the smiles, laughter, and displays of exhilaration by complete strangers. The remarkable thing was even though I was not actually experiencing the excitement that these strangers were having directly on the scary rides, I — and everyone one in the crowd — was feeling completely amused and happy by the displays of excitement and happiness all around. The giddy emotion was utterly infectious.

Emotional contagion & mirror neurons
Watching something and doing something are not the same, of course, but as far as our brain is concerned they're pretty darn close. We learn from watching others, we even learn bad habits from watching others. Just as importantly, our brains are really good at feeling what others are feeling. In a sense, then, there is a place in the brain that seems to be responsible for living in other people's brains, that is, to feel what they are feeling. I'm certain you have read about mirror neurons before, but just in case this 14-min NOVA video on the subject is a good, quick overview.

Bored If we mirror the emotions of those whom we are around, it would make sense not to associate too often or too closely with the "chronically negative" for example. This is commonsense. And this underscores the importance too that our emotions play when we are in front of a group (this is especially important for teachers who spend all day in front of groups). The content of your message is crucial, of course, but others in the audience (or the class, etc.) are picking up on all sorts of other signals too related to your emotional state. The best content in the world — with the best visuals in the world — can still be sabotaged by our emotions, that is, in how we influence others to feel. I have seen some technical presentations fail this year not because the content was irrelevant or disorganized, but because the presenter – due to inexperience or nerves – looked and sounded more like he was giving a particularly depressing eulogy rather than the results of an interesting piece of research. After 10-15 minutes of narration that is monotone and dispassionate, it becomes very difficult indeed to stay with any speaker, regardless of topic.

Our story and our evidence matter, but the genuine emotions that we project have a direct and strong influence — for good and for bad — on the message our audience ultimately receives and remembers. A few minutes spent around extremely happy and excited people in a famous amusement park in  Copenhagen reminded me once again about the power of emotional contagion.

Photo credit: Bill DeRouchey

For tips on presentation delivery checkout books by Jerry Weissman and Bert Decker. A great older post by Kathy Sierra that I actually remembered reading back in '06. Mirror neurons and Asperger's Syndrome — interesting 5-min video.

Presenting a case for healthy food

The other day I was watching this interview with Eric Schlosser on The Colbert Report. Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation and was on Colbert to promote a new documentary called Food, Inc. which opened last week. I have not seen the film, but it looks interesting indeed. Check out the trailer below.

10 simple things you can do

After seeing the trailer I became curious and poked around the Food, Inc. website a bit. On the website I found a list called "10 simple things you can do to change our food system" (by "our" they mean USA).You can see the list here presented as a postcard for download. Just as an exercise I took this list of "10 things" and made them into ten slides that could be a part of a lesson of sorts. I put these slides -- which I whipped up quite quickly -- on Obviously the slides alone raise as many questions as they answer. And while the main points are simply tips or advice, the second lines make claims that really need the sources cited. Still, more than anything this was merely an exercise in making visuals that may be used in a future Ignite talk.

Mark Bittman on what's wrong with what we eat
The Food, Inc. trailer and the focus of the movie reminded me of a good TED talk I heard a while back from New York Times food writer Mark Bittman. In this talk below -- which contains a fair amout of visuals -- Bittman discusses what's wrong with the way many of us eat (too much meat, too few plants; too much fast food, too little home cooking, etc.). I think this TED talk is worth 18-min of your time. Bittman's NYT's column is called The Minimalist.

Related link
7 minutes of food philosopher Sherry Strong at TEDxTokyo

Presentation Zen Design (the book)

Pzd_cover_sm As I mentioned before, I'm in the beginning stages of writing and designing another book, this one called Presentation Zen Design. For many of us, there is a hole in our education when it comes to communicating visually, and knowledge of even the basics of graphic design is missing for most people. This book intends to do its small part to help fix this problem by focusing on concrete graphic design principles and techniques in the context of presentation design, though the concepts and knowledge can be applied to other areas of one's professional life. This book is a deeper exploration of the Design section of PZ (chapters 5-7). The underlying guiding principles are the same -- restraint, simplicity, and naturalness -- but this time applied strictly to visual communication in general and graphic design in particular. My aim is to help the non-designer become a bit more savvy of a visual thinker and to give him or her the tools and understanding to apply this knowledge in concrete, practical ways immediately in presentations (and beyond). The look and feel of the book is very similar to PZ  (e.g., exactly same size), but it will be even more visual. The book will be available in mid-November, 2009.

