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Submission + - Presentation Patterns Book Review

MassDosage writes: In a remarkable show of good timing Presentation Patterns turned up on my desk for review within days of me having been asked to give a presentation at a large tech conference. So I decided to read the book as I worked on my presentation and apply any lessons learned as I worked my way through it. The word “patterns” in the book’s title will be known to most software developers as a reference to the seminal “Gang of four” software design patterns book which codified common solutions to software problems. The concept of patterns originated in building architecture with the idea being that by categorising and naming solutions to problems, a common vocabulary could be built up that allowed practitioners in a certain field to communicate more effectively. This was hugely successful and has spawned the idea of looking for patterns in many other areas which is where this book comes in.

Presentation Patterns aims to apply patterns to the task of creating and delivering presentations and for the most part it succeeds. The format of the book is slightly biased towards those in the software industry as the authors all have software backgrounds. However after reading the introduction which explains the rationale behind patterns in general, as well as the specifics of how they are covered, this book should be useful to anyone interested in improving their presentation skills. The book is divided into chapters which follow the timeline of creating a presentation — starting with patterns on preparing a presentation (e.g. “Know your audience” and “Narrative Arc) through to actually building a presentation (e.g. “Defy defaults” and “Infodeck”) and ending with patterns related to the final delivery of the presentation (e.g. “Seeding satisfaction” and “Breathing room”). This temporal categorisation of patterns is logical and worked very well for me as I could read through a section and apply it to the part of the presentation I was working on at the time before moving on to the next section.

Each pattern is described using a standard format which includes: other names for the pattern; a definition of the pattern; a motivation for why it is relevant; a discussion of where it is applicable as well as the consequences of using it; and a list of related patterns. Because each individual pattern is described in the same way it’s easy to compare them and see why and how they should be applied. While patterns give advice on things that one should do, just as important is advice on what not not to do. The authors include plenty of this in the form of “antipatterns” which are described in the same way as patterns, the only difference being that they are things to avoid in a presentation, some examples being “Ant fonts” and “Disowning your topic”.

Scattered throughout the book are anecdotes from the authors that describe real world situations where certain patterns were useful and some additional back stories to how they were discovered or applied. These add some welcome variety to the text while also showing that this isn’t pure theory but has been derived out of the actual experiences of the authors (all of whom are regulars on the presentations circuit). Presentation Patterns can be read from beginning to end but after an initial read it will probably be even more useful as a reference — particularly by those who present regularly as they can look up information on a specific pattern that is of interest at a particular time.

While a lot of the patterns and antipatterns covered are fairly general and not tied to any particular technology, the authors do assume that most presentations will be created and delivered in a digital format. They try to avoid discussing any specific presentation software but in a few cases they go into more depth and describe how a certain technique would be implemented using Microsoft’s Power Point and Apple’s Keynote software. I’m a Libre Office user but fortunately most of their descriptions were easy enough to translate to another tool . Having said that, these cases are not the norm and if you are looking for a tutorial or manual on how to build presentations using a certain piece of presentation software then this book is not for you. I got the feeling that the authors were aiming for their advice to be timeless and have tried to describe generalities rather than the specifics of a particular tool.

Presentation Patterns is well written and contains lots of good advice, backed up by concrete examples from the authors’ past experiences. A wide variety of patterns are covered and the breadth and the depth of these mean that there should be something relevant for most possible usages. Not every pattern is applicable to every type of presentation so it is up to the reader to understand when and where to apply specific patterns. For example, if your presentation is primarily going to be delivered by e-mail and read by people as opposed to you presenting it in person then certain patterns make more sense than others. The patterns are cross-referenced against each other so you can see how using one might influence the use of another. This is slightly annoying at the beginning when you are not familiar with all of them but as you expand your pattern vocabulary it starts to make a lot more sense.

I finished reading this book at around the same time I completed and then delivered my presentation and I definitely learnt some lessons that, when applied, made my presentation better than it would have been without them. At the end of the day most of the content is common sense and probably won’t be that surprising to anyone who has given or viewed presentations in the past but it is still useful to have it all written down in one place. 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.

Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this book free of charge by the publisher for review purposes. They placed no restrictions on what I could say and left me to be as critical as I wanted so the above review is my own honest opinion.
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Presentation Patterns Book Review

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