Where's the content?

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FrOSCon is one of my favourite conferences. It is a small-ish but very well organised conference held in Sankt Augustin (near Bonn, Germany). As an open source conference, it is full of nerds and geeks who are all very passionate about their respective topic. Like most conferences, it is also full of bullet point-laden slides that stand in stark contrast to the passion of the speakers in front of them. So I thought I'd try and introduce some of them to the Presentation Zen way of presenting in a workshop custom-made for this target audience, called "Presenting for Geeks".

Interestingly, the geeks seem to have noticed that they need to sharpen their presentation skills. In addition to my workshop, there was also another one by Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann, focussing on practical exercises, as well as a related presentation by Heiko Harthun about stage fright and what to do about it.

Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann did a great job in summarising the important points for a presentation in just a few crisp slides. It was very well targeted at the "geeky" audience and it would have probably taken me twice as long to say pretty much the same thing ...

One of his points that got me thinking was: Content before form. By which he means that the content is more important than having "nice" slides. This is a very geeky way of looking at presentations, but it's probably what most of them think. It made me wonder what geeks would think when being introduced to the Presentation Zen approach which, at first glance, seems to put a lot of focus on the visuals, i.e. the form. So the typical geek may see this and ask: Where's the content?

Here's a quick recap of the Presentation Zen way as I tried to explain it in my workshop:

  1. Audience: Your audience always comes first. You need to ask yourself what they expect from you, what they know about the topic, etc. so that you can pick them up where they are now and take them to this new and "better" place or state that is the topic of your talk.
  2. Speaker: It may sound a bit arrogant, but the speaker comes second. The audience comes to hear you speak, after all. Otherwise, you could simply send them the content of your presentation in a document (not as slides ...) and save everybody the hassles of having to travel.
  3. Slides: The slides are only there to support your talk and your message. Ideally, you should be able to give most of your presentation without any slides. The parts where you need to show something could be replaced with props or you drawing something on a whiteboard or flip chart.

With this order of things, you could rightfully ask: Where does that leave the content of the presentation? Shouldn't that show up in the list somewhere?

Well, it does - you may only have overlooked it. The Content is everywhere. It is all around us. (with apologies to Morpheus) In other words, the content is behind all of the items from that list, it's just on a different level. Let's have a closer look:

  1. Audience: If you know what the audience expects from you and what they already know (or don't know) about your topic, this pretty much defines the content of your presentation.
  2. Speaker: As the speaker, it is your job to explain the content to your audience in a way that suits their needs. You are the "transport medium", so to speak.
  3. Slides: The slides should not contain the content but support it. Your audience won't be able to remember all of the details of a 60 minute presentation anyway. So the slides are meant to provide them with mental hooks that help them remember the key points and messages so that they can look up the details on their own (and recognise them again when they see them).

So at first the Presentation Zen approach may seem like it's focussing on "fluff". But if you look closer, it's all firmly based on and driven by the actual content of the talk. This method of presenting is just not as "in your face" as your typical bullet point-laden collection of slides.

I liked the comment I got from one of the participants after the workshop: I was a bit skeptical at first ... I can perfectly understand that. It is a pretty radical break from what we (geeks and non-geeks) have come to know as being the "normal" way of doing presentations. But the content is not lost - it is in fact at the centre of everything.

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