Why Your Presentation Stinks (Part 2)

Last time, we talked a little about making certain your presentation has a point — or a porpoise, as the case might be. This time I want to talk about a few other common mistakes I see network engineers make when building presentations, and actually presenting them.

First, you put too much text on your slides. I know you’re afraid you’re not going to remember everything you want to say, but that’s no excuse to have a 500 word essay on every slide. The bullet points on a slide are supposed to be just that — bullet points. They’re supposed to remind you of what you mean to say at this point in the presentation, not to be the actual words you’re planning on saying.

Okay, I understand we’re running head in to another problem here — what about folks who print my presentation out and take it home to read it later? That’s what hidden slides are for. Put all the text you really want to put into a slide on a hidden slide just after the slide itself. Then pull out just enough words for you to remember what’s on the hidden slide when you’re doing the presentation. If you really need the text, it’s still there, and it’s there for folks reading the presentation afterwards.

But the audience should be listening to you, not reading your slides.

Second, your network diagrams are too complex. Seriously, if you can’t explain a point with less than six or seven routers, rethink what you’re explaining. I know network diagrams are hard to draw, so it’s really tempting to put a single diagram together and use it to illustrate everything from neighbor formation to flooding domain boundaries in OSPF on every slide in the entire presentation. But — trust on this — your audience is dazed and confused enough. You don’t need to confuse them with a huge network diagram.

There’s another point to this, as well — when we were developing the CCDE, one thing we ran in to is a heavy load of cognitive dissonance. When someone spends time seriously thinking about a principle or concept, they will continue thinking about that same principle or concept when they see the same illustration again. People have a hard time thinking about neighbor formation between two little routers drawn into the corner of a huge diagram, and then shifting gears to think about flooding domain boundaries explained using one of those two same routers in the same diagram. In the end, we had to provide more “mental separation” between the different sections on the practical to relieve some of this problem.

Whether or not you want to believe it, your audience is experiencing this same sort of problem in your presentation. Stop using the same network diagram to explain everything.

Third, you’re not leaving enough white space around your images and text. We engineers seem to be deathly afraid of white space, like rock concerts are afraid of quiet. We’re somehow afraid that our audience is going to slip into those little spaces and get lost, like Dr. Who slipping into the TARDIS, or some such.

On the contrary, white space is critical to our ability to process information. White space provides separation between concepts like an ABR provides space between flooding domains. Open MS Word, create a new document with two columns, and set the gutter between the columns to .001. Copy and paste a huge amount of text in there, and try to read it.

That’s what your presentation looks like.

That’s it for my initial tips on building a good presentation. As I run across other tips, or graphic design books I think are good segues into the world of building solid presentations, I’ll post them here.

Why Your Presentation Stinks (Part 1)

Powerpoint doesn’t stink. Our presentation skills do. So how do we fix it?

First, you must decide: what do I want this presentation to be? We’ve all seen the brilliant TED talks about new ideas. We’ve all seen the really cool sample presentations from those online presentation sites about someone’s trip around the world. When you’re looking at those talks, though, remember this: they are selected out of millions of talks for their content, and their content fits their format. I’ve seen folks do fairly standard slideshows with Prezy. It doesn’t work. I’ve also seen people do “let me tell you about my trip” presentations with Powerpoint. Again, it doesn’t work.

So, just like network engineering, pick the right tool for the job. Since most of an engineer’s presentations aren’t going to feature exciting trips down the River of Doubt, or even up Doubtin’ Mountain, we’re probably pretty safe to stick with a fairly standard presentation package — slides, warts, and all.

Yes, it’s important to get the flow right. I once stood in for a presenter who’d lost his voice — the material was router architecture (hardware and software), so it’s a topic I know well, so I wasn’t in the least concerned about giving this presentation. When I stood in the room and started looking at the slides, though, I realized — a bare 15 minutes before I was supposed to start speaking — that there was absolutely no rhyme or reason to the order of the slides. Individual topics were scattered throughout over 400 slides (for a 90 minute presentation!). There was no “unifying principle,” such as “begin with a packet being received on this interface, and let’s see how it’s switched all the way to the outbound interface.” Normally, this speaker knew the slide deck well enough to flip between the various sections to tell a story — the slides were a visual aid to a talk he had in his head, rather than an actual talk in visual form. There’s no way I could replicate his talk, as it simply wasn’t in my head the same way.

