Why do people make bad slides?

by Scott | 9/30/2009 | 23 Comments »

For nearly a decade many leaders in psychology, design and even technology have decried Powerpoint and its many evils.  Every few months another blog post, or presenter, explains in detailed outrage why the common bulleted list slide, when used exclusively, is a very bad idea.

So why then are bad slides so popular? Here’s some theories:

  • Bad slides are less work. Nearly everything in the world we know to be stupid is easier to do than the right thing. Ignorance is often less of an issue that the lack of interest in doing the extra work to be better. For unpleasant things, most people, most of the time, are happy to do just enough not to be horrible, and move on.
  • Culture of expectations. If most people at an event do the same old boring, hard to understand, bulleted list death, to do the right thing requires standing out and taking a risk, something most public speakers do not want to do. They want to fit in and take few risks.
  • It makes it look like you’ve done tons of work. To the average eye, a dense, heavy, slide deck looks like much preparation has been done.  It’s a fast way to make it appear that you’ve done much work, when in reality a simple, clear, concise slide deck requires much more work. People are often impressed, at least at first, by volume, rather than quality.
  • They really don’t know there’s an alternative. Some people don’t get out much. They don’t see many presentations. So when it’s their turn they pull up an average of all the ones they’ve seen and try to use their presentation software, tools that promote bullet lists above all else, to approximate it.
  • They’re asked for bad slides. Some event organizers ask to review slides, as if that’s a good quality control measure.  When handed a slide deck of 15 pictures, they have no idea what the speaker is going to talk about, and this makes them nervous. It’s not uncommon for speakers with slides that follow Garr Reynold’s advice to get feedback to make their slides worse.
  • Speakers use slides are their own notes. Slides should be for the audience, not the speaker. But many speakers destroy their slides by cramming back-up information that would only be used by the speaker.  It’s ok to leave cues for yourself in slides, but they must be minimal enough they don’t ruin the audiences experience.

I’m convinced there will always be bad slides. There will always be ugly, bullet laden slide decks, or Powerpoint abused visuals, filled with text and diagrams few will read much less understand.

I think until conference organizers, professors, and bosses explicitly encourage a new, improved style of communication, we’ll be living with these complaints for a long time.

Chris Atherton‘s excellent recent presentation at TCUK09 details the cognitive psychology of good slides – why aren’t these concepts and research more well known?

Are there other reasons people make bad slides / slide decks?

What do you think needs to happen to help presentations, and slides, evolve?

Book tour coming: Boston Nov ’09

by Scott | 9/15/2009 | No Comments »

Things are winding down on the book. Finishing up the 3rd and final draft, scrubbing up the copyedit, and all sorts of little things.

If you live in the boston area and might be able to help me with venues for giving lectures about the book, head over here. Thanks.

Can all day lectures work? (Tufte considered)

by Scott | 9/15/2009 | 6 Comments »

For years I’d heard about Edward Tufte’s famous all day lecture. I’d owned his books, but somehow never made it to the show. That changed last year. I caught his seminar here in Seattle.

As it turns out the full day seminar, like many seminars, is almost entirely lecture based. Tufte is up front, lecturing, telling stories, and asking the crowd of several hundred to flip to the appropriate pages of their books to follow along.  The event is super popular, as the same course sells out year after year. I didn’t count but by my guess he had nearly 800 people attend that day in Seattle.

But from all the learning theory research I’ve read, all arrows point away from these lecture marathons. Here’s why:

  1. They’re passive. Sitting and listening can inform but you are guaranteed not to learn a new skill since you can’t practice it. With no practice there is only vicarious experience.
  2. You don’t meet others at your level. One side benefit of a bad workshop is if you are actively working with peers you can learn from them and make connections useful for learning later. In a 500 or 800 person room, where you never break into groups, this is impossible.
  3. Retroactive and Proactive interference kills.  It’s counter-intuitive, but there is strong research suggesting cramming lessons into a single is self-defeating. Your brain has limits on how it digests new information, and if there are not frequent breaks and light activities to give the brain time to recover, less learning occurs in 8 intense hours than might occur in 5 well paced ones.

There are two factors at work explaining the dominance of all day, mostly lecture events:

  1. It generates more revenue.  If you don’t break into groups of give exercises, you can fit more people into a room. More people, per room, per course means more revenue per hour for the people running the event.
  2. It’s less work for the teacher. Lecturing is the easiest method in the world. It requires few risks and little student involvement, or opportunity for students to challenge the teacher.
  3. It’s less stressful for the audience. Sitting in a lecture is a passive, and therefore safe experience. While you won’t learn as much, there’s zero risk of embarrassment or the awkwardness of meeting new people.

