They See Things Differently

Every once in a while, I’ll be talking with a friend about presentations and they mention that they really like the visual flow or the artwork or something about the presentation. After I get over being flattered (trust me, it’s easy to do), we’ll start talking about how I came up with the material in the presentation. I’d love to say that the photographs are mine, but they aren’t. There are a few techniques I use to help me make presentations that work well.

Tell Me a Story

When I’m giving a presentation, I try to be acutely aware about how the material flows. I don’t want to take the audience on a wild ride across a bunch of topics. It’s difficult enough to sit still for 60+ minutes and listen to a single topic. But sitting still for over 60 minutes and listening to a variety of topics? That’s nearly impossible.

Instead of trying to cover a bunch of topics, I cover one topic. I break the topic down and I find a logical beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes this part is easy, sometimes it isn’t. The point of the exercise, though, it to find a good way to teach a topic. Kevin Kline (blog | twitter) has a great presentation about the SQL Server internals where he visualizes the presentation from the perspective of a query traveling through SQL Server.

Telling a story makes the presentation more than a series of facts. Telling a story takes a series of facts and gives them a personal connection. Rather than list a bunch of facts, tell your audience how you got somewhere. In a presentation I give on dynamic SQL, I share with the audience how I learned to write good dynamic SQL by showing them examples of bad dynamic SQL. It’s a technique that works well because we’re sharing our embarrassment at the bad code we’ve written and then we learn how to get better. Buck Woody’s (blog |twitter) presentations are so popular because he peppers them with anecdotes. (It probably helps that Buck knows what he’s doing, but let me stick to only one point, okay?) The anecdotes do the same thing – they break make the material relatable.

Let’s Play Word Association

I do a lot of word association when I’m working on presentations. This isn’t some kind of goofy improv theater troupe exercise; it’s how I find great images for my presentations. I’ve been known to spend a lot of time agonizing over a single image to get the message just right.

Symbols are the instruments which convert raw intelligence into culture. Without them, explained Lewis Mumfor, ‘man’s life would be one of immediate appetites, immediate sensations, limited to a past shorter than his own lifetime, at the mercy of a future he could never anticipate, never prepare for. In such a world, out of hearing would be out of reach and out of sight would be out of mind.’

Alan Fletcher – The Art of Looking Sideways

Finding the right symbol to trigger a memory is difficult. There are many different ways to convey an idea, but only one will bring the idea to life. How do you find the image that brings an idea to life? Searching.

In my presentation on SQL Server internals, I use this image to help describe row and index operations. The linear form of the building kind of looks like a table with rows and columns. It doesn’t look exactly like a table might look (you could call that Excel), but it is an image that we’re all familiar with.

Finding Inspiration

The obvious question is “How do you come up with this stuff?”

The unfortunate answer is “I don’t know.”

I spend a decent amount of time looking at art – be it photos, drawings, paintings, whatever. I really enjoy visual communication in all of its forms, so I try to partake every chance I get. I think that has influence the way I find images to use in presentations.

When I’m looking for images, I go through a process of searching through flickr. I don’t necessarily search for funny pictures or pictures with any specific word association. Sometimes I just watch the flickr panda and hope that something interesting and creative commons licensed pops up. This can be a good way to find interesting pictures that set a mood or a tone. Or maybe the image will just continue on whatever theme I’m using through the slide deck. It’s not always important that I pick the right image for any single slide, but that the image fits the presentation as a whole.

Sometimes I’ll even watch the panda when I’m not creating a presentation. I’ll have it up in the background and I’ll save off interesting pictures that I’ve found. The key when I’m doing that is to make sure I have some way to capture the photo’s metadata so I can give credit later. Sometimes it’s easiest to save a text file with the same name as the photo so you know exactly what metadata belongs to each photo. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just make sure you can give credit where credit is due.

Another way I find inspiration is to read a lot of magazines. I don’t necessarily subscribe to them, but I look through them. Advertising is something that we normally bypass when we’re searching for an article we want to read. Advertisers, on the other hand, are trying to get your attention and convey a message with a single image and as few words as possible. Take a look at how advertisers are trying to get your attention. There are a lot of techniques that you can pick up from successful ads without even knowing what you’re doing – composition, layout, the amount of text to use.

There’s inspiration everywhere. Find it and use it.

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