Almost every presentation I see has some form of this same problem — there is little thought put into a unifying principle. The audience doesn’t move from an idea, or a set of ideas, to a conclusion, they just jump around. Look at virtually any sales slide deck and you’ll see this problem illustrated almost perfectly — product after product, “see you have this problem, that product solves it.” There’s no architecture or idea of a set of business problems driving a narrative.

So focus, really hard, on building a flow. Look at a real outline of what you’re presenting, and try ordering it in different ways. Try and find major headings and subheadings. Don’t just let all the information sit there in a bunch of slides. You want a chain of pearls, where the person can walk from one slide to the next, and understand what is being said — the point that’s being made. You don’t want a random walk, as useful as they are in some situations. Even if you’re not telling a story, you’re telling a story.

Don’t just count on the story in your head, either. People are going to save these slides and look at them later — will they make sense then? Our brns fll a lt of infrmtion in — one of the mst commn prblems with spllng and edtng is that we knw wht we intnded to wrt, so we see that instd of what is actlly on the pg.

Send the presentation to a friend, completely blank on the topic, and ask them to outline the points made. If they don’t get it, you haven’t built the presentation right — plain and simple. Don’t spend time explaining it to them, redo the presentation until they can get it without you saying a word. They might not get the details, but they must be able to get the flow and the point without you telling them what it is.

It’s that important.

At some point you want to be able to see this in your own presentations — but don’t expect it to happen overnight. Like throwing the perfect pitch, or shooting the perfect stage, you must practice right to learn the skill of separating yourself from the material far enough to see the flow without filling in what you meant to say (and didn’t).

Next time, we’ll talk about some other reasons why your presentation stinks, and how to fix it.

Powerpoint Doesn’t Stink

“Presentations are just a waste of time.”

“Powerpoint stinks.”

“Can’t we do something other than another long, boring, presentation?”

“We should just ban Powerpoint.”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone complain about Powerpoint, or presentations, I’d be rich enough to quit work and stop blogging. 🙂 Isn’t it about time we were honest with ourselves, though? Isn’t it about time we told the truth about this particular problem? Blaming Powerpoint for bad presentations is like blaming word processors for badly written books.

The problem isn’t Powerpoint. The problem is the person you see every morning looking at you in the mirror. The problem isn’t the tool, it’s that we stink at organizing and presenting our thoughts in any sort of reasonable way. So let’s talk about how to build a better presentation.

To begin: forget everything you’ve ever read in a book about making elevator pitches, making a presentation that impacts, with dash, flair, or whatever. There is a set of presentations that present as a story, with flair and dash, and there is another set that just doesn’t.

As an example, I was the Routing Protocols SGM for Cisco Live for many years. One thing I noticed is that, within the routing group of presentations, troubleshooting presentations always get better scores than deployment or theory presentations. Across a wide array of speakers, and a wide array of topics, troubleshooting lends itself to “telling a story,” while also diving into details people like to hear — so they tend to score well. Presentations that present information on operation, configuration, or design, tend to score less well, no matter who presents them, and no matter what the specific technology is. So there will be things that will present well, and there are things that won’t. If you were a professional speaker, you could, perhaps, only decide to tell stories that people want to hear, and hence present yourself as the best presenter who’s ever lived. Back in the real world, we don’t often have the choice of what we present — there is material that must be communicated to a wide audience, so we present it.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think seriously about the flow of a presentation — in fact, the flow is probably the most important element of any presentation, no matter what it’s about. It’s often best to build each section of the presentation as a separate subset, then rearrange in every way possible to see what works well. Often getting the flow right is a matter of experience. I can’t tell you how to build a flow that works, I can only tell you what doesn’t (or won’t) work. One thing I can tell you is that the way you write shouldn’t be the way you present. Just as a book must sometimes be changed to make a good movie, any given document will need to be rearranged to make a good presentation.

We’ll cover more about practical ideas when building a presentation next week—but for this week, stop blaming Powerpoint for your horrible presentations. The tool isn’t the problem, any more than C makes bad code, or EIGRP makes bad network designs.

