Original image: cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo by Vvillamon: http://flickr.com/photos/villamon/4468869725/
I have become a recent student in the art of presenting. To motivate myself to learn more about what makes a good presentation, I decided to lead a workshop at Learning 2.011 in Shanghai entitled Presentation Zen and the Free Images. A mix of presentation ‘rules’, with image searching to support those rules, the workshop was meant to spread the gospel of Presentation Zen so that others would understand the importance of making a point interesting.
You will notice in that last sentence that I mentioned ‘a point’, singular, not plural. Perhaps the most important aspect of the book Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds is the emphasis on simplification. Too many presentations are so complex that they lose their audience in minutes, if not seconds. There are many reasons for this complexity, but the main two explanations are having too much to share and the curse of knowledge. The two are linked and generally, the majority of presenters suffer from either or both of these afflictions.
Many teachers swear by the mantra that it is better to have too much material instead of not enough. In most instances this is true. For a presentation, the opposite is true. An audience can only learn, understand or absorb so much from your presentation. Once you have gone past that threshold, the rest is ignored. The TED lectures have a strict code of limiting their presenters to 18 minutes per talk. Limits like these are deliberate and appear to have worked incredibly well for this particular organization. To witness an example of what I am describing, watch this excellent TED Talk by one of the founders, Chris Anderson (not to be confused with Chris Anderson the editor of Wired Magazine and author of The Long Tail and Free).
In his talk, Mr. Anderson coins the phrase ‘…Crowd Accelerated Innovation — a self-fueling cycle of learning that could be as significant as the invention of print.’ As fascinating as this concept is, what is really interesting is how closely he follows the rules of being both concise and clear within the stipulated time constraints. He uses short videos, simple graphs, and a few images to make his point. It is pure brilliance.
The curse of knowledge is a phrase used by the Heath brothers in their book Made to Stick. Briefly, it refers to the inability of a person to understand what it is like NOT to know something. Tasks like riding a bike, tying your shoe, or even walking become hard to teach to someone once you know how. Many presenters present their material as if the audience understands the concepts as well as, or close to, themselves. It wouldn’t take long for most of to think of a graph they were shown that needed some detailed explanation or a term that needed clarification. For those of us in the IB (International Baccalaureate), think of the training you received and the numerous abbreviations that were bandied about as if they were part of the dictionary (ex. ATL, AOI, UOI, to name 3.) Perhaps the answer to the joke ‘why is the word abbreviation is so long’ (because it takes many of us such a long time to figure out what the abbreviation means) is very revealing. cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo shared by HikingArtist.com
Simplification is the key to ensuring you avoid the two hazards of presenting. By simplifying, you are ensuring that there is a clear message you want to convey. If people want details, they will ask for them and you can provide these in a hand-out, via a blog, or with accompanying notes. Don’t be fooled, however, in thinking that it is simple to simplify. Often it can take many, many hours to find the images, videos, and phrases you need to convey the real meaning of your presentation. That effort is not wasted as your audience will thank you for saving their time by synthesizing your findings in such an easy to understand manner.