Garr Reynolds over at Presentation Zen has pulled an old skeleton from the presenter’s closet: The Technical Presentation: “Who says technical presentations can’t be engaging?” Scientific and technical presentations are often put in a separate class because they tend to be highly specialized, dense, and often a bad match for the limited bandwidth of PowerPoint. This, in combination with a variety of other issues (poor preparation, bad graphics, lack of clear purpose, no regard for the medium) often results in what is commonly known as the “Data Dump.” Too often we fall prey to this abuse, even when we are paying for the privilege of the presentation. Reynolds cites an essay by geologist J. Lehr (1985) who reminds us of our primary burden as presenters:
“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.”
Avoiding the Data Dump requires work. Far too often presenters are pushed to deliver reams of data and complicated charts and graphs without the assistance of (or time for) a design(er). It’s almost unheard of (and perhaps ironic) that technical people have any background or knowledge of information design to help them prepare media. What’s worse, this blind spot is just as common in technical writers and instructional designers who fashion presentations for others to give. This is certainly one instance where good design can pay off.
With that said, what can we do to avoid inflicting a lethal PowerPoint presentation on a trusting audience?
- Prepare in advance
- “Own” the material
- Simplify the look and content
- Don’t read the slides
- Avoid gratuitous anything (this may be a comment on 3. above)
- Connect with the audience
- Adapt the presentation to the audience
- Tell a story
- Rehearse the talk (this may be a comment on 1. above)