Book Review: Advanced Presentations by Design

Advanced Presentations by Design

Presentation guru Andrew Abela recently published his first book Advanced Presentations by Design. Abela shares his 10-step technique for developing influential business presentations. Before reading this book, I thought I had a pretty good idea how to make a compelling presentation; it turns out I mostly knew how to throw together a bunch of non-boring slides. There are a few key themes that summarize the book for me:

1. Focus on your audience.

“Your presentation should be all about serving your audience. You need to show them that you see everything from their perspective — their problem, in their terms, their motivation and issues. This also means that you have to be bound by their constraints. There is no point in raising an important problem and proposing new investments to solve it if your audience just does not have any money to spend this year.” (p55)

2. Solve a problem.

“Focus your entire presentation deliberately and undividedly on solving an important problem of theirs (the audience)” (p6)

“Your objectives should be about how your audience will change as a result of your presentation: how they will think and act differently after they leave the room.” (p5)

3. Tell a story.

“An effective way to reframe your evidence and involve your audience is to present your information in the form of a story…Stories are a coherent whole, where one thing flows to the next, so we tend to remember the whole thing.” (p65)

“By presenting your information in the form of a story, by setting up a tension and resolving it, and repeating as necessary, you can create this physical desire in your audience for your message.” (p77)

If you make presentations for a living or just as a hobby, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. Abela does an impressive job of teaching his process and keeping it interesting. My one point of concern is that I felt he didn’t offer much help with the critical transformation from story outline (he recommends you shouldn’t open up PowerPoint until you are most of the way through the process) to presentation slides.

I also enjoyed this book because it connects to, and expands upon, the messages we emphasize in our design of Information Experiences for reporting, dashboards, and analytical tools. (Even the introduction gives us a nod: “I’ve become convinced of how crucial the last mile of communication is to driving organizational impact.”) Here is a short checklist of considerations articulated by Abela that bridge any communication of complex information:

  • When presenting data, pay particular particular attention to what is new or different.
  • Drive action. Or in Abela’s words: “What does it allow them to start doing, stop doing, or continue doing that would be difficult or impossible without this information.” (p47)
  • Respecting the challenges faced by users. Understand what problems and levers the audience has available to them.
  • Consider your audience “type”. How does the audience best absorb information?
  • Consider the presentation environment. In what context will the audience be engaging with the information?
  • Use different types of data (e.g. statistical, anecdotal). Sometimes specific data points can help focus attention better than an aggregate metric.
  • Identify problems, then give people the tools to address the problem. This parallels Abela’s storytelling technique of creating and resolving tension.
  • Users before technology. Usability before features. Abela notes: “Presentation and advice and tools have been developed for the benefit of the presenter, not the audience.” (p5)