Friday, May 15, 2009

How to Review Presentations Effectively

One of the perks of my job with Dominion Digital is that I get to see a decent number of presentations before they are performed at a user group or conference.  I sat in so many of Ryan Shriver's Agile Engineering talks last year, that I probably could have been deputized to give some of them myself.  This is a great thing, I get to learn new things while the speakers are still working out the ideas themselves.  However, this is a very selfish approach to reviewing a speaker's presentation.  I guess it does not really matter when the presenter feels like the end product is a success.  But it's a bad thing when the presenter comes back feeling like the talk was a failure.

This past week, my co-worker Justin Etheredge, had such an experience.  He has well documented his experience on his blog.  I have to say that when he came back to work on Wednesday, I felt like I had let him down.  I had previewed this presentation, given feedback, then re-previewed his revisions.  I really felt like he had a good product to deliver.

Ok, so the first step to my recovery as a selfish presentation reviewer is to admit that I have a problem.  I recognize that if the presenter feels like he had some level of failure, I should feel like I failed too (and I do feel that way).  

Here was part of the problem with my review of Justin's material:  he was preaching to the choir.  Everything in his presentation, I agreed with.  He and I talk about this material on a daily basis.  We look at system design in very similar ways and are influenced by the same books and thought leaders.  So when he does a presentation on simplicity in system design, I am going to be nodding my head in agreement the whole time.  In fact, I am probably going to be excited that these ideas are being presented to new audiences.

This is no way to approach reviewing a presentation before someone goes before a user group or conference attendees.  Reviewers should not attend a preview of a presentation as themselves, they should be putting themselves in the shoes of the intended audience.  This is a fundamental principle of creating a presentation.  In fact, I'm reading a chapter on this topic right now in Advanced Presentations by Design.

This seems like common sense as a third party.  Of course you should consider the audience when you are creating a presentation.  But this is not nearly as easy as it sounds.  Removing yourself even further, it is very difficult to think in those terms when you are reviewing presentations.

So, going forward, I am really going to try to be more objective when I review presentations.  Also, I am going to try to understand who the audience of the presentation is going to be.  I should be content with learning from my co-workers while we are talking and working together.  When I am reviewing their presentations I should be reviewing their presentations. 

Monday, May 4, 2009

Review of Presentation Zen

When I read books, I often take notes.  Sometimes I take notes in the books themselves, other times I put notes down in notecards, I will also put notes in a personal wiki.  You could say that I don’t really have a system.  One thing is fairly consistent, I normally don’t go back and look at the notes (whether I can’t find them because of my “system” or I just don’t think about it).  So with my most recent read, I’m going to try something new… I’m writing about it in my blog.

Presentation Zen is an extremely good read.  I wouldn’t be doing it justice by putting my notes in a personal file.  This book should be shared.  I know I’m not the first reader or reviewer of this book, but I think word needs to spread about its virtues.  I have put off reading this book because I really haven’t done many presentations in the past.  When I signed up to speak at the Richmond Code Camp, I finally had a good reason to pick it up.

Presentation Zen is definitely tied in specifically about giving presentations; however, its lessons transcend this single topic.  The approach to presentations given here deal with design, storytelling, and simplicity.  These are valuable lessons for people of all walks of life, especially software developers.  Be warned, you will not look at presentations the same way again.  In fact, some presentations that you previously tolerated will become nearly intolerable.

One of the reasons I think this book was enjoyable and timely for me is that it shares elements with some other great books I’ve read in the last year.  I strongly recommend all of the following:  Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor your Wetware by Andy Hunt, A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

All of these books challenge the reader to approach things with a different mindset.  There are consistencies through all of these books that seem surprising, since all of the authors are from different fields.  Also, every one of them is extremely relevant to software development.  That’s interesting because only one of the books was written by a software developer.

Back to Presenation Zen, I hope to improve my presentation style and maybe achieve the level of design and the naturalness of delivery that Garr Reynolds describes in its pages.  As I am not there yet, I am hooked on his blog where he posts videos of masterful presentations that capture this style.