13 July 2011

Recently, via some blog, tweet or other ripple in the internet stream[1], I came across The Presentation - a free book by Andrew Abela on extreme presentations. It's a short and breezy book that outlines a particular style of doing presentations[2]. I liked the approach he outlines. I think it's worth a look if you are interested in presentation technique and particularly if you are giving a presentation in order to persuade a small group to take an action.

That latter point points to the essence of this technique. He makes the argument that there are two styles of presentation: which he refers to as ballroom and conference room presentations. Ballroom presentations are for large audiences where the concepts from slideology and presentation zen fit in. His focus is instead on the conference room presentation. where "what you are trying to do is convince a small number of people to make a specific decision and to take a particular action". He characterizes this as taking people from a current situation to a preferred future situation.[3]

For these conference room style talks he outlines a narrative format and media usage. The narrative format is a guide to how to structure the talk, it's based on story telling - in particular the notion of a story as a sequence of tension-producing problems and their resolutions. He uses the SCoRE acronym to remind us of this. You first lay out a Situation - a non-controversial statement of the current state. Next comes the Complication - a problem with the current state that leads the audience into the argument. That complication is then matched with a Resolution and an example that illustrates the pair. You then repeat the Complication-Resolution-Example cycle several times (repeating the CoRE, but you only use the Situation once).

The point of the example is both to provide a concrete case for the audience to latch onto and to pace the rhythm of complication/resolution, which otherwise would be jarring.

Although he doesn't say this in the book, it struck me that there are often two phases overlaying the repeating CoRE cycles. The first phase of cycles lead you to the solution that you're proposing the group should decide on. Each cycle is a step leading you to that solution. Once you've reached there, the following cycles are about raising objections to that solution and answering them.

For media usage, he does not recommend using projected slides at all. Instead he recommends printed slides - and slides that contain a lot of detail. Each slide should have an easily grasped overall structure, which he explains as passing the squint test - you should be able to squint at the slide and immediately recognize its overall structure. But within that clear structure there can be lots of fine print. He says you should only use a few of these slides and talk through them. The detail is there to provide the evidence that backs up your narrative. The detail is the reason you shouldn't project them, since slides don't do well with lots of detail. One slide will typically support several CoREs.

Slides designed for printing like this are natural handouts and the idea of going through printed material together reminds me of when I attended Tufte's lecture where he used his books as his visual aids rather than projecting anything.

Finally he indicated that once the presentation was over the presenter should answer questions from the audience and then back out of the conversation as the audience discusses the content.

I was initially put-off a bit by the form of the book, since it takes a cheesy story form: a student needing to do an important presentation going to a wise professor for advice. But the story is kept very minimal and the book focuses mostly on the advice, avoiding the usual trap of education wrapped in third-rate fiction.

Reflecting on this I'm inclined to compare it with another approach I read about for similar kinds of presentations. I read about this alternative from someone in the US military (but can't remember the source). He railed against conventional PowerPoint-driven presentations and instead argued that you should provide a short prose handout (one or two pages) that everyone was expected to read before the meeting. The meeting would then focus on the discussion of the analysis and recommendation from the handout with the "presenter" mainly there to answer questions that weren't clear from the handout.


1: Almost certainly via Jason Yip, who is a one-man torrent of interesting links.

2: You can get a free pdf version of the book by signing up with his mailing list

3: I like the notion of thinking about different styles of presentation and how this leads to different ways of approaching them. I do, however, think there are more than two styles out there. In particular the kinds of talks I give do not fit neatly into either of these two forms.