Ben Nadel
On User Experience (UX) Design, JavaScript, ColdFusion, Node.js, Life, and Love.
I am the chief technical officer at InVision App, Inc - a prototyping and collaboration platform for designers, built by designers. I also rock out in JavaScript and ColdFusion 24x7.
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Presenting Ideas vs. Teaching Techniques

By Ben Nadel on
Tags: Life

I'm sitting in the office on this Sunday afternoon working on my CFUNITED presentation, Advanced ColdFusion Custom Tags. I started working on this presentation many months ago because I had to get it ready for CFUNITED Express - New York City. In the months between then and cf.Objective() (another ColdFusion conference out in Minnesota), I was never really happy with the state of my presentation; I didn't think that it flowed well or had completely relevant information. Then, when I attended cf.Objective(), I was quite inspired by the fantastic presentations there, and came to the conclusion that I needed to take my presentation to the next level.

As I am very new to presenting, I asked some people that I really respected for some advice and I got common tips like this:

  1. Have at least two "Ah ha!" moments.
  2. Keep your slides very minimal.
  3. Have pictures - they are worth a thousands words.
  4. Never read off your slides.
  5. Be funny.
  6. Tell short stories - it helps people relate to the concepts.
  7. Keep your code sample short.

I've been told that books like "Presentation Zen" preach that slides should be short and impactful. They might contain only a single image or bullet point. These headlines should then be expanded upon verbally by the presenter. As such, when I sat down this morning, I read through all of my slides to see which bullet points could be eliminated. And, to my extreme frustration, I found that almost none of them could be removed.

Immediately, I began to panic; I pictured myself as being someone who would never be good at presenting. But then I got a hold of myself and decided to calm down and look at the situation more closely. And so, I took the above tips and tried to deconstruct them in the context of my presentation.

Have At Least Two "Ah ha!" Moments

This to me is something that makes sense at the "gut" level, but not at the practical one. I get the concept that you want to shock and engage the audience in order to keep them interested; but, at the same time, if I'm presenting on a topic with which they are not familiar, wouldn't almost every slide be an "Ah ha!" moment? I mean, if they don't know the scopes involved in a ColdFusion custom tag, then shouldn't explaining the unique behavior of the CALLER be an bombshell "Ah ha!" moment? As in, "Ah ha - I totally didn't know that CALLER was unlike any other scope in ColdFusion!"?

Keep Your Slides Very Minimal / Never Read Off Your Slides

I'm going to group these two together because I feel that they are related. I understand the idea that the audience members cannot be both reading your slides and listening to you at the same time. I understand that keeping your slides minimal keeps the attention focused on one thing. But, my concern is that if my slides don't contain all the key points that I want to cover, then I might forget to cover them. And, if I forget to cover crucial points, then that seems like a pretty huge sacrifice. After all, the audience is there to learn and they can only learn the information that I present to them.

Have Pictures

I think this one actually applies well when pictures help to visualize a complex concept. Not gonna argue with it.

Be Funny

This tip is very interesting because I think it's both true and completely useless at the same time. I think it's true that being funny make a session more enjoyable. But, I think it's completely useless in that it has zero effect on the presentation. Think about a funny commercial you saw recently. You can probably think of one or two and remember what it was that made it so funny. But, I'd be willing to bet that you can't remember what the commercial was actually for. Meaning, you can probably remember that it was funny that some guy did something with a slice of pizza, but you can't remember if it was for Dominos or Dejornos or Pizza Hut. That said, I think being funny and agreeable is always good, but I don't think it has any effect on people's absorption of the material at hand.

Tell Short Stories

Like pictures, I won't argue that short stories help people to grasp a complex concept. But, I simply don't think that my topic lends well to short stories.

Keep Your Code Samples Short

There's no doubt that short code samples are easier to digest than long ones. But, I don't think all topics lend well to short bits of code. If a topic covers advanced coding techniques, then I am sure it will require more code to teach them.

So I looked at this list and thought about how it applies to my presentation and was confused and frustrated to find that several of the items were in direct opposition with what I felt I needed to do. This made me think of a great quote from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

With this in mind, I went back to the beginning and thought about my premises. I came up with three:

  1. I am presenting on Advanced ColdFusion Custom Tags.
  2. I need to cover the topic in good detail.
  3. Audience members need to walk away with a better understanding of the topic.

Number three is a given - if people don't leave the room with a better understanding, then there was no point in my presentation.

Number two, I think, is also a given because it lends itself to number three. If I don't cover the topic in detail, I doubt people will have a better understanding of "Advanced" custom tags.

