Advanced Presentations by Design
Advanced Presentations by Design by Andrew Abela
For a book so full of footnotes and references, it is surprising that this book rests so fundamentally on a confusion between what is and what ought to be. Abela argues that there are two types of presentation – Ballroom style and Conference Room style. ‘Ballroom style presentations are… colourful, vibrant, attention-grabbing and noisy’… and ‘Conference Room style presentations are more understated: they have less colour, with more details on each page; they are more likely to be on printed handouts than projected slides’. From this he leaps to the conclusion that ‘Conference room style presentations are more suited to meetings for which the objective is to engage, persuade, come to some conclusion, and drive action’ [emphasis added], for example sales presentations.
Looking for justification for Abela’s assertion, one finds only an argument put forward by Tufte: ‘PowerPoint… reduces the analytical quality of serious presentation of evidence’. Abela then, argues that sales presentations should be given using only densely-typed printed sheets because this style allows better presentation of complex evidence. One wonders whether either Tufte or Abela has ever (a) sold anything (b) seen PowerPoint used to its full potential.
Advanced Presentations by Design is full of useful material; one just hopes that readers only actually follow its recommendations in limited ways and for limited purposes. Abela sets out a ten stage process for readers to follow when constructing their own presentations:
- Identify the communication preferences of the most important audience members
- Set clear objectives in terms of audience belief and audience action
- Identify a problem the audience have to which this presentation will offer a solution
- Collect evidence that will back up the arguments presented
- Use stories to present some of this evidence
- Order material by presenting a problem, a solution to that problem, an illustration of what the solution might mean, and then repeat with problems that are raised by the previous solution
- Present evidence using charts
- Lay out charts in fine detail on as few pages as is possible; layout the page in a way that conveys an overarching message
- Identify stakeholders, including those who may not attend the presentation, and develop a plan for dealing with them
- Identify metrics with which to measure the success of the presentation
Some of Abela’s advice is useful. It would be useful to know what the communication preferences of audience members are – and so, for example, whether it might make sense to leave extra time for Q&A, provide an overview up-front, or even to list all relevant facts and details in an appendix. Advancing this argument so strongly as to suggest finding out the Myers-Briggs type of audience members seems to be absurd though – particularly when in mixed groups (i.e. most audiences) one has to cater to everyone anyway.
The suggestion that material be gathered and messages crafted before opening design software is good, and advice shared by nearly all books on effective presentations. Setting objectives, and measuring success are two bits of uncontroversial advice, that many would benefit from. In particular, contextualising objectives in terms of both what we want the audience to think and what we want the audience to do as a result of our presentation makes a lot of sense – and is a useful distinction to keep in mind.
But all these recommendations, and the extensive review of relevant research, are very much secondary to the two most significant parts of Advanced Presentations by Design – how to structure a presentation, and how to use visual aids effectively.
Abela recommends a linear presentation structure – where, once the broad situation is set, the material should be set-out in the pattern:
Complication » Resolution » Example » Complication » Resolution » Example
Here, a complication is essentially the most significant problem that arises in the mind of the audience, the resolution is the recommended solution to that problem, and the example brings to life the proposed resolution. Then, the next complication is the problem that is posed by the audience in response to the previously advanced resolution, and so on.
The result of this linear approach is that the audience is directed down a very clear path, and their concerns as they proceed down this path are addressed. All of this is fine, unless an audience start off with two major concerns. Abela’s structure will address one of these initial major audience concerns in detail. But, what about the other concern? What about situations where half the audience are bothered by complication A, and the other by complication B? Abela recommends addressing one complication in depth – but ignoring the other complication entirely. Does this make sense? Arguably not – it will often make more sense to address complication A, then complication B, and only then to follow these lines of response in further detail.
Following Abela’s method works well where the audience all share a single major concern, and this can be identified and addressed. In other circumstances, pursuing a single line of enquiry can leave important audience concerns left unaddressed.
For all but a few presentations that aim solely to entertain, Advanced Presentations by Design recommends using the printed page as visual aid. Material should be represented by one of a large number of graphs, and these graphs arranged together onto pages to illustrate the relationship between them. Printed handouts should communicate concisely – Conference Room style presentations ‘should look more like an architectural drawing than something you’d see on television. Good conference room style presentations should have lots of relevant detail and text, and should be handed out on paper, never projected… On paper, you can use font sizes as small as 9 point without difficulty.’
For internal meetings, with engaged audiences, and to facilitate detailed discussion, this approach has its place. But, in a sales setting, is this what the audience want? Do audiences want to read 9 point fonts because they agreed to meet a sales rep? Do presenters want to give away their arguments in advance on paper before they start presenting? Is the reason you failed to close your last appointment because you didn’t give the audience enough detail?
The printed page cannot utilise animation, or get a point across. Messages often involve change over time, or complex processes. Animating these changes on screen aids understanding. If a picture paints 1000 words, and an animated picture can paint 10,000 words, Abela would recommend the words instead – in a 9-point font.
Architectural drawings may be appropriate as leave-behinds, or to use to facilitate Q&A. As a visual aid to help a salesperson present a clear and persuasive message, the approach will be unsuitable more-often-than-not. No salesperson will want to hand out densely packed black-and-white pages, only to find the faces of the audience drop before they even begin to speak.
Advanced Presentations by Design is a useful reference, and contains a thorough and detailed review of the presentation literature. For certain types of presentation (e.g. internal discussions, classroom education) the approach Abela recommends may be appropriate. But, at heart, this is a book built upon the naturalistic fallacy – confusing what is (presentations can use projection or printed handouts) with what ought to be (using printed handouts is a good idea).
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