What Your Slides Don't Need

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Jul 30, 2013, 3:00:06 PM7/30/13
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While I agree with quite a few of the points made in this presentation about presentations, which can be applied to any presentation content (not just math topics), I do have a real concern about taking the minimalist approach too far.

I've noticed a growing trend, especially amongst the Gen X and Gen Y sets to use an entire slide where the only content is a large image of something that seems totally irrelevant, e.g., a giant ball of rubber bands. Huh? Well, it's most likely an image (linked off Flickr or similar) that is associated with a humorous punch line or cute joke. (At least, in the presenter's estimation.) A lot of people now have Macbooks and I think Apple's Keynote app tends to promote this (probably unwittingly). The trouble is, there's often a lot of this kind of stuff in the presentation and other content like code snippets, etc., come with little or no textual explanation. 

This may work well during the presentation, but what about afterwards? And to make matters worse, many conferences, workshops, and meetups no longer require a separate paper to be written. That means the presentation is it!

Presentations are not just about presenting in real time. They are also about (or should also be about) giving a quick overview of the presenter's line of thinking. That entails including explanatory points and even links or citations to more expansive explanations along the way. Explanatory text is good. 

Not to mention that the audience today is often global and not everyone will have been either present or online at the time the actual presentation was given. And not all presentations are captured on video. The slide deck may be the only thing remaining. How can a later reader understand the point if there is nothing much to read beyond cute pictures and scrappy text? How else can the *author* understand what he or she was presenting 1 year in the future?

Presentation slides are rapidly becoming the sole archival medium for what was presented. But slide decks comprised mostly of pictures of rubber bands, lolcatz and a paucity of textual explanation are essentially content-free and therefore almost worthless.

Annie Shum

Jul 30, 2013, 4:10:13 PM7/30/13
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Very good points. However, it is also not a good idea to confuse/replace an interactive presentation with a set of archival handout slides. ideally, we need  a more visual-oriented presentation to engage with the audience and in addition, a more “prose-centric” descriptive kind of reading material for handout and offline review. Unfortunately, many presenters will likely resist this more comprehensive “presentation” approach since it does require a lot more time and effort on the presenter to prepare two set of material; each designed to serve a different purpose.      


Regards, Annie


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Spike Morelli

Jul 31, 2013, 7:52:18 PM7/31/13
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I'd like to echo what Annie said and add that I've actually gone through that transition myself. Even for technical crowds (engineers), slides "to read" with lots of bullet points or info have resulted in my experience into more boring and overall less positive presentations. Whether this is fine or a problem due to a change of expectations in most audiences is an interesting discussion, but it's nonetheless what most presenters will need to deal with today.

The fact that people are using the same deck they used in person as the medium to present to online audiences that couldn't attend the original session is a problem, but not one that should be solved by going back to the old model.

A growing number of places are now recording/streaming events, and sites/conferences like Infoq offer slides synced with the video of the speaker. That may be the way forward to address the issue since it's unlikely that presenters will be more willing in the future to do the extra work to produce handouts or a different presentation to be used online.


Jul 31, 2013, 9:26:03 PM7/31/13
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It's interesting to see what people are reading into my remarks. 

I never said anything about:
  • Adding bullet points (which can be appropriate)
  • Creating handouts (which I personally hate)
  • Adding prose (in the sense of lots of text, which I don't like either)
  • Spending a lot more time adding stuff
And the definition of archive is a record, which does not necessarily imply a lot of documents. One of my points was that the slides are now often the only record.

And just because there's a new trend, doesn't mean it's better.

So, what did I mean? Perhaps that's best answered by saying what I do.
  • More diagrams
  • A line or two of text as appropriate
  • Equations (with explanatory comments)
  • I don't aim to be entertaining (if it happens, that's fine)
  • I don't waste precious space with lolcatz and rubber band pictures
The reference to "boring" is an interesting point. I hadn't thought about it that way but I suspect the reliance on disjoint images and jokes (including seeing who can drop the most f-bombs per slide) is a compensation for not having a real hook. As I was taught as Xerox PARC, if you don't know your hook, you're not ready to give a presentation. This is a skill and it's something I still sweat bullets over every time I prepare my slides. And I don't always hit the mark as I intended it. But I do know what I'm shooting for. Unfortunately, most people don't even know what a hook is.

When you have identified your hook, most of the rest of the time is taken up deciding what NOT to include in your slides, not how much more to embellish it—and that does take a lot of time [insert Pascal quote here]. That's why I generally agree with the minimalist approach, but within limits.

To my surprise, my most recent presentations have tended to stand out against some of the presentation styles I'm criticizing. The audience was jazzed, not because of my jokes (which I generally don't have) or oddball images, but because they felt they really learnt some useful or otherwise found the content intriguing.

steve jenkin

Jul 31, 2013, 11:23:52 PM7/31/13
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DrQ wrote on 31/07/13 5:00 AM:
> Presentation slides are rapidly becoming the sole archival medium for
> what was presented. But slide decks comprised mostly of pictures of
> rubber bands, lolcatz and a paucity of textual explanation are
> essentially content-free and therefore almost worthless.

Ack. Has a good precedent.

