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March 23, 2004

PowerPoint: 1% good

Tim Sneath: "My gut feeling is that most presenters rely far too heavily on PowerPoint slides as something of a comfort blanket."

The "PowerPoint: 99% bad" syndrome is an easy one to fall into, and Tim is right that canned slide decks can become a substitute for thought, knowledge and interaction. But it's also easy to overreact in the opposite direction when you're addressing a developer audience. Developers tend to bay for code, code, code, because code is concrete and slides are marketroid spin. Well, this is one case where presenters shouldn't give in to what their audience wants.

Yes, concrete code is important. But code alone only communicates the surface, and only at a limited set of loci. Seeing code helps the audience understand how they will interact with a feature, but not how that feature interacts with other features, what's going on behind the API, or how the feature set as a whole will fit together.

Now when you're dealing with a well-defined API feature, this is sufficient. If you want to show me how to use the shiny new authentication controls in Whidbey, show me code. But if you want me to understand the framework within which the authentication controls work, how I can back it on to my authentication system or what room it allows for customisation, show me pictures too.

Tim also resolves to go "off-piste" more often. "Rather than having everything slick and well-honed enough that there's no potential for digression or exploration," he says, "the fun comes when you are experimenting with things for the first time in front of an audience." Fun for the presenter, maybe, but not necessarily for the audience. Learning by trying things out is fine for some people, but (a) they'll do better trying things for themselves rather than watching you stumbling and (b) many people like to gain a strong framework of understanding before they are willing to dive in on their own. The "off-piste" approach is really great when it works, but all too often it goes wrong and then it's just awful. I still remember the toe-curling embarrassment of Chris Anderson's Avalon session at PDC 2003. How the audience cheered Chris when he switched off the PowerPoints and announced a code-heavy, "without a net" session. But he made a couple of early mistakes and never really recovered; as a result, the poor guy was made to look like he didn't know his stuff, and I learned very little about how Avalon apps fit together because we were too heads down trying to fix typing mistakes. I can't help but think that had Chris been able to say, "Oh well, that didn't work out, let's just talk for five minutes about (structural topic) then we'll come back to the code" he would have recovered a lot better and we would have all learned a lot more.

This isn't to say that Tim should follow the funicular tracks or that Chris Anderson should be chained to a PowerPoint deck as punishment for his sins. Absolutely not. But there's no harm in having something to fall back on, something that will bring you back to certain and solid ground long enough for you to catch your breath. Things do go wrong, and prepared material can help to mitigate the impact when they do. Plus the benefits of structure and higher-level exposition discussed above.

So let's not give in to the baying mob of "code, code, code" developers. Code is the bottom level, and it's a bad way to explain higher levels. As Tim says, there's no one hard and fast rule. Some subjects demand high-level exposition. Others demand low-level demonstration. Most demand a balance. Only you, the presenter, know. Don't let the audience lead you astray.

[I should add that none of this is aimed at Tim. I've never seen Tim present, but from the comments on his article he clearly already has the balance down pat. All ranting is intended as cautionary, not as any direct criticism.]

March 23, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Great response - I think you've nailed it really well there, particularly in highlighting where PowerPoint has a value. I wouldn't dream of explaining the IIS 6.0 architecture, for example, without a (preferably animated) diagram that clarified the abstractions and interactions. But that's an argument in favour of graphical rather than textual representation - the cliche of a picture being worth a thousand words.

An "off piste" approach has to be carefully prepared for, of course. I also attended the ChrisAn session, and I think the problem there was that everything built on what came before. When the house of cards collapsed, it was extremely difficult to recover gracefully. The lesson is that, even if you go off the beaten track, you still need some islands of safety you can pick up from when all else fails. On the other hand, you can potentially learn a great deal by watching someone troubleshoot a broken application, if they use it as a teaching opportunity in its own right.

When presentations go well, you get a rush of adrenalin that is very addictive. But when it goes wrong your failings are exposed before a large audience. It's a skill that you never fully master.

Posted by: Tim Sneath at Mar 23, 2004 1:41:45 AM