Tag Archives: preparation

Tools of the trade: Camera

Over the past few months, Warren and I have shared some thoughts (and hopefully some useful tips) about presentations, and visualising data.  Today, I’d like to suggest that one of the most valuable tools you’ll use in your work isn’t something you learned on a course, and isn’t an object provided by your employer (if you have one) – it’s a camera.

Now, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that both Warren and I feel that improving the quality of your images – whether graphical figures, or illustrative pictures – can have a huge impact on the efficacy of your argument.  But while the internet has revolutionised our ability to access images, I think it’s well worth considering pictures you can take yourself.  

We’ve all seen the stock images of well groomed people in suits, shaking hands in airy, light-filled offices.

But who wouldn’t prefer to see the meeting they’re actually in?


It’s not unusual for me to dig out my camera when I want to use images to illustrate a concept in a presentation.  Here are a couple of examples.

Scenario 1

When working with researchers or analysts, they often find it tricky to step back from the detail of their work, in order for them to decide what the key messages are, and how best to present them.  In order to communicate this message, I decided to use the metaphor of a recipe.  If you wanted to create a tasty dish, it would be a mistake to use all of the ingredients at your disposal.


You need to trust your experience and expertise to pick out the really important stuff.


Thank God, a custard and kiwi-free tomato sauce.

Scenario 2

As Warren has described previously, there is something of a magical (and memorable quality about grouping items in threes.  Setting aside ancient rules of rhetoric, I wanted to use a mnemonic to help people remember that I’d make three points; remembering that there are three points is the first step to remembering what they were, after all.  As conceptual points, I lacked an obviously visual way of communicating them.  So I decided to use an image which focused on the ‘three-ness’ instead.

You might think that you need a big swanky camera to take pictures good enough to be used in a presentation or report, but in fact the majority of the images I’ve used are taken on a small digital point-and-click camera.  What’s more important is getting reasonable lighting (which is why, in both of my examples, the pictures were taken on my kitchen worksurfaces, where I could add all sorts of lights).  I then used a free image editor (Microsoft Picture Editor, in my case) to crop the images and increase the saturation, or make other changes.  And if you really don’t have time to conduct a mini photoshoot, don’t forget the power of the cameraphone – if you’re out and about, and spot a nice image, perhaps an entertaining contrast or even a 3D exploded pie chart in the wild, you can quickly snap it and put it into your next presentation; after all, when you’re taking your own pictures, you can be certain there are no issues with permission to use them!


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Tools of the trade: Pen and paper

Last week, I talked about the lizard brain, and the way it tempts you to follow the line of least resistance whenever you encounter a challenge, or try to do something new.  This week, I’d like to suggest one way that you can break out of your normal routine, by reverting to what Warren and I call one of the ‘tools of the trade’ – pen and paper.

It is easy to start a project – presentation, report or figure – by switching on the computer and opening up a familiar piece of software.  The first thing that many people do when preparing a presentation is open up Powerpoint, and click onto those inviting text boxes: title here; bullet points go here.  Copy and paste the slides from the last presentation you gave, tweaking the date and venue on the title page.


We’ve all been there. Picture from alice_c, flickr creative commons. 

 But when you fall into this pattern, the medium takes over, and it becomes more important than the message you’re trying to get across.  When you find yourself going onto autopilot, it’s a great chance to stop, reflect, and go analogue – get out paper and pens.

Paper allows you the chance to really explore what it is you’re trying to achieve, before you get bogged down in the technicalities of making that happen.  We often ask people on our courses to have a go at drawing a figure which shows data that we’ve given them, with only some coloured pens and A1 paper.  They’re often uncomfortable at sacrificing accuracy, but going analogue provides them with a chance to think through the decision-making process of which data to focus on, and how to present it most effectively.  Those are the key concerns, rather than worrying about how to get the chart wizard to show what you want.

Getting out a pen and paper also stimulates bits of your brain that might otherwise be neglected; research suggests that writing by hand has a powerful impact on the parts of your brain involved with cognitive processing and working memory, and using techniques such as drawing pictures or mindmapping can help you see new connections, highlight priorities and can also suggest new ways of communicating your message. 

Once you start adding in coloured pens and post-it notes, you can really embrace the flexibility and creativity of going analogue.  And we practice what we preach!  Planning for our most recent course (contact us if you’d like to know more, or book us to help your organisation) looked like this:


 Post-it notes naturally bring out everyone’s playful side.  Bring the joy of the analogue into your work!


From the brilliant postitwar.com.


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It???s as easy as riding a bicycle: learning to fight your lizard brain

The concept of your lizard brain is one that Warren has mentioned before, but it was brought home to me, repeatedly and painfully, over the weekend.  Having happily left my stabilisers behind 25 years ago, I spent last weekend in Wales, relearning how to ride a bike. I wanted to get to grips with riding off road, going downhill and over rocks, roots and even jumps. 

I’d love to pretend this is me, but it really isn’t. Photo by Dave Cheeseman.