This left me with number one - that I am presenting on Advanced ColdFusion Custom Tags. I know this might seem crazy, but I think this is the invalid premise. Obviously, my topic really is Advanced ColdFusion custom tags - that's accurate. But, after some thinking, I believe that the inaccurate part of this premise is the concept of a "Presentation." I don't think I am presenting the topic - I think what I'm actually doing is teaching the topic.

I don't want to get into a big semantic argument, but I think Presenting and Teaching are two very different actions. I'm not trying to simply introduce people to new concepts - I think that's what presenting is great for; I'm trying to show people how something works and how it can be used to accomplish specific tasks. I'm not trying to create new areas of interest in my audience - I'm trying to create new areas of understanding. I think that's what teaching is.

Now, I'm not saying that I'm a good teacher in any way - I have no experience at that either. At the end of this, all I'm saying is that I now believe that presenting and teaching are two different actions that require two different sets of best practices.

As a final thought, I wanted to talk about a quote I heard in regards to presentations: "YOU are the presentation, not your slides." By this, I believe what the author meant was that "you" are the point of being for a presentation; that it's not the slides people are there to learn from but rather you as the speaker. Again, I think this is a very interesting quote, but I don't know how accurate it is. Think about learning in a classroom. Yes, the way a teacher teaches does make a difference, that's true - we all have our favorite teachers; but, the content that they are teaching is not unique to them. What they teach is freely available and not what makes classroom learning so fantastic. Learning from a teacher and not out of a book on your own is so much better because you can ask questions and get clarification. The value of the teacher is the depth of understanding, the ability to field questions, and the desire to explore problems on the fly. The value of the presentation is purely in the information.

Tweet This Deep thoughts by @BenNadel - Presenting Ideas vs. Teaching Techniques Thanks my man — you rock the party that rocks the body!


Reader Comments

Ben,
when i read the first few paragraphs of your post, and how the caller scope is unlike any other scope, in my head I was picturing an alien on a telephone. I don't know why.

With A-HA! moments, I think it's too much to expect that people will remember the particulars of the A-HA moment. They will not likely remember how the caller scope is different, in all its different-ness. But as long as they remember "yes, it's different", and they know to go download your presentation for the details when they get back to work, then that's good enough, right?

I think in presentations at conferences, you're not just competing for people's time during the conference, but also for people's time afterwards. They're going to get back to work, get bogged down in their day jobs, and in their spare time, if they're lucky, they'll start reviewing the presentations they just saw and follow up on the ones that really struck them. And if in their heads you've planted the "yeah, i gotta go check out this advanced custom tag stuff again", then you've probably done enough. When they want all those details again, they'll go download your presentation, or contact you, or look at their notes from when you were talking.

Good luck!

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Hi Ben,
I am reading Presentation Zen while getting ready for a presentation Tues for the MDCFUG. There are three parts to a presentation. Seems you are focusing on only one, slides. There are your notes and a document for the audience, which might contain all your bullets and notes. I'll have to reread that section of the book, but that is what I recall :-)

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I have to argue that being funny is 'useless' in a presentation. I had the pleasure of seeing one of Andy Allen's presentations, and while the content was very interesting, it came become a bit mind-draining after a while. He added lots of funny moments into his presentation, along with a general liveliness that really helped to wake me up and focus my concentration. This was one of the best presenting skills I'd witnessed, and while it can be hard to do the pay-off is definitely rewarding (for the audience anyway).

Also, the short stories don't have to be directly related to the subject, they could be tangents that gives the audiences brains a break. Another of Andy's great skills.

Not trying to preach, I'm no presenter and do terrible in front of audiences. Just some helpful advice from what I've experienced.

Good luck, I've no doubt the content will be fascinating

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@All,

I was thinking about this post while at the gym and I just want to make sure that people understand that I'm not talking about *all* presentations. I was only referring to the one that I'm getting ready to do and the specific hurdles I have to get over. I think because the topic itself is, at its very nature, and technical one, it necessitates something more detail oriented.

@Marc,

I don't think people will remember the Ah-ha moments. Like you're saying, we've got so much on our plate that remembering anything is a lot to ask. What I meant as far as the Ah-ha moment was that if the topic is covering things that you don't already know, then really, the whole topic is an "Ah-ha" moment.

@Mike,

One of the things that I was wondering about was whether or not people do prepare notes in addition to their slides. Right now, I have slides and 26 code demonstrations. Naturally, I won't be showing *all* of them in the presentation - only about 6 or 7 or them. But the Slides + the 26 accompanying code samples is what I would consider to be my "document" that the users can take home.