The rest of this series can be found here:

Why Your Presentation Stinks (Part 1)
Why Your Presentation Stinks (Part 2)

The Degree or the Certification: Answering the Question

Okay, finally, I’m going to answer the question. For some value of the word “answer,” anyway. I’ve spent three weeks thinking through various question you should be asking, along the way making three specific points:

Okay, so how do I actually decide?

First, ask: where do I want to go? Who do I want to be as a person, overall? This question needs to be a “bigger life” question, not a narrow, “how much money do I want to be making,” question. One of those other turning points in my life as an engineer was when Don S said to me one day, “When I’m gone, people aren’t going to remember me for writing a book. They are going to remember me as a father, friend, and someone who built a community.” It’s okay if the answer to this question changes over time — it certainly has for me.

Second, ask: what am I not very good at today? Do a classic gap analysis here — what do you need to get to where you want to go, and what do you need to get there? This isn’t just about technical skills, it’s also about mental skills, mental habits, and even soft skills.

Third, ask: what motivates me to learn? Do I need a professor in front of my face forcing me to read, or do I need a certificate at the end, or am I okay with just picking up a book and reading it? It’s expected that this answer will vary across different skills.

Fourth, ask: what is the best way to learn this? We often narrow our options down to degrees versus a certification, but there are a lot of other ways to learn out there, including certificates, audited classes, and many others.

Fifth, ask: what will have the biggest financial impact? While you don’t want to turn yourself into a widget, you also don’t want to just waste money pursuing the most expensive educational opportunities available.

Finally, ask: what do I already have today? I don’t want to sound like a killjoy, but I’d rather see two or three certifications along with two or three college degrees, backed up with a variety of other experience, on a resume, rather than 5xCCIE and nothing else. If you have bunch of certifications, consider a degree. If you have a degree, consider getting a certification.

Taking all of these into consideration, you should have a better feel for the right answer.

Two final thoughts before I close.

It’s important to balance financial solvency with passion. I tell my kids that there is some intersection between what you’re passionate about and what will make you the most money — remembering that both will change over your lifetime. Pick a path that will make a reasonable amount of money with the highest level of passion and the widest scope of flexibility into the future in terms of life changes and world changes.

If I had to choose a career path, I would choose the certification and work experience first, and then the degree. While it’s not the easiest thing in the world to finish a degree once you’re working, and you have a family, you’re going to learn a lot more in a college classroom after you’ve had a little life experience, and you pick out the pieces that are important, while just working through the rest.

So the right answer is this: be intentional in your education, from start to finish. Don’t think of it in terms of a degree versus a certification, but in terms of what your goals are, and what you should do next.

Degree or certification? All of the above.

The Degree or the Certification: You are Not a Widget

One of the things that bothers me the most about the Internet of Things (IOT) is how blithely we slip from talking about objects as things to people as things. Among all the things I do not want to be, a “thing,” attached to the “Internet of Things,” is not one of them. What does this have to do with the question of whether you should get a degree or a certification? Simply this: You shouldn’t treat yourself as a widget, either.

Let me explain.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say, “You should get a certification because it provides more bang for the buck.” In fact, in one rather amusing line of reasoning on the subject, Peter Thiel (who started the Thiel Foundation to encourage smart young people to quit college and take up a career instead), said in a recent interview:

Educational institutions are far too often interested in churning out graduates (i.e., getting their money) without imparting the ability to think rather than just work the system.

To paraphrase, you should opt out of college because colleges are just in the game to make money off you, and you’ll make more money if you don’t go to college. Or something like that. You can’t argue with the line of reasoning if you see college as most people do today: a college degree is mostly about learning a specific skill you can turn into money in your working life.

It’s just about here I want to throw up my hands and scream, “stop it!”

For in asking the question, “how can I make the most money,” or, “how can I be the most successful,” you’ve actually turned yourself into a widget. To this way of thinking, I have one fundamental piece of advice — treat yourself as you would have others treat you. If you treat yourself as a widget, thinking about education as a simple means to get money out of a company or consumers, then they’re going to treat you as a widget in return — treating you as nothing but a set of skills they can make money off of.

