Wednesday, February 08, 2006

How to give a presentation without speaking

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily recommend that you do this. Rest, fluids, and fever-reducing medication (all of which I am employing) are better for your health than powerpoint.

So I've been running a low-grade fever since last Wednesday, which culminated yesterday with an even higher fever and a cough, and continued today with the complete and utter loss of my ability to speak. Tonight was also the night that my robotics team was supposed to present our proposal to the class; we had the speeches rehearsed and the slides all ready.

I'm a big believer in putting as few words as possible on a powerpoint slide, which meant that many of mine consisted of a picture, or maybe a labelled diagram. Without the dialogue, it looked like a bad photo slideshow. So what's a presenter to do?

This (link to powerpoint presentation).

For background, my group of three was originally going to model a cello-playing robot, but changed tracks and decided to go for evolving martial arts robots instead. My section was on the physical modeling of the robot in code, and was followed by my teammates (Matt T and Andrew) with sections on the virtual sensors and the genetic algorithm we'll be using. I've just included my segment here.

How did it work? Quite well, I think. The class was laughing through much of the "talk" and I believe I communicated what I wanted to very well. The three of us were even able to take questions afterwards (with me typing on a blank text document on the projector).

Why did it work, despite breaking what I consider several cardinal rules of presentation design? Let's go through these one by one and see.

  • Lots of text is bad. I circumvented this by having the text appear line by line - think of it as subtitles.
  • No, really. Text is bad. The focus should be on the presenter. It was, thanks to the disclaimer at start that I had no voice and would be miming vigorously in compensation. And I did mime vigorously in a way that supported the text. (Ok, some of it was for humor value too.)
  • Animations are bad. See first bullet point. I only used appear and disappear - and it worked great with the diagrams, so I could bring their attention point-by-point to the model I was building onscreen.
  • Humor is good. Didn't break that one at all. In fact, it was my saving grace; silence is awkward, but laughter isn't silence.
Mannerism is another. Instead of apologizing for being voiceless and thinking "oh, my presentation will be terrible, I can't speak" or trying to ignore it and rasping out things in a harsh gutteral tone (frankly, I don't even know if I could have done that - my throat was really gone), I was very matter-of-fact and took it as an opportunity instead of a setback or something to hide. Ok, so I don't have a voice. So I did this! And we go onwards to coolness!

'Course, another big reason why it worked was because I was in a fantastic class with good-humored friends, and everyone knew I didn't have a voice, so that helped with the forgiving of the lots-o-text. So thanks, Robotics, for putting up with a rather deviant presentation tonight.

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