Patch of Mud

February 22nd 2015

Over the last 12 months, as part of the Madison Modern Excel & Power BI User Group, I have found myself presenting more and more. In doing so, I have broken the following two rules almost every time and my presentations have been much worse because of it.

So, without further ado, here are my two new golden rules for a good technical presentation.

Show the end result first

No matter what I am presenting on, I have found it is a good idea to give a preview of what the end result is. A lot of advice is to tell your audience what you are going to tell them, but with a technical demo-led presentation, this advice is best changed to "show your audience what you are going to show them".

What I should show them should be a very simplified version of what I will accomplish, lasting no more than 5-10 minutes. For example, if I am going to demonstrate service broker, then I should start out with a very simple example of what service broker is and what it can do. If I just dive in and start talking about how to set it up, people will not know why they should care. They will lose interest. Most people do not care about how to do something until they are convinced that it is something they want to do.

As an analogy, think of a garden makeover show. They almost always preview the end result at the beginning of the episode (and at every commercial break). They may not reveal everything, but they reveal that it is worth waiting for the big reveal. A technical presentation should do the same.

Never end with a patch of mud

Often when I present, I get asked questions or find myself going on a tangent to explain something. I generally do not have time in a 60 minute presentation to both explain everything AND build something beautiful. I have to choose. And if I choose to explain what I am building, I often end up at the end of my presentation with a hodge-podge final result. A giant mess of half-built pivot tables and charts. Something no-one would ever want to build.

What I should do, and what I never do, is have a "Here's what I built earlier" result. A perfect finale. Yes, I didn't build it step-by-step in front of everyone, but at least people can see what we were working towards. They can be impressed by what can be accomplished, even if they did not see every step. The people who followed the technical detail will appreciate seeing how the little details feed into the final result. For the people who got distracted and did not follow all the technical details, they can at least see the end result and evaluate again whether it is something they would ever want to do.

The analogy I have again is a garden makeover show. Flowers take a long time to grow. You do not plant flowers and, an hour later, have a beautiful garden. But, you can wait 3 months, come back, film the garden, and throw that on the end of the show. Much more satisfying for the audience. What I have been doing, by contrast, is taking an hour to plant all my flowers and then fading out on a trampled patch of mud, tools strew everywhere. Yes, the seeds are underneath and all nicely planted, but everyone is staring at me going "That's it?".

Never end on a patch of mud.

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Visitor Comments

Excellent post, Leonard. These are great ideas, and a great analogy to convey the point.

Posted by Ben Niebuhr on 23rd Feb 2015

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