You are not a widget. Stop acting like a widget, stop thinking like a widget, and stop trying to become a widget. Yes, there are economic tradeoffs in learning skills. And yes, when it comes to specific skills, choosing the cheapest and most effective way to learn the skills you need is the smartest course. But life isn’t just one long economic tradeoff, and learning isn’t just about acquiring the skills you need to get through the artificially intelligent “buzzword filter,” at the next company you want to work for.

In my next post — probably the last in this series — I’m going to try and bring the two previous posts together (First Thoughts and Learn to See) with this one to provide what I consider the most definitive answer possible on deciding whether you should get a college degree or a certification. I’ll give you a hint in advance, though — it depends.

Part 4: The Degree or the Certification: Answering the Question

The Degree or the Certification: Learn to See

This week I was reading through various RSS feeds, and ran across a couple that fell within the scope of last week’s topic. So, rather than moving on to more practical concerns, as I had planned to do — well, I thought I should respond to some common lines of thinking.

First of all, the IT space is in constant change, and the speed of change is just increasing. That change manifests itself in new technologies coming about, and new processes associated with the technologies. Secondly is work experience: What you’ve done in the past is not necessarily useful for the future. Like in the financial realm, where it’s recognized that past performance is no guarantee of future performance, it’s also true in the work environment. When you look at past experience, it’s already dated, from a technology perspective. –IT Business Edge

Now, I’m not one to argue with the idea that the IT world is always changing. Certainly new technologies come, and old technologies go. As the saying goes, legacy just means what you’re currently installing. And certainly there will always be a need to learn the new language, the new command line, the new hardware choices, the new performance numbers. I don’t want to start a war, or pick on someone, but… I’m going to disagree. My first grounds of disagreement will be covered here, my second in next week’s post (because I just looked, and this post is 1100 words! Yikes!)

The article makes the point that the IT world should be more like the assembly line world — there are some people who design the cars, and some people who make them. There are some people who need to be able to create new algorithms, and others who just need to be able to use them, to put it in more IT terms.

A four-year college degree is useful, for example, if you want to get into the depths of designing algorithms, or writing complicated code that is close to the operating system, or writing programs for distributed processing, or if you want to come up with a new search algorithm. That might require a college degree.

To a point, the point is well taken. But I don’t think it’s really as simple as that. The image being set up of manufacturing is one of people who have a specific skill set to run a particular piece of equipment, but they couldn’t actually design the stuff they are building. I, for one, think this is a false picture of how the world really works. I’ve known lots of carpenters and builders in my life, lots of machinists, and lots of coders. I really don’t think that any of them involve the sort of “low level work” we’re implying here. There is a lot more room for craft and creativity, for theory and application, in the everyday life of the average carpenter than we’re giving the job credit for. If you don’t think that’s true, please, frame up a house, or work with a crew framing up a house.

But even if this were true, I don’t know that it applies to the information technology world. In such a virtualized world, the ability to abstract and to understand is always valuable. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t need to understand algorithms and how they work anyplace in the networking industry. Even folks who “just want to do hardware,” need a lot more than learn a high school level skill set and move on.

There is a second point missing here, as well. Let’s turn the question around a bit — how do I stop the firehose? Given that technology is such a fast changing field, and given my current skill set has a half life of 2.5 years (and maybe less), what do I do? Do I go out and retool every 2.5 years? Maybe when you’re 24 and single, this is possible. Not when you’re 60, with kids and grandkids, and are part of a real, thriving community outside of (or even inside) work. How do I solve this problem?

Let me ask the question another way: how have structural engineers resolved this problem? The solve this problem by learning the problem sets they must deal with, then learning how to slot new technologies into those problem sets. We really, really, want to believe that networking is different, that we are special, that we’re always facing new problems that need to be solved. Let me give you a hint — from TAC to Escalation to Principal Engineer, I’ve never met a new problem. I’ve met the same sets of problems at different scales, in different ways, and at different times. But new problems? They are really, really rare.

As Ivan P says:

The only difference between network-focused yammering and the rest of the IT is that everyone else learned to live with the reality instead of claiming that their domain is so broken that they’d have to reinvent all wheels ever invented (although on a second though I’m positive you can find apocalyptic claims in every IT domain).