@Will,

I didn't mean to put down being funny. I think it is a fantastic skill and there is no doubt that people who are funny are simply more enjoyable to watch. Heck, I wish I knew how to be more enjoyable to watch, I really do. All I meant to say is that when it comes to delivering information, so long as people are interested in the topic to begin with (a fair assumption), being funny shouldn't affect effectiveness of the presentation.

Take the TV series, "Life After People," on the history channel. I think it's a completely fascinating show and I love to watch it because the information they present is very interesting. No one on the show is funny :)

...

In the end, I think the biggest problem is that perhaps this was just not the right kind of topic to being with.

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To your "being funny" point... I'd take "being genuine" over "being funny" any day. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if you're not a "funny-presenter-type" person by nature, then please don't force it.

If I were going to a Ben Nadel presentation, I think the reason I'd be going to it would be A) because Ben's smart as hell and B) because I want to get infected with the love that Ben has for the topic he's presenting on.

Just sayin.

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@Marc,

I definitely DO love ColdFusion custom tags, that's for sure!

I agree though, genuine is a really good quality to have.

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@ben can't say i've ever seen that, but i can relate to what your saying. A fair point, and likewise to marcs comment, people will ultimately be there for a slice of your grey matter. Are you putting these slides online? Sounds like it will be a good read

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@Will,

I'd like to make a video recording of it, for timed practice and then put that plus the slides up online.

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Nice post. Thanks for sharing. Too bad I won't get to try any of these tips now that I'm not presenting at CFUnited this year. I am really, really sad to not be able to make it. I still want to continue presenting...hopefully, I'll see you soon.

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Ben, I think you're spot on when it comes to this particular presentation. Your audience is there looking for the edge you'll provide and not just some generic knowledge they might forget by the time they go home.

Oh yeah, and whether you're using Keynote or Powerpoint you can keep the slide text short and sweet by adding any crucial points to the slide notes. Try Keynote on a dual screen setup to see what I mean.

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Re:
But, my concern is that if my slides don't contain all the key points that I want to cover, then I might forget to cover them.

I totally hear you on that one ;o)

I started presenting a little while ago with *very* minimal slide decks, i.e. just a picture and a title.

I actually really like that sort of style now, it gives you something interesting to talk back to. I also find that the presentation slides are actually *for the audience*, and not just to remind me what I wanted to say.

But - if you are worried about forgetting what you are talking about - have speaker notes, I always do, and it helps a lot. Either a print out that sits on your desk as you talk, or on your split screen. It's basically the bullet points you would have had if they were on the screen.

Since I know you'll know your content inside and out, simple bullet points should give you enough of a reminder to allow you to cover everything you want to cover.

That being said, this is all that I find works for me, so take it with a grain of salt ;o)

Good luck with your presentation!!! :D

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I'm a retired school principal and have observed/evaluated/helped hundreds of teachers. Based on that and what I saw as best practices, there are two things that seem to be mistakes that tech-types make in making presentations.

a. Trying to be completely exact. Rather than give the generalizations (and admit that they are generalizations), they go into the various exceptions, etc. The main idea is often lost in all the exceptions and qualifications. If such are necessary, they should be noted at end of main presentation.

b. Taking and trying to respond to questions during the meat of the presentation. Other than clarification-type questions, questions should be held or responded to later. Like the exceptions mentioned above, the questions and often long responses get in the way and cloud the main ideas. Also, often, the question is of interest to only the specific asker. 100 people are listening and trying to follow, and the speaker is off on something of interest to only 1 or 2 people. (Of course, speaker has to have a sense of whether a question is indicitive of a general misunderstanding--and should be addressed--or whether it is of limited importance to the main theme of the presentation.)

Good luck!

Keith

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"But the Slides + the 26 accompanying code samples is what I would consider to be my "document" that the users can take home."

Ben, glad to see you are putting so much thought into your presentation. It is a really rewarding process. I struggled with a lot of the same things when I was getting my presentation ready for cf.Objective(). One thing that I am VERY happy that I did for cf.Objective() was to create a separate handout for my audience. Something completely separate from my slides, notes and code samples. This did several things for me.

1. It took some of the pressure of forgetting something off of my shoulders. I still did not want to forget, but if I did, at least it was still be in the handout

2. It allowed me to remove a lot of the detail from my slides. My slides were getting WAY TOO wordy. I was able to move most of the bullets to my notes and then articulate them in paragraph form in the handout, thus making my slides MUCH easier to look at

3. It allowed me to add content to my presentation without adding it to my slides. There were A LOT of things I wanted to cover in the slides and talking points. Not all of them made the cut. But I was still able to add them to the handout. People appreciated the extra content, even though I didn't talk about it, and because I thought it was good and important information, I felt better that I wasn't able to cover it in my 55 minutes.

