Presentations are the bane of the modern engineer’s existence. If you’re watching a presentation then it means you’re in a meeting, which is already something most of us don’t enjoy, and even worse it means you’re in a kind of meeting (or part of a meeting) that’s only minimally interactive. If you’re giving a presentation, that means even more time away from the technical tasks that drew you to this profession. Nonetheless, any project leader/advocate nowadays and for the last several years has had to spend a lot of time and energy on what is essentially a marketing activity, which is why I dubbed it “markelopment” (a deliberate riff on “devops”) on Twitter. I’m not among those who think presentations are always evil and should be shunned, but after having created/delivered quite a few presentations and sat through a great many more, I think I’m in a position to offer just a little bit advice.

First, I’ll say that hundred-slide decks annoy me. Yes, I know it’s usually a reaction to the problem of slides that are too few and too densely packed, leading to the also-awful phenomenon of the presenter spending most of the time just repeating what everyone can already read, but it’s an over-reaction. The other day I was reading some slides online, and I encountered the following pattern:

Slide N-1: (clip art)
Slide N: “vs.”
Slide N+1: (more clip art)

A whole slide just for “vs.”? That’s wasting my time. Presenters who use that style end up spending too much of their presentation actually changing slides and waiting the obligatory five seconds for the audience to catch up, no matter how little content is on each. Stephen Foskett pointed out that Lawrence Lessig only puts one word on each slide and is still a very highly regarded speaker. Well, yeah, he’s Lawrence Lessig. I’m not, you’re not, and probably neither is anyone you know (unless of course you know Lessig).

Now, I know presentation length can be tricky. I myself do tend to err on the side of making my slides too busy and very spare graphically. I do that because I know that the slides are likely to be viewed more in email etc. than with me actually presenting them, so to make sure they’re useful as a reference I often sacrifice a little on the “live” side. What I’d generally like to do is create two decks – one verbally spare and graphically rich to illustrate or anchor what I’m saying live, and a longer form for sending around later. That means even more time spent in Impress, though, and is often not feasible for various other reasons as well. My best advice is to determine a good “minutes per slide” figure based on the content, the audience, and an honest appraisal of your own ability to keep the audience interested while the slides aren’t changing, then use that to determine an appropriate slide count. If you’re a very dynamic speaker, you can go the Lessig route and spend five minutes on a one-word slide. If you need a hundred slides to fill a thirty-minute presentation, then maybe you’re admitting something about your speaking skills or the intrinsic value of what you’re presenting.

Second lesson: don’t get too cute. I’ve seen too many presentations lately, especially in the “edgier” tech areas, where the author had obviously spent way more time on finding funny clip art and quotes than on the actual content. Again, it’s a balancing act. Humor is good. A good quote or graphic can be an absolutely fantastic anchor for an important point, which you then elaborate or build on verbally. One not-really-funny slide after another after another with too little in between is just distracting.

Another error that I find even less excusable is simple ugliness. Yesterday I saw a presentation which had been done entirely – from title to closing – in what looked like a version of Comic Sans done to look like paint-brush strokes (house painting, not portrait painting). It wasn’t very readable, and looked totally amateurish. I was embarrassed for the author.

Now, somebody’s probably going to think I’m saying that I’ll totally dismiss an otherwise good presentation of an important idea because of slide count or graphics or font choice. Not so. I’ll still listen, but it will cost the author a “point” in my mind. It’s worth keeping in mind that, in these situations, every single point can matter. If you’re presenting to hundreds of people and only care if one or two respond in any significant way to what you’re saying, then maybe none of this matters. Far more presentations are given in smaller groups, though, where the opinion of everyone at the table does matter. People being how they are, they will use all sorts of nuances to form an impression of whether you’re smart, whether you’re trustworthy, etc. It probably won’t be one big thing that causes you not to get that next meeting, but an accumulation of little things. (If you think “meritocratic” open-source techies are any different, BTW, you’re just kidding yourself. The standards are different, but they’re just as stringently applied. Set the wrong tone and you’ll be written off just as surely and completely.) Why give someone the chance to think that you’re too serious or too frivolous, that your presentation shows disorganization, poor prioritization or disrespect for others’ time or sensibilities? Focus on content, by all means, but take just a little time to make sure it’s being delivered in a way that will ensure a good reception.