Let’s look at how other branches of engineering have solved this problem and learn. Yes, there are 5,892,465 different CLIs out there (yes, I’m guessing). Yes, there are hundreds of tunneling protocols. Yes, there are tons of features, and tons of forwarding planes, and… But they’re all solving the same basic set of problems with the same basic set of tools. Which brings me to this point:

If there’s one thing we need to learn how to do, it’s to abstract the principles behind the problems and the solutions, and learn to see and recognize those principles in the problems we face, and the solutions offered. I’ve talked about models in other venues — I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning models and modeling languages. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning to see — to see the patterns in technology, both problems and solutions.

So I don’t believe that we only need a degree if we’re going to “go on to advanced calculus,” or whatever. We can get so wrapped up in the content of our thinking that we forget we also need to know how to think. When considering a degree or a certification, these two ideas must come into your calculations. Don’t overestimate your ability to think because you have a lot to think about, and don’t underestimate your ability to think because you don’t have a lot to think about. I cannot begin to express how much logic and discipline in thinking I’ve gained by going after what many folks would consider an orthogonal degree in theology.

Part 3: The Degree or the Certification: You are Not a Widget

The Degree or the Certification

Having just come off doing a presentation on “being a great engineer,” I can tell you what the number one question people asked was: Should I get a degree, or a certification? In fact, several people were irritated that Denise and I were even talking about anything else, because it’s the only question that counts.

Let me counter that thought. If you’re asking whether you should get a degree or a certification, you’re asking the wrong question.

It’s not that I don’t have anything invested in certifications. I hold a CCIE (2635), CCDE (2007:001), and CCAr. I’ve written questions for the CCIE. I was on the original SME team that invented the CCDE and CCAr certifications. I’ve taught certification classes, written certification books, and generally been involved in the certification world for a long time.

It’s not that I don’t have anything invested in college, either. I have one four year degree, two Master’s degrees, and I’m currently working like crazy to gain acceptance into an PhD program (Philosophy, in Apologetics and Culture, if you’re curious). I’ve taught as an adjunct in the NC State MS program, and I’m on Capella University’s advisory council. I teach on a regular basis in high school and college classrooms, when I’m given the chance (and I wish I had more chances, because I’m a teacher at heart).

But let me return to the problem at hand — “Should I get a degree or a certification” is a goal question, rather than a process question. If you prefer, the way the question is asked implies getting some outside acknowledgement of your knowledge or skills is a destination rather than the road to get to a destination. It implies that once you’ve done this, you’re done. Wrong! The correct question is:

What should I get NEXT — a college degree, a certification — or some other form of education?

And no, I don’t care if you’re 17 or 70. I don’t care if you’re at the beginning of your career, the middle of your career, or the end. What should I learn next is always the right question to ask.

So now, with a clearer view of the problem in hand, let’s think about a real, and reasonable, answer.

What is my goal? What do I want to be? What do I see my life looking like? For me, I can’t see myself being a full time technologists for the rest of my life. At some point I must face the reality that I’m getting older and jobs for older geeks just aren’t out there — that the job market will dry up, no matter what my skill set is. At some point I must face the reality that I can’t keep up with the rat race forever, the physical toll the technical world takes on my body in terms of hours worked, and the mental toll of sipping from a firehose. At some point I must face the reality that there are other things in my life I want (and need — or am called, to be more accurate) to do — that I don’t want to be on my death bed at 90 years old and say, “well, I was a good engineer, after all… and then I retired and watched television.”

We all need to shift gears some time in our lives. What is your next gear shift, and when is it? Is it having a family? Is it “retirement” (whatever that means any longer), is it… Well?? What is it?

What skills will I need when I get there? What skills will I need to get there?

What is the best way to get those skills? Is it college, or a certification? Or maybe even something else, like a certificate program at a local college, or auditing some class, or getting involved in something that will make you learn those skills (sometimes the best way to learn is by doing, in real life, in front of an audience, and letting the failures fall where they may).

Next week, we’ll think a little about the practical side of these thoughts — and then maybe, just maybe, I’ll think about an answer.

Part 2: The Degree or the Certification: Learn to See
Part 3: The Degree or the Certification: You are Not a Widget
Part 4: The Degree or the Certification: Answering the Question