Presentation lessons learnt?

INN331 – Management Issues for Information Professionals

WEEK EIGHT: Ruining presentation design.

qut-presentation

MAKING a presentation is a moral act as well as an intellectual activity. The use of corrupt manipulations and blatant rhetorical ploys in a report or presentation-outright lying, flagwaving, personal attacks, setting up phony alternatives, misdirection, jargon-mongering, evading key issues, feigning disinterested objectivity, willful misunderstanding of other points of view-suggests that the presenter lacks both credibility and evidence. To maintain standards of quality, relevance, and integrity for evidence, consumers of presentations should insist that presenters be held intellectually and ethically responsible for what they show and tell. Thus consuming a presentation is also an intellectual and a moral activity.

(Tufte, 2006, p. 141.)

The brief initially called for a 12 slide presentation of (no more than) 20 seconds talk for each slide to comprise a complete presentation in four minutes. The brief did not mention the requirement for a slide of references, but subsequent questions and answers resulted in a definitive ruling that such a slide had to be incorporated.

My own solution for the academic requirement had been to incorporate such references in the notes fields to remove their clumsy ugliness from the presentation. However, the tutor’s ruling seemed definitive.

It was unpalatable to hear the tutor describe this presentation as aspiring to professionalism while imposing at the same time strictures that may fall within the parameters of academic assessment, but evidence only the inflexibility of inexperienced bureaucrats trying to envision professional practice in a world they have never inhabited.

I did not re-work my presentation after final rule-changes two days prior to submission which suddenly made extra slides permissible to allow for a cover slide and the references, neither of which were to be counted towards the 12-slide or four-minute requirements.

Consequently my presentation features a slide of references with some voice-over that may seem clumsy or out of place.

The presentation linked to here is in PowerPoint format with a dubbed voice-over. There is a video version, but conversion slightly de-synched the voiceover. Both links point to a public folder on Google Drive that should require no sign-in or authentication. To hear the narration, you wiull need to download the source file from the Google Drive preview page.

The pedagogy behind this assignment is indifferent to the development of the presentation, or design theory and practice in general, but my process was not.

Method

In summary, I took the following steps:

  1. Selecting change management as the topic, I further refined it to select the aspect of fear as an obstacle to change.
  2. Review of literature on fear in change management.
  3. Selection and narrowing of citations as a rough storyboard.
  4. Drafting dual script for voiceover and slide contents.
  5. Consideration of graphic theme to bind together the presentation; the old horror film images on a black background selected as a simple, elegant, non-intrusive theme that nevertheless packs visual punch.
  6. Matching appropriate ‘monsters’ to specific messages.
  7. Processing of images in Photoshop to produce 16:9 ratio backgrounds.
  8. Processing of backgrounds in Illustrator to produce the typography, and converting to JPEG for finished slide artwork.
  9. Recording and editing of voiceover in Goldwave to produce 12 snippets of just under 20 seconds in length, saved in WAV format for PowerPoint compatibility reasons (MP3 would have been more economical, but crashed PowerPoint, possibly because of limited codec compatibility).
  10. Combining finished artwork with sound clips on PowerPoint slides.
  11. Using the timer feature in PowerPoint to advance the slides automatically, and the animations feature to automatically play the sound clips attached to each slide.
  12. Hiding the audio icons added by PowerPoint to each slide by sending them ‘to the back’, behind the slide artwork. This means the audio controls were still accessible, but not visual pollution during the presentation.
  13. Using a third party PPTX-to-video converter (the output is slightly de-synched) to create a h.264 (MPEG4) compression video.

Things to watch out for

My own work, and watching the other presentations on the night made me conclude that useful tips might have included:

  1. Eliminate duplicated waffle from citations and don’t rely on cited authors’ narrative sequencing of the topic.
  2. Do not surrender to any impulse to simply regurgitate: make a point of your own.
  3. References certainly add credibility to points made, particularly if they are controversial, but in a presentation they should always be out of sight unless and until needed.
  4. Always use layers in Photoshop and Illustrator; when you have to do something again, as you will, layers let you re-work only what needs it.
  5. Draft the script for voiceover in conjunction with reading it aloud; words are never the same written as they are spoken. It’s an old radio journalism and speechwriting discipline that came back to me quickly.
  6. Modulate your voice; there is nothing more soporific and disdain-inducing than monotone droning.
  7. Never trust the alleged capabilities of software. PowerPoint documentation gives it the power to record its own voiceovers. Don’t use it. It’s crap. PowerPoint documentation says all manner of sound and video file formats can be imported. Don’t trust this because other formats will crash PowerPoint as often as deliver unexpected results. PowerPoint says you can easily convert a presentation into a video. Don’t trust this because it often turns the whole thing into a down-sampled mess.
  8. On presentation night I saw a number of Prezies that worked reasonably well; it is an option worth exploring, even if it means giving away your intellectual property to unknown parties.
  9. Do NOT simply read the text on the slides. DO NOT, NOT EVER!!! do this unless you want to prove you are unimaginative and don’t know your subject.
  10. If a time limit is given, don’t exceed it. Particularly not by multiples of the original limit rather than fractions.
  11. Dictating a fixed format – 20 seconds per slide – may sound like discipline, but is in fact just proof of lack of trust and imagination. Presenters should be free to use their own judgement and capabilities within an overall time limit. Professionals will often tell clients what the most appropriate format, time and content of a presentation should be. Those who don’t have this flexibility are either not professionals, or they are not operating in a professional environment.