Have you been to an all day lecture, or all day course that was mostly lecture? What did you think? And how does what you know about learning theory match what you saw?

Help find photos for the book

by Scott | 8/5/2009 | No Comments »

As an experiment, I’m opening up some of the choices in the book to all of you.

If you’re a photographer or a designer, check out this invitation to help me choose photos to be used in the book.

Also includes the current list of chapters!

How to design a conference – Interview with GEL host Mark Hurst

by Scott | 7/31/2009 | No Comments »

I’ve run a few events myself and a challenge many attendees never think about is how to arrange the day. When are the breaks? What order should the speakers go in? What topics should get the morning vs. the afternoon? There is a curation like design challenge of figuring out how to make a great day.

One of my favorite conferences is Gel – Good Experience Live (it’s the place that let me run my NYC Sacred architecture tour), and I asked the organizer Mark Hurst his thoughts on doing this well.

SB: Speakers are the core of most conferences, yet the lectures and lecturers have earned a reputation for being boring. Gel has consistently had very high quality speakers. How you think your approach is different than other events?

MH: Invite your heroes. I learned that from Richard Saul Wurman, founder of TED, who originated the phrase.

That means, invite people who you are personally, genuinely interested in. Forget any other consideration and focus on: would YOU want to hear from them, if you were an audience member?

I’m not sure how this compares with other conferences – I can’t speak for them – but I’ll leave it to you to imagine the other not-so-good reasons why events might have people speak… rather than inviting them because they’re good for the attendees.

SB. Is there any coaching or training you do for your speakers? Do you think this is a meaningful practice for conference organizers to consider?

I run speakers in a 20-minute time slot, so there’s often some coaching around getting the message across in that short timeframe.  One thing I often say is to go light on, or skip over, all the normal introductory stuff, and just get right to the good stuff. In other words, start strong. And then try to tell a story, while still making the larger points. It’s a tricky balance.

Most conferences use 45,60 or even 90 minute sessions, yet yours are shorter, often 20 minutes. How do you decide the length, format and order of speakers for each Gel?

The length is easy – 20 minutes is the standard slot. Format is easy – the day is comprised of four groups of four, usually with a few shorter “special appearances” sprinkled inside.

The order of the speakers is the challenge – and that’s hard to describe, as it’s more of an art than a science. It’s a puzzle with lots of dimensions. You have to consider developing the theme of the day, and (possibly) a sub-theme for each individual session, and the blend and flow of the energy that each presentation is likely to transmit to the audience, and the timing of catering (coffee breaks and lunch), *and* occasionally there are constraints due to a speaker’s schedule. And it’s really tough to put the puzzle together unless you have the speaker list completely finalized… so I generally have to do this late in the process, not long before the event, and go through several revisions of speaker order, before I finalize it and send it to the printers.

How do you evaluate speakers, both before you choose them, but also how to you evaluate how well they did?

I listen to attendee comments at the event, and read all the emails that come in after the event, to get a sense of what people liked or not. I’m happy that Gel attendees are enthusiastic about sending feedback – positive and negative – about their experience, so I always have a pretty good idea of how the audience reacted to each speaker.  (And it’s often a mix – occasionally a speaker polarizes the audience with an extreme reaction in both directions.)

As for how I *choose* speakers, see answer to #1 above. That’s another one that’s more art than science – but generally I’m just trying to find a good mix of speakers that, together, will create the best possible experience for the attendees.


The next Gel event is Gel Health, in NYC October 2009.  And info on Gel 2010 can be found here (they’re already running out of tickets).

You can watch videos of Gel talks from past years – several dozen are up there. Don’t miss Ira GlassErin Mckean or Andrew.

Research help: Where does “see them naked” come from?

by Scott | 7/29/2009 | 8 Comments »

Part of the fun of researching a book is discovering all the weird things I thought were true that have no substance whatsoever. The advice to imagine people naked when giving a presentation is one of them.

The problem is I can’t find the source of who first suggested we do this.    Even though most books on public speaking mention it at some point, not a single book I’ve read offers a source.

Even Ron Hoff’s good book I can see you naked debunks the advice, but doesn’t offer a source – he claims its advice that had been around long before him.

What I’ve done so far:

  • I asked Toastmaster HQ and they didn’t know
  • Various google/internet searches
  • It hasn’t been referenced in 50+ books I’ve read
  • None of the presentation experts I’ve asked had an answer

If anyone can dig up a reference, or even a source older than Hoff, definitely let me know.

