Presented Straight to My Brain at SXSWi 2009

POSTED BY Ed Lee on Mar 17, 2009

It’s difficult to imagine a lively and engaging discussion on PowerPoint but, Jared Goralnick delivered with a cool hand as he moderated the panel “Presenting Straight to the Brain” at SXSW Interactive ’09. The panel felt a bit like a mash-up of PowerPoint with NPR’s “Says You” and included panelists Cliff Atkinson, Kathy Sierra, and Craig Ball. They covered off on the usual suspects (bullet-points suck) and went a bit further by demonstrating various approaches to improving cognition in stand-up presentations. How much more meta can you get than a presentation on presentations?

In addition to plugging his book “Beyond Bullet Points” Cliff Atkinson shared with us the notion that shoving a 1,000 slide PowerPoint into your audience’s long-term memory is like pushing a camel through the eye of a needle. Some solutions he discussed included the using iconic images and edit, edit, edit. He views crafting successful presentation decks as more like filmmaking as he challenges the audience with, “Have you ever seen a bullet point in a film?” If you don’t count title sequences, text bumpers (like on Frasier) or closing credits, I suppose not.

Kathy Sierra’s take on audience cognition in stand-up presentations follows the millennia long battle between our lizard brains and frontal cortex. It is because of our primitive survival instincts, we respond to things that move or stand out, cute puppies, the female form and images of fear. Her take centered around simple advice of presenting to your audience like they were cavemen. One key takeaway was that brains seek resolve and like to fill in the blanks. In closing she cheekily suggested we use puppies though I imagine some short tempered C-Suite type might not take it so well.

I had doubts that a high powered litigator from Washington D.C. would cut his own decks but, Craig Ball dazzled the audience with his PowerPoint chops. He demonstrated how with dancing paperclips and diligent use animation paths, one could clearly demonstrate how a hard-drive works to the uninitiated in under 60-seconds. The muscle flexing didn't stop there as he showed the virtues of non-linear navigation & how easy it is to animate the scene of an accident with a stock photo and entery level PhotoShop skills. The key advice here was to make sensible use of motion design.

The panel offered sound advice on enhancing speed to comprehension. It might have been interesting to see these folks do battle with braggart and information design stuntman Edward Tufte but if you measure the success of a presentation by the Q&A, there were immediately 2 columns of 10 people (out of an audience of 500 ) lined up at the microphones.

It should come as no surprise that a panel on presentation design was such a hit at SXSWi 2009. In some cases it has taken me the better part of 3 years to wean certain clients and colleagues from even the most maligned of habits in PowerPoint.


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