Schedule and Events

March 26-29, 2012, Software Test Professionals Conference, New Orleans
July, 14-15, 2012 - Test Coach Camp, San Jose, California
July, 16-18, 2012 - Conference for the Association for Software Testing (CAST 2012), San Jose, California
August 2012+ - At Liberty; available. Contact me by email:

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Presentations ...

After the IQAA conference, a number of people asked me how I learned presentation techniques. Typically, I would either mumble something about my experience as a military cadet or deny any skill and say something to the effect of "well, if you practice for 100 hours for a one-hour talk, you'll probably do ok."

Basically, I do this because I don't want to brag. Still, that answer may be modest, but it doesn't provide any help with other people improving presentation skills ... at all.

So, at the risk of sounding a bit arrogant, I'm going to try to answer the question.

Here is my approach to speaking improvement:

(1) Recognize that I am not that good.

That's the first step. For me, for a number of years, a number of people told me that I needed to work on my "communication skills", so, well, I did. I read books, I surfed the web, I tried to learn. Eventually, I figured out that the problem wasn't communication at all --- it was a difference of *values*, and a matter of *timing*. Half of the secret of giving a good talk is having a receptive audience when they are in the right mood.

Because of #1, I sought advice. Here are a few of my favorite references:

(A) My old professor, Dean Defino once said something to the effect of "I don't read the book. You have the assignment in class to read the book; my job is to connect the dots, make it interesting, and add the things that the book misses - to make the course well-rounded."

On power-points, I don't read the bullet points

Dr. Defino also said many times in class that "The answer to any essay question is always 'it depends, if X then 1, if Y then Z ..." I try to less tell people what to do and more to provide tools to help them decide for themselves what to do.

(B) Presentation Aikido - Damian Conway gave this at OSCON a few years back. I burrowed a copy of the slides from a friend of a friend. You might be able to Google them, but I haven't found it in a casual search. Aikido means "Sprit-Way-Path-Harmony" roughly translated; the talk is about how to do 1-hour talk well. There is a good review here.

(If anybody wants to pay for shipping, I can probably get you photocopies)

(C) Presentation Judo - Mark Jason Dominus - This one is on how to do an all-day tutorial, and it is on-line here.

Note that you can click on details and get more info than just the slides.

(D) The ClueTrain Manifesto:

Scroll down to the list of 95 elements. In a nutshell, don't be a disembodied talking head. Instead, talk like a person.

(E) Remember item #1. I'm not that good.

So I get feedback from people I trust. I try to give every talk at least once, if not three times, in front of a receptive audience.

(F) If possible, I try to introduce myself to the audience before the talk starts - in a personal way. I show up 15 minutes early to the talk, introduce myself to people, and ask "So, why did you choose this track?" or "What are you looking to get out of this talk today?" -- I noticed Esther Derby do this at BetterSoftware a few years back. At worst, the audience views you as a person, not a talking head (our cluetrain goal). At best, this will allows you to customize your talk by a few sentences and really reach your audience. Singers often change words in a song to talk about the local hometown or hometown team; I'm not recommending that, but if the entire audience is interested in All-Pairs testing, you can spend a few extra minutes on that slide.

(G) Know your competition. Techology Conference? Expect death by PowerPoint, right? Be the contrarian.

(H) Know the difference between a gimmick and a technique. Remember I said to know that I'm not that good? So when I want to try something that's borderline, I pursue feedback well before the talk. I wanted to use a technique that I got from Tim Lister - less slides, no bullet points, make each slide a single big picture and tell one story per card. (Tim did a talk like that at ADC 2004 and also at the Better Software Conference in 2005; if you email him he'd probably send you the PDFs) I was on the fence, so I asked several people; my wife finally convinced me that getting rid of the bullet points would be a good choice for a Friday-afternoon-burnt-out talk.

(I) You can use the fieldstone method on talks (make each slide a story) - See Weinberg's book on Writing, The Fieldstone Method.

(J) What do you value? I like things that are simple and holistic - viewing the entire project instead of segmenting it into parts. This is very different than the primary way of thinking of the IS Industry - we like things that are big, perfect, comprehensive, orderly, broken down into straight lines ... Enterprise-y.


Scott Ambler and Ken Schwaber both have greats talk on ITConversations. Joel Spolsky, Phillip Greenspun, and Steve McConnell all have good interviews. Download them and listen to them. Here is one of my favorites.

(I) PodCasts

Same thing. The university of California @ Berkely has a series of recorded lectures on Podcast. History 5 is particularly good; the Computer Science lectures are surprisingly bad.

(J) Find bad presentations, and learn what not to do.

So what's my conclusion? I was convinced that I was an incompetent speaker, and worked hard to become competent - to move my way up the abstraction chain.

The list above is just the ten or so most interesting things I learned along the way.

Right now, probably the worst thing I could do for myself is to consider myself *good* ... :-)


Charlieist said...

Great post!

I could not agree more that humility, reminding ourselves that we're not that good, or not in fact the center of the universe, is hugely under-valued. In our culture, not just in our profession.

I try to remind myself of the same.

And I do really like your picture slides, instead of bullets. I'm with Ed Tufte on why powerpoint is a bad thing in general -- its nature guides most people into using it one of two equally bad ways: 1) you have to dumb your points way down to put short statements in big text so they can be seen in the back of the room (the intended use of ppt), or 2) keep them in a reasonable font size, keeping the content, but then few people have the time during your presentation to read them -- if they can even see them.

Using pictures for slides the way you do sidesteps this whole problem! And if that wasn't great enough, they enable you to use ppt in a way that actually supports your talk! And if those still weren't enough, picture slides are far more entertaining than the usual kind of slides, especially when the picture is from Clerks. ;-)

Last, thanks for letting me know about your blog! When I find a good blog, I try to start reading it from the bottom up, which is what I'm doing. Also, if you're interested, I occasionally post here about testing.

Charlie Audritsh

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Matthew.

I love your (Esther's) idea about showing up early and talking to a few audience members. I'll try that at my next talk.

On another note, I'm trying to tell more stories in my presentations.

There are a few books out there that can help, but one called "What's Your Story?" by Craig Wortmann has been the most helpful to me so far.