My, um, presentation about, er, tools

So I’m off to Brighton today to give a talk at Develop entitled “Building World-class Art Tools”. As my first conference presentation, it’s equal parts exciting and scary, although the scary part probably hasn’t hit home fully yet.  I’ll not say too much about the contents of the talk itself just now, but I will be posting quite a few articles afterwards to supplement what I’m saying, because I can’t fit anywhere near everything I’d like to say into the time allotted.  For now, I thought it would be interesting to write a bit about the process of preparing for the presentation itself, as that’s been a great learning experience.  There are plenty of articles online about presenting, but they’re usually by seasoned veterans – I haven’t seen much written by newbies!

Making great slides

Most conference slides I’ve seen are just awful.  Led on by Powerpoint/Keynote, so many presenters have fallen into a tired, lazy convention of summarising what they’re saying with bullet points.  Why do you need bullet points to summarise what you’re saying?  Are you that bad at speaking, or am I so bad at listening, that I can’t get the gist of it?  Once you stick those bullet points up, everyone’s reading them and ignoring what you say for the first 10 seconds or so.  Then they tune back in, but find you boring because you’re saying something they already know from the bullet points.  If you give handouts, it’s even worse – the same pattern can apply to your entire talk!  Ok, so you can hide the bullet points and ‘appear’ them as you talk, but what’s the point?  I got talking to my Dad, who’s a vastly experienced public speaker, about this – he’s faintly bemused (in his absent-minded-professorial way) by the sheer existence of Powerpoint, relying instead (as he put it) “upon the spoken word” 🙂

William Shakespeare

Unfortunately, I don’t have the confidence (yet) to just stand and speak without any visual aids.  I’d love to be good enough to try that – I think it would be refreshing.  In the meantime, this is the essential guide to creating good slides.  The basic idea is to use slides which complement what you’re trying to say.  If my point doesn’t require explanatory graphics, I like to find a photo that’s somehow related to the topic.  I think the visual jolt of a new image helps to refresh people’s attention span, but it’s not a distraction from what you’re saying.  Throw in the fact that flickr plus cc licensing gives you access to some amazing images, and it’s a simple, fun way to create your slides.  I started doing this for internal company presentations a while back, and it’s always gone down well.  In fact, it’s this habit which led to me put images in my blog in a similar way.


The amount of preparation time involved has massively exceeded my expectations.  I knew there would be plenty of work involved, but not this much.  It’s like writing, but so much harder.  In both cases, you’re trying to construct a logical argument, which I find requires a lot of polishing and revising.  Check out this great article for some great tips on practising, revising and structuring your presentation.  Presenting seems so much harder than writing for a number of reasons:

  • I have a strict time limit.  I guess a word limit might have the same effect, but I don’t write with word limits.  Right from the start, I’ve been struggling with the time limit on this one.  I thought my first draft was quite minimal, but it turned out to take way over an hour.  Getting that down to the requisite 45 minutes has involved some tough decisions.
  • The time limit makes revising harder: every time I make changes, I could potentially push it over time.  If so, I have to start another ruthless cull, finding slides to cut or arguments to truncate.  But that might change the flow again and cause further revisions.  It’s a hard circle to close.
  • The feedback loop is so slow.  When writing, you can easily read back the chunk you’ve just written.  With the presentation, it’s not the same.  You have to say it out loud to check it works (and to see how long it takes!), and if you’re not alone in a quiet place, that’s not necessarily feasible.  I keep trying to sneak a few minutes to tinker with it on the train home, and I have to wait till later to see the effect of my changes.
  • On top of that, you have to spend time preparing your performance, not just your content.  I’ve been running through the whole thing every morning for the last couple of weeks, sometimes recording and listening back, always tinkering with the slides afterwards depending on which bits don’t quite seem to flow.

It all adds up to a lot of work.

The dry run

I was lucky enough to have a dry run at work last Friday in front of a reasonably-sized crowd, and had it filmed so I could watch it back.  If you’ve never watched yourself present, believe me, it’s painful.  I thought I’d walk about a bit to avoid being completely wooden and rooted to the spot.  Unfortunately, while I was walking about in my mind, I was in fact doing little more than rocking backward and forward.  Jacques said it made him sea-sick 😦  I actually find the audio to be the most painful part though; my voice sounds completely different to me than it actually is, and that’s such a personal thing.

