Presenting On Basics Is Difficult

Over the last year, at work and after work, I’ve been teaching myself a lot of brand new technologies. As such, I’m reliant on others to have put together coherent, approachable, documentation, classes and videos. Let me tell you up front, that is not always the case. There are a lot of videos out there, that have the information you need, but it’s presented so poorly that it’s almost incomprehensible.

Let’s talk about it.

Mea Culpa

Please let me start with the full knowledge that I’ve frequently failed in this myself while presenting. I’m not talking to you now from the top of the mountain. I’m absolutely talking to you as a peer who is suffering along side you. I’ve spent my entire tech career teaching others (more than 30 years). I’ve spent the last 20 focused on it. It’s been my principal job for the last 12. And yeah, I’m guilty of all that I’m about to talk about. This blog post is just as much for me (as so many of my blog posts are) as for you.

The Bad Presentation

I originally went on a little rant on Twitter about this topic. You can follow the thread here if you want a much shorter version of this blog post.

As I said earlier, I’ve been stretching a lot in the technical spaces over the last year (or more). At work, I’ve been learning PostgreSQL (and you can read all about it here). At home, I’ve been working on completely unrelated technologies as a part of my hobby, ham radio (KC1KCE for those who care). I’m absolutely not going to bore you with a bunch of stuff about radios. Let’s suffice to say, I’m doing some setup & development (and yeah, there is a GIGANTIC digital aspect to ham radios, you don’t know, but I promised, no more) of some technology in this space. I’ll give you a little bit of an outline.

First, I had to get a Linux server set up. Then I needed Python & Pip. Finally, I needed an unnamed resource.

Why unnamed? Because I don’t want to throw the person I’m going to talk about under the bus. They did a poor job, yes, but we’re going to use it as a learning opportunity, not an excuse to dog pile them.

Documentation at the web site for the software was pretty thorough, but completely lacking in a “Getting started” sense. I did some internet searches and wasn’t hitting much until I find a video made by the developer of the software in question. Huzzah! And it’s introductory. Double Huzzah!

Tiny Fonts

The video fires off with the basics. Yay! Exactly what I’m looking for. Our instructor shows us how to create a Python virtual environment, and why one is useful. Then, we get the software install in the virtual environment. Cool.

Oh, but, did I mention, they develop on some huge monitor and have their code set down to what must be 8 points. There’s this huge, black screen, and this tiny, indecipherable script, on a laptop screen. So, I start zooming in. Now, you can’t really zoom inside a video. All you can do is zoom in the browser, making everything really big, and losing the ability to easily stop & start the video, scroll around the screen, all of it.

Absolute nightmare.

Keep this in mind, because through the whole experience, I’m zoomed in and scrolling around to try to figure things out and read stuff. It made it all much, much worse than it had to be.

Order of Operations

Remember, this is an introductory, how-to, video going from the basics. We’ve successfully installed the software. Our instructor shows us how to validate that the software is installed. I’m following along, pausing the video, step-by-step, in order to get my own version of the software installed. Then, they show another step.

Mine fails.

Whoops. My assumption is, what with all the pauses, restarts, rewinds (and constantly have to scroll around for the zoomed in video, ugh), that I missed a step or had a typo. I run back through the video up to this point, validating everything I did. No issues.

So, I start over, because, of course. I get to the same point, and everything breaks again.

More investigation. I still can’t find where I went wrong. Oh well, I’ll keep watching to at least glean an overview and then I’ll try to track down where there are log files so I can figure out what I messed up.

That’s when our instructor announces, here’s the configuration file. Theirs was already configured, which is why they were able to show a bunch of stuff operating…

I lost my mind.

I’ve just spent at least twenty minutes running through all the steps about three or four times attempting to figure out where I went wrong. Only to find out, I did nothing wrong. The presenter just skipped a step and didn’t bother to tell me.

Show a Little Interest

As the presentation progressed, instead of getting more excited as more of the application got lit up, I could tell that the presenter was bored out of their mind. They’re sighing. Drawling their words. Clearly not happy to have to go over basics (which, they’re not quite hitting anyway). I start paying less attention because I can tell they just don’t care if I get it or not.

