Garr Reynolds Wisdom, Part II

This is Part II in a two-part series. Part I was published on 24-Jan.

Another one from Guy and Garr

Question: What is the single most important thing people could do to enhance their presentations?

Answer: Turn off the computer, grab some paper and a pencil, and find someplace quiet. Think of the audience. What is it they need? What is it you want to say that they need to hear. Identify what’s important and what is not. You can’t say everything in a twenty-minute talk—or even a two-hour talk.

The problem with most presentations is that people try to include too much. You can go deep or you can go wide, but you can’t really do both. What is the core message? This time “off the grid” with paper and pencil or a white board is where you can clarify your ideas and then get them on paper visually. After your ideas and basic structure are clear, then you can open up the software and start laying out the story in the slide sorter view.

Replace the word “presentations” above with “software” and the same great advice holds, I think.

Certainly the part about turning off your computer and spending some time thinking about what your audience needs and considers important, as tempting as it is to jump straight in and start coding.

But the real gem here in my opinion is the observation that you can go deep or wide but not both.

Just like presentations I think that most people building software try to include too much. Adding more features is a natural inclination. It’s actually ingrained in the social order of software developers – within teams enhancing existing features never seems to have the same status as adding something new. But, it should.

Can you have both the most features and be the easiest to use?

When you look around there are not many examples of software products which have achieved this.

So which of these two alternatives are you choosing, consciously or otherwise?

Garr Reynolds Wisdom, Part I

This is Part I in a two-part series. Part II was published on 25-Jan.

Garr Reynolds from Presentation Zen (who I’ve linked to before) recently answered a bunch of questions for Guy Kawasaki.

Ten Questions with Garr Reynolds

It’s a great post and I recommend that you read it. But a couple of the questions and answers especially jumped out at me. I thought it was worth highlighting them here – one today and one tomorrow.

Question: Are PowerPoint and Keynote part of the problem or part of the solution?

Answer: There is no question that PowerPoint has been at least a part of the problem because it has affected a generation. It should have come with a warning label and a good set of design instructions back in the ’90s. But it is also a copout to blame PowerPoint—it’s just software, not a method.

True, the templates and wizards of the past probably took most of us—who didn’t know any better anyway—down a road to ‘really bad PowerPoint’ as Seth Godin calls it. But today we know better, and we can make effective presentations with even older versions of PowerPoint—often by ignoring most of the features. Ultimately it comes down to us and our skills and our content. Each case is different, and some of the best presentations include not a single slide. In the end it is about knowing your material deeply and designing visuals that augment and amplify your spoken message.

How depressing to have an expert like Garr is telling people that the best way to use software is to consciously avoid features. Of course, he’s right. But, what a waste of time spent designing, developing and testing those features. Imagine instead if that time was invested in those parts of the software that people should use.

What’s more, not everybody is lucky enough to read this sort of advice. Death by bullet points is still the most common presentation experience.

Who is responsible for that outcome?

Those of us who design software should always focus on guiding users directly into “The Pit of Success”.

“In stark contrast to a summit, a peak, or a journey across a desert to find victory through many trials and surprises, we want our customers to simply fall into winning practices by using our [software]. To the extent that we make it easy to get into trouble we fail.”

— Rico Mariani, Microsoft Research (quoted by Brad Adams).

You need to make the right way the default. A new user should be able to just follow their nose, make the obvious choices, and end up in the right place.

Of course, this requires that you take a view about what the “right way” and the “right place” actually are (even where this requires you to be a bit of a dictator).

I think this is where software developers often let themselves down – by giving users almost unlimited flexibility, giving all features equal prominence in the navigation, by adding all of the features that users ask for (as opposed to those features that are required to get them most directly to the desired place), etc etc.

Those working on PowerPoint over the years have fallen into all of these traps.

As have many of us.

BONUS: Garr has a new book, also called Presentation Zen. If you do any public speaking, or even in-house presentations at work, go get a copy.