In my short career, I have attended many professional conferences, and I quickly learned that it's a bit of a crap shoot as to whether or not the concurrent sessions will match the exciting presentation summaries in the program book. Last year, I attended a conference for librarians interested in technology in libraries, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all of the sessions I attended were as good, if not better than I expected. However, I made one fatal error in choosing to attend a dry, poorly presented session that would have been better delivered as a paper in a professional journal. The laughter and clapping from the session next door added to my disappointment and frustration.
Several weeks after the conference, a video of the more entertaining (and informative) session was posted online, and I was able to watch what I had missed. This particular presentation was done in a style imported from Japan called pecha kucha. Several presenters were given a set period of time to deliver their arguments for or against some aspect of the general topic of the session, using 20 slides with no text, and which advanced every 20 seconds. The end result was a collection of presentations that focused the audience's attention on the key points the presenters wanted to convey, rather than on their laptops or smart phones.
Creating an effective presentation that uses visual elements to enhance information delivery is not an easy task, and even with the structure of the pecha kucha format, some of the presenters struggled to find the right combination of images and spoken word. In her book slide:ology – The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, presentation design expert Nancy Duarte writes, "Unfortunately, most people never make the jump from verbal expression — which is what we were all taught in school — to effective visual expression, which is neither easy nor natural. Slides are thus stranded into a no man's land where the general population doesn't know how to effectively produce or deliver them."
Duarte wants to change the landscape of visual presentations, and her book provides the philosophy and techniques that we need to begin to make more effective presentations. Drawing upon her experience as a leader in presentation design — her firm is responsible for the design of the award-winning An Inconvenient Truth presentation by Al Gore — Duarte outlines the elements that make up an effective presentation design, and provides many real-world examples of these elements in action. She does not give too many details on specific tools and functions within particular slide presentation programs; instead, she provides the reader with the design theory needed to create an effective presentation.
The book contains a few things that surprised me while also clarifying some aspects of presentation design that I had gathered from my own experiences. With all the bells and whistles built into desktop presentation publishing programs like PowerPoint and Keynote, it is easy to see why some presenters go overboard in their attempts to incorporate those bells and whistles. Duarte points out that simple slides with few message points have greater impact, and that two-dimensional graphics convey more meaning to audiences that flashy three-dimensional images. When planning for a presentation, she recommends using sticky notes to create a storyboard, and strongly emphasizes that slides should contain conclusions, not data sets. She cites Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule as a good guideline to follow, and advises presenters to leave plenty of time (3-4x the length of the presentation) for preparation and rehearsal.
By the time I finished reading this book, I was racking my brain to think of some reason why I would need to create a presentation with slides just so that I could apply the design ideas I had read about. slide:ology is likely to be as influential in the presentation world as Garr Reynold's Presentation Zen was a few years ago, and I highly recommend that this be required reading for anyone giving presentations using slides.