Book Review: File > New > Presentation

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File > New > Presentation: Presentation Skills for Software Developers and Other Technical Professionals by Simon Guest

As the subtitle suggests, the goal of File > New > Presentation by Simon Guest is to teach presentation skills to software developers and other technically-minded people. As someone who's spent most of his professional life in software development in one role or another and as someone who also goes to attend and speak at a lot of software conferences, I can confirm the need for help in this area. Our fellow developers are all hard-thinking, target-oriented individuals who have learned that it's important to be precise and go into a lot of detail when communicating with each other and with their computers; and so they apply these principles to their presentations as well. This form of communication, however, can get in the way when talking to customers and even more so when preparing a presentation.

Content

Being a software developer, Simon Guest approaches the topic with the same sort of approach as writing a program: He's got a plan, techniques, and tools. He also goes into a lot of detail and uses a lot of numbers.

The software developer angle becomes apparent from the very first step: It's important to know who your audience is, so Guest uses a (relatively new) tool that software developers use: Personas. The idea being that you identify a few key members of your audience. These are fictional persons, but based on characteristics of what you assume are typical members of the target audience of your talk. You can then use these personas to check if your talk is actually relevant for your audience.

Next, he introduces the use of a mind-map as one of his central tools, both for brainstorming and for developing the structure of the talk. The structure also gets a structure, 10/85/5, based on the amount of the time (in percent) that you should spend on the introduction, the main part, and the conclusion.

The next three chapters are spent on how to incrementally improve your slides, which he compares to the process a painter would work: You start with rough outlines (pencil drawings), followed by broad strokes, before you finally add the details.

Chapter 7 is called "Rehearsing", but the importance of doing rehearsals early on, using draft version of the talk, has already been pointed out throughout the previous chapters; so it's not like he would suggest you only start rehearsing after you've finished the slides.

After a chapter on software demos comes "The Big Day", covering tips for the actual presentation. The book is rounded off with a chapter on presenting to foreign audiences and for doing presentations online, followed by a chapter of "anti-patterns", i.e. a list of things you should avoid doing, which brings us to the end of the 380 pages.

A Disclaimer, before I continue: I'm the author of Presenting for Geeks, an ebook that has pretty much the same target audience as Simon Guest's book. Which doesn't mean that I see his book as "competition". My goal is to improve the presentation skills of our fellow geeks; a goal that I'll never achieve on my own. So I do very much welcome any books, courses and other efforts to make the world of geeky / techie presentations a little better.

Discussion

File > New > Presentation is a How-To book. As such, it could have been titled "How To Give Presentations The Simon Guest Way". It obviously works for the author and I have no doubt that it'll work for a lot of people in the tech world. If you want a list of instructions to follow to create and give a presentation that's better than your typical bullet point-laden extensive-but-boring presentation, then you can give this book a try.

What I'm missing somewhat, though, is guidance. The author takes you through the steps and occasionally explains why he's doing it this way, but I'm missing overall guiding principles. The method from this book will work for a lot of tech presentations - but not for all of them. So what if you get stuck at a point that's not covered in the book? It's like printing out the instructions on how to get from point A to point B: "Turn left, then at the next traffic light turn right, then left again." And then you'll encounter road works, can't take that right turn and you're lost.

There's nothing wrong with the content of this book. The author gives solid advice and I have no doubt that if you follow his advice you'll end up with a good presentation. I tend to disagree with a couple of his design choices, though. Like using the same background image to indicate which slides belong together: Yes, that's a good idea, but consider that the background image - even if toned down as explained in the book - still adds a lot of noise to your slides (and the use of a generic image isn't as effective as using an image specific to the main point of your slides). I'm not a designer, but I would also question that figure 6.5 (pictured) is a good example of how to style a table.

The book includes a chapter on giving demos, which is much appreciated since there aren't too many books covering this topic (there's the classic Great Demo! by Peter Cohan and there are bits and pieces about demos in Presentation Patterns but that's about all). Again, the advice is extensive, if not to say exhaustive and covers every angle from preparation to disaster recovery.

On a side note: I find it interesting how personal experience can be taken for granted. The author extensively covers topics that he apparently often encounters which I've never seen at any of the conference that I have been to, such as session codes or speaker shirts.

This is the author's first book and it appears to be self-published. Which isn't a problem as such, but I do think it could have benefitted from a rigorous editor. I remember that I was often shocked when I got a draft of my own book back from my editor and she had thrown out entire paragraphs and replaced them with a single sentence; and then I read things in context and had to admit that, yes, it really was better now. Simon often goes into a lot of detail - dare I say: unnecessary detail? As a fellow geek, I know that urge of having to explain everything all too well. But our audiences are geeks, too. They are intelligent, they can connect the dots and you don't need to explain every little detail to them. I often found myself skipping entire paragraphs since I already knew what was coming.

Summary

Our approaches to the topic are very different: My book is pretty much a "if you read nothing else, please at least read this"-type of book. Simon Guest's approach is more that of a how-to guide: Do this first, then do this, then that, and so on. The level of detail he goes into may also give readers, or at least some of them, more confidence.

You may want to check the available sample chapters from File > New > Presentation to see if you like the author's style. I would also recommend to consult a second source for advice on slide design, such as Slide:ology or Presentation Zen Design.

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