I’m still struggling just to see what the hell they’re doing, let alone understand why, what implications there might be, all that sort of thing. And, I’m getting angry because I really get the sense, they do not care about me and my struggle at all. This feels like the teaching equivalent of Riddick’s Rules: Keep up or get left behind.

Why Am I Telling You This?

Firstly, because I’m unhappy. Secondly, and honestly more importantly, because while I was frustrated and angry, I also easily saw where my own presentations, especially videos and virtual presentations, could stand some improvements. So, I’m actually writing this up, not as a critique of this person (which it may still seem to be), but instead, as a guide for myself, and any of you building technical presentations, on some ideas to keep in mind. And you should be learning presentation skills. Let’s talk about the need for those ideas while presenting.

Know Your Audience

This is a common suggestion any time you start talking about presenting and teaching. On the one hand, who cares. Here’s my topic. I’m going to present it. On the other hand, you really do need to think about exactly who you’re presenting to. Mostly, you need to think about where they are likely to be in terms of knowledge level within the topics you’re covering. In this instance, the person should absolutely have known that he was presenting to people who were very unlikely to have already successfully implemented his software. The hint was in the title: “Getting Started…”.

With that in mind, you’re going to have to better gauge, just how basic you need to go. You’re going to have to think about exactly what the person needs in order to get from where they are currently, to where you’re trying to get them. Then, provide that information.

Order of Operations While Presenting

Speaking of which, unless there’s a reason, a damned good one, don’t do things out of order, like, configure it AFTER you use it, assuming one can’t simply use it out of the box (and in this case, you can’t). Considering where your audience must be, you need to lay out the order of operations very particularly. You’re doing a how-to, you need to make sure that they can follow. That means, we configure immediately after we install, if that configuration is necessary to actual operation. You can’t just start showing how the software works, but the poor schmoes trying to follow along, can’t.

Again, go back to who the audience is, and provide them with the tools they need.

Zoom It!

Once upon a time, at the dawn of history (approximately 2008 or so), there was a rather infamous presentation at the PASS Summit where the blogger table lost their minds and acted like jerks (my name is Grant, and I was 100%, the loudest jerk there).


Because the presenter said for about the fourth time, “As you can see…” when the screen had a four point font and the text looked like stray pixels, not letters & words. No, we couldn’t see anything. We started screaming “Zoom It!” over and over. Poor presenter was flustered. It was bad behavior.

But I wasn’t wrong on the cause of my bad behavior (behavior was still wrong). Think about the fact that someone isn’t sitting in front of your monitor. In fact, your monitor is inside a box on Youtube or in a virtual presentation. Further, it may not be on a big screen, but a smaller, laptop, or even a phone. So make that text legible. Is it more work for you? Yes, but you have to do it when presenting, especially on the basics.

Make the font bigger. Assume it’s hard for people to see, and do what you reasonably can to make it easier. Zoom in on graphics. Make a point of making stuff clear and easy to understand.

Give Us the Code

On making things easier, if you have a whole bunch of code, let me have it. Put it in the comments of the video. Put it on Github. Post it in a wiki. Put up a blog. Do something so that I can copy & paste the code in question. You can’t copy from a video. You can copy from a Git repo. Give me the repo.

Personally, VERY guilty of this one. I’ve even said “Oh, you don’t need the code. I’m not doing anything special.” That may or may not be true (it is), but I should always provide the code anyway.

Maintain Your Own Interest While Presenting

OK, this is not one I’ve suffered from. If anything, I get overly excited during presentations have to calm down. However, for those who just aren’t that into what they’re presenting on, it’ll show to your audience. If you’re completely put upon to do the presentation, don’t. Get someone else to do this one. Or, fake up a little interest and passion for the video. You can sigh, grunt and roll your eyes when the camera is off.


I just hope I’ve been careful enough about details that no one can tell what this is from. I truly don’t want it getting back to the original presenter. That said, this was a hard way to learn. My goal, in a very large percentage of what I do, is to make things easier for people. I’m a little ashamed about where I’ve hit exactly the problems above while presenting. I’m going to strive to be better on this one.

If you’re a presenter, I encourage you to also think through the suggestions and focus on the needs of your audience. You’ll deliver a better session. They’ll learn better. We’ll all be grateful.

