Some thoughts on my presentation style

I recently gave a talk at SREcon Americas. The talk isn’t posted yet (edit: the talk has been posted) but you can find my slides here.

At this point in my career, I’ve developed a presentation style that I’m pretty happy with. This post captures some of my reflections on how I put together a slide deck.

One slide, one concept

My goal is to have every slide convey exactly one concept. (I think this aspect of my style was influenced by watching a Lawrence Lessig talk online).

As a consequence, my slides are never a list of bullets. My ideal slide is a single sentence:

Because there’s one sentence, the audience members don’t need to scan the slide to figure out which part is relevant to what I’m currently saying. It makes it less work for them.

Sometimes I break up a sentence across slides:

I’ll often use a sentence fragment rather than a full sentence.

If I really want to emphasize a concept, I’ll use an image as a backdrop.

Note that this style means that my slides are effectively incomprehensible as standalone documents: they only make sense in the context of my talks.

Giving hints about talk structure

I lose interest in a talk if I can’t tell where the speaker is going with it, and so I try to frame my talk at the beginning: I give people an overview of how my talk is structure. This is the “tell them what you’re going to tell them” part of the dictum: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.”

Note that this framing slide is the one place where I break my “no bullets” rule. When I summarize at the end of my talk, I dedicate a separate slide to each chunk. I also reword slightly.

Lots of little chunks

When I listen to a talk, my attention invariably wanders in and out, and I assume that’s happening to everyone in the audience as well. To deal with this, I try to structure my talk into many small, self-contained “chunks” of content, so that if somebody loses the thread during one chunk because of a distraction, then they can re-orient themselves when the next chunk comes along.

As an example, in the part of my talk that deals with change, I have one chunk about code freezes:

And then, a few slides later, I have another chunk which is a vignette about an SRE who identified the source of a breaking change on a hunch.

This effectively reduces the “blast radius” of losing the thread of the talk.

Hand-drawn diagrams

I draw all of my own diagrams with the GoodNotes app on an an iPad with an Apple Pencil. I use a Frunsi Drawing Tablet Stand to make it easier to draw on the iPad.

I was inspired to draw my diagrams after reading Dan Roam (especially his book The Back of the Napkin).

I’ve always thought of myself as being terrible at drawing, and so it took me a long time to get to a point where I would freehand draw diagrams instead of using software.

(Yes, tools like Excalidraw can do sketch-y style diagrams, but I still prefer doing them by hand).

It turns out that very simple doodles are surprisingly effective at conveying concepts. And the rawness of the diagrams works to their advantage.

The hardest part for me was to learn how to sketch faces. I found the book Pencil Me In by Christina Wodtke very helpful for learning different ways to do this.

Sketchy text style

I use a tool called Deckset for generating my slides from Markdown, and it has a style called sketchnote which gives the text that sketch-y vibe.

The sketchy-ness is most apparent in the cover slide

I really like this unpolished style. It makes the slides feel more intimate, and it meshes well with the diagrams that I draw.

Evoke a reaction

Back when I was an academic, my conference talks were on research papers that I had co-authored, and the advice I was given was “the talk is an ad for the paper”: don’t aim for completeness in the talk, instead, get people interested in enough in the material that they’ll read the paper.

Nowadays, my talks aren’t based on papers, but the corresponding advice I’d give is “evoke a reaction”. There’s a limit to the quantity of information that you can convey in a talk, so instead go for conveying a reaction. Get people to connect emotionally in some way, so that they’ll care enough about the material that they’ll follow up to learn more some time in the future. I’d rather my audience leave angry with what I presented than leave bored and retain nothing.

In practice, that means that I’m willing to risk over-generalizing for effect.

One sentence slides aren’t going to be effective at conveying nuance, but they can be very effective at evoking reactions.

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