Tuesday, February 24, 2009

To slide or not to slide

Slideware is perhaps one of the most misused useful tools on the computer. Given the ease of doing page layout on presentation software, people often start using tools like Powerpoint for:
  • Reports;
    • for showcases;
    • to convey status;
    • to make a proposal;
    • to outline a strategy;

  • Brainstorming;
  • Documents;

The key things to remember however are:
  1. Powerpoint is a tool that operates on lower resolutions -- word processing tools can handle much better resolutions and are better equipped to handle huge amounts of text than Powerpoint.
  2. Powerpoint is meant for a visual display to a large audience. Viewing a document in full screen with no access to other applications, is perhaps not the most efficient way to use the tool.
  3. A text heavy presentation with an 18 point font, is perhaps of no use to anyone:
    • Firstly your text is too small to be visible;
    • Secondly, if your text is visible, then you're not needed in the room. People could just read the slide.

So I feel the use of Powerpoint or other slideware should be limited to creating supporting visuals for a talk for a sizeable audience. So what should you be doing in the above situations? Here are my suggestions

  • Reports: I feel for A3 reports are a great tool for process improvement, problem solving, outlining strategy, conveying status and making proposals. The power of the A3 is in the supporting PDCA thinking and the fact that it constrains you to structure your report into just 1 piece of paper. The idea is to know that "Less is more" and if you can't express your strategy/proposal/status/approach on one large sheet is possibly not worth expressing. There are a variety of templates available here and here to create A3 reports. The key thing to remember is that being able to hold the A3 in your hands and going through the report as a team is infinitely more valuable than doing a text heavy presentation that no one listens to.
  • Brainstorming: Powerpoint's just not the place to start slamming together your thoughts. In fact its not even a good collection mechanism for your ideas. I prefer simple hand drawn sketches, sticky style brainstorming and mind mapping to make my thoughts explicit. Mindmapping in particular is one of my favorites. I use Imindmap but there are also dozens of free tools that can help you do the trick.
  • Documents: Slides are slides. Documents are documents. They have two different purposes. If you want people to read, give them a document. If you want to present a concept, create slides (if you need them). If there has to be information that people have to read, then please create a document, send it in an email and cancel the presentation. Trust me, everyone prefers this than a presentation where you're reading from slides.

I felt like writing this post since I feel slideware is being abused way too much in the corporate world and as a consequence gets a bad name. The problem however, is in the way we use presentation tools. If this post can make a difference and make slideware more effective for some people, that will perhaps make me really happy.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Billu is disappointing

When you're about to watch a movie with performers like Irfan Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Om Puri, Rajpal Yadav and Asrani who you believe will be ably supported by Lara Dutta and Manoj Joshi, your expectations are bound to be high. I had pretty high expectations of Billu as well. As it turns out this is a movie that could have well been 30 minutes shorter and for all I care, it creates a buildup to a climax that's all too predictable.

Now I'm no film critic, so I'll shy away from the technical observations. It'll be unfair to say though, that the stars didn't play their part. Irfan Khan is clearly the lead in the movie, and Shahrukh Khan just plays himself, so that couldn't be difficult. Om Puri and Rajpal Yadav are really wasted in the movie and Asrani could have easily been replaced by someone else and you wouldn't notice the difference. Its a shame that a star cast like that can't deliver the entertainment that you're looking for.

To be fair, Priyadarshan as a director could have chosen not to let the story drag on for so long and announced the climax a little earlier. I guess however, he was keen to cash in on Shahrukh's star appeal and throw in Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Kareena Kapoor to add the oomph! So, he added half a dozen songs that had really little to do with the plot. Anyways, here's where I'm going to disclose the story and save you the money. If you want to watch the movie, stop reading:

  • SRK plays Sahir Khan -- the top actor of Bollywood; Irfan Khan plays Billu, an impoverished barber in the little village of Budbudda -- a universally recognized loser.
  • Sahir Khan comes to Budbudda for a shoot and it emerges that he is actually Billu's friend. Billu is reluctant to admit this, but people get to know and start asking for favors and bestow all sorts of favors on him.
  • Billu feels that Sahir would have forgotten him, since he's a big man now, and lives in avoidance until people actually start doubting his friendship with Sahir Khan and get him into jail for fraud.
  • Sahir announces his friendship with Billu and the contributions the barber had made to his life to the utter amazement of the villagers and Billu is finally the toast of the town.