If "Computers/IT Systems are done for a Business Benefit", then _where_
is the Cost/Benefit Analysis of companies for "Productivity" tools like
MS-Powerpoint? This lack of management awareness and engagement in the
basics of their job ("Is this the best way to do this?" "Can we improve
our process?") saddens me.
It also explains why so few 'get' the need for Performance

This 2004 piece referenced a dead-link [below]

Edward Tufte in 2003 cites McNealy as well
" Ever wondered what the Gettysburg Address would have been like had
Abraham Lincoln delivered it via PowerPoint?"
And that site [worth going to last slide, Summary]

Excerpt from an address to the National Press Club (Canberra,
Australia). Wednesday, 9 October 1996
Mr Scott McNealy, President, Sun Microsystems

1. SUN Microsystems was A Really Big Deal, pre-2000
2. "The Network is the Computer" was their slogan
3. In 1996, 1GB drives were still big and expensive. 250MB or smaller
IDE drives in PC's.
[on disk size correction welcome]

============= excerpt, white space added for readability =================

Do we really need more word processors? we did a survey at Sun.
We had 12.9 gigabytes of Powerpoint slides in storage on our disk drives.

Ha ha ha. It freaks me out just to think about.

Do you how many person centuries that is? Of clip-art manipulations?

I banned Powerpoint from our company - I just edicted it.
That's cool - I'm chairman, President, founder, you know, chief cook and
bottle washer there and I just edicted it - I just said "out".

I think we are going to have a pretty good quarter because of that.

I can't say for sure, but I guarantee you - if I just gave everybody
overheads, you know, blank Mila overheads with all the free pens they
wanted - I could drive productivity through the roof,
as opposed to having - I mean you've all seen these overheads that have
14 pieces of clipart, 13 fonts, right hand justified, spell-check, 13
colours and you know your employee is exhausted by the time it finally
comes off the printer.

And do they communicate anything? No.

This is the productivity drain that we see out there in the
marketplace, so the goal here is to not upgrade your PC to get more,
I mean we're going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars for what is
not a zero ROI but a negative ROI.

I guarantee you, your user base will be far more active and far less
productive when you get NT on every desktop.

Its a promise. Its a guarantee. That's the whole deal.


Steve Jenkin, Info Tech, Systems and Design Specialist.
0412 786 915 (+61 412 786 915)
PO Box 48, Kippax ACT 2615, AUSTRALIA

stev...@gmail.com http://members.tip.net.au/~sjenkin

Art Taylor

Aug 1, 2013, 3:23:28 AM8/1/13
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In a general presentation (as a lecturer, for example), I’ve found I’ve moved toward the “less reading” end of the spectrum.  I generate more visualizations that may be 2d, 3d (projected onto a plane, of course), and even animated transitions.  This gives me the opportunity to talk about the processes and the preconditions, postconditions, and invariants.

In an interactive presentation, I usually assume I’m never going to get past the first slide.  I’ll put three bullet points up and make them as short and bold as possible.  “YOU ARE GOING TO GO OUT OF BUSINESS, LOSE YOUR HOUSE, AND DIE” type material for CEOs.

By the same token, I prepare a very large number of slides in reserve for elucidations, citations, proofs, and other supporting material.

I completely agree in re LOLCATS.  There is rarely a place for it unless you can tie it to the conversation at hand.[1]  I’d be more likely to use that style of gimmick in a controlled delivery rather than an interactive discussion so that I could control the flow and not let cheap laughter distract the audience.  Much of life and work is funny enough that an authentic, shared moment of laughter over a common struggle or epiphany will develop a better rapport than insulting my cats by pretending that they are less than excellent spellers.

I have a focus on the use of time and attention that may border on the obsessive.  I habitually count the number of people in the room (or estimate) and have an internal money clock ticking away how much they’ve paid, are being paid, or are foregoing generating to listen to me.  If I can’t justify it, I try not to say it.

If you’re not there to change someone’s behavior (your hook), you probably can spend your time doing something else.

After you decide on that, edit, edit, edit, edit.


[1] If, say, I were presenting on scaling a site dedicated to generating memes of cats making amusing observations.

Spike Morelli

Aug 7, 2013, 11:10:09 AM8/7/13
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thanks for reflecting this back, it helped me see some of my bias/assumptions.

Regarding hooks and lolcat images, I guess I got my point across very poorly so allow me to try again. I wasn't making an argument for funny pictures or jokes as much as I was trying to say that light slides have worked best for me. I try to focus on having a hook as you say and a compelling story and have people pay attention to what I say rather than what's on the screen. Slides for me are visual aid, not the content - they are there to support the argument when a picture is worth a thousand words. This approach however still make them not useful as a record of what I delivered.

Going back to the original point about archiving, I do find that 5 years ago I was able to get value from most slide-decks alone while now I no longer do and I have to watch the video recording of the event. By all means I'm not saying this is better, in fact watching 1hr video Vs spending 15 minutes going over a bunch of slides has a very different cost (but also value in some cases, altho not always). If we are talking about "what about afterwards?" however, I do think that "better slides" is unlikely to be the answer and video is/will be the one.

hope that helps,


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