Looking Out To Sea

Public speaking and presentation: post match analysis

My recent foray into the realm of public speaking went really well. I presented what was initially going to be a 30 minute talk on functional programming, which in the end last for closer to 45 minutes.

During development the topic changed from Haskell to functional programming in general to, ultimately, code reuse. I used Haskell as an example language to show ways in which custom control-flow operations (from the basic map and fold to the more abstract >>=) lets you write less code with more consistent semantics and pave the way for parallelising code if necessary.

The slides and notes are available on GitHub. Both documents are written in Markdown. I used Pandoc with support for the Reveal.js presentation framework to create a slick set of slides. (I think the look of the slides came across really well, compared to the usual Powerpoint fare.)

I wrote most of the presentation in prose format to begin with so that I had my ideas fully formed. I think this really helped form a cohesive story. In the past I’ve gone straight from “half-baked idea” to “creating slides” and it has been really easy to become confused about what I should be saying at each stage. Coming up with an initial story meant that I really knew what I was trying to say and most of the time knew what slide was coming up next without peeking.

I am definitely more influenced by the Takahashi and Lessig schools of presentation authoring — really minimising the amount of stuff on screen. The other important thing is not to read what is on screen. I think this is where coming up with a narrative first was really helpful: the slides I produced in the end were illustrations of my words, rather than the words being descriptions of my illustrations.

Obviously the totally-minimalist presentation style isn’t appropriate if you want to show code, which often requires four or five lines of text. But it’s still much better than two columns of small text with bullet points and a graph all on screen at once.

One thing I did learn from the actual presentation on the day — apart from the need to assume technical difficulties with the projector — is that the colour and detail you get projected onto the wall (even in a dark room) is much worse than the slides on your screen. I did a test run with the television at home but that still didn’t give me a proper idea how bad the final display would be. Err on the side of thicker lines and greater contrast between colours. I had one tree diagram illustrating an inverted tree. The branches of the tree were just black lines and became totally invisible when projected despite looking fine on my screen and on our television.

The total experience for me was a lot more relaxed than I was expecting. Whether this was due to good preparation, confidence in my knowledge of the subject, more self-confidence or other things that I can’t pinpoint right now, we’ll never know. I felt really in control and for the rest of the day was on a total high.

The feedback on the presentation was also very positive — that it ran at a measured pace, I didn’t seem flustered or get myself confused, I didn’t try to say five things at once and so on. In general people seemed to believe that I was in control, which in this instance I really felt I was. A miracle.