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The story of a presentation

December 24, 2010

Steep staircaseI had the opportunity to help a friend and coblogger with a PowerPoint slidedeck he had developed as the material for a class he will be teaching. He was eager to find out how he could improve the powerpoint — and his presentation (I hope you notice the difference!) — so that his students would enjoy his class more and so that they would better retain the information they needed to learn.

I was glad to help — it felt like I was on a real consulting job. But instead of giving a man a PowerPoint, I wanted to teach a man to PowerPoint. After all, he will be teaching more than this one class, so he doesn’t need a slidedeck for one day’s class, but rather a way of approaching visual aids for a lifetime.

I feel like through helping him, I was able to figure out three “steps” of PowerPoint improvement. To some, the staircase doesn’t seem all that bad…it’s not like a rock climbing wall, really. But to others, the staircase is so steep that it seems to demand climbing finesse One scales from one step to another in an iterative process, and as one masters the basic step with which he is confronted, he climbs to the steeper one ahead.

The first step, I believe, is technical consistency. Much of this goes back to English class and things like parallel structure. Especially for a system that lens itself to bulleted points (even if the bullet point system may not be the most effective way to convey information). The issue is this: the content of information is affected by the presentation of that content. With words, this means that how a writer phrases related content can either support or detract from the what of the related content.

Let’s take an example:

Early to bed,

Early to rise,

Makes a person



and Wise.

A short, easy phrase to remember, right? But what if instead it were:

Early to bed,

Quick to wake up,

Makes a person


They will be able to make more money,

and have wisdom.

It says basically the same thing content-wise, but because the phrasing is not parallel (healthy, wealthy, and wise are each adjectives) and the phrasing eliminates the parallel repetition (Early to…early to…), then instead of being able to focus on the message, the poor reader has to first decode this eldritch abomination.

Technical consistency, the first step, is about employing the very basic task of keeping structures similar grammatically.

But technical consistency isn’t all about that. After all, for a visual aid, there is a visual component to technical consistency. For the slidedeck, fonts should be employed consistently. If you have two fonts, maybe one can serve as the font for the headings, and the other can serve as the font for the body of text. Great.

And this extends, of course, to other aspects of typesetting. What does bold text mean? What do italics mean? Whatever they mean, they ought to be consistent from slide to slide. That way, the audience can intuit the mechanical grammar and focus on what is being said, rather than trying to decode the encryption of its presentation.

This leads naturally into the second step of visual grammar. The issue is this: the presentation of content can’t just be linguistic and literary. Presenters, in designing slides, must employ images, photos, graphs, metaphors, and symbols to relate the logical relationship between content points. Is x point supposed to compare with y point, or is supposed to contrast? Does x point have an equal weight to y point, or does it precede or succeed y point? Instead of just writing out these aspects, the PowerPoint and presenter should show it. Show, don’t tell!

In viewing presentation improvement as a “staircase,” truly, a thousand words are captured in one image. All of a sudden, anyone with familiarity with a staircase (for which most people qualify) can relate to presentation improvement (to which many people cannot natively grasp). Steps 1, 2, and 3 aren’t necessarily co-equal, in the same way that the first stair precedes the second…but in a way they are, in the same way that stair one is generally designed to have the same dimensions as stair two.

In drafting a visual grammar, the presenter tell stories that carry and embed the desired information. It’s inception, more or less. The audience should already be able to relate to the story, and as a result, they can learn to relate to the new information as if they came up with the idea themselves.


Inception Top

"Symbols are the key to telepathy." Or something like that.

The only issue, which leads to the third step of improvement for presentations, is the desire for closure and completion. The desire for an overarcing story.

There are so many metaphors to use and stories to tell, and they are all so fun to talk about! But in the same way that writers write one book at a time (even though there are an infinite amount of books that can be written), the presenter needs to tell one story at a time. I think the good presenter employs several metaphors to illustrate concepts. His visual grammar is robust and amply expressed.

Have you ever heard a comedian tell a joke at the beginning of the routine that you thought was funny by itself, but then he set it aside, and you didn’t think much about it…but at the end of the routine, the joke came back to tie everything together? Sure, you can be funny without tying everything together, but there is another level to the comedian who ties the routine together.

The great presenter ties things together. He takes what he has learned about technical consistency and applies it to what he has learned about visual grammar to create a consistent, streamlined story to the presentation. A consistent and extended metaphor to describing concepts, consistent and extended rhyme scheme to the poem, so to speak.

Penrose Staircase IllusionI feel it’s a tragedy that many people are afraid of public speaking, or that many people are incompetent at it. Because when they don’t think they are presenting, they often reveal that they know exactly what they are doing. People often think they are terrible comedians, but with their friends, they can crack jokes. People often think they are terrible presenters, but with their friends, they can express themselves. It is simply unfortunate that many people never realize that the staircase to better presenting was at best a Penrose staircase.

The ultimate lesson is not to elevate to this superhuman presenter status, but to realize that the seemingly insurmountable presentation summit is really something that people on the ground level traverse every day.


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  1. Seth R. permalink

    Where is that picture of the stairs in the cliff from?

  2. It’s from a hiking trail for a Chinese mountain (Hua shan)

  3. Throughout the last few days (AND A LOT OF HOURS, AND CARPAL TUNNEL!) I have definitely learned a lot.

    What really struck me here was when you said, “The issue is this: the content of information is affected by the presentation of that content.”

    NOW you are speaking in some psychotherapy language, although in therapy the process (e.g. the presentation aspect) is arguable more important, it has the same effect. I had not thought of applying that principle to presentations, at least not that consciously. For sure, “DO GOOD” presentations, along with a few tips for speaking and building powerpoints were things I applied, but I never really knew there could be more to it than that, such as telling an overall story. Cool stuff. The process of the presentation can really kill the content, distract from it, or make the content stick. 😉

    Also, you used the word “iterative” here. I didn’t know that one until well into my 2nd graduate degree.

    Thanks again!

  4. I feel that at a critical level, many fields mix together. I’ve read some things that suggest that human economic (and therefore psychological) behavior becomes oddly describable by physics theories in groups. It gives a new meaning to the term “interdisciplinary approach,” “systems theory,” or even “Renaissance man.”

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