I’m definitely glad I did the dry run.  There was loads of useful feedback on the content of the talk itself, so it will benefit from this experience.  Curiously, the time limit was not a problem at all – somehow I completely forgot to say a whole load of things that I was supposed to, skipping various points without noticing at all.  I hope I don’t suffer from that on the day, although as someone pointed out, people won’t necessarily notice – they don’t know what they’re missing!  The most interesting bit of feedback I got was this, from Keith:

Way too many ’emms’ and ‘you-knows’.  I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but there were dozens of them – to an annoying extent.  It improved a bit as you went on and got into the real meat of the lecture, though.

Interestingly, he was the only one to pick up on this, which meant my first instinct was perhaps to dismiss it as slightly picky.  But something about it made me curious.  I guess it seemed to have the potential to be a very serious point.  All the other feedback was “here’s a way to make it slightly better”, but here I was actively annoying the audience, never a good thing! 😦

Being curious, I decided to investigate further and watch the tape through, making a note of every single ‘um’, ‘er’ and ‘you know’ in each 1-minute interval of the talk.  I wanted to know whether he was right, and whether I improved over time (as he thought).  The results were pretty shocking: firstly, I counted 133 fillers (as they’re sometimes called) in my 36 minutes of speaking.  That’s once every 16 seconds!  Secondly, I didn’t improve over time at all.  There were some better patches, but no overall discernable pattern.  Perhaps Keith got sucked into the content of the talk after a while and stopped noticing.  Or perhaps he just got used to me saying ‘um’.  One thing’s for sure, after listening for it on tape, I’m starting to get annoyed by ‘um’ myself.  When I got home, I counted my wife using it 22 times in one phone call.

So off to the internet to see if anyone has any tips.  I discover some interesting things:

  • There are people out there who are really, really bothered by ‘um’.  I mean it really, um, seems to annoy the hell out of them.  Judging by my dry run, it’s not a majority of people, but still.  I don’t mind my talk being mildly disappointing, and I don’t mind making the odd mistake, but I really don’t want to piss people off.  And although I don’t seem to be bothered by ‘um’ myself, I somehow symphathise with them.  So I definitely have to fix this!
  • These filler sounds play an important part in conversations between people.  Essentially, they say “I’m hesitating about what to say next, but I certainly haven’t finished speaking, so don’t interrupt me”.  The flow of who speaks when in a conversation is governed by all kinds of slightly-subconscious protocols, and this is one of them.  Unfortunately, this leads to people having the habit of saying “um” whenever they pause for thought, and when you’re presenting, there’s no risk of being interrupted (heckling aside!!), so it’s superfluous and annoying.  You can afford to be silent for a few seconds while you think about what to say next.
  • It’s apparently trivial to fix, in two simple steps: listen to yourself speaking and become aware of the issue (done that now), and secondly do a practice session where you speak and get a friend to give you a signal every time you say ‘um’.  I tried this, and the improvement was immediate – although I did have a slight tendency to replace ‘um’ with ‘so …’ and ‘anyway’!!  You might think this would make you horribly self-conscious and unable to speak so smoothly, but it doesn’t seem to work that way.  For such an ingrained habit, it seems surprisingly easy to shake.  We’ll have to wait and see whether I revert to ‘um’ up on the real stage though.

The start

The other common bit of feedback I had was that the start wasn’t as good as the rest.  The start of a presentation seems to be really critical.  Done well, you can win the audience over, engage their attention and set the tone for the rest of the talk.  Done badly, the first few minutes can be a bit of a waste before you get going properly.  You might lose people’s attention, and at worst they might leave.  The trouble with starting well is that this is the time when you’re at your most vulnerable.  All your nervousness is showing through and it can be hard to deliver well at this point.  I had two crutches prepared for trying to make my start go better: a little audience participation (‘raise your hand if …’) and a reasonably amusing anecdote, which did get a good laugh.  Despite this, I still stumbled a bit on the next couple of slides, so there’s some serious work to be done to get up to speed here.

Jesse Owens at 1936 Olympics

To that end, I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the last few days listening to the start of lots of talks.  I’ve got the audio to about 300 sessions from GDC, and also looked up some of my favourite speakers online (hey, Steve Yegge says um too!).  It’s pretty fascinating stuff – and reassuring at least that most starts are truly horrible.

One thing’s for sure – as you can probably tell, I’ve been quite obsessive about certain aspects of the talk – getting the slides prepared, eliminating ‘um’, and worrying about the start (I’d like to be able to say I’ve polished it, but no, all I’ve really done is worry so far!).  I think this is part of the beauty of the programmer mindset – the ability to obsess over small details and repeat things until completely satisfied.  I’m not going to make any great claims for the quality of the presentation, but it is at least way better than if I hadn’t done this stuff.  If you’re a programmer, you might not take naturally to things like presenting, but you should definitely take advantage of this ability to obsess, to prepare well 😉

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