Book Review: Presentation Patterns (Neal Ford, Matthew McCullough, Nathaniel Schutta)

By Rick Lakin, TMClubSites Webmaster

Presentation Patterns: Techniques for Crafting Better Presentations uses an innovative format to illuminate the elements shared by strong presentations and the habits shared by strong presenters.

The authors — Neal Ford, Matthew McCullough, and Nathaniel Schutta — are highly experienced conference presenters with a knack for exposing the truth in presentations around us.

This article is one of a series of public speaking book reviews from Six Minutes.

What’s Inside?

Presentation Patterns is a collection of patterns (best practices) which span planning, creating, and delivering presentations. Each of these practices are defined and wrapped in a healthy dose of anecotes and advice. The authors’ self-professed goal is to propagate a new vocabulary. They write: “We’re providing the terms and concepts to enable you to think and talk about presentations at a higher level than you have previously.

Among these 60+ patterns are the following:

  • Expansion Joints – The technique of building flexibility into your presentation so that it can grow or shrink to fit time constraints.
  • Unifying Visual Theme – A repeating visual element which ties your slide deck together, such as a color scheme, a style of imagery, or a specific photographic subject.
  • Weatherman – The practice of delivering slides with appropriate gestures all while facing your audience, thus avoiding turning your back to read your slides.

There are also about 25 antipatterns (things to avoid). These include:

  • Floodmarks – Logos, legal, watermarks, and other superfluous elements which tend to clutter the header and footers of slides.
  • Going Meta – The negative habit of talking about your presentation within the presentation itself… the audience doesn’t care!
  • Ant Fonts – Tiny (unreadable) text which results from trying to cram too much on a slide.

The contents are organized as follows:

  • Part I – Prepare
    • Chapter 1: Presentation Prelude Patterns
    • Chapter 2: Creativity Patterns
  • Part II – Build
    • Chapter 3: Slide Construction Patterns
    • Chapter 4: Temporal Patterns
    • Chapter 5: Demonstrations versus Presentations
  • Part III – Deliver
    • Chapter 6: Stage Prep
    • Chapter 7: Performance Antipatterns
    • Chapter 8: Performance Patterns

The middle part (Build) is approximately 50% of the book, while the first and third sections account for approximately 25% each. If you tend to speak with slides often, you’ll find this mix to be well-balanced.

There are also better-than-average reference sections in the back of the book: Glossary, Resources, Footnotes, and Index.

“We’re providing the terms and concepts to enable you to think and talk about presentations at a higher level than you have previously.”

The Price

At the time of writing this review, you can get this book for only $22.66 from amazon.com. This is 43% off the list price. A modest price!

What I Loved about Presentation Patterns

1. Solid advice all around

I found myself nodding alot while reading. The advice throughout the book is solid, and demonstrates the authors’ solid grasp of presentation skills at all levels.

2. Strong Emphasis on Slide Transitions and Using Temporality

I’ve never been a huge fan of slide transitions, mostly because I’ve rarely seen anyone use them purposefully and effectively. After reading this book, however, I’m more excited than ever about the possibilities for enhancing my presentations. I’m eager to try out the techniques described.

How could it be better?

1. Better Organization or Navigation

The pattern and antipattern descriptions are cross-referenced copiously. However, I often found myself coming to a pattern that I wasn’t familiar with (either because I hadn’t gotten there yet, or because I couldn’t remember it). Sure, I can jump to the Index and then to the other pattern, but this takes work. It screams for hyperlinking… but that doesn’t work with my finger in a paper book.

I wonder if ordering the patterns alphabetically would make it easier to navigate. One of my favorite books, Universal Principles of Design (Six Minutes review), is organized this way, and it makes sliding between related concepts very easy.

2. Line art symbols

Along with the title for each pattern and antipattern, there is a line art symbol, such as these:

A subset of these symbols are shown on the book’s front cover.

I suppose one could argue that this line art establishes their Unifying Visual Theme, but I’m not convinced that it contributes anything of value. Rather, I found quite a number of them confusing and distracting.

I’d prefer to have the line art removed entirely, though if some visual element must be retained, I would have chosen to use just eight different symbols — one to symbolize each chapter. Then, I’d display them using blue or red, mirroring the font colors used for patterns and antipatterns, respectively.

3. Typography and color choices

The choice of red highlighting for the antipattern names was a wise one; they visually pop! It’s easy to spot them buried within a paragraph. Pattern names, on the other hand, are highlighted in blue, and these barely stand out from the black paragraph text. I’d strongly recommend using bold or italics to add additional emphasis.

Somewhat confusingly, red and blue are used to highlight other text as well.

  • Part headings – red
  • Chapter headings – blue
  • Part and chapter opening text – red
  • Headings in the Table of Contents, Glossary, Resources, Credits, Notes, and Index – blue
  • The word “Patterns” on the cover – red

The primary association of red=antipattern and blue=pattern is weakened by all of the other uses for these colors. Black would have been a better choice.

What Others Think

Ratings on amazon.com are solid: 82% of reviewers give it 5 out of 5 stars.

presentation-patterns-book-review-ratings

Rod Hilton:

Having presentations backed by known-effective patterns rather than my own best guesses has resulted in a level of confidence in my presentations that I never would have imagined for myself. One singular book took me from having a crippling fear of public speaking to “one of the best” presenters one of my professors has ever seen. If you’ve got an interest in giving technical presentations, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Slashdot Book Reviews (user: “MassDosage”):

I will definitely use the book again, probably not to read it from cover to cover but more as a checklist and refresher of what to aim for and what to avoid when I work on my next presentation. The patterns format might not be for everyone and will take a bit of getting used to by those for whom it is new but on the whole I think it works very well for this material and would recommend it to anyone hoping to improve how they prepare, create, build and deliver presentations.

Everett Toews:

Whether you’re new to public speaking and presentations or have a fair number of hours on stage already, you’ll find many useful patterns in this book. Some you will already know and some you will already be doing but identifying them and giving them a name is powerful. Now you can use those names as a shorthand when thinking about how to combine patterns into recipes to deliver interesting and entertaining presentations.

Verdict

I recommend that you get a copy of Presentation Patterns for your library.

This book was written for me. I have degrees in computer science and engineering. I’m always breaking down information into patterns and categories, even when nobody else is. If you have a technical background like me, you’ll adore this book.

If you don’t have a background in software engineering, you’ll still get tremendous value (certainly worth the price of the book), but a good number of the anecdotes and references won’t resonate with you in the same way. All three of the authors have a software engineering background, and this comes through strong.

Because the book aims to define a new vocabulary for presenters, this book is ideally suited for a presentation skills book club or discussion among Toastmasters members. Let the debate begin!

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Andrew Dlugan
Andrew Dlugan is the editor and founder of Six Minutes. He teaches courses, leads seminars, coaches speakers, and strives to avoid Suicide by PowerPoint. He is an award-winning public speaker and speech evaluator. Andrew is a father and husband who resides in British Columbia, Canada.

Twitter: @6minutes
© Six Minutes, 2015.

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About Rick Lakin, TMClubSites Webmaster