Friday, January 23, 2009

Effective PowerPoint Presentations

Based on PresentationZen: simple ideas on presentation design and delivery by Garr Reynolds (2008)

PresentationZen by Garr Reynolds challenges individuals and organizations to rethink how they use PowerPoint to enhance their presentations. He insists that “A good oral presentation is different from a well-written document, and attempts to merge them result in poor presentations and poor documents.”

"Communication is about getting others to adopt your point of view, to help them understand why you’re excited (or sad, or optimistic or whatever else you are.) If all you want to do is create a file of facts and figures, then cancel the meeting and send in a report. Make slides that reinforce your words, not repeat them. Create slides that demonstrate, with emotional proof, that what you’re saying is true not just accurate.” (Seth Godin, author of Meatball Sundae)

Reynolds urges us to skip the bulleted lists and screens full of information. PowerPoint presentations are visual and should rely on the same principles and techniques as films or comics to get their message across.

Presentation Principles
Citing Chip Heath (Made to Stick), Reynolds lists six key principles for ensuring that your presentation is effective and memorable. They are:
Simplicity – Reduce ideas to their bare essential elements: What is the key point? Why does it matter?
Unexpectedness – Surprise people. Show people the gaps in their knowledge and help fill those gaps. Take people on a journey.
Concreteness – Use concrete words and images rather than abstract expressions.
Credibility – Provide context and meaning to support your data. Use quotes and put things in terms people can visualize (‘hallway as long as a football field’).
Emotions – Make people feel as well as think. A photograph of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina will be more effective than facts and statistics.
Stories – People love listening to and telling stories. They’re an effective means of communication because they neatly package together information, visual images and emotion.

Design Principles
Reynolds endorses seven design principles:
Signal vs Noise Ratio – Avoid cluttering up your presentation with irrelevant information or graphics. Keep it simple. For example, use your company logo on the first and last slides – not on all of them.
Picture Superiority Effect – Pictures are more memorable than words. Use good-quality stock photos, not clip art. (Reynolds recommends
Empty Space – “Empty space can be dynamic and active through careful placement of positive elements.”
Contrast – Use contrast to emphasize the most important elements.
Repetition – Reusing certain elements provides unity, consistency and cohesion.
Alignment – “Nothing in your slide design should look as if it were placed there randomly.”
Proximity – Group related items together to help viewers understand their relationship.

Don’t try and use your slides as a handout. “Projected slides should be as visual as possible and support your points quickly, efficiently, and powerfully. The verbal content, the verbal proof, evidence, and appeal/emotion come mostly from your spoken word.”
The written handout should be able to stand alone and should combine background information for people who may have missed the presentation as well as in-depth content (e.g. additional graphs or statistics) that couldn’t be covered in the actual presentation.

Delivery Principles
Pay attention to your audience’s information needs.
Connect with your audience both logically and emotionally.
Get out from behind the podium and keep the lights on. The central figure is the human presenter – not the slides.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mexico City - Ingenuity and Improvisation

Mexico City – large, crowded, ancient, modern. I have just finished reading First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the capital of the 21st century by David Lida, and I am both fascinated and repelled.

David Lida is a freelance journalist who moved to Mexico City 20 years ago. He has a voracious curiosity and wide-ranging interests, and his book provides a window onto life in this city of 20 million inhabitants (8 million in the Federal District - the central core - and another 12 million in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Topics range from indigenous saints to shopping malls to wrestling matches to modern art.

The chapter on the justice system reminded me of how fortunate we are in Canada. Our justice system isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly far superior to the system in Mexico City. Investigative police pay for their own bullets, and many police ‘rent’ their bulletproof vests from their station chiefs. Three out of 10 people arrested have never been told what crime they have been charged with, and 80% of the accused never go before a judge. Everything in jail has a price – from food and water to floor space to sleep on.

But residents are creative and adaptable. For example, in response to fears about crime, a boutique opened in 2006 selling four separate lines of high-fashion bulletproof clothing – from $300 for a t-shirt to $3,000 for a suit.

Lida sums it up by saying, “Yet Mexico City is still here. Despite its foibles, it’s still going to grow, it’s still going to be important, and most significantly, it’s still going to be driven by ingenuity and improvisation. What gives the city its dynamism today is the resilience, ingenuity, and talent for improvisation of its residents.”

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Remember You're a Womble!

In the 70s, I spent many contented holidays with cousins in England. They had young children so I have happy memories of pantomimes and Dr. Who and The Wombles. I was delighted when Jurgen Gothe played the Wombles' signature tune on his CBC radio show Farrago.

I am somewhat amazed that a family of fat, furry creatures who collect litter was so popular with children. I wonder if it would be nowadays. However, as an adult, Uncle Bulgaria still delights me. And the show’s message of picking up litter certainly fits with modern-day concerns about the environment.

Self Promotion: Writing a Killer Resume

Resume writing is often difficult for people because they are uncomfortable listing their skills and accomplishments – it feels like bragging. In addition, people often view resumes as functional documents rather than the advertising tool that they really are.

I’ve helped a number of people revise their resumes, and I really enjoy it. It’s a positive, satisfying task to help people showcase their talents and abilities. There are a number of techniques which are helpful:

Focus on Your Skills and Accomplishments
Focus on the most important information by organizing your resume around your key strengths
Take advantage of the added flexibility to include volunteer and personal experience and to highlight the relevant information from different jobs
Define your primary strengths and then provide examples of how you excel in these areas
Provide Concrete Examples
Provide concrete, measurable examples (e.g. increased sales by 10%)
Include volunteer experience (leadership training, chairing meetings, organizing a community event)
Customize Your Resume
Use the same words as the employer uses in the job ad
Organize your resume around the qualifications the employer is looking for
Don’t Be Afraid to Be Different
Use colour and formatting to make your resume attractive
Try a different layout (brochure, flyer)
Include quotes from previous employers or references

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Stroke of Insight

The human brain is awesome. It’s ability to process and store information amazes me, and I’m always interested to learn more about how it functions. As a result, My Stroke of Insight: a brain scientist’s personal journey by Jill Bolte Taylor has been a fascinating book to read.

The author, a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, is 37 when a blood vessel explodes in the left side of her brain and she experiences a massive stroke. The book documents what she experienced during the stroke, her eight years of healing, and the lessons she gained from her experience. She offers hope that the brain can heal itself as well as really practical advice about how to help someone recover after a stroke.

In addition, Taylor explains what she learned about how the left and right sides of the brain work: “When I lost the function of my left brain’s neurological functions, I lost not only function but also a variety of personality characteristics that were apparently associated with these circuits of aptitude. Recovering cells of function that were anatomically linked to a lifetime of emotional reactivity and negative thinking has been a mind-opening experience. Although I wanted to regain my left hemisphere skills, I must say that there were personality traits that tried to rise from the ashes of my left mind that, quite frankly, were no longer acceptable to my right hemispheric sense of who I now wanted to be.”

Reading the book focussed my attention on the lists and plans and self talk that were originating in the left side of my brain while the right side of my brain was simply appreciating and experiencing life. I realized that I am a far more pleasant person, both to myself and to others, when I manage to mesh the two sides of my brain instead of permitting the left side of my brain to dominate.

All in all, My Stroke of Insight is a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Battlefield Band

I chose my first CD by Battlefield Band because I liked the cover image and the title (as in "dookin' for apples'). But I continue to buy their CDs because I really enjoy their music. It’s harmonious and lively, and the words are haunting. Celtic music seems to capture that blend of sadness and joy that is the essence of human life.

Battlefield Band (named after the Glasgow suburb of Battlefield) started playing together 30 years ago. Their music is a mix of traditional ballads and new songs played on a mix of ancient and modern instruments - bagpipes, fiddle, synthesiser, guitar, flutes, bodhran and accordion. One of the constants has been Allan Reid who has written a number of original pieces for the band.

The Road of Tears, the band’s 2006 album, is about emigration over the centuries – from Scottish people forced off their land to modern-day asylum seekers. Here is one verse from the title track (music and words by Allan Reid). (listen)

We crossed the sea to flee the hunger
Wasted rags of skin and bone
The fields we left were black and barren
A ravaged land no longer home
The coffin ships were filled with mourning
We’d one last look back to the land
The quiet men, the women keening
It almost broke our hearts and minds
To leave the fields, the fields of tears

I’m Going to Set You Free by John Spillane on the Dookin’ album moves me and reminds me to let go of guilt. (listen)

If you did, if you did, even if you did
Been where you shouldn’t have been
Seen what you shouldn’t have seen
Dreamed what you shouldn’t have dreamed
That doesn’t mean that you have to be paying the price forever
I’m going to set you free.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Help! I don't understand!

I am often frustrated trying to read a manual or using online Help – it’s difficult to understand, or it just doesn’t address my problem. And yet, I’ve been writing software documentation for Axon Development Corporation for the past five years so I know just how challenging it can be to write useful documentation.

Axon provides Canadian and US trucking companies with an integrated trucking and accounting software package. It covers everything from choosing a delivery route, to paying drivers, to sending out invoices, and evaluating profit and loss. Axon upgrades its software weekly so the documentation is constantly being revised. It’s a complex but fascinating task.

No one person at Axon can give me all the information I need to write the documentation. I learn the details of new features from the programmers, but I find out exactly how the customers use the program and the problems they’re having by talking to the support staff.

It’s often a balancing act between what the programmers consider to be best practices and how customers actually use the software. I’m an intermediary between Axon staff and their customers as I can appreciate both perspectives.

Technical writing is precise and methodical. It’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle as you carefully piece the words together so that the user will understand what you’re trying to say. You often need to provide the information in more than one way and in more than one location.
Axon provides both field-by-field explanations of how to most effectively use the system and How Do I that provide step-by-step instructions on how to complete a function (e.g. How do I create a check by Direct Deposit?). We also provide timesaving and troubleshooting tips (e.g. keyboard shortcuts and explanations for error messages).

User statistics indicate that new customers are the biggest users of Axon’s Help. As a result, we’ve tailored a lot of the Help to beginners, explaining how to move around in the system, providing a checklist of the tasks that need to be done as soon as they go live, and providing them with lots of How Do I for the most common initial tasks (How do I set up a satellite interface? How do I process a regular payroll run?).

It’s more difficult to assist the experienced users as they have very specific questions that are unique to their company’s situation. We know they are frequently preparing Reports so we’ve enhanced the help by providing examples of how to fill in the fields in order to obtain specific kinds of information.

Over time Axon staff have come to rely on the Help to provide them with detailed information about how to do certain tasks. And they are now championing the Help, recommending it to their clients and requesting revisions and additions so that they don’t have to verbally explain the same thing over and over again to different customers. That for me is a sure sign of success.
My sincere thanks to Axon's owners and staff who are awesome to work with.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Economist

I am frustrated by newspapers - they don’t give me enough information, and they’re always geared to the latest crisis. I want in-depth coverage that includes the background and the consequences of an event. I want high-quality writing and a global perspective. Subscribing to The Economist has proven an effective way to meet my need for information about current events.

The Economist is a dense, information-packed publication. Each weekly issue is over 75 pages and covers politics and economics in every corner of the world. Like many news magazines, they had a special holiday issue. But instead of relying on photos for a recap of the year’s events, The Economist had a variety of articles on so-called “light” topics ranging from the history of cookbooks and the appeal of music to the relationship between Sufism and the Islam of the Taliban. There was a fascinating article about Mexico City’s mayor and his attempts to make the city more livable (from the world’s largest artificial-ice rink in the Zocalo and free Viagra for men over 70 to dedicated bus lanes and cycle paths).

The magazine has regular special reports that are extremely informative. Recent reports have covered the automotive industry in the emerging markets of China, India and Brazil, and the politics and economics of Spain and India.

And the writing is a delight as it is rich and literate. Here’s an example from an editorial column about Britain: “Look at Mr. Cameron’s current image. Labour’s caricature of his astringent economic approach as ‘do nothing’ is unfair but evocative; it has awakened an almost olfactory memory of Tory responses to past downturns.”

A great many of the articles in The Economist are available online, and I would highly recommend taking advantage of this resource if you enjoy good writing and are interested in gaining an international rather than simply a North American perspective on current events.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Italian Job

I watched The Italian Job, a 1969 adventure movie starring Michael Caine with Noel Coward and Benny Hill in cameo roles. It is well worth watching.
The movie starts out slowly, and it reminded me of how much faster-paced movies are nowadays. But then the action picks up, and there is an absolutely wonderful car chase involving three Austin Mini Minors as they race along sidewalks, through shopping malls, and up and down stairs. It's a funny movie and good entertainment.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Houses Around the World

I love to travel. And because my budget doesn’t extend to flying to foreign destinations every month, I read a lot of armchair travel books. Some of my favourites discuss setting down roots in a foreign country by renovating a house.

Part of my fascination is with the process of building or renovating a house and the stories the stones tell of previous lives lived in that house. Renovating a house also means that you’re no longer a tourist, and you begin to interact and establish relationships with the local people so there is a greater in-depth understanding of how they live.

Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes have gained an international following for their books about renovating houses and living in France and Italy. Here are some other authors who may be less familiar.

Tracy Kidder, House (This isn’t a travel book, but it provides a fascinating insight into all the different trades that are involved in building a family’s first home in the United States)

Angela Murrills, Hot Sun Cool Shadow: savouring the food, history and mystery of the Languedoc (France)

Marjorie Price, A Gift from Brittany (France)

Matthew Parris, A Castle in Spain (the renovation of a medieval house in the Pyrenees)

Martin Kirby, No Going Back: journey to mother’s garden (establishing an organic farm in Catalonia)

Annie Hawes, Extra Virgin and Ripe for the Picking (village life and people in Liguria, the Italian Riviera); Hawes has written two other books about Calabria, Italy and Morocco and Algeria that are on my reading wish list

Caroline Seller Manzo, Casa Nostra: a home in Sicily (the author and her husband and his family repair his family’s home in Sicily – descriptions of food to make your mouth water)

Ferenc Mate, The Hills of Tuscany and A Vineyard in Tuscany (the first book is about renovating a house; the second is about establishing a vineyard and producing wine)

Tony Cohan, On Mexican Time and Mexican Days (living in San Miguel de Allende and travelling through Mexico)

Tahir Shah, Caliph’s House (renovating a riad in Casablanca, Morocco), I’d also like to read In Arabian Nights about traditional Moroccan stories

Waiting to be read: A House in Fez: building a life in the ancient heart of Morocco, Suzanna Clarke