Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What Makes An Interesting Presentation?

If you don't read it regularly, you've really got to check out Techcrunch -- it is truly one of the best sources for what's happening at the leading edge of technology and in the start-up world. But you can find a lot more than just tech on Techcrunch.

Just the other day I came across this post about a start-up that was focused on 'Identity' solutions for Web 2.0. The post was focused on Dick Hardt, the CEO of the company, but it talked about his dynamic presentation style and included the video that I've also included here.

Even if you don't watch the entire video, you can get a flavor of the presentation by watching just a couple of minutes. One thing that is also interesting -- as noted by Dick's responses to some of the comments on Techcrunch, he is still presenting a variation of this presentation and his slide deck is now up to 1000 slides.

If you haven't already jumped ahead and watched the video, then the first thing that is probably going through your mind is "1000 slides?" Once you see the video, you'll get more of a sense of how the whole thing works. For me, this presentation got me thinking a lot about about presentations, presentation structure and style. In recent years, I find myself more and more in environments that seem to demand a very classic, rigid presentations including the mandatory 'Agenda' slide followed by a bunch of slides with lots of bullets and lots of text. I've also heard complaints from people if they "don't know where the presentation is supposed to be going." These comments are echoed in the comments on Dick's presentation. I think we can blame the widespread use of Powerpoint for part of this.

With Dick's presentation, what I'm reminded of is the very old days of slide presentations, when 'slides' were actual 35mm slides. In that way, it's sort of a Retro-style presentation. For those of you who don't go back that far, in the days before LCD projectors, we used to render Powerpoint files out as 35mm slides, and your deck was an actual cassette full of slides -- no animation, no movement (maybe some synchronized music), but each slide really only captured an idea. What's more, the overhead projector -- and overheads -- almost implied more of a collaborative, text-heavy meeting or discussion. Even in the world of overhead projectors, I remember one woman giving a presentation using overheads that she had written in crayon -- it was actually quite artistic.

So, what makes a good presentation -- is it one that follows a set structure like a college essay or does it keep you guessing from one slide to the next? Is it packed with text or is it a sparse, one concept per slide approach? Can it be presented by anyone, or does it only work for you?

For me, I think that the content, the performance and the audience are intertwined. While it's difficult to say for certain based on the video, from the soundtrack you get the sense that Dick's audience laughs at the funny parts and is engaged in the presentation that he is giving. He is connecting as a performer and his presentation informs. From that standpoint, I really do think that it's a good presentation -- a slide presentation. But, in the same way that this keynote video would be painful to watch if he used a text-heavy, overhead-style engineering meeting approach, I don't know that this presentation style would resonate with his engineers in a detailed feature iteration meeting.

What does your audience expect? How can you excite them and, at the same time, keep them in touch with their existing frame of reference without boring them with the same old stuff?

Oh, and don't forget that agenda slide!

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