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:
- Have at least two "Ah ha!" moments.
- Keep your slides very minimal.
- Have pictures - they are worth a thousands words.
- Never read off your slides.
- Be funny.
- Tell short stories - it helps people relate to the concepts.
- 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.
I think this one actually applies well when pictures help to visualize a complex concept. Not gonna argue with it.
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:
- I am presenting on Advanced ColdFusion Custom Tags.
- I need to cover the topic in good detail.
- 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.