4. I was able to keep my code samples brief in my slides, but then put the full sample in the handout. There is no way they are going to be able to read the whole sample on the slide anyway, so putting up just the important parts and putting the detailed sample on the handouts made things much cleaner.

5. It gave my audience something they could review afterward without having to fire up the slideshow or go through my code samples. This way, when they got back to their desks and finally got around to looking at the handout four weeks after the conference, they could be refreshed on the content without having to remember "What did he say during this slide?". It can also be used to put code samples into context.

6. It took the pressure off of the audience to take notes. They could pay closer attention to what I was saying and not have to worry about frantically scribbling. They could also then markup the handout with their own, smaller notes if they wanted to.

I'm sure there are other benefits too. But That is all I can think of at the moment. I'll email you my handout so you can take a look.

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Well I think that this should apply to all presentations. Even if you are covering nuclear physics you don't want to bore the people to death. But to each is own, I generally have a list with one word in each item that triggers my memory on what to gabber about.

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I second, and third Keith Dodd about the question-and-answer portion. As one who has hearing loss and often has to make do without sign language interpreters at conferences, there's nothing more irritating than to find a q-q moment suddenly occurring in the middle of the presentation where the person asking most of the question is at the back of the room (and I can't see that person) and is very soft-spoken. Be firm and hold all questions for the last 15 minutes, and invite people to email you or comment on your blog with questions they may still have.

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What Lola LB said. I have a hearing loss as well and I give up trying to listen to what the question is being said and hope that the presenter is smart enough to repeat the question in the mic.

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Ben,
You can merge the Aha moment with a story. The Aha moment should communicate to the attendee why custom tags are so cool. The story could be your personal story on using custom tags, one example where it solved a particular problem would do. Then, as the attendee, I'm hooked and what to know more details (that's where the teaching part can come in). I like the suggestion of having handouts that have the more extensive information. And as far as bullet points, I'm sure you'll be reviewing code more than the powerpoint anyway.

Also, the best presentations are those where the presenter does NOT read the powerpoint slide---I can do that on my own, and much faster--and you show code.

-Michele

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If you are teaching, then the presentation has to appeal to the 3 different learning styles which are:
Visual Learner, Auditory Learner, Kinesthetic Learner.

When you are going to "teach" a subject rather than present it, you need to appeal to all 3 different learning styles, this will ensure that at least the majority of the audience will leave your presentation feeling like they learned something.

A visual learner will be looking at your slides to aid them in the learning process, an auditory learner will be listening to the information you are providing and a Kinesthetic learner will probably want some kind of interaction ex. asking questions for clarification and sharing ideas if possible, these learners will want to put into affect what information they gathered in order to feel like they learned it.

So, in preparation for your presentation, just keep those 3 key points in mind and I am sure you will be able to appeal to all 3.

And remember, no need to panic and over think this, you are the subject matter expert, just be yourself I am sure you will do great.

Good luck!

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So, do you guys recommend reading "Presentation Zen?" I'm considering picking it up today. Any other really good presentation books out there that you'd recommend?

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I thought it is an easy read with some good ideas and helpful links to stock photos. Lots of commons sense stuff repeated throughout.

Amazon has it with 130 reviews and 4.5 stars out of 5.

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@Mark,

I hope I will know the material inside and out. Fingers crossed :)

@Keith,

That's a good point. I've been in presentations where the question asking gets completely out of hand! The goods news is, I don't think that this stuff requires too much Q/A. I've tried the preso a few times and hardly got a single question. Of course, I want to trim out a bunch and go into more examples, so I might get more questions that way.

@Jason,

Having a handout is a very interesting idea. I had never even thought of that.

@Michele,

I am hoping that the examples can provide an ah-ha moment by showing people situations where custom tags can be useful where maybe they were not aware of it. As my topic is more "advanced" usage, I have to assume that the people there *already* understand that custom tags are useful and they just want to now see if they can leverage them even further. They should have already had many of their own "Ah-ha" moments when they first started using the technology.

@Mike,

I like your slides and your notes document... but I think our topics are very different. From what it seems, you are just trying to show people how CFEclipse can be good and to spark basic interest. My audience will already have interest in the topic - I'm trying to show them how to leverage more effectively, which can only happen at the technical level.

To be fair, though, my example slides are very minimal, as most of the meat is in the code samples. A lot of my wordy slides are the very early ones, which I am going to be skimming very fast (as most of it should be quite familiar to the target audience).

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