Thursday, April 29, 2010

We have met the enemy, and it is first-draft design

Excellent commentary by Nancy Duarte on the recent NYT article. (A more readable version of the original alarming graphic is also available.)

A few things about the graphic:

1) This is an example of a diagram that was probably developed by analysts to help them understand something. Think brainstorming. The presentation mistake here (aside from the general bullet bullet bullet approach) was trying to use the same diagram to explain things to people who were most likely not part of the original discussion. Of course it stinks for that purpose. To build on Nancy’s commentary on our first-draft culture, it’s easy to imagine the excited consultants transposing this diagram from a whiteboard into PP, then – confusing the effort that went into drawing it with its value – it subsequently showing up in every PP deck that discussed the topic for the next year. What appears to be missing was the second (or third) iteration: translating the understanding into a diagram that explains the important points.

2) As a consultant, and not knowing the full story, I am disappointed and embarrassed that this diagram ever made it out of the working group and onto the screen of a client. On the surface this seems like a pretty serious delivery failure. In my own experience I have often seen (and created) some pretty confusing diagrams and models in the course of trying to understand a complex problem or system. But those things usually end their life on a white board or as a scan, they rarely survive in their original form as a deliverable because they were never intended to be such. The final deliverable often bears no resemblance to the original because after we think we understand an issue, the focus changes to explaining it. And those questions are different (see Dan Roam), so the results are usually different. I have referred to this as iterative design but for it to work, you have to actually do the next iteration.

So the moral of the story is: do the second iteration, your audience will thank you.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Are presentations a new type of media?

Think about it. Presentations are evolving into something that looks a lot like its own type of media experience. Neither speech nor document, they increasingly draw on multiple media skills:
  • Public speaking
  • Storytelling
  • Event planning 
  • Theater
  • Visual communication, 2D design
  • Document design
  • Web or online design 
  • Typography
  • Photography
  • Audio
  • Video
  • Animation
Thirty years ago, a speech was a speech. If you wanted to add additional elements (35mm slides, video, handouts, a survey beforehand, etc.), then you needed additional time and resources to get it done. It just wasn’t feasible for many ordinary people or organizations to create TED-like presentations with the skills and tools at their disposal.

(Yes, I know, you still needed the technical and creative skills, but you also needed access to the tools, and those tools all came with some non-trivial cost: either time, money, or both.)

Today the tools are ubiquitous. Not just Powerpoint, but almost everything necessary to create a great presentation (read: event) is widely available. And yet most presentations are so bad (bad to listen to, bad to watch, bad to look at).

It’s easy to blame Powerpoint, but maybe another explanation is because, as a new media form, presentations are still young. Early photography tried to copy painting (not so well), early movies copied theater (not so well), early television copied radio shows (really not well) – so maybe one reason that so many presentations stink is because the form is still trying to figure itself out.

Not an excuse to do a bad job, but if you do a great job, maybe you’re a pioneer in a brand new type of media experience.