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.