That's the story, and its a pity it took Priyadarshan 138 minutes to tell. My suggestion -- avoid Billu, read a book! You'll perhaps gain more out of your 138 minutes.

Friday, February 20, 2009

ThoughtWorks University XII

Every now and then you see these posts from me when I get excited about the latest new group of ThoughtWorks Consultants surviving the University program.

Do I have a reason to be excited? Absolutely! When a group of novice technologists can deliver as much functionality as they did in a space of 5 days, with an absolutely kickass UI, I have more than one reason to be proud. After six TWU's, working with such amazing co-workers is what keeps life exciting.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rapid Instructional Design with Powerpoint

I was recently part a discussion on the ThoughtWorks Trainer Community, where we were talking about the problems of having to put together a course with 2-3 days in hand. Usually the only recourse in such a situation is to quickly slam together something in Powerpoint. Firstly, I think the problem is genuine which is why I'm writing the post. This is what the usual approach which generally tends to be:
  • Convert the subject matter into bullet points;
  • Paste the bullet points into a Powerpoint deck;
  • Think of a few exercises;
  • Slam the exercises into the deck as well;
  • Rehearse the presentation;
  • Deliver

This process usually takes about 6-8 hours in total and I must confess that it saves a lot of time. The pitfalls I notice however are:
  • The delivery usually involves reading from slides. An average adult (in this case the trainer), can speak only at 120 words per minute. An average adult (in this case the student), can however read at 250 words per minute. So, your audience is perhaps reading much faster than you are. In effect if you're trying to tell a story, your audience knows the moral before you reach the climax!
  • When you read from slides your attention is more on the visuals (if that's what you'd like to call a pack of bullet points) as against being in the moment and interacting with your audience. From the audience's point of view, people can rarely read and listen at the same time, so either you or your slides are being redundant.
  • A question to ask yourself is -- if your audience can read this material then do you really need to be there? Maybe you could send an email and as a follow up have a quick interactive QnA which could be more valuable. Remember that a document is a richer mode of communication than a Slideument (higher resolution, et all).
    • OTOH, if you think your presence is invaluable then you need to put in more thought into the S-T-O-R-Y you want to tell. This will in all likelihood take more time but be more effective.
    • After all, if you want to save time think of the value -- if you do a crappy 2 hour training session for a group of 18 people, you've perhaps wasted 18 x 2= 36 hours + 2 hours of your own time.

This said, I understand the problem of time, so here's an approach I like to follow which is instructionally sound, and takes less than the 40 hours of design for 1 hour of content ratio.

Get some Alone Time

Getting some alone time helps you think through your story for the session. It usually helps me think through the purpose of the session and really what amongst the huge list of topics is key to delivering your message. I tend to think of what's most important and then discard the rest at this point. Isolating the core message and excluding the fluff usually helps me get through the rest of the steps really quickly.

Plan Analog

The usual tendency especially if you're a computer freak, is to run to your computer and start slamming together a "deck". Garrey Reynolds, talks about the importance of good old messy analog planning (as against planning digitally on the computer) to decide how your story flows. From the perspective of Instructional Design think of how you will Introduce (eg: Individual & Group Brainstorm) the topic, Explore the topic (eg: Facilitated Discussion) and Culminate the session (eg: Hands on exercise practicing the concepts taught, followed by a debrief). There are plenty of ways to do your planning:
  • Use Index Cards or Stickies to create a story board.
  • Sketch out your ideas on plain paper.
  • When working in pairs, mindmap your thoughts on a whiteboard
  • Print out blank Powerpoint slides and sketch out your ideas in the slides, while using the notes section to record what you want to say.

