Like a brick wrapped in velvet - designing a conference presentation (or most other kinds too!)

Introduction

Did you know that the vast majority of men in the UK think they are "above average" as a driver? Obviously, about half of them must be wrong, by definition. Making a presentation often strikes me as being a bit like that. We all think we can do it - and many of us think we can do it well. Some of us are right: some of us aren't. I'm not too sure that there's much correlation between those that can and those that think they can, either!

My approach to doing a presentation is summed up in the title: by analogy, a presentation should be "like a brick wrapped in velvet". Unpacking that, the content of your presentation should be like a brick and the presentation itself should be like wrapping it in velvet. Bricks are simple, easy to pick up, usable on their own but more usable with other bricks. They're easy to grasp and everything about them is immediately obvious.

They've got a reasonable amount of 'stopping power' too.

On the downside, they're likely to scrape your skin if you're not used to handling them and they're just that little bit too uncomfortable for most people, so wrapping them in velvet makes them more user-friendly for your audience. Velvet is smooth, subtle and covers over the rough edges - that means that more people are more likely to pick the brick up.

To be blunt for a moment, no matter how good your brick might be, if the velvet isn't up to it, no one will pick it up. (To be fair I should add that if all you've got is velvet with no brick inside it people will spot that as soon as they try and pick it up, too: you need both, obviously!)

This article isn't about the brick: it can't be. You know your subject matter; you're the experts. I'm not.

But how important is the velvet, then? Well, Richard Burton managed to make reading the telephone directory sound interesting, but on the other hand, Bill Gates manages to make the future of technology sound slightly less interesting than my O-level lessons in Archeology! Believe me, that takes some doing.

Applying the analogy

So how does this rather twee-sounding analogy help in practice? Let's start at the beginning by looking at how long you're going to speak for and use that as an example.

Actually, I want to be slightly more off-beat than that. It's not about length measured in minutes: only bureaucrats measure time that way. Real people like you, me and your audience measure time by how long it feels to them; if they're engaged and interested you can talk for longer than if your audience is bored.

The velvet brick approach is that you consider the two elements of the presentation separately. First you think of what you want to say - your brick - and then you think about how you're going to say it - your velvet.

Using the approach, clearly you should present for as long as it takes to tell people about your subject: no more, no less. If you can do it in five minutes, do so. If you need 20 either negotiate a 20 minutes slot or talk about something else. You can no more "fit a quart into a pint pot" (as we say in the UK) than you can give your audience all they need to know about particle physics in 15 minutes.

On the other hand only a presentation genius could make a presentation about how quickly paint dries interesting to the general public for more than a few minutes. (There are such people but they're depressingly few and far between, believe me!)

Look at the other option - that you can explain things in five minutes but you've got 20. Listen to Pascal: "I am sorry for the length of my letter, but I had not the time to write a short one." No one ever made themselves unpopular by finishing early. When you've finished saying what you've got to say, shut up. If 30% of your presentation is waffle your audience will assume that 30% of your claims about your product are waffle.....

... worse in fact, because once they get past their 'boredom threshold' they'll simply switch off and take nothing you say on board.

So, moving on, let's look at how this philosophy works for the actual style of your presentation. Are we talking about something complex or something simple? If it's complex, does that complexity stem from the concept you're trying to get over or from the application of that concept, the details etc. That gives us three options, and none of them require PowerPoint (or "Presenter" or "Impress" or any of the other presentation packages out there) - at least not automatically. The velvet brick approach is to look at the content and then decide what format of presentation to use.

If you're like many people you'll tend to sub-consciously put the idea of the presentation together with the idea of a PowerPoint-type presentation (an example of a phenomenon we call 'Communication Impotence', but that's for another article!). Resist the urge! Don't even go near a computer to write your presentation until you know exactly what you're going to say and even then only if you've consciously decided that a computer presentation is the way to go.

If you need to, give your presentation the Fuse Test. If all the fuses in the building blew, could you still explain your concept? Anyone saying "yes" should consider long and hard whether they should be using a computer-based presentation in the first place. (Anyone saying "No" should just spend 10 seconds checking that they're the right person for the job! :) ) Computer-based presentations are actually a lot harder to write well than people think and if your velvet is alienating you drastically cut your chances of your audience actually picking up your brick which is, presumably, what you were hoping for when you agreed to speak!

A third example

You know how long you're going to speak for and you know whether you're going to use some kind of multi-media option. What next? Well, anything you like to do with your presentation, really. Should you, for example, use handouts?

According to the 'brick wrapped in velvet' approach you just look at the content and then decide the best way to deliver it. If you need your audience to have access to really complicated mathematical formulae for example, you should really think about handouts: don't compromise by saying "I'll manage without the formula". That way you give your audience only half the story.

Of course, that's not to say that you shouldn't think long and hard about whether the formulae really are part of your brick in the first place! Often they're not. A face to face presentation (1-2-many in the jargon) is best used for swaying hearts and minds, not for imparting the minutiae and details. If your brick is comprised entirely of details the approach should be something other than a mass presentation. (There's some fascinating research on this coming out of the US at the moment, looking at how much recall people have of facts that they read and those that they are told, but that's outside the scope of this particular article.)

Please, avoid the habit many presenters (particularly the ones who are important and/or lucky enough to be invited, rather than those of us trying to create opportunities for ourselves) slip into of sub-consciously saying to themselves "I've got a presentation slot, what shall I talk about?" That's putting the velvet in place and trying to fill it with brick. You might pull it off - don't get me wrong, I've seen it done superbly - but it's a much more difficult way of doing things.

The most simple way of avoiding this risk is to have a set of bricks ready in advance. I've got a number of things I can cheerfully talk about (bricks) which are just waiting for the right opportunity to arrive (the velvet). I won't risk spoiling them by forcing them into a place they might not want to go: you'll not do them justice and you'll not do yourself justice.

This article, for example, can be delivered comfortably as it is: I don't need the meet you all to outline my ideas: I had the idea for such an article for a long time, sitting on a shelf in my head......

.... waiting for the right time.....

Summary

It's not rocket science here. I've not said anything new - and probably nothing that you've not heard before, but if you like the analogy of the brick wrapped in velvet it might just stick in your head the next time you've got to stand up at a conference.


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