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I was going to buy leather patches for the tweed jacket ...

By Dave Snowden  ·  April 4, 2012  ·  Memories

Yainnis Gabriel recent reflection on his 2008 article in Organisational Studies triggered some thoughts on my own presentation style over the years, and some good memories.  I still remember my first public presentation at the age of 10 on the 14th October 1964 on the stage in Bryn Coch Primary School.  It was a mock election and I was the Labour Candidate, and one of the few to present a political platform rather than promise free sweets and extended playtime.  I'm pleased to say I won handsomely and the next day saw the first Wilson Government elected after a decade or more of Conservative rule.   I played my part in that as well, dashing between polling stations and party headquarters in the High Street with slips of numbers of those who had voted so that the recalcitrant could be 'knocked up' before polling closed.  The style then was to stand front and centre of the stage in shirt, tie and shorts (we were not allowed long trousers until we went up to Grammar School) with a few record cards in one hand but no visual aids.  Looking at the school web site to create the link it was interesting to find that the buildings are unchanged on the outside, but then it was a new, I had started in somewhat less salubrious buildings in Glanrafon Road (I can still smell the constipation inducing outside toilets) that have have now been converted to a television studio.

The record cards stood me in good stead through school and university debating tournaments, although as I got more skilled I used less and less and of course in impromptu debating competitions at the annual Eisteddfod you just had to speak coherently for exactly seven minutes without notice of subject or side.  All good training.   That moved into the hurly burly of student union meetings both small, and during occupations large.  One glorious moment after the police had evicted us in the early hours of the morning the venue was a packed Alexandria Square in the University of Lancaster.  You may have noticed a theme in this, no powerpoint, direct interaction with the audience and a long apprenticeship.

After University I took a long break from presentations, most of my public speaking was in committee meetings with the odd larger gathering but nothing substantial.   After charity work I went into HR& Training, then Finance and finally system design and consultancy around Decision Support Systems.   It wasn't until there was a sudden need to training clients that I picked up again on the old arts.  Then it was a mixture of demonstration and wipe boards with a strong element of ad hoc involved; these were the days before application software training became a highly structured and codified business.  Then I became Business Unit Manager, moving to General Manager but with a small team.   We had a new product to launch and build market and after a few frustrating seminars at which I had to watch poor quality presentations by one of my salespeople I took over that aspect of the business.  That resulted in a happy few years in which Kath (Initially a consultant then marketing manager) travelled the country giving seminars (our primary generator of sales leads) with the later addition of Penny Tranter from the Met Office and an occasional cast of account managers and sales people.  I got a little obsessed with staying in country pubs with rooms who would provide receipts for accommodation and food which were always less than a normal business hotel but which included a certain volume of shall we say lubrication.  Late night sessions with a distilled product of the Gascony Region became an essential precursor to the next days events which I closed and opened.  We got obsessed with transparencies, printed at cost and in those large cardboard cutout folders that you carried around in LP Record cases.  We also had a whole ritual of the way the room was arranged, something I rarely bother with these days.  Good memories, and many of the pubs are still there.  I thought about publishing a business guide to the locations at the time as a supplement to the Which Good Pub Guide which had a permanent presence on my desk in those years.

I suppose you could call that a pre-powerpoint period, but as the business grew I got involved with early moves into DataWarehousing and that involved some complex pictures so I started to use Freelance on the IBM PCs that were becoming common place.  Its obsolete now, but at that time it was the first available.  It was that subject that started me on the conference circuit, albeit in a small way.  From there I moved into strategy and then a rather more confused role after the IBM takeover when one of the things a took up (a logical progression from decision support and data warehousing with its ROLAP and OLAP tools) was knowledge management.   We sponsored a conference at the newly built Hilton Hotel at Heathrow Airport and I had a keynote on the strength of that funding and I never looked back.  It was the one and only occasion on which I had to fund a conference to get a speaker slot, a distinction not shared with many of my IBM colleagues then or subsequently.

Thinking back my then I was using PowerPoint but I soon got bored and presented without slides, relying on voice and narrative to paint mental pictures.  Larry Prusak was doing the same with the result that IBM's two main public speakers on the subject consistently failed to use the official IBM KM deck (I learnt to hate that term), it almost became a mark of ignorance to appear with said deck which was appalling.  Mind you when they produced Larry and I were invited to the session.  I was disinvited as a disruptive maverick a few weeks before.  They couldn't do that to Larry, but instead got him to make a brief (non-slide) presentation then sent him away while a small group of apparachiks cobbled together some platitudes from literature they had read the night before.  At that time, the human side of KM was the important thing and that was better achieved without slides.  Especially as the number of KM conferences was huge.  I tried to batch them together, once doing five in a day in London.  With that pressure you are much better without slides as you can adapt.  Too many people just pour out the standard over reversed presentation without thinking.  If you are without slides then you have to engage with the audience and the audience speaks to you when you are prepared to listen to it.

I carried on slide-less for years, confusing conference organisers who wanted to hand out packs.  I got fairly malicious at times.  Reading the handouts when I arrived and then presenting the five most stupid things people say about knowledge management, using material from the following speakers that they had pre-published.  The number of people using the equivalent of the IBM deck at the time made this easy to achieve.  I developed the habit of writing and rewriting notes on sheets of paper in the half hour or so before I spoke until a structure was fresh in my find and I knew the basic teaching stories I would use.  So a side of me always knew which stories and which points were coming next, and if I got lost or was unsure I would fall into the easy pattern of a story that would entertain but give me thinking time.  The one exception to this was overseas, where language is an issue, especially if you have a regional accent as I do.  Then some slides became important.  

WIth KM fading and my increasing interest in complexity slides started to become important again.  People found the concepts difficult, the Cynefin framework had to be shown to be understood.  From time to time I got a venue where you could write on paper that would then be projected, but those were rare.   Again the adhoc nature was there.  I ended up with a standard set of slides and about half an hour before my actual presentation would pick a small number, sequence them, maybe make some minor changes and then present.  That was also when I started to record and podcast.  That means that slides are important as you are speaking not only to the audience, but to people who are note present.  I've continued that to the current day, but over the last few months have changed the style, moving away from bullet points to slides with a Gaping Void cartoon, or a picture such as that shown on an all back background.  This seems to be a good compromise, you create an image around which you can weave a hopefully not too contrived metaphor.  And of course I use Keynote, never Powerpoint

But if you were to ask me for my all time preferred medium, then its the blackboard.  When I used to lecture at Sohia Antipolis they had rolling blackboards and over a two day class I could move slowly from left to right, up and down, drawing and writing.  If they had not closed it I was going to add leather patches to my tweed jacket for authenticity. Chalk and blackboard slow you down to the pace of the audience in a way that wipe boards and powerpoint do not.  You can be more progressive, more thoughtful with a few coloured chalk sticks and an expanse of inviting black before you.