The key to making this work is in ensuring that you think in terms of visuals and not content. What picture best associates with the point you're trying to make? Roughly sketch out the picture and as of now, don't bother how you'll digitize it. I like Dan Roam's Visual Thinking Codex to sketch out the ideas. When you HAVE to add text, try using the Takahashi/ Lessig style. Limit the number of words on your visuals to a maximum of three or four. The huge advantage of connecting with your story in this physical manner, is that you have a strong connection with your story and lets say, your computer ever goes down, you still understand what you're trying to convey to your students.

Digitize your story

You should be able to do this pretty quickly, given that you've already got the flow of your session in your mind. A few things I'll ask you to keep in mind:

You may also want to use comics and I really like the Design Comics toolkit to achieve this.
I recently wrote a post which will hopefully give you an idea of how to isolate your speech from the visuals. It is however extremely important to record your speaking notes, because then you can pass on the deck with limited handover to another person. You will also need to create handouts and activity sheets, so budget time for that. This is where the "copy-paste" could work!


Once you've got your visuals in place, its perhaps a good idea to do a dry run. It'll never work perfectly the first time -- you've got to trust me on this. Doing a dry run with some colleagues or your co-speaker or just in front of an empty set of chairs is perhaps a good idea. It helps you connect with the visuals better and just helps you generate feedback on the simplicity of the learning. I'd say if it took you two days to complete the above steps, you should reserve the last day for this.

If you've followed the above steps then you've perhaps got a reasonably well documented approach, which people can iteratively build upon. It'll perhaps take you about 16-20 hours to do this, but hopefully, you'll deliver a more effective session.

Just to learn more about how you can design and deliver the longest lasting experiences, read A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink and Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Ridding the world of bullet points

"People often remember pictures long after words are forgotten" - wisdom from an anonymous source.

I didn't know but I've been told that its a nice thing to place what you're going say on the slides that are supporting your talk. This I'm told helps non-native speakers of the English Language pick up what you're talking about. I appreciate the intent, but what I usually end up seeing as a result, are slides like this:

My firm belief is that "people cant read and listen and participate at the same time". In effect, slides that look like that not just take away the attention from the main "story" you're trying to tell, but also reduce your efficacy as a trainer/ presenter. Now you'll ask me why and my answer is -- "If you're reading what's in the slide or even narrating the story in different words, why are you there?" You could perhaps send out the same "deck" as an email and maybe entertain questions at a later stage -- that would perhaps be more engaging than just reading from the slide.

I prefer instead handling the language problem by doing the following:
  • Creating Handouts;
  • Speaking clearly and slowly;
  • Pausing to ask questions;
  • Whiteboarding (and I wonder why this is such a neglected skill);
  • Accepting Input and using the language of your audience to build your whiteboard image/ data;
  • Using visuals that clearly relate to the topic of the slide;

So, instead of using a slide like this:

I'll create a slide that looks like this (with all of the bullet points pushed into the notes section):

I can print out this same slide to serve as my speaking notes. A modified version of the notes could be used to create handouts for the audience. I usually enjoy whiteboarding the results of the discussion to serve as a visible record of what transpired during the talk/ presentation/ training session. What this does for me:
  • The audience pays attention to me more than the slide;
  • The slide supports my points by focussing on the topic for the moment;
  • I get the opportunity to anchor concepts through the act of accepting input and whiteboarding;
  • The audience gets a handout, which is a memorable account of what they really learnt in class;

I wish I see lesser bullet points on slides and more pictures. I wish that presentations are more about telling a story than just a "sum of parts" -- that would truly be a breath of fresh air in corporate boardrooms!
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