Strange speaking venues part 2

by Scott | 7/29/2009 | No Comments »

Redfin recently hosted a free event called The Naked Truth, for tech entrepreneurs. The event was held at the normally very cool Seattle Sculpture Park. The problem is the amphitheater on the grounds creates some odd problems for public speaking.

  • They put the stage almost 30 feet from the front row. Even with good seats it’s a row of hard to see talking heads, sitting in the shade, while the audience is in the sun.
  • The amphitheater is right by the street, making for lots of background noise.
  • Some of the talk was lively, but the did break a few of the rules listed in why panel sessions suck.

Speaking lessons from Rickey Henderson

by Scott | 7/25/2009 | 1 Comment »

Found this great article thanks to Doug on former Oakland A’s all-star baseball player Henderson’s preparation for his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Always a nervous speaker, he decided to get some help in the form of a speech class at the local college, and as part of the course had them critique his speech, pointing out areas for improvement.

The course instructor, Earl Robinson, gave him the following advice:

“I told him, ‘Let’s give this a live audience,’ ” he said. “So he came into the class and presented it to the students. They liked it, but they also gave honest evaluations, because that’s what they do to each other, and they talked to him about how he could improve it. A lot of times, he’d stop at a passage and ask, ‘Do you like this part?’ “

Fascinating to see a celebrity so humble and open about getting better at something. And doing the one thing many speakers never do – practice and get feedback.

You can read the full article here.

Lessons from 50+ books on public speaking

by Scott | 7/8/2009 | 21 Comments »

The first draft of the book is done, and to help get there I read over 50 books on public speaking. Many popular ones, old and new, as well as books by preachers, teachers, salesmen, infomercial stars, and professors. What did I learn?

  • 50% or more of the advice is the same.  Dale Carnegie got much of it right 50 years ago in Public Speaking for success (one of the best I read – I’m surprised too). And he hits the same points Aristotle and Cicero talked about nearly 2000 years before.  You can throw a dart at a stack of these books and get much the same advice.  It goes like this: know your audience, be concise and practice. If you can remember that you are well on your way. Problem is this takes work and discipline, which is harder to do than buying books. Knowing and doing are not the same thing. Joining toastmasters, where you practice, is likely one of the best things you can do.
  • Rhetoric is boring. Many of these books have several chapters on rhetoric, or the construction of arguments. This is good stuff, but it’s oh so boring. Even chapters in these books about passion (ethos) are boring.  It’s the common academic trap of people writing for comprehensiveness rather than for pragmatics. Thank you for arguing, by Heinrichs, was the best of the bunch in that respect.
  • Standard books might be the wrong way to learn this. As great as Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepare’s is (he’s the guy who originated method acting), can you be a great actor from reading it? Not unless you do a lot of acting after you read it. I’d say 30-40% of the books have nearly the same textbook structure of chapters and content. At least An Actor Prepare’s is an intimate personal read. Many books on speaking are shallow and stay on the surfaces of things, never touching on why people fail even after they’re read these books.
  • There are many fancy methods and tricks that play on people’s interests to make this seem simple. No surprise here, but books with titles like power speaking, magic presenting, instant persuasion, extreme lecturing, etc. mostly just rehash Carnegie’s advice, and do it poorly. Performing, which is what speaking always is, resists being boiled down.
  • Lecturing has been well researched it’s just no one knows about it.  There is so much misinformation about what works or doesn’t in public speaking. One magnificent gem is the book What’s the use of Lectures? In all my interviews and chats I haven’t found anyone who’s heard of this book despite how amazing it is. It’s on the dry side, but it’s a summary of all the research that has been done on lectures and what makes them work well or not. No myths. No voodoo. Just good advice based on actual research.
  • 20-30% of the books focus on one tool or specific type of speaking. There are piles of books just about PowerPoint, many about Keynote, and tons about pitching, or teaching, or doing seminars. And they mostly strike at the branches, rather than the roots. If you get the core dynamics of style, attention and making points, it’s not hard to move from one form to another. And books about software, in the guise of books about speaking mostly promote slideuments, something Garr Reynolds rightfully fights against.

So what am I doing differently in the new book?

