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. 


  1. Just ran across this post (looking for your CI post!) and I like what you said. I try to always find *something* to improve, b/c too often we hear pollyanna responses. A little while ago I found some web2.0 app for reviewing folks, which was good from the sense of you could be honest, but maybe not directly talk to them! Also, I saw David Poteet speak recently, and I wrote down pages of notes on techniques. I am actually using a couple of them in my STPcon CI presentation. Let you know how "poteeting" my style goes...

  2. Hey Eric, I really appreciated your feedback after my talk last month. Not sure if this is what you were talking about, but I think is very interesting (although I haven't set it up for my own talks). I've been completely slammed at work recently and that's why you don't see much recent activity here. I am committed to putting some ideas out on this blog in the next week. I do have a backlog, just haven't had enough time to put anything out here.