Lessons learnt

If I had to nominate the most valuable experience to come out of the exercise, it was the dubbing of the slides. I have never done this before and managed to achieve a passable quality of sound from my Logitech 9000 webcam microphone, though I had to hold it in my hand during recording to avoid distortion from the vibration against hard surfaces.

The other experience is really confirmation of a pre-existing bias, which is never to let PowerPoint features dictate the presentation of images and words, or the sequence of information. The most boring, useless presentations are the ones delivered in monotone voices reading dot points verbatim from endless, over-laden slides. Unfortunately, this seems to be how things are done by the majority of academic presenters.

Academic dys-methodology

At the beginning of every academic assignment there seem to be limitless possibilities to say something meaningful and valuable. Something insightful and fresh. But then come the crushing levellers. Fixed marking grids that dictate what must be said and how. Soulless and unimaginative markers looking for key words and phrases, and devoid of judgement to recognise critical analysis if it bit them in the arse. And the other students, too, who by their thoughtless questions and aspirations for formulaic certainty elicit ever more restrictive criteria.

If there is a single blight I could point to in my current studies, it is the use of Facebook and email to barrage the tutor with endless, lazy questions about how to narrow down the assessment criteria into an all-encompassing equation where there is no longer any need to think, and the work for robots is made up solely of slotting the numbers into the right places in the formula.

For students who would be happy to interpret those parts of the brief in line with their own understandings and imaginations, this process becomes a destruction of critical analysis, or creativity, and of any room to say something more than the regurgitation aspired to by the robots.

This assignment was no exception. I had to abandon two previous ideas for it because of the shifting criteria. Nevertheless, I resisted the last change of mind about the format, which was actually quite sensible, permitting extra time and room for a cover slide and the references in the ‘lightning’, or Pecha Kucha presentation. I resisted because this change of heart came just two days before the submission deadline, via Facebook. It would have required extensive re-working of the assignment to maintain its own internal integrity.

It isn’t the only assignment, or course unit, in which assignment criteria are badly drafted, ambiguous, and subject to progressive amendments quite contrary to the university’s own policy on these matters, which states that assessment must be ‘based on pre-determined and clearly articulated criteria, associated standards and weightings’ (QUT, 2013, C5.5.1(iv)).

Most galling about such ambiguity and shifting criteria is a seemingly formulaic response that ‘students at this level’ are ‘expected to interpret’ the assignment briefs. A glib statement made farcical by subsequent annulment of interpretation through progressively more prescriptive definitions that sometimes come far too late to permit a thoughtful incorporation of them all in the assignments.

Under the circumstances I think my presentation turned out well despite my misgivings that it might now fail to meet the brief. In fact, I gained a mark just above 90 per cent.

Nevertheless, I believe the assignment brief and assessment criteria show flaws for which I would be downgraded mercilessly, including bad grammar, ambiguity, and a lack of vision for what the end product should look like or contain. This latter point is particularly inexplicable given that it is not the first time this task has been assigned to a cohort of students.

I can’t really imagine defences for monotone verbatim oration of text on slides. What is the point of having such slides if the speech contains exactly the same information? What is the point of a visual medium if it is reduced to slabs of text? I gave the first words in this post to Edward Tufte. I leave him also the last.

PowerPoint’s convenience for some presenters is costly to the content and the audience. These costs arise from the cognitive style characteristic of the standard default PP presentation: foreshortening of evidence and thought, low spatial resolution, an intensely hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organizing every type of content, breaking up narratives and data into slides and minimal fragments, rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focused spatial analysis, conspicuous chartjunk and PP Phluff, branding of slides with logotypes, a preoccupation with format not content, incompetent designs for data graphics and tables, and a smirky commercialism that turns information into a sales pitch and presenters into marketeers. This cognitive style harms the quality of thought for the producers and the consumers of presentations.

(Tufte, 2006, p. 158.)


References

QUT (2013). Manual of Policies and Procedures. Retrieved from http://www.mopp.qut.edu.au/

Tufte, E.R. (2006). Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press LLC.

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