Why bad presentations happen to good causes
Cross-posted from Design Research for Global Health.
Giving talks is not one of my strong suits, but it seems to be a part of the job requirement. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity (even though I’m no good, I do consider it an opportunity), to give a couple talks, one to the Interdisciplinary MPH Program at Berkeley and one to a group of undergraduate design students, also at Berkeley. Despite the difference in focus, age, and experience of the two groups, the topic was roughly the same: How do we effectively use design thinking as an approach in public health?
The first session was so-so, and I suspect that the few people who were excited about it were probably excited in spite of the talk. It started well, but about halfway through, something began to feel very wrong and that feeling didn’t go away until some time later that evening. Afterwards, I received direct feedback from the instructor and from the students in the form of an evaluation. I recommend this if it is ever presented as an option. Like any “accident”, this one was a “confluence of factors”: lack of clarity and specificity, allowing the discussion to get sidetracked, poor posture, and a tone that conveyed a lack of excitement for the topic.
It’s one thing to get feedback like this, another to act on it.
The second session went much better, gauging by the student feedback, the comments from the instructor, and my own observations. This in spite of a larger group (60 vs. 20) that would be harder to motivate (undergraduates with midterms vs. professionals working on applied problems in public health). I chalk it all up to preparation and planning. Certainly there are people that are capable of doing a great job without preparation – I just don’t think I’m one of those people.
Most of that preparation by the way was not on slides. I did use slides, but only had five for an hour session and that still proved to be too many. Most of the time that I spent on slides, I spent developing a single custom visual to convey precisely the information that was relevant to the students during this session (see image). The rest of the preparation was spent understanding the audience needs by speaking to those running the class; developing a detailed plan for the hour, focusing on how to make the session a highly interactive learning experience; designing quality handouts to support the interactive exercise; and doing my necessary homework. For this last one, I spent 20 minutes on the phone with a surgeon friend, since the session was built around a case study discussing surgical complications and design.
Three resources I found really useful:
- Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes, Andy Goodman, 2006. This commissioned report was developed to help NGOs with their presentations, but I think there is value here for anyone whose work involves presentations. It is evidence-based and provides practical guidance on session design, delivery, slides (PowerPoint), and logistics. Most importantly, it is available as a free download. I was fortunate enough to pick up a used copy of the print edition for US$9 at my local bookstore, which was worth the investment for me because of the design of the physical book. It’s out-of-print now and it looks like the online used copies are quite expensive – at least 3x what I paid – so I recommend the PDF.
- Envisioning Information, Edward Tufte, 1990. I read this when I was writing my dissertation. Folks in design all know about Tufte, but I still recommend a periodic refresher. This is the sort of book that will stay on my shelf. Also potentially useful is The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. For those working in global health, don’t forget how important the display of information can be: (a) Bill Gates and the NYTimes, (b) Hans Rosling at TED.
- Software for creating quality graphics. The drawing tools built into typical office applications, though they have improved in recent years, are still limited in their capability and flexibility, especially if you’re looking at #2 above. In the past 10 days, three people in my socio-professional network have solicited advice on such standalone tools, OmniGraffle (for Mac) and Visio (Windows): a graphic designer in New York, an energy research scientist in California, and a healthcare researcher in DC. Both are great options. I use OmniGraffle these days, though I used to use Visio a few years back. If cost is an issue, there are open-source alternatives available, though I’m not at all familiar with them (e.g., the Pencil plug-in for Firefox).