The mantra of the weekend was ‘brakes are not your friend’; the idea is to reduce your speed when you approach an obstacle, then release the brakes while actually riding over it.  This sounds straightforward, until your lizard brain takes over.  I approached a small step and released my brakes as instructed. The front wheel dropped and the back wheel followed, by which time I was going a bit quick, and my lizard brain leapt in, jamming on my front brakes as hard as I could.  Over the handlebars I went, in what was – apparently – a spectacular yet graceful encounter with the ground. 

The term ‘lizard brain’ was coined by Seth Godin, to describe the resistance we all encounter when we try to do something challenging.  The lizard brain is a remnant from our evolution, and it wants us to make life as easy as possible.  It wants us to be warm, fed, comfortable and preferably not being chased by large predators.  When we’re not in a survival situation, the lizard brain still has an impact, but now the drive is to make life comfortable and to avoid modern difficulties or hazards.  This weekend, the lizard brain kept yanking on my brake levers.  When you’re presenting data, the lizard brain makes you put this year’s numbers into a chart or table that you originally designed last year, or the year before.  After all, nobody complained, so it must have been alright. 

The lizard brain suggests that you stick to using slides you’ve prepared from previous presentations.  It makes you revert to using bullet points and complex diagrams that take ages to explain.  And the lizard brain always says that, because your colleagues think it’s OK to take an hour to prepare for a 30 minute presentation, you can only spend that amount of time too. 

We all do it.  We set out with the best intentions: this time, I’m going to redesign this data and make it really shine; this time, I’m going to ride with the brakes off; and the lizard brain pops up.  But if you want to overcome your lizard brain, here are three things that I’ve taken away from my weekend on a bike, and that you could bear in mind when you need to overcome the resistance to visualising your data or preparing your presentation differently.

1.  It’s uncomfortable

Your instinct is to be cautious, to not make yourself a target for criticism, to do what’s universally accepted.  This is, of course, totally sensible.  So when you’re trying to do something new, expect it to feel awkward.

2.  It takes time

Habits, whether working habits, or the habits of a lifetime (so far) of riding a bike, take time to break.  It also takes time to learn new habits.  Try and factor that time in, whether it is blocking off some time in your diary to look at good examples elsewhere, to finding images, or to make sure you put aside as much time as you can to prepare a presentation.

3.  It brings its own rewards

Yes, it feels awkward, or difficult to justify to colleagues.  Yes, it doesn’t come naturally, especially when you’re changing long-standing habits.  But yes, it does feel good when you’re able to fight back and overcome your lizard brain.  Not just achieving whatever it was you wanted to do: design a new approach to communicating numbers; give an excellent presentation; get that funding; but also knowing that you’ve had to consciously decide to do things differently.


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Don’t let Larry in the room

Glad I took the risk of travelling through the snow down to London yesterday to catch Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen fame speaking at the Apple Store on Regent St.

Having watched and read a lot of Garr’s work, I was familiar with some of what he talked about, but there were plenty of new angles which helped me think afresh about how to present. I won’t go over the whole presentation here, as I couldn’t do it justice. Instead I’ll pick out just one really useful metaphor which will hopefully help me cure one of my main presentation weaknesses: preparation time.

I can procrastinate with the best of them, so it was my usual last minute rush to prepare a new lecture I was giving to postgraduates last week. The subject, interpretive policy analysis, was known to me (my choice, in fact) but there’s still a lot of work to be done working out structure, what to include and what to leave out, even before considering any slides. Fact is, I suffer from more than my fair share of the lizard brain.

In discussing preparation, Garr used the metaphor of the tough, sealed PVC box that headphones, remotes etc so often come packaged in which leads to the overwhelming frustration ably demonstrated above by Larry David.

So why do the companies package them that way? Because it’s easy. Or more accurately, it was the easiest thing for *them* to do. If they’d thought very much about their audience (customers), then the company would have realised that using that packaging would probably hack them off.

It’s easy to underprepare for a presentation. A common way round this is just to tell an audience as much as you know about a subject in the allotted time, especially when you’re immersed in it. That may be easy, but it’s not good for your audience who are subjected to a stream of information displayed on over-stuffed bullet slides. Without a clear structure or, as Garr described it, a ‘presentation arc’ (i.e. moving *from* one idea at the beginning *to* another idea at the end), your audience will either be seething like Larry David or dropping off from yet another case of Death By Powerpoint.

Creativity involves a lot of editing; sometimes it’s painful but removing some of that material you’ve spent hours slaving over is a necessary part of producing clarity in the finished product. I know this from experience but that doesn’t stop it being difficult work which is all too easily put off until the last minute.  That’s OK when it doesn’t affect anyone but yourself but when it comes to presentations, you risk wasting not only your time but that of your audience too, leaving yourself with a room full of Larrys.

Of course to get as good as Garr requires a lot of work but, as he said last night, the key is to focus on the next step and maintain your ‘kaizen’. For me, the next step is to make more time for preparation and sure no Larrys creep into my next presentation.

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