The Clever Slide

Creating engaging presentations is hard. I love going to conferences, but most talks there are just killing. Hence the phrase “death by powerpoint”. Slides are nothing but bullet point after bullet point with full sentences — a culture of presentation that is well supported by Powerpoint software. After a slide or two the audience simply switches off. It is simply insulting that you, the presenter, expects us, the audience, to look at your talking notes — clearly not taking us into consideration, at all. If we wanted all the information and all the details, we’d read your paper or find more information about your product. But we won’t, because we switched off after two slides (containing 20 bullet points and 250 words of text).

Luckily, the idea of Presentation Zen came around a couple of years ago, and even if you never heard of “Presentation Zen” before, you have likely seen a Zen presentation. It’s the presentation style without the bullet points, but with large pictures and key words instead.

Luckily this presentation style is becoming more common. While using slides like this certainly do not guarantee good presentations (trust me, they don’t), they are usually a big improvement over bullet-point slides.

But instead of just being happy about the adoption of Presentation Zen, I’m going to complain a little bit. Because, at it turns out, that’s what I’m good at.

Presenters often misunderstand the point of the Zen approach. It’s not about putting pretty, soothing pictures on the screen. It’s about putting something on the screen that either represents the essence of your point, or supports your point in a way that is easy to parse for the audience (= usually graphical). It is definitely not the goal to show the picture that was the first hit when searching images.google.com for some key words.

When presenting a software pipeline, rather than showing a nice oil pipeline — although, arguably, it does make a prettier picture — it would be much more helpful if you showed a diagram representation of the pipeline stages, what goes in where, and comes out at the other end.

Putting actual information on a slide is perfectly fine. Graphical does not imply superficial.

Too often presentations are temporarily derailed into a meta-discussion on a clever picture in a slide. “What exactly is that machine?” “Oh, I don’t know, I just thought it was a cool picture.”

Not to get all “listen to me, I figured it all out” on you — I made bad slides like this — but I think it’s important to focus on the goal of the presentation. A presentation zen presentation may save you from your audience falling asleep, but you (supposedly) want your audience to remember more from your presentation than pretty landscapes and industrial sites. Take that into account.