Sunday, April 27, 2008

My Approach To Giving Presentations

I got great feedback on my presentations at all the conferences I've presented at this year - Philly Emerging Tech, MountainWest RubyConf, Scotland on Rails, and GoRuCo (Gotham RubyConf, in New York). At both GoRuCo and MountainWest people said my presentation was the highlight of the conference for them. Not only that, but when my MountainWest presentation became available as video on ConfFreaks, it appeared on Hacker News and I got tweets where people said it was the best presentation they'd ever seen in their lives. It's pretty awesome to get that kind of feedback.

Probably the most flattering story I heard about my presentation at GoRuCo last night was that, during the more rambling, abstract, hand-waving bits, people in the IRC backchannel were asking, "Where the hell is he going with this?" and other people were telling them, "Who cares? Shut up!"

Another great moment of drunken feedback came last night when Trotter Cashion's girlfriend interrogated me. She came up and told me I had given a great presentation. I was like, thank you, I'm glad you liked it. She was like, I wasn't there, I just heard about it. I was all ah, OK. Then she was like, are all your presentations incredible? Do you just have a gigantic ego? And I'm like, whaaaaaaat? (because I'm in New York). And she's like, well, I'm like, I heard your presentation was awesome, and you're just like yeah. And I'm like, yeah. And she's like, that's what I'm saying.

Maybe you had to be there.

Anyway, during the course of the conversation, which actually made a lot more sense than it may appear to have made when replayed via my blog, I found out that she'd heard my presentation was good from another presenter who'd been complaining about how not good his presentation looked by comparison. (As if my ego needed to get bigger.) In fact this presenter's presentation was good, and had looked good, but just for the hell of it, here's my philosophy on presentations.

1. Decide What You Want People To Do

I got this one from either Presentation Zen or Really Bad Powerpoint. The idea is you choose a specific action you want your audience to take, or a specific decision you want your audience to make. I had several things I wanted people to do, but more than any other thing, I wanted to restore the debate about venture capital vs. bootstrapping which flourished in 2006 and then just disappeared once the VCs started flooding the Valley with money, as they are known to do from time to time. Although I actually see very real upsides to venture capital, I took the position in my presentation that they were nothing but scum, a scourge of the earth to be purged, and put that argument forward with a reasonable amount of gusto. Basically, I sounded like I was trying to start a riot.

The reason for this is that the debate shouldn't be about "what are the VCs backing?" The debate should be about, should we include the VCs at all, or bootstrap? VCs deserve to have a place in the future of the technology industry, but the reality is, only a few elements of the VC culture deserve to have a place in the future of the technology industry at all, and some of them should just fucking die.

So the question shouldn't be "What are the VCs backing?" The question should be, "Since open source and commodity hardware have made VCs fundamentally unnecessary for many technology business models, what elements of the VC culture should we keep, and what elements should we throw away?" But the question many people are asking is still, "What are the VCs backing?" To fix this, I asked the question, "As we destroy the VC culture forever, who should we execute and who should we merely imprison?"

It's a good question, because the truth is that the VCs, as a group, contain brilliant people who, if they were fighting to remain in the industry, would make some very worthwhile moves, and also, as a group, contain some worthless human trash - Paris Hiltons who are playing dice with other people's lives because their long-forgotten great-great-grand-daddies conquered the world as captains of industry or whatever. But I didn't actually ask that question because it was a question on my mind. I asked that question because people usually naturally gravitate to the middle ground, so the truth is, whoever defines the extremes defines the whole debate. (I got that from Noam Chomsky.)

This backfired somewhat, but overall it worked. The backfire was that I held up one venture capital firm as an example of VCs who were actually worth taking seriously, and a few people seemed to think I was pointing out the first aristocrat to send to the guillotine. That was messy; I screwed that one up. But on the whole it worked.

Anyway, in addition to this goal, I had a couple other specific goals as well, and when you have those, you're ready to begin.

2. Go Quickly, And Use Hundreds Of Slides

I actually thought this was my own invention, a caffeine-fueled variation on the Lessig method, but Alan Francis from Scotland on Rails clued me into the fact that Dick Hardt has already been wowing people at conferences with this approach for years. If anything, he makes me look like an amateur. Where I managed to cover 382 slides in an hour - including a coding demo - Dick Hardt's been known to do 1124 slides in 45 minutes.

This approach wins two ways. The visual stimulation captures your audience's attention, and your slides function as rapid-fire flashcards, which makes it much easier for you to remember what you planned to say.

3. Engage The Monkey Within

I get this from Kathy Sierra, and an episode of the Ruby on Rails podcast which I haven't heard, but which Joe O'Brien and Jim Weirich told me about. You need pictures of creatures that can eat your audience, creatures that your audience can eat, and beings that your audience could (in theory) mate with. Apparently the mind wanders every 10 minutes, almost like clockwork, so you need to grab their attention all over again on a pretty regular basis.

4. Be Funny

You also need elements of humor, especially if you really are grabbing their attention and refusing to let go at any point during the entire presentation. A great way to do this is to satisfy the above criteria in silly ways. Show a picture of a dinosaur with a laser gun, for instance, or a sexy cartoon bunny rabbit, or something. As long as it's creatures that can eat you, creatures you can eat, or beings you could in theory mate with, your attention belongs to the presenter anyway.

The best book on comedy I've ever found is Why Is That So Funny?, which is a technical manual on humor from the British theater world. It may not be available in the US. It actually goes into the neurochemistry of humor fairly early on, which - to put my nerd hat on - makes it very easy to logically determine things which are likely to be funny ahead of time.

I've also been taking improv classes for years. I highly recommend professional training in the art of being funny, but only if you're willing to take it seriously. Don't be Michael from The Office in your acting class. The real actors might find a way to get their revenge.

(By the way, if you're a serious actor, and you find Michael from The Office in your acting class, I very much encourage you to take your revenge.)

4. Get Comfortable In Front Of Your Audience

In addition to taking improv classes for years, I've also been taking serious acting classes for years, I've done a bunch of DJing and grunt work organizing parties, club nights, and raves, and I speak at conferences and user groups pretty often. For me, standing up in front of a group of programmers is really at the low end of the public-speaking stress spectrum, so it's pretty easy to get comfortable, relax, and enjoy the experience.

5. Read The Crowd

Again, the whole performing arts thing gives me tons of practice with this, but realistically, this is easy. The key is to aim high. If you want people to watch you and think about what you're saying, that's really hard to measure. If you want them to be totally riveted and laughing like crazy every three minutes, it's really easy to figure out if you're reaching your goal or not. So skew your presentation towards the provocative and the hilarious, because that makes it much easier to benchmark.

6. Practice

Steve Jobs does it. I sometimes do it, and when I do it, I get good feedback. When I don't, the feedback's more mixed. Pretty simple and obvious cause-and-effect relationship going on there.

The easiest way to practice a presentation is to give it to a small audience that knows you personally before giving it to a larger audience that doesn't. You can achieve this with your co-workers, your local user group, your friends, your family, whatever. If I was really hardcore I'd recommend using a camcorder.

Actually, fuck it. I've decided to become really hardcore. I recommend using a camcorder.

7. Enjoy It

That's pretty much everything, really.