Monday, August 11, 2008

Presentation Zen

Out of the small readership that's either been tipped off to this page, or forced to consume it at gunpoint by me, I'm not sure who this subject will appeal to. Consider it an attempt at a useful post. I suppose it depends on your job role. What has become one of my favorite job roles over the past 5+ years has been teaching, or specifically presentations for groups of people. My ambition to become a Secondary Ed. teacher was pretty quickly dashed during my sophomore year of college, when a particularly unsavory education professor in so many words told me I wasn't educator material. Fair enough. When I took my current job, the teaching aspect wasn't in the job description, but it's been as important than any role I've had. Presenting to a crowd is easily most people's worst nightmare, but it has become one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. It can also be the most challenging aspect, simply because of the subject matter.

You see, what I do isn't glamorous (you really thought you were the only one?) and it's not easily explained in a nice, tidy sentence or two. That's one huge reason why teaching can be so difficult for me. I explain to people when asked that I am a "Dirt Cop". My title is Stormwater Specialist, and I work primarily with new construction and development in the metro area. Regulations from the Clean Water Act require that developers and municipalities do their part to limit the amount of mud (sediment) and other pollutants that may leave these construction sites, as much as possible. While part of the job requires me to be a "regulator", the more important role in my time on the job has been that of "educator". I do my best to try to convey to a usually unattentive and disconnected audience who would rather be anywhere else at the time what the regulations are, and then how to stay in compliance on their sites.

So how does anyone tackle presenting on a subject that, to the disintereted layperson, is the excitement equivalent to being forced to sit through Disney on Ice? It isn't easy. It's being able to take something very complicated and make it seem effortless to the person learnign from you. But so often people who put together presentations have no idea how to do that. They just type out everything they want to say, put it on some slides in PowerPoint, add a couple nonsensical cartoonish ClipArt items, and proceed to put you to sleep faster than a bottle of Ambien.

I was just as guilty when I did my first few presentations. After pleading with people before my talks would start to "please not fall asleep just yet", it never failed to do the trick. It was always Yawnsville. But then again, I told myself, so was everyone else's presentations discussing erosion control. "Don't feel bad,'s just the material. I mean, who's gonna stay awake to hear about the intricacies of proper staple patterns when installing erosion control blankets?" These self-talks made me feel better for a while.

Then I stumbled on a blog that changed my tune. It was simple enough, and the content made all the sense in the world. Finally. Garr Reynolds has been adding to his uber-popular blog site, Presentation Zen, for almost 4 years now. Reynolds has spent most of his professional career living in Japan, and it comes through in his techniques to presenations. Simplicity is at the core of his teaching on great presentations. Using great examples from some the best presenters in the world, including the great Steve Jobs of Apple, Reynolds teaches that the presentation is YOU, with the supporting material contributing to you. We've all had it backwards for far too long.

Garr's book is outstanding for anyone who does any sort of teaching or presenting, and I highly recommend it. It's definitely made a difference in how I approach an audience, and present on a subject that on the surface seems completely lifeless. I've attached a recent presentation he gave on the subject at Google. There's also a ton of good recommendations within the presentation, as well. It's a bit long, so if you've got some weekend time and you're at all interested, give it a look.


Anonymous said...

Geez, I never thought a blog post would put me to sleep. More race cars!!! Just kidding. I'll have to check this guy out. If I had $5 for every horrible presentation I've had to sit through in the last 8 years, I'd be retired. There's nothing worse than the yahoo that uses Powerpoint to just list out everything they're saying. What the heck is the point of that?


Anonymous said...

Love the new banner!!!


Dixon said...

Only for you, Thad.