As an engineer for a Value-Added Reseller (VAR) as well as a frequent Tech Field Day delegate and technical presenter, I spend a lot of my time listening to presentations. I often find myself critiquing them for things like speaker delivery and content. I feel that it’s my duty to share some of my thoughts on presenting and presentation structure, especially when you choose to talk to a group of technical people. I’ve already talked about some presentation tips before, so what follows are a couple of new things that I’ve been thinking about for the last year or so.
Time Is Not On Your Side
One of the biggest concerns that I’ve seen with technical presentations as of late is the time issue. People are typically given a one or two hour presentation slot depending on the event I am attending or presenting at. The presenter then proceeds to fill the entire time with slide decks and lecture. Every minute of the presentation is accounted for by a bullet point or a fancy animated slide. Should someone disrupt the flow of the presenter’s zen with a question or a request for clarification, they are met either with a curt answer or a request to hold all questions until the end of the session. After the end of the presentation, there is usually very little time for Q&A.
Nowhere was this more apparent to me than at the recent Network Field Day 3. We managed to gather a great group of individuals once again to listen to industry experts talk to us about great new technologies. However, for the first time that I can remember, we had a group that was willing to start peppering away with questions not even five minutes into the presentation. Between Ivan Pepelnjak (@ioshints) and Marko Milivojevic (@icemarkom), there were some very good back-and-forth discussions going on. I love these kinds of discussions. They really show how people can take a point and launch from it into a rabbit hole of technical brilliance. The problem with these discussions come when you have the aforementioned presenters that have filled every minute with a slide. There’s no room to freestyle and talk about things. Occasionally, you have companies like Metageek come along and do something totally off the wall. They want to listen as much as they want to present. At Wireless Field Day 2, Ryan and Trent spent quite a bit of time talking to the delegates and getting feedback. I’d say the last twenty minutes of their presentation was spent posing questions rather than answering them. I found this refreshing. So refreshing, in fact, that my presentation over cloud computing not a month later got slashed from it’s allotted hour of time down to around 45-50 minutes. Why? I wanted to get good feedback from my audience. I wanted to field questions as they came in and not worry about running out of time to get to my last slide. I wanted to be sure that my presentation involved the audience as much as possible. I think that’s a key the needs to be taken forward for presenters. Don’t look at your time slot as a container to fill to the brim with your own ideas. Instead, take a cue from the coffee bars of the world and pour your slot almost full. Leave some room for questions and discussion, which are just like the sweetener and cream I pour in my coffee. Aim for 75-80% of your time slot for presentation. The rest should be for your audience. Even if you don’t get a lot of questions about your presentation, at least the people will be happy that they got out fifteen minutes early and they don’t have to rush to their next session. Either way, your audience will love you.
Live By The Demo, Die By The Demo
Oh, the demo. How I love thee. No boring slide deck. No relentless bullet points. All the joy of seeing something work in real life. But, at the same time I hate the demo. Too much chance for failure. Too easy for things to go off the rails and result in a wandering audience. How then do we reconcile the good things about a demo with all the possible downsides?
The key to giving a good demo is to make it flow. Come up with a script for your tour that moves the viewers seamlessly from one area to the next. It should feel connected and coherent. You should leave some time for improvisation in case your audience finds an area where they would like to spend some more time focusing. However, these rabbit holes are the first sign that the demo pitfalls are coming soon. It’s all too easy to waste time talking about a specific feature and lose sight of the big picture. When that happens, you get lots of sidebar conversations between your audience. When the people you are talking to spend more time talking to each other, you’ve lost control. You need to find a way to bring things back to you. It’s also important to note that technical people hate watching progress bars and incrementing counters. If your demo is going to require time to load a program or push out a firmware, consider kicking it off early in your presentation and then talking more about a specific feature or fielding questions while it goes on in the background. Infineta did this at Network Field Day 3. Rather than let us watch the couple of hundred gigabytes of traffic flooding across a boring screen, they instead kicked off the demo and let it run in the background while they melted our brains with algorithm math. When we had been beaten into submission by formulae, we flipped back over to see the results of the live demo. All the benefits of a real walkthrough without any wasted time.
There’s no such thing as a perfect presentation. It’s goal that we all strive for but can never really accomplish. That’s not to say we as presenters can’t give it our best shot. I’m not saying these tips will apply to you. In fact, a large portion of the presentations that I do either don’t involve a demo or don’t have a place for one. They key is to recognize that a live (or simulcasted) audience isn’t a group of mindless drones that will absorb your every word without question. You should do your best to involve and include them at every step of the way. When the audience feels they have a choice in the content and direction, they’ll be more involved and happier in the end.