Presentation Patterns: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½28 Jun 2016
Presentation Patterns is 228 pages of information about how to give a good presentation. What's most interesting about this is that only 16 of them need to be read in serious depth. The rest are browsed, searched for, cross-referenced, and looked up as you go, like a choose-your-own-adventure book meets tvtropes.org. Even though it was a bit tedious at times, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the act of keeping five or more fingers jammed at relevant sections, all while flipping back to the glossary yet again to decipher more terminology.
What stood out to me the most was the section in the introduction "Origins", in which the authors talk about their experience in the software development industry, and how it has affected their view on giving effective presentations. What results from this background is a book that reads a lot like documentation for a software library or programming language — a high level overview section, how to use it, why it was created, and finally, an exhaustive listing of both common recipes and low-level implementation instructions. This creates a learning experience familiar to software developers in particular. You start by clumsily browsing self-referencing jargon that you don't yet understand, until you find a small, clear example that terminates and no longer needs you to look for information elsewhere to understand it. You can keep nesting into topics like this until you have a grasp of the vocabulary necessary to begin comprehending the full picture. Isolated examples of what to do and (more importantly) what not to do, creates a wonderful book that turns what should be a dense topic into something you can reference as you need it.
I really appreciate the effort it takes to shape such a complex topic into a simplified aid, to be used when the time comes, and returned to your bookshelf for another visit in the future, when you need it.
Below is a summary of those critical 16 pages, and a few examples of what constitutes the bulk of the material in the book to help you better understand it's uses and application for you.
Main Takeaway Number One: Be Prepared
This gets repeated throughout the book, and for good reason. When your full-time job is giving presentations, the chances of having something go wrong is
- Much higher
- Much more damaging to your bottom line.
If you're giving a presentation at work for eight people, and you slap something together during your lunch hour the day of, you can either reschedule the talk, or just go ahead and wing it. If you're a professional speaker (as the authors are), and you have a laptop hard drive die the night before a talk, you have much larger problems to deal with if you aren't completely prepared. For those of us who give a couple talks a month (or year), this isn't so much important as much as it is to avoid going meta when the opportunity arises to make a clumsy excuse about how "I whipped this thing up a couple hours ago". I really enjoy getting introduced to many of the anti-patterns, as they rang very familiar to me, an amateur speaker. A great way to get quickly introduced to the main concepts of this book is to read more anti-patterns (highlighted in red) than patterns (highlighted in blue).
Main Takeaway Number Two: Lurk More
Links like the one I made above to the "going meta" anti-pattern are where the book really shines. The book is absolutely full of these references. Every paragraph seems to have one or two of them (styled like hyperlinks, no less) that constantly tricked me into thinking that I could click them. This book really does feel like it was printed to paper second, after being crafted as a web-based document first. As you get familiar with the basics, you are introduced to more and more nuanced material to help polish your talk as you develop it. This is no accident. In fact, the gradual consistency pattern recommends you do just that. The authors have not only given you examples upon examples to reference, but also manage to dogfood their own methodologies throughout the text, creating a single, large example of how to effectively use many of the more "core" patterns featured in the glossary. By studying the overall design of the book, you seem to absorb some of its best parts through osmosis.
Main Takeaway Number Three: Execution Matters
The authors come to warn you that as you craft your presentation, you shouldn't take a pattern or recipe at face value. Since presentation patterns are broken up into small, focused chunks of composable contents for a talk, it can be difficult to convey the essence of the pattern in any format other than a short example or two. These examples tend to feature aspects of the pattern or anti-pattern that correlate with a familiar instance of them. Just because your talk does not feature excessive swinging and circling with a green laser pointer does not mean that your talk isn't suffering from the same root cause that inspires lesser speakers to reach for the oft-abused speaker's aid.
The moral of the story is, each example given is just that, an example. The kernel of wisdom comes in how you apply it. An egregious example would be in the case of a poorly executed pattern. If you decided to use the make it rain pattern to serve as an ice breaker for a tough crowd, you'd be smart in doing so. Unless that meeting is for a board of directors to brainstorm how best to respond to a hostile takeover, then it'd be best to go another route.
No matter how far you progress in this book, never forget the first thing they teach you in a beginner's public speaking class in college. Know your audience. Then, craft an outline. Pick and choose from your now well-versed arsenal of patterns with taste. Practice your talk, and the rest will work itself out. This book is useless without a proper foundation and work ethic, as it can only open the door for you. It's up to you to walk through it.