Ben and I recently attended an Adaptive Path conference in San Francisco about managing user experiences, and it rocked. I plan on blogging about the conference shortly, but I thought I would first write about something related to the conference: the user experience of sitting through presentations. Most people hate giving presentations. Fair enough. Standing in front of a room full of people, hot lights on your head, waiting for your presentation slides to show on the projector properly, blanking out on your opening line. But sitting through a bad presentation is no picnic either. Especially if you've just sat through an awesome one. The Adaptive Path conference had some fabulous presentations, some that were just OK, and, I'm sorry to say, one dud.

Which got me thinking, "What makes a good presentation?" I think it comes down to three main things:

  1. Presenter ability — Slicker is not better. There was a great session in which the presenter was so nervous she almost started hyperventilating. What made her presentation great is that her nervousness somehow amplified how sincere and earnest she was about her job. It didn't feel like she'd made this same speech a thousand times. It didn't have tired, worn out jokes and stale material. Presenters should be passionate about the material they are talking about. A bit of energy helps, too — quiet mumbling through a slide deck does not a fun hour make.

    Storytelling is all about passion and energy, and that's what a good presentation should be — a story. Stories are easier to remember and retell, so your audience will actually be able to repeat all of your wonderful points to the next person who says, "So what was that session about anyhow?" Stories are also easier to relate to. As a presenter, it's much easier to walk through a good tale than stumble through dry content.

    Another thing good presenters do is ask questions of their audience. Re-engage people by asking them stuff. "Show of hands — who's heard of blah, blah, blah?" Even rhetorical questions help focus people's attention. "Does this all make sense so far?" People are fundamentally pretty simple critters; we like hearing about stuff we can relate to ourselves. Questions help us do that.

  2. Session material — Obviously a good presentation has content that is interesting to the audience. So it makes sense to go back to the basic tenet of UE: know your audience. If you are mostly talking to gearheads and techies, by all means get into the depths of your database schema and refactoring practices. If your audience is more layperson, keep your jargon to yourself, cut down on deep technical details, and offer resources for people who want to dig in further. Ask the organizers who will be at the session; they should at least have a good idea of people who won't be there.

  3. Slides — I have to say that I'm a big fan of simple, simple slides. Give me one bullet point per slide or even just a statement in the middle of the slide. Put out your chunk of an idea, speak to it, and then move to the next slide. A bunch of bullets or text on a slide only causes people to try to read the slide instead of listening to the meat of what you're saying.

    Which brings me to another point. No need for handouts. OK, no need "most" of the time. If it's a very technical lecture covering more than anyone could be expected to jot down, then sure, give out notes. But if not, just let people know that they can get the slides later and provide one sheet for their notes. This keeps people actively listening instead of flipping through your handouts. Besides, if you use transitions in your slides, they rarely print out as you'd like. I also saw a few presenters who had some very clever slides that totally lost their punch because everyone had already seen them in their handouts within the first two minutes of sitting down.

So there you go. Three elements of great presentations.

Unofficially of course, there's a fourth. Ben and I gave the highest rating to the presenter who swore. He was the sh*t!