It’s a new year and one of my resolutions is to post more – and to write up my thoughts on the books I read throughout the year. Looking at my Recent Reads page, it’s obvious I’ve let that lag a bit… With that in mind here is the first of what I hope is a relatively steady stream of reviews.
Based on effusive praise from Kathy Sierra, I picked up Cliff “Beyond Bullet Points” Atkinson’s latest book, The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever. Atkinson‘s book is an exploration of how social media sites like Twitter are changing the landscape of public speaking and while I wasn’t quite as blown away as Kathy was, there certainly are some good points to be found in this quick read. I’ll start with the positive and then finish up with my criticisms.
I can understand why Kathy is so fond of this book – throughout, Atkinson reminds speakers of a vitally important lesson: it’s about your audience stupid. Too many speakers epitomize the “me me me” approach of presenting and that’s a recipe for failure. Though I find the “four tweet” model bit minimal (especially for longer talks), it is a useful exercise that I’ll be incorporating into my talk prep. Again, the notion here is to focus on your audience and really think about the key ideas you’re trying to communicate. I also like thinking about Twitter sized bites – making your talk “Twitter friendly” is valuable advice.
The concept of a presentation home page is rock solid and I think I’ll play with that as well; starting (and fostering) conversation should be the goal of a modern talk. Considering the wealth of ways people can consume information today, live presentations need to offer something compelling to capture an audience. Turning a talk into one leg of a more immersive experience is a worth exploring.
While there certainly were some strong points in The Backchannel, I felt it took too long to get to the key points which is ironic considering Atkinson’s repeated advice to do so in a presentation. I suspect there was an effort to inflate the page count a bit – the first half of the book could be condensed quite a bit. Case in point, I was surprised to see a chapter that was devoted almost entirely to setting up a Twitter account. A number of the graphics did little to add to the material, in many cases, they stated exactly what was already on the page. It also felt like the book was written on Twitter – so many of the sentences and paragraphs seemed to adhere to a 140 character limit.
Atkinson has a great list of ways the backchannel can blow up but not nearly enough advice on just how to recover when faced with those situations in real life. I understand he wants us speakers to *think* about how we’d handle that situation (and that’s great advice) but I was hoping for more of his thoughts here; I wanted more hard won experience from people who’ve lived to tell the tale. The backchannel blowup case studies were useful but again, I wanted more “here’s what they should have done…”
Though a bit light on content, the last couple of chapters make this book worth reading. Atkinson reminds us to focus on our audience and our message and he has some practical advice for dealing with the realities of modern presentations. Just as we can’t turn back the clock to when bullet point laden talks were the norm, we can’t put the Twitter genie back in the bottle. But we can do a better job of engaging and leveraging these tools to make more compelling presentations.
Speaking of interesting videos, Stuart Halloway has been beating the drum pretty hard for Rich Hickey‘s talk: Persistent Data Structures and Managed References. I was actually in the audience (along with Glenn Vanderburg) when Rich gave this talk at QCon London and I concur with Stu – this is something you’re going to want to watch. A couple of times. Then watch it again. You’ll thank me (and Stu) later. Oh, and you really should go to QCon. I mean it, it’s a great show with some unique talks.
As Neal Ford explains, the NFJS Anthology series has been reborn as a monthly magazine and in the current edition, you can read my take on test infecting legacy organizations. I’ve been a proponent of the testing meme for most of my career but I’ve also spent much of that time convincing reluctant coworkers (and managers) that testing was in their best interest – the article takes my talk of the same name and puts it to paper. All NFJS attendees get a complimentary copy of of NFJS, the Magazine, but anyone is free to subscribe. Each month you’ll get an eclectic mix of articles written by NFJS speakers on topics they are passionate about; if you’d like to see a sample article, check out Jared Richardson‘s A Case for Continuous Integration [PDF]. Enjoy!
I’ve been a big believer in Keynote since shortly after it came out – at first I didn’t see what all the fuss was about, but after using it for a few months, I had to create a presentation at work and I was reminded of how painful PowerPoint is. There was no going back, I was sold on Keynote. Like so many things in the Apple ecosystem, it isn’t any *one* feature that makes the difference, it’s a collection of little things, some of which you didn’t even know mattered until shown another way. Unlike it’s cousin from Microsoft, Keynote is designed to help you create slides that won’t make users yak and it’s particularly well suited for those that believe in the Lessig method (see his Free Culture talk for an example.) At this point, I can’t imagine using anything else for a real world talk.
Every year, we’re treated to a new version of Keynote (and the rest of its iWork brethren) which means we get a collection of new features: transitions, themes, better charts and now new ways of sharing our work with others. Keynote 09 is no exception, this year we’ve got magic move and you can even use your iPhone as a remote. Before this year’s conference series kicked off, I went ahead and upgraded and while I’m quite pleased I did run into one issue.
As I crafted one of my early decks, I noticed that one of my favorite transitions from Keynote 08 was gone – for example, I couldn’t find confetti.
It may seem strange for an unabashed promoter of Presentation Zen and slide:ology to be married to a transition, but I go out of my way to use them judiciously. A slew of Google searches later, I had my answer – some transitions were considered obsolete in Keynote 09. Enabling them is quite simple, simply go to the Keynote preferences and select “Include obsolete animations in choices.” Perhaps I should just accept the wisdom of Apple and, ah, transition to the new animations but I’ve just got to have my confetti!
The other big change I noticed was the vastly improved printing dialog. While nothing has fundamentally changed in the dialog, with 09, you get a handy preview of just what you’re going to print (or save as PDF – one of the unsung features of OS X.)
You can also change the page setup from within the print dialog, something that is very handy when you’re creating PDFs for handouts.
Oh and for those of you that like the black or gradient background, if you don’t want to kill an ink cartridge, select “Don’t print slide backgrounds or object fills.”
Keynote is an invaluable part of any presenter’s toolbox – if you think its just an Apple version of PowerPoint you’re wrong. If you haven’t tried it out, you owe it to yourself to use it for your next talk, it really does make a difference.
A recent chat with my good friend Andy Glover (of “Jolt award finalist” easyb fame) has found it’s way up on JavaWorld’s podcast page. Andy has a good overview of our conversation over on the Disco Blog. I had a blast covering a topic near and dear to my heart – have a listen!