Rod Hilton's rants about software development, technology, and sometimes Star Wars

Book Review: Presentation Patterns

I don’t post book reviews here very often. Typically I write up a few paragraphs about a book when I finish it and post it to my Goodreads account, which I consider enough of a review for nearly every book I read.

But “Presentation Patterns: Techniques for Crafting Better Presentations” by Neal Ford, Matthew McCullough, Nathaniel Schutta is a bit more than a book. I’m not joking when I say this book has actually changed my life. As such, I felt it was necessary to devote an entire post to it to draw extra attention to it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I know the authors personally, sort of. I’ve had a conversation or two with Neal and Nathaniel at various developer conferences, though I seriously doubt either of them would remember or even think my face looks familiar. McCullough I’ve interacted with quite a bit more, but I once managed to get him to tell me he wanted to punch me in the face. If you’ve ever met Matthew, you’d know this is pretty much like getting Gandhi to call you a stupid asshole. The point is, I’m not affiliated with the authors or getting anything out of promoting the book. I just found it extremely valuable and wanted to share it.

In any case, Presentation Patterns is excellent. The book is full of tons of real-world, usable tips, ranging from how to speak clearly to how to organize your thoughts to the actual mechanics of doing specific things in Keynote and Powerpoint. It’s very detailed in this way, rarely leaving the reader wondering how to do a thing the book describes. Reading this book after seeing many presentations by speakers like Ford, McCullough, and Schutta was an eye-opening experience, something akin to seeing how the sausage is made.

The book also contains a number of Antipatterns, so it’s a valuable resource for learning what to avoid. Many of the most common patterns we see with Powerpoint are identified here, with explanations of why they are so terrible and should be avoided. It rang very true for me, pretty much every presentation that has bored me has been an exemplar of these antipatterns.

One complaint is that the book is a bit short on visual examples, in some places. I think every pattern covered should have had actual screenshots from powerpoints which illustrate the pattern (or antipattern). Many of the entries had such screenshots, but not all. Some patterns and antipatterns left me wondering what they would look like in real life. I happen to know because I’ve seen so many talks by the authors, but I think more graphics would have benefitted those who do not regularly attend conferences and user groups.

I particularly liked that the book didn’t spend much time dealing with basic speaking concerns, like getting over nervousness or imagining your audience in their underwear. The approach the book takes is that you will beat nervousness by knowing what you’re talking about and what you’re doing, and the book aims to give you those tools. Getting over nerves comes naturally when you have a killer presentation. In effect, this book isn’t “Public Speaking for Dummies” it almost assumes you’ve already read such a book, and specifically want to get the delta between regular public speaking and giving technical presentations.

The reason I say this is more than a book is that it has drastically altered my life in a very positive way. I’ve always wanted to speak more, but I’ve had a crippling fear of public speaking for as long as I can remember. Whenever I’d watch talks or see friends prepare to give their own talks, I was extremely jealous of how easily it came to them, since the mere thought of speaking in front of a large crowd would send me into a panic.

I’ve known that giving technical talks is important for my career, and I’ve always wanted to do it, so I hoped to pick up this book to see if it had any good tips. I discovered as I read it that most of my fear of public speaking actually came from a fear of looking foolish or ignorant of my subject. What this book gave me was more than a handful of tips, it gave me real tools to build confidence in my own presentations. The very next presentation I built has so much obvious influence from this book that it probably borders on trademark infringement. Compare that to the presentation I built for my master’s thesis and I think you’ll see how much benefit this book provides.

I had given one presentation in the 29 years of my life prior to reading this book. I built and gave one presentation during the process of reading it as well. Since completing it a little over a year ago, I’ve given 4 more. If that’s not a transformative experience, I don’t know what is.

Not only am I more comfortable speaking now, I’ve discovered I’m actually pretty good at it. After my first presentation, I was asked by my CS professor to re-present the material to the Math department as well. After my most recent full-class lecture (1 hour, 15 minutes in front of about 40 people), students told me that I was a really interesting teacher and asked me if I’d take over a particular class they didn’t like. Another presentation had students staying 15 minutes after class to discuss my presentation because they found it so interesting; I watched as I presented, and I had the eyeballs of almost every student, which wasn’t the case for the other student presenters. Another still resulted in the professor telling I gave “one of the best student presentations [he’s] ever seen.”

I had a peer tell me he thinks I go overboard with animations and that it comes off as unprofessional. Two years ago, feedback like this would have devastated me. Today, I’m actually so confident that I’m not overusing animation but actually using it effectively to demonstrate information that I can shrug off his feedback as being, simply, wrong.

Having presentations backed by known-effective patterns rather than my own best guesses has resulted in a level of confidence in my presentations that I never would have imagined for myself. One singular book took me from having a crippling fear of public speaking to “one of the best” presenters one of my professors has ever seen. If you’ve got an interest in giving technical presentations, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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