You can be a part of it (again)
Cat_writes I would love to hear your stories and suggestions. You can write to me here (or send a message to Twitter) or leave a comment below. What success (or failure) stories do you have using presentation visuals in your live talks at work or school? What do you think are still the most common design mistakes made by non-designers? Do you have any slides or other visuals (good or bad) that you can share, or can you point to particularly good examples? Your stories are important to me and I’d like to share them with a wider audience, even highlighting your visual examples were appropriate. I will not reprint your name or material in the book or use a slide, etc. without first confirming permission with you. Even if you want to remain anonymous I’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions.

(The cover photo is an iStockphoto image by Alexander Gatsenko of some wagasa, Japanese traditional umbrellas, works of art that are simple and beautiful, yet complex and difficult to create.)

Presentation Zen (The DVD)

Pz_tv Last June, I made a trip from Osaka to San Francisco to film a video version of the PZ book. The results of those days spent in the San Francisco studio will be available on a DVD sold on Amazon and in book stores etc. from June 25. The DVD comes with Spanish, Japanese (and English cc) subtitles. The video is 50-minutes long and is essentially a video version of the book with many of the same examples. If you have the PZ book already I do not recommend that you get the video too (unless money is no object, in which case feel free to buy a million copies). But if you know someone who does not have the Presentation Zen book — and they are unlikely to slow down long enough to go through such a book — then the video may be very useful. The video is not a presentation on stage in front of an audience. Rather, it's just me talking to you about the core themes of the book with loads of examples (most of which are from the book). On the Peachpit site you can see a 2-min clip from the video.


The making of the DVD

Garr_dvd It would have been easier if I read a script off a teleprompter in the studio, but that's not how we did it. Instead we spent over two days in the studio as I spoke to the camera about the three elements of a presentation — the preparation, design, and delivery — in front of a green screen. I had no visuals or bullets, etc. in front of me except for some key words on the MacBook — all the slides and background visuals and effects were added later in post production.

Below you can see some of the outtakes arranged by Mary Sweeney in Berkeley. These outtakes appear on the right of the screen as the credits roll on the left
at the end of the DVD.


Again, if you have the book, you do not need the DVD. But this instructional video may be useful to schools and organizations or to individuals who have not been exposed yet to this approach to presenting.

Presentation Zen in Sweden, New Zealand, & USA

Because I'll be spending most of the summer working on the next book (Presentation Zen Design), I'm keeping the summer travel schedule outside of Japan light. I really hope to meet you at one of these events below.

MalmoFrom Business To Buttons Conference,
Malmö, Sweden June 11-12

The 3rd annual Business to Buttons is the meeting place in Europe for interaction designers, business strategist and usability experts. If you want to expand your business, and become a leader in the UX field, this is a good place to get the tools and inspiration. The conference organizers believe that experience and interaction design have finally worked their way into companies. And with the economic downturn, the challenge is simple but vast: create user experiences that are the difference between success and failure. Here's the schedule. Learn more about the conference here. Register for the conference here.

Wellington Presentation Zen master class
in New Zealand
July 8, 9,10

I'll be running three half-day Presentation Zen seminars as part of Webstock's Autumn series. The session on the 10th is for people who attended one of last year's seminars. I'm a big fan of Webstock (and New Zealand), so I was honored to be invited back to beautiful Wellington. Last year's seminars were a lot of fun. Here are some pics. No matter where you are in New Zealand, I hope you'll consider spending a day with us in Wellington. (Last year a few people came over from Australia and other parts of Asia/Pacific.)  Here's the schedule. Register here for one of the days.

Seattle Tableau's annual Customer Conference
in Seattle
July 20-23
The Tableau Conference is a great opportunity to join colleagues and top analytics experts for three days of information, interaction, insight and inspiration (the schedule). Here are the Top-11 Reasons to Attend the Tableau Conference this year. And here are the speakers. I'm really excited to meet all my old friends (and new ones too I hope) in Seattle, and I'm really looking forward to meeting Stephen Few for the first time. Stephen's new book is called Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis. Really good stuff; I'm a big fan. The conference is being held at the brand new Hyatt at Olive 8. Register here.

Look forward to seeing you this summer!