Presentation Maturity

Test conference season is upon us, and so begins the onslaught of “slides” from  powerpoint / keynote / (google docs presentation app whatever-it’s-called). I have seen hundreds of presentations on a wide variety of subjects over the years and thought I’d share what I know about what a presentation tells you about the presenter.

The “freshmen” presentation

“New” presenters typically have a lot of slides with a lot of bullet points. If someone says this is their first time ever presenting, you will want to sit in the front row where you can view the 8-point type clearly. If you need to, you can scootch your chair a bit farther forward for clarity. If you can’t get a seat in the front, don’t worry – fortunately these people will read every bullet point. If you are confused about the topic, the freshmen also have that covered – their first few slides typically contain definitions from wikipedia or, complete with pronunciation guides (“metric” is a very difficult word to pronounce).

Design is typically black text on a white background (aka the default powerpoint design)

The “sophomore” presentation

The sophomore presentation experience is all about design. Two main things differentiate the sophomore from the freshmen. The presenter has some experience (i.e. they’ve explored powerpoint more). In order to show their presentation maturity, their presentations now use one of the “fancier” design templates available. Most often, these use dark text on a slightly darker background – something that looks “advanced” on a laptop screen, but looks like an oil spill on a portable conference projector. There is slightly less text per slide than the freshmen, but they make up for the space by splattering bits of clip art on each slide. Sometimes the clip art has something to do with the topic, but the main rule is that it has to fill up dead space.

Speaking-wise, sophomores don’t generally read every slide. Because they are experienced in presentation, they no longer practice presenting with their slides, and because they no longer practice with their slides, they tend to forget what they’re talking about.

The “junior” presentation

Now, you’re beginning to see the cream of the crop. These people have read about presenting, and are often (self-proclaimed) “experts”. For example, they’ve read that bullet points are bad, and pictures are good. Their presentations are filled with full page photos stolen from web sites taken on their trip around the world. The photos are very nice and give the audience something to focus on. Unfortunately, the photos rarely have anything to do with the presentation. And – since the juniors don’t practice their presentations either, they often end up talking about what’s in the photo rather than what they meant to talk about. You know when you’ve attended a presentation by one of these folks, because you’ll walk out talking about how good the slides were rather than saying anything about the content.

The “senior” presentation

These are the people you pay to see. They may use any of the techniques above – pictures are a must, as is enough text to show off their credibility. Also – and this is very important – senior presenters absolutely must dedicate at least 25% of their allotted presentation time to talking about themselves. If you are a senior presenter, it is imperative that you sound like you know you’re stuff, and to do that, you need to establish credibility. These people may include the definition, but the difference is that they invented the word!

Post-graduate presentations

These folks tell stories and structure their talk so that you remember the important points and why those points are important to remember. Slides don’t matter – they can be as effective with bullet points as they can with a picture of a cow farting. At a typical software conference, there are 2 of these (give or take 2). But they’re worth the search.


  1. KenJ
    Posted September 27, 2010 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Nice post Alan and I generally agree.

    After a talk I gave recently in Europe, I had another presenter talk to me about US presenters vs. European. To be clear I enjoyed his talk and of the talks in the track his was clearly the best. He said we tend to be more focused on stories than on facts and details.

    He was talking about the presentation style of another presenter we both know that I would list in the Post Graduate category and the author of a resent book on Exploratory Testing. His comment seemed to imply that the fact based approach was better. I asked him point blank if he liked the American style and he said yes, it was enjoyable and he could still remember the few key points from such a talk, it just however didn’t seem normal.

    As for the buckets in your post I know I try to land near the post-graduate end but I also know that when I don’t practice and prapare enough I can land squarely in the sophomore range. Practice is important no matter how good you are.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Posted October 12, 2010 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m pretty new to presenting still overall, so I have to say the best result I’ve ever had was when Jon Bach asked me about my process for making slides.

    I told him I start with written paragraphs and trim out everything I can. It is my goal to have all photos with a title except to start and finish one day.

    My favorite talks are all about the stories. I’d like to do some talks with video and music instead of slides, or a big notepad instead, or actual posters to slide between of just photos, but I’m not there yet. I think demos have potential as well. The all demo presentation would rule! The show me state indeed.

    • Posted October 13, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      That’s similar to my approach – I start with bullet points (an outline) until the flow is “right” – then I take out the stuff that bores me.

      Finally, I fill in blank portions of my slides with /relevant/ pictures (or when in doubt, a cow farting).

      I can’t evaluate my own presentations, but know when I’m tired of seeing text on a screen.

  3. Posted October 13, 2010 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    I think you should cross reference your model for presenters with Weinberg’s patterns of software organisation…

Leave some words for the weasel

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