  • There is a real person here. It’s titled Confessions of a public speaker (it’s listed on amazon now, for pre-order – not final cover art).  The set up is this: I’m going to be completely honest with you. I have license, via the title, to call bullshit on myths, and legends that get in the way of speaking better, and to tell you useful things some are too polite to mention.  I can share the messed up things that happen backstage, what speakers really think of their audiences, etc.
  • I’m telling real stories. Many books take on a “I’m a perfect speaker” tone that doesn’t help people learn. I know I’m far from perfect, as my speaking experiences over the last 15 years, which include many embarrassing, comical, and occasionally criminal behavior. I learned the very hard way and I’d love for you to do better. I also have stories from other veteran speakers, teachers, and professors who were happy to share their honest thoughts about all this.
  • Like my other books, it’s fun, direct and honest.  I’m always trying to write books I wish someone had given me when I started. The book is looking to be ~250 pages, which is a sweet spot for a solid, interesting, learn-able, memorable narrative.

I’m in crunch mode now for the second draft, but I’ll be posting more details as I can. Meanwhile there’s some good links to check out above.

Ignite done right: Preston on Twitter vs. Tolstoy

by Scott | 7/7/2009 | 1 Comment »

One of my favorite talks at the last Seattle Ignite was Jason Preston‘s talk called “Goodbye Tolstoy: how to say anything in 140 characters”.  He does so many things right in his ignite talk, and did it with such confidence, I interviewed him for his take on public speaking – which is below:

SB: It seemed like you had fun giving your presentation? What about public speaking is fun or enjoyable for you?

JP: So many things about public speaking are fun for me.  I think High School is the first place I really learned to love an audience – I spent two years in the advanced drama class, where we performed a regular mix of improv shows, full-length plays, and student-written short scripts.

Two of my favorite things about public speaking are:

  1. The interplay between the audience and what I’m doing. It feels almost like sculpting; I time statements and form reactions with sentences and gestures. Some pauses I can fill with silence, others with laughter, other with applause. It sounds a little egotistical when you write it out but hey – I’m in front of a room full of people who are paying attention to me.
  2. I love putting things out there. There’s something exhilarating about putting your ideas, your voice, yourself in front of a room full of humans and abandoning the idea that you’re really in charge of what happens afterwards. To me, public speaking is a performance art, and as with all art is has a life outside of it’s initial confines.

At ignite, I could have been quoted on Twitter immediately (I wasn’t, I don’t think, but it was possible!), and there will undoubtedly be a video of my speech on YouTube. I have no control over where these ideas or my performance go, nor do I have any control over how people react to them. Some people say I’m nuts, but I think that’s fun.

SB: As you’ve done public speaking before – are there any big lessons you learned or good advice you picked up that had the most effect on you?

The single most important thing you can do on stage is to BREATHE. I’m not going to dilute that advice by adding anything else, because it is SO important.

How does you process for preparing for an ignite talk differ from a regular presentation?

I actually prepared much differently for my ignite talk than I do for other types of speaking. I what I’d call “rehearsing” instead of “practicing.” Five minutes is not much time to get your idea across and it’s tempting to let the format take over (slide for this, 15 seconds, slide for that, 15 seconds), when that’s not really the point.

I spent time before I built the slides picking my concepts and looking to boil it down into a coherent thought.

Practicing is what I tend to do for most speaking gigs: I go through my slides and my bullet points, and try to figure out what major concepts and analogies I want to get across. I like to give presentations without a formal script because I think I’m a lot more interesting when I have to be a human in the front of the room instead of a poor excuse for a tape recorder in playback mode.

This works most of the time because I have 45 minutes or so to get around to the point. Not so at ignite. As a result, I did a lot more “rehearsing” for this presentation, with the goal of clearing out all the side-trails that eat into my normal speaking routine. I also needed to make sure that I could say everything I wanted to say, and not say everything I wanted not to say, in the right amount of time.

I still didn’t write out a script. I let the presentation grow organically by setting my slides to rotate as they would on stage (15 seconds each), and then started running them, and talking along. I did this several times until I started relying on consistent analogies, jokes, language, and attitudes.

Once you had your material together for your ignite talk, how many times did you practice?

I didn’t keep an official count, but between the time the presentation was set and the time I was on stage at ignite I’d probably gone through the presentation about 13 times. For me, that’s a lot.

What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you while giving a talk/speech?

I guess my public speaking record is reasonably charmed. I’m drawing blanks on horrible experiences – I’ve had microphones die on me (just start shouting) and I’ve had truly dead audiences (just keep going), but I’ve never wet my pants, forgotten my pants, or otherwise had disasters involving my pants.

I’ll round back to my advice from earlier, because I think it’s largely responsible for avoiding deer-in-the-headlights syndrome: remember to breathe.

It’s even OK to pause, too. There have been a couple of times where I’ve forgotten what I’m supposed to say next. Take a breath, pause, if it comes to you–great! if not–no worries, you can come back to it later, and the audience doesn’t even know you left anything out.

You can see Jason in action below: