Monday, September 27, 2010

Making Feedback Work - The Anti-Patterns

A few weeks back, I spoke on the topic of "Making Feedback Work in your Teams", at the Agile 2010 conference. I felt like a really popular speaker looking at the full house I attracted to the talk and in hindsight I can imagine why people felt interested in the topic. Feedback is crucial to the learning process and supports the iterative nature in which people pick up their skills. You learn a bit, do a bit, get some feedback, learn a little more, do a little more and so on. Anyway, I don't need to harp on the value of feedback -- I'm pretty sure you agree.

Something else has got me thinking by the way. When I was at Hampi this weekend, our guide Basava was really nice to let me ride his motorbike across the city. While I am a motorcyclist in Bangalore city, I'm not the most skilled rider you'll ever meet. So I had to go back into my bag of experiences to tell myself how I should ride the bike. Here's what I did:
  1. I told myself that Basava's bike was generally quite similar to my bike - the same manufacturer, same engine capacity and the same number of gears. Good start -- I was making a bit of a generalisation.
  2. I then looked at the gear-shifts and they were a bit different. After a bit of a struggle, I tried to convince my brain that this new bike, with a significantly more powerful engine was really just my bike with a slightly different gear shift. That wasn't true, but it was a way to represent information in my world. I was making a distortion of reality.
  3. Finally, I started to ride the bike in top gear. That said, this wasn't going to be my bike forever, so I didn't need to know everything about it. I just ignored everything that was new on the bike - the LED dashboard, the new controls, the decals, etc. I couldn't let myself be bothered by details that made no sense to me. I was deleting information.

So, why am I telling you this story? It's because this is the way we generally build our perceptions. We view the world from a filter of past experiences and then create a new interpretation based on our generalisations, distortions and deletions. This is where feedback can be both valuable and meaningless. Feedback is valuable because it gives us valuable insight into the perceptions that our behaviour can often drive. On the other hand, when we don't see the correlation between reality and the resulting perception, feedback starts to lose its value. With that rather long introduction, I want to introduce a few anti-patterns which we should avoid when we're trying to share feedback.

Perception minus Reality

Most often, it's our perception that drives our feedback. For example we find some people really helpful, others to be really brilliant co-workers and others to be absolutely irritating. So, it isn't surprising that sometimes we jump straight to the perception instead of stating the reality that drove the perception. For example you may say, "Sumeet, you're a very committed co-worker." While it feels very nice to hear something like that, it gives me very little value, because I don't know about what behaviours I should repeat and why you really feel this way. OTOH, if you were to tell me what made you feel this way, it gives me some behaviour I can try and repeat. For example you could say, "Even when you weren't at Bangalore, I could see that you were in touch with us on the discussion forum, IM and video-conference. You took up a lot of tasks for the team during that time and it makes me feel that you're really committed to your work." You'll notice that the new version of the same feedback has two parts to it -- the observation and then the perception. This gives the recipient a direct correlation between behaviour and the resulting perception. Also, the observation is reality which is undeniable. It quantifies your perception, which by virtue of being personal is completely undeniable as well!

Adjective Overload
Adjective overload sounds like this, "Weiwei is awesome to work with. He is very a understanding and effective partner. He is also very dedicated." Carrying on from the previous anti-pattern, adjective overload does precious little to strengthen any one's confidence or to improve their effectiveness. What makes Weiwei awesome? Why do you feel he's understanding and effective? What makes you believe that he is dedicated? Adjective loaded feedback leaves a lot of unanswered questions. OTOH, if the giver was to quantify this perception, it's likely to help the recipient understand the feedback much better. The observation+impact model works perfectly here. For example, "Weiwei always hears out my ideas when we're pairing. We draw out pictures on a whiteboard to reach common ground. This makes him an effective partner for me."

Unspecified Conclusions
On a certain team, I read the following notes "You work with everyone with no personal agenda." and "I think you should be a project manager soon." Going on from the last two anti-patterns, even this style of feedback gives the receiver nothing to work with. What does it take to be a project manager? What qualities does the individual already display? What knowledge, skills and aptitude does the individual need to pick up for the role? The unspecified conclusion gives none of this information. It takes the abstracted perception and doesn't justify it in anyway for the recipient -- as a consequence, it's nothing but a short lived ego-booster.

Improve Effectiveness? No Chance!
A lot of written feedback I've seen reads like this, "I'm sorry, I can't think of anything you can improve on." People need to be damn perfect for us to not find any ideas to help them grow. My ex-colleague, and Gordon Pask award winner Liz Keogh suggests that if someone was really good at their current job/ role, then we should investigate the next challenge they're moving onto or are longing for. That information can help us make suggestions that'll help them bridge the gap between what they're doing today and what they need to do tomorrow. So even if you're giving feedback to the ultimate perfectionist, consider what will help them grow into the next assignment they're moving onto.

In my Defense
Last but not the least, I want to make a case for not being defensive when receiving feedback. If you've known me for a while, you know that I'm a big fan of Dr. Randy Pausch's last lecture. My favourite story is the one Dr Pausch told about his football coach, Jim Graham:

"And the other Jim Graham story I have is there was one practice where he just rode me all practice. You’re doing this wrong, you’re doing this wrong, go back and do it again, you owe me, you’re doing push-ups after practice. And when it was all over, one of the other assistant coaches came over and said, yeah, Coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn’t he? I said, yeah. He said, that’s a good thing. He said, when you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up. And that’s a lesson that stuck with me my whole life. Is that when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care. "

That story has stuck with me for the last three years or so. Feedback is a gift - people offer it to you with the best intentions. To argue against it or to offer justifications is equivalent to rejecting a gift. Granted all gifts don't come in the best wrappers and granted that all gifts aren't useful. The best you can do when you're receiving a gift though is to say "Thank You!". Just as we'll often go back home and then think of the best way to use the gift, it's a good idea to reflect on the feedback we get. Often we'll realise how we can grow from the feedback and equally often we'll realise that we can't do much with the feedback. Both possibilities are fine -- we just need to establish our openness to the gifts people offer us.
To be frank, there are several other anti-patterns I could discuss here and we could keep going on until the cows come home. The fact is that I've got to close this post now and you must be tired of reading this weekly rant. If you like posts of this nature, I'll try touch upon other aspects of feedback in future posts. In the mean time please do let me know how you liked this article. Your comments help me tailor this blog to the way you'd like it to be.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

LSG Webinar - Development Driven Performance Management

I'm a big fan of Josh Bersin and I'm thrilled to be on the second LSG webinar of the day where he's talking about development driven performance management. I've had a rough afternoon having lost visuals on the previous webinar, so I'm hoping I have better luck with live blogging an event. So, I'm not going to say much more and I'll start writing away.

Josh's topic stresses on how management and performance management has a profound effect on learning. By focussing on development as part of performance management, Bersin's found how companies drive high performance.

Performance Management Drivers
Performance management is a set of management practices to set measurable goals and objectives for employees and to assess achievement of such objectives. This leads to improve performance through coaching, compensation, development, etc.

Most importantly, performance management is management!

Companies focus on this to create a high performance culture and to decide compensation. And then again there's the reason of compliance, equity (ensuring fair compensation) and improving business results. Organisations want to align individual and overall business goals to ensure employees understand the kinds of contributions supervisors expect. Of course, we want to retain good people and reduce the cost of employee turnover.

When it Breaks down

Performance management is underperforming though and the focus tends to become about goals than just performance. The focus is on the individual and not on the whole. Only 27% people in Bersin's research feel that this process helps employees align goals to company objectives.
Bersin's come up with a maturity model that you see above. Most companies as you can see, sit at the bottom, but only a few companies actually tailor their practices for key workforce segments. They maintain success profiles of top performers and high value workers. Very few companies integrate career and succession management, coaching and performance support with their performance management models.

The model needs to move from being competitive to being coaching and development driven. The competitive evaluation focuses more on appraisal while development driven performacne mangement focuses on coaching and development. This is crucial to the lifecycle of a company from being a startup to maturity.

"Companies that reach maturity, need to focus more on coaching and development" - Josh Bersin
The coaching and development model does well in:
  • retaining top performers
  • hiring the best people
  • developing employees
  • developing leadership pipelines
  • and developing great leaders
The competitive assessment model however does well in:
  • responding to current economic conditions
  • planning our future talent needs
  • ensuring compliance
We however don't need to focus on all goals equally. The focus needs to be where the impact is really high. Right now, our focus seems to be compliance and equity as against also focusing on improving business performance.

The gap we need to overcome is the the gap between our activities and our expectations. Coaching has a strong impact on business results almost 150x and 200x greater. In a similar manner development plans have at least a 2x impact on revenue. This is all based on Bersin's recent research. This is good enough reason for companies to invest in development driven performance management.
Keys to Transitioning to Development-Drive
n Approach
Josh recommends the following steps to transitioning to development driven approach.
  1. Change the definition of PM
  2. Introduce Competencies
  3. Create and support high quality development plans for people
  4. Enable managers to coach
  5. Create frequent occasions to reflect on peformance
For #1, Josh introduced a case study of Kelly services who have made performance management go beyond writing performance appraisals for hours over having rich discussion. They have now made performance related conversations more frequent and focus entirely on performance improvement. Conversations do not diverge to compensation, ratings, rankings. (I think that's key). They now have made employees responsible for developing their own goals for the year.

For #2 Stacia and Josh mention that there's a direct link between competencies and an outstanding performance-driven culture. They have a strong research dataset for this. This seems obvious because:
  • Competencies are almost a 'common currency' for assessing performance and potential for promotion.
  • It gives employees a clear set of objectives.
  • It helps the whole organisation to select high potential leaders effectively.
  • Companies can provide success profiles to help recruiters and hiring managers to select for a position.
  • Competencies allow L&D to create meaningful performance improvement initiatives.
  • Competencies create alignment and a clear understanding of corporate culture and values.
This is perhaps way too formal for a company like mine, but I do see the value that a clear articulation of competencies can bring to an organisation.

Now what is a competency? It's a set of performance outcomes you can determine for individuals in your companies. These could be related to your core values, job effectiveness, functional areas, career development and leadership. The key is to break competencies down and not try to do all of them together. Also, fewer competencies work better! The idea is to think "capabilities not competencies", because if you focus too much on job descriptions then you're likely to become too granular to affect performance.

The example Stacia picked up for #2 was from Flextronics, who created 15 competencies known as performance behaviours and provided examples of how these look like. The organisation then communicate these to their managers mentioning that it's critical to coach their direct reports to success.

For #3 Josh mentioned the importance of individual development plans or personal development plans as we know them in Thoughtworks. There are several activities that you can create through learning and development to support employees to success. The example the duo introduced was again Kelly services. Kelly has already made employees responsible for development of their business and professional goals for the year. The moment  they enter these into their online system, they get to seek out recommended deveopment opportunities. This has caused a huge pull-based development culture amongst Kelly's staff.

For #4 Josh mentioned that managers need to know how to coach - establish goals, help people monitor progress, find solutions to problems, appreciate strengths/ weaknesses, etc. This is something that I believe is key - a manager who can't coach is a bit of a paper pusher IMO.

ADM is Stacia's example for this key. ADM is a 25000 strong company in the agriculture space. They've launched a coaching program to help managers understand how to effectively coach their employees. The program is 8 weeks long and is a thorough blended experience. It's apparently been hugely successful and ADM has saved $100,000 saving (in terms of retention/turnover/hiring) and a lot of leaders are looking to enroll in the program.

Key #5 is something I really like because it's about reflection - which is a great learning tool. Feedback is a crucial tool that Josh mentions here. Stacia picked up the Travelex example here. Travelex has found that peformance management through regular 360 feedback is more frequent, authentic and useful than they were ever before. The response in that firm has been overwhelmingly positive, though the practice is relatively new.

Josh lastly mentioned that we need to have integrated platorms that help automate such approaches. I would say however (with all due respect), that the focus should first be on the cultural change than the tool. There are several tools that perhaps do this - including Cornerstone, that Josh mentions.

This has been a really dense presentation -- very informative and a great lot to reflect on later! Thanks Josh!

LSG Webinar - Using live online training as part of a successful learning blend

It's been a while since I've reported a webinar, so today with the new series of Learning and Skills Group sessions, I'm getting back on the live-blogging circuit. Ok, kinda. Anyways, today's topic is (as you may have guessed) "Using live online training as part of a successful learning blend.". Charles Gould of Brightwave and Matt Turner of Live Time are going to be trying to answer the question that most people seem to be asking of synchronous learning. So, as most LSG webinars, I think this promises to be an interesting event. Let's get started.

Charles and Matt seem to have discovered a huge demand for synchronous learning in the course of their consulting work in the elearning space. So let's see who's attending this webinar:
  • 17% Trainers
  • 11% Learning Designers
  • 20% L&D Manager
  • 19% E-learning Professional
  • 17% Other
Hmmm... that's a fair mix and people have various different motivations for attending this webinar. Looks like one of the focus areas is to highlight the differences between webinars and a live, online training course.

So what is the difference between a webinar and a live online training course?

There are some subtle differences and here are some of them:
  • Online training sessions are a bit more formal and have some well defined outcomes.
  • They tend to be more action-oriented in their approach
  • They have objectives and motivations which are consistent across the trainers and the students.
I could argue this a bit, but oh well! So anyway, back to main question - how do you integrate online training into your learning blend? There's various stuff that needs to happen before, during and after the session itself. Here's a picture that expresses Charles and Matt's thoughts about the activities that you may want to plan for online training.

Online training is starting to be a good supplement to classroom and elearning activities. The benefits are quite obvious - costs, the lower carbon footprint, the ability to actually do it without any huge constraints. We need to look beyond just those benefits though - we can have lots of people in the training, we can all talk together, we can walk out without offending people and most importantly, its an nice way to bring geographical diversity to your classroom. So it's a little more than just a virtual classroom.

That said, there's no opportunity for body language, eye-contact and then again there's a myriad of distractions available to us -- for example I'm live blogging at this moment.

It looks like everyone's been involved with online training in some way or the other. So let's hear some of Matt and Charles' tips for online training.

As you may already know, there are several options for online training tools. There's DimDim, Live Meeting, Webex, GoToMeeting, Lotus Live Meetings, Cisco Webex and Adobe Connect. If you're still deciding, here are a few things to consider:
  • Bandwidth - does your organisation have enough bandwidth on the network to run this kind of thing?
  • Storage - where will you save most of your data, recordings, etc?
  • Risk - how secure is the service and how open or closed is the option you're using?
  • Integration - are you using it with your LMS or other systems?
  • Costs - how cheap or costly is your implementation going to be? How much staff time are you going to need?
People, as we've already discussed have a myriad of distractions in their life. People are people and if they want to multi-task, they will! When you don't get eye-contact, it's a gigantic difference. If you're multi-tasking then you're perhaps going to be a good online training that's because you already know what your audience will do.

So, what you don't want is someone reading a script. What you don't want is someone reading script. What you do want is someone bringing in a bit of a personality. Voice is crucial to the success of an online training session. Using a headset helps and perhaps a directional mike maybe? Trainers need to be hugely expressive online - remember people can't see you; so make peace with that and do what you can to overcome that hurdle. As human as you can sound, the better for you!

So let's see what kind of subjects work well in this medium.I've now completely lost visuals- damn! So I'll just go with what I hear.

Seems like soft skills are a good area to discuss online. Bringing in experts and to keep it short and simple is a good idea as well. Learning from suggestions that others make is a great way to influence behaviour. The more you can involve people, the better - 90% of the talking should be from the participants. Teach people how to use the tool and how to use the chat box. Just as Don does for the LSG webinars, it does helps a lot to get people used to the environment. This is the equivalent of getting people used to a training environment. Also, get people's views by using polls as an activity. This is the equivalent of how we do polls (show of hands) in a classroom.

Don't overdo the poll though, but beware the meaningless poll - they can break up the momentum of the session. So use polls where you expect a distinct set of answers, but if things are just obvious, don't just do it for the sake of doing it.

Final Tips

  • Ask people what they'll commit to do once they've been through the session.
  • What's going to stop them from doing what they'd like to do.
  • Discuss these hopes and concerns with participants.
  • Don't be ambitious - it's not about what you want to do to look cool. It's also about managing change and getting people comfortable with the medium.
  • Roland from Live Time has a tip - the technology is there, but don't go overboard!
  • The voice of just one person gets boring after a while, so vary it by bringing in audio, video, etc.
  • Don't get flustered if things go wrong - remembers Murphy's law.
  • Be flexible - something that works in one session, will not necessarily work in the next. The dynamics of people are extremely crucial to keep in mind.
  • Online training takes time. To make something, simple, short without the benefit of physical presence and the interactivity that people expect, is always tough. So try getting as much of this work done up front and make sure you prepare well!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Reporting: Why most Powerpoint Presentations suck - Rick Altman

Today I'm attending a webinar by Rick Altman, called "Why most Powerpoint Presentations suck.", a part of the Outstanding Presentations workshop (#opw on twitter). The workshop series is an attempt by a bunch of presentation skills experts to share their wisdom freely with us - the masses. It's very late in the night here at Bangalore and I need a really good presentation to keep me awake and taking meaningful notes, so what you see here will be really the best I can try to gather from Rick's talk. Rick is the Author of "Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck" and that's predictably his topic for his talk. BTW, these are liveblogged notes.

Oh no! Ellen says we'll start in a few more minutes -- that's not fair! It's disrespectful to the people who do come on time to have to wait longer. One way not to make your presentation suck - respect people's time! Looks to me that Ellen dropped the ball a bit there. Anyways, we start 5 minutes later than planned - so it isn't too bad. Looks like the chat is quite limited -- not that awesome for a webinar at this time, especially when there's a twitter hashtag on their for people to air their thoughts and it's not the most convenient thing to switch between the webinar tool and twitter itself! Meh...

There's a lot of drivel that people begin their presentations - e.g. a loaded agenda and all about the speaker. Why do 99% use a tool that's an object of such derision? Death by Powerpoint?

Most people spend less than one hour learning Powerpoint. Some times 15 minutes! They spend the next five years using the same limited skills. Those who do it fast are thought to be experts and those who teach others are called gurus.

Most people who go about creating content, go about creating it backwards e.g. the company's virtues, mission statement, etc. What does that say about the presenter's ability? It tells me the presenter's topic itself isn't the strongest thing about the talk. Similarly, bulleted slides dump down perfectly good ideas, because then speakers are speaking to slides and the slides are getting between them and their audience. That said, all Powerpoint isn't bad. "Powerpoint is a good finishing tool, but should we start with it?" I agree that starting analog on pen and paper is a good way to start preparing for presentation.


Why do people cram every word onto their slides?
  • they're lazy
  • they don't know any better
  • and many other reasons
Many presenters don't believe they can design their way even out of a paper bag, so Rick wants to share some survival skills.

People don't come to see your slides. They come to hear your expertise. That said, it's not about you. They need to be convinced that you have their interests in mind. You need to get away from the computer and that sometimes means fast paced doing and undoing and often paper is best way to generates ideas at speed.

Design - a plan for the structure and functions of an artifact, building, or system. Nowhere does that say decoration. Design != Decoration

Questions to ask yourself:
  • Do you know your stuff?
  • Have you prepared diligently?
  • Could you give the presentation without any slides at all?
If you're really prepared, you can get through even bad slides. That said, if you were well prepared, you are likely to have minimalistic slides, because now your visuals are never a crutch -- they only reinforce your core message.
"Few slides and few presenters can function properly with excess verbiage"

When you have too much text on your slides you feel compelled to read from it, and that makes you look like a complete idiot in front of your audience, because they think you're a bozo who doesn't know your topic. And 'postage stamp' like photos on your slides do your presentation no good.

There are several ways to reduce text on your slides -- one way out as Rick suggests is to first reduce your bullet points to 3-4 words each or less. Not my idea of doing this properly, but OK - I'll listen on. Rick's approach seems to be very different from mine, where I'd break up his one slide into several more slides, but I guess it's not a bad approach.

Other Reasons for Failure

People cram text on their slides because:
  • they don't know any better;
  • OR they are addicted;
  • OR they are trying to create leave-behind;
  • OR they're required to.
The first problem is a big problem, though easily solved through some education. The others are a bit more difficult to deal with. Clearly text is how you inform people of something, but imagery helps people feel something. So text itself, often doesn't do it.

The problem of trying to create leave-behinds just leads to slideuments.Thanks for mentioning this, Rick. If your slide functions as a good document, then it's neither a good slide nor a good document. Rick suggests that we use the notes page to create our documents and the slides to be just slides -- that's good advice. I like Nancy Duarte's great video that helps how you understand why you should present your slides and distribute your documents and not vice-versa.

Being required to have lots of text on slides makes us as drones of presenters and it makes our audience nothing but zombies! Rick suggests a show-and-tell technique where you say something and then display it on screen. Again, not something I agree with -- I'm less forgiving than Rick.

Crafting Better Messages

Here's Rick's wisdom on making better presentations:
  • Take the three-word challenge
  • Bigger is rarely better
  • Whitespace creates emphasis
  • Does your boss need a detox program?
Audience members need more than something to think about. You want your audience to actually do something after you've presented. Unfortunately text does little to connect on emotional levels for them to feel the weight of your message.

Animation without Embarrassment

Smart sequencing is the key to increased understanding. Abuse of animation ranks highly amongst top presentation annoyances. Flying text is bad animation. OTOH the use of animation to progressively build an image or to reveal a concept sequentially is much more effective.

Good animation promotes increased undestanting and appreciation of the topic. It calls attention to the topic, not to the tool.

The animator's oath:
  • I will use custom animation wisely
  • I vow not to offend the sensibilities of my audience.
  • I will not use animation just because I can!
Rick has a few other suggestions for animators:
  • Thinking "sequencing" when you hear "animation".
  • Spoon feeding chunky data is critical to better understanding.
  • You can't go wrong with fade.
I wish we said "it depends" at least once in this talk! Really, going to point of saying we should use fade is a bit too simplistic for the plethora of presentations we end up doing.

I've found Rick's advice a bit prescriptive and silver-bulletish and guilty of not sharing some fundamental design wisdom that Gary Reynolds of Presentation Zen often shares. This is not to demean Rick's talk, but some of this talk isn't necessarily what I agree with a 100%, though I share Rick's goal to make better presentations. Anyways, staying up late hasn't served me awfully well tonight, but I'm happy to bite the bullet and do this again next time. If nothing, I'll reinforce what I already know.

Monday, September 13, 2010

3 Reasons you may not want to use Stock Images in your Presentations or Elearning

Last Wednesday, Richard Lee treated us to a great Pecha Kucha performance (above). His talk - "More than Words", was not just a treat in terms presenting naked, but also used a style of presentation visuals. Richard hand drew all his visuals, creating a very organic, edgy feel for his talk. Now that's something I've been thinking about. I have a love-hate relationship with stock images. There are times I like them, but then there are other times when they're just inappropriate. In today's blogpost, I want to cover off some reasons why you may not want to use stock imagery in your presentations.

Stock images are beautiful. Actors dress up perfectly; they put up the right expression; the lighting and the backgrounds fit perfectly -- it's symphony in action! And that's where they sometimes fail. Real life isn't all that perfect. In fact real people don't even dress as perfectly as the actors on stock images. If I was doing a generic presentation at a conference the picture on the left hand side (above) could be a great one to depict a meeting or people trying to collaborate in a physical space. On the other hand, if I was to be presenting at ThoughtWorks, I'll get laughed at for using that same picture. We're a company of geeks and to start with we have a very informal dress code at the office. The photograph on the left is just not authentic. The image on the right, however, is a real ThoughtWorks image from a real meeting and provides a more authentic representation. It's fairly important to tailor visuals to an audience and while some visuals may just be more stunning, authenticity often trumps asthetics.

Story Telling

In presentations, your images are not just placeholders for your speech. Often they tell a story. For example the picture above is a great example of teamwork for me, and is an opportunity for me to tell the story of how these two acrobats worked as a team to create stunning poses and an awe-inspiring performance. I could choose a stock image instead, but it takes away the opportunity for me to tell a story from my own experience. The bane of stock photography is that the visuals lack context. When you click your own images or use images that capture a moment from your own life, you can tell stories that no one else can. That's something that makes your presentation unique. Your presentation is your 'purple cow'.

Recreating Real Situations
Often times, stock images are just so generic that they struggle to capture the dynamism of a real situation. In the case of Richard's presentation, he wanted to pick out situations that we'd all seen in recent days to make his point about how people might mean something completely different from what you think they're saying. While extreme Photoshopping skills might help you along, sometimes that's way too much trouble. In Richard's case, he found it easier to borrow my tablet and sketch together a bunch of images to show examples of how people in our team talk about food, hiring rickshaws and choice of apparel! Sometimes it may mean that you have to try and snag a photograph with the help of your colleagues at work and use that image for your presentation. The key here is to stay true to your story and to ensure that you're recreating it in a credible manner.
"Stock images are the bullet points of the 20th century" - Martin Fowler
While I'm not as critical of stock images as Martin and I continue to use them quite a bit in my presentations and elearning, I like to be pragmatic about their use. The fun thing about presentations is that there is no silver bullet. Slides are only a medium to express your thoughts and should be secondary to your story. So while my Pecha-Kucha offering career advice to TWU grads primarily used stock images, my other Pecha-Kucha on how the magic never ends at Disneyworld Orlando, uses a lot of my own photographs. I am particular about beautiful slides, but I'd like to warn you against doing that at the cost of your story and content. After all, the presentation is not about the slides, it's about you and what you want to share!

That brings me to the end of this little blogpost and I'm sorry I've run late this time; do let me know what you think by leaving a comment or two.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

In Defense of Powerpoint

In the past couple of years that I've had a Mac, a lot of people I've spoken to about presentation skills have remarked to me, "Oh, but you have Apple Keynote for presentations. It's so much better than Powerpoint." At the end of several of my presentations people ask me, "You didn't do that in Powerpoint, did you?". Whenever I do one of my talks on presentation skills I invariably have some people in my audience start off the discussion with a "Powerpoint sucks..." refrain. And the fact is that I've very loosely used the phrase "Death by Powerpoint..." in my conversations and talks. Today, I think it's high time that we give Powerpoint a proper defense. Let me say this -- there's nothing wrong with Powerpoint. It's probably the most versatile presentation tool on the planet and gives us a lot of power. The fact that we misuse it and give it a bad name has nothing to do with the quality of the tool itself. In fact, to rest my case I've gone ahead and created some awful slides using Apple Keynote and I assure you it took me little effort. I'm pretty sure I can do an awful Prezi and do similar stuff with Slide Rocket and Google Presentations. Convinced? I thought so!

Now to the skill of making good presentations. I think it's so simple, that anyone can do it.  Nancy Duarte has made that point with an amazing presentation created solely in Powerpoint (above). In fact I'm going to use three presentations by our ThoughtWorks University students to make my point about things that you should absolutely do when you want to create effective presentations. And hopefully then, the tools will cease to matter.

Think Stories, not Facts

And I'm not talking about stories of the once-upon-a-time variety, though they may be cool too. I'm talking about why anything that you will say means anything to anyone. This is about how can you weave your message into an engaging timeline that captures attention, creates interest and evokes emotion. Last week, I shared with you SG Hill's hilarious Pecha-Kucha talk. Steve's talk had really simple tips on how to generate traffic for your blog. I could actually summarise the facts in a few lines:
  1. Start a blog.
  2. Get an analytics service to track your readership.
  3. Try a snazzy blog title, and creative post headlines.
  4. Have your friends comment liberally.
  5. Mention your blog to your friends.
  6. Provide an RSS feed.
  7. Publicise it on social networks.
That's a really simple set of facts. In fact, they're so simple that they don't even need a presentation. I could put all of that into a single slide with bullet points or maybe even email it across. That however, isn't memorable enough and the way Steve wove these pieces of advice into a story of his own experience was funny, engaging and created a lasting impression. If I had to introduce someone to blogging, I'm now going to point them to Steve's video. The point I'm trying to make is that your presentation is more than just the facts that you want to convey. In fact I argue that presentation are more about entertainment and excitement than education. If you can as get people interested and excited about your topic; that's enough to get them to learn about the facts by themselves. In that, it's often more important as to what you don't say than what you do say in your presentation.

Ditch the Templates

Most Keynote and Powerpoint templates are really well intentioned. Both Apple and Microsoft however, are trying to satisfy the natural urge of most users and companies - the urge to bullet point. No wonder most templates tend towards a bullet-point layout for their slides. Now of course you don't want to be like the others, do you? I'm sure you want to be different. If you do, you're perhaps on the right track.

"Be interesting, or be invisible." - Andy Sernovitz

The fact is, that in most cases you don't need a template. You just need a blank slide that you overlay with full-bleed images. Last week Andrew Kiellor did a pretty amazing presentation, giving us a tour of what we should see in Australia. I've embedded the presentation for you to see (above) and you'll notice that Andrew has maintained visual harmony in the top right of his presentation by moving an arrow across Australia's map. In that, it fits with his presentation title; Australia - A Tour. By including real, dazzling images of landscapes across Australia, Andrew didn't just have people gasp in the middle of his presentation, he also negated the need for a template.

I'm not saying that you'll never need a template though. There are times when you want to create a strong, visual consistency across your presentation and a template is real handy for doing that. Garrey Reynolds' presentation on thinking like a designer is an example of one such situation. In such cases I recommend you create your own templates. And believe me, it isn't rocket science. If you can get smart at using master slides, Tom Kuhlmann can show you just how easy it is.

Meaningful Imagery Counts

A few weeks back I saw Sam Tardiff do a cool presentation with a provocative title - 17 Reasons why AFL's better than your favourite sport. Now Sam's presentation may not be the prettiest presentation on the planet, but he very effectively takes images from real life and puts them in front of the audience to let them see why AFL is a superior sport. I particularly like reason 14 - take a look! There's something about visual evidence that makes messages stick for our audience. It's important to note that where a single image was going to struggle making a point, Sam used a video. In a time when most presentation tools allow unbridled use of media, it's crucial that we exploit it. It's also crucial though, that we maintain relevance. It's easy to go overboard with irrelevant stock imagery and as Martin Fowler often says, "Stock photos are the bullet points of the 21st century." I can't help but agree when I see cheesy, overused stock imagery on slides when an earthy, real life image could have done a world of good. Garrey Reynolds of Presentation Zen fame has an excellent article on 10 ways you can use images poorly in presentations - an excellent list of mistakes to avoid. And if you needed some inspiration on how to create beautiful slides you can be proud of, do read my 7 tips to whip your slides into shape.
I strongly believe that bad presentations have to do more with the presenter than the tool. That said, you need a capable tool to help translate your actions into a show. Powerpoint 2010 (Windows only), is a worthy upgrade and there are several good reasons for you to add it to your presentation arsenal. Sure, there'll be a few tools here and there that have an extra feature or the other, but I guess nothing beats Powerpoint's all round capabilities. And if you needed help on how to effectively use the tool, you always have experts to reach out to for help. So the next time you feel like blaming the tool, please don't. Go back to the drawing board and just try harder!

Update:BTW, if you wanted to take your presentation skills to the next level, here's your opportunity to learn from the best. Hear live from eight presentation experts without leaving your home - ain't that amazing?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Dev Camp Bangalore 3 is today - Hope to see you there

DevCamp Bangalore 3 is happening at ThoughtWorks's Diamond District office at Bangalore today.

Like any BarCamp, registration is on the wiki and there is no registration fee.

DevCamp is an un-conference by the hackers, for the hackers and of the hackers. It's a species of BarCamp where anything a lover of computers and technology would consider important or entertaining goes. The first DevCamp took place a little over two years ago, and we've always had a lot of fun being a part of this event; we're hoping to keep that trend going with DCB3.

What's in store?

DCB3 is going to be packed with informative presentations, Fishbowl sessions, lightning talks, and much more, so don't miss it!

Interested in doing a session?
Please keep in mind the fact that everyone at DevCamp is a hacker, a pro. Assume a high level of exposure and knowledge on the part of your audience, and tailor your sessions accordingly. Avoid 'Hello World' and how-to sessions which can be easily found on the net. First hand war stories, in-depth analyses of topics, and live demos are best.

Add your abstract/presentation topic here. Don't forget to sign up, and do pass the message along to anyone you think would be interested. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Funniest Pecha Kucha Talk Ever

At TWU, I have heaps of fun doing our little Pecha Kucha Nights and last week was no exception. Now I upload the slide-decks here, but I must say that's never a substitute for a live performance. Plus I've always been wary of scaring our speakers with a video camera in the room. Luckily Steven Hill decided to film himself during his Pecha Kucha talk and I had no idea his talk was going to be such a laugh riot! I'm actually going to plug Steven's talk as an example of how simple slides and a relaxed presentation style and rate of speech can have a really memorable impact. Don't miss this, it's absolutely worth the watch.
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