8 thoughts on “Presenting On Basics Is Difficult

  • A-M-E-N!

    I’d like to add to this a few things.

    1) NEVER EVER assume. The only safe assumption you can make is that something will go wrong or not work as intended. Unless you are teaching a class where you have control over all teh machines so they are identical and reset before each class never assume that how something played out for you on the box you are using will do the exact same on others systems.

    2) It is better to start below everyone’s level and work up then to start above. When you are teaching something at its basic/introductory level never assume that the viewers are going to already know things you know so you skip them; you “assume” they know it because you know it and thus it’s not important to mention or cover.

    I too have spent many years teaching. I taught several report writing classes for generally available products like Crystal Reports and proprietary technology, custom reporting within a specific accounting software vendors product using external tools like Excel. When I was tasked with over hauling teh existing custom report writing class this vendor provided to its clients I spent many hours going through many times to make sure that anyone with any average level of intelligence could follow along and do so without getting bored or lost. There were 2 days where I and the other 2 guys (also tasked with over hauling other training classes) stayed at teh office until 3-4AM working on the training material. We had it set so that before every class all the training computers could be reset using a thumb drive which also made sure all training materials needed were available on teh students computer.

    My report writing class went on to become teh most popular class offered by this vendor and it remained unchanged for over 10 years. I went on to do live presentations./speaking engagements about the topic at this vendors annual user conferences on teh East and West coast. I made sure that the class was not just informative but fun by including a few cheesy jokes and one liners and even some props. One specific session I crated for the annual conferences was called Using the Right Tool For teh Right Job. It was about the importance of knowing which of the several available tools is best for what the client wanted to develop; the report they wanted to create. The vendor offered several custom reporting options but not everyone was good at every type of report. For example teh Crystal Reports options was a good choice for doing letter style reports but the report tool that used excel was a terrible choice for those but an excellent one for large financials. In order to drive home this point I started off the presentation with a magic trick. I brought to the stage with me a small sized McDonalds bag and pulled from it your standard small size soft drink cup. The presentation was which tool is best for getting teh soda out of teh cup. Next I pulled out your normal McDonalds straw and held it one hand. Next I pulled out an 8ft long 6 inch round McDonalds straw and held it in teh other and asked everyone which tool or which straw was the right choice. The use of this prop/trick made the message stick because it was presented in a way that is hard to forget. For years after I would hear clients at the conferences talking about the big straw guy (me). I taught that same session at these user conferences for several years before leaving the company and one year it was voted the most popular by the clients.

    I understand it’s not realistic to ask/expect those doing free YouTube videos to go to the extremes I did but the point is if you make your presentation fun/interesting you will better ensure that what you are trying to convey is understood and more importantly that it sticks.

    • I do try. I will NOT say I succeed, but I try to make the presentations entertaining. However, I am refocusing upcoming presentations on also making stuff clear. Avoiding bad assumptions as much as possible. We’ll see how it goes. Thanks for the feedback and the story.

  • Thank you, Grant, for this post. I think that any of us who have done presentations are guilty, at some level, of misunderstanding the audience and/or making a total hash of the experience. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone!

  • m60freeman

    Almost 20 years ago I use to needle my boss because he was always asking me to make the font bigger on my screen when I was showing him the latest enhancements in the application I was building for him. I was sitting in front of the monitor and he was not only having to stand behind me (eyes farther from the screen), his eyes were also about 20 years older than mine. I was a jerk, showing no empathy at all.

    He is long retired and I am now as old as he was back then, and I have to use 27″ monitors instead of the (probably 15″ or 17″) I had back then. I’m also much more enlightened and far more sensitive about the full range of accessibility issues now.

    We need to take into account that some people are color blind or need high contrast or both (neither are issues I have myself). For example, I’ve seen some applications where even I couldn’t match the legend to a chart with the lines or bars because the colors were subtle shades apart. That used to be a problem with a SQL monitoring tool I used to use, but I’m not naming it because they may have fixed that in the years since I’ve used it.

    • I feel your pain. This is why, when I’m setting up for presentations, I’ll usually go to the back of the room. If I can see it clearly, I’m assuming it’s OK for most people. Even after that, I’ll zoom in if I even think people might be squinting a bit at the screen. It’s a great habit to get into.

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