Write the Docs: Christina Elmore – Death by Documentation

I’m at Write the Docs today in Portland and will be post­ing notes from ses­sions through­out the day. These are all posted right after a talk fin­ishes so they’re rough around the edges.

Christina wrapped up the first day of talks. She opened by saying how she regretted the title for her talk, because her thinking has evolved.

She started her talk speaking about poor presentations. Most people blame PowerPoint for creating bad presentations. What Christina believed, though, was that presentations were trying to document themselves. This is what led to the wall of text on a slide. People were conflating the goals of documentation and presentation.

What’s the difference between the two? First, documentation is self-guided and meant to be read. Presentations are presenter-guided and meant to be heard and watched. With these differences in place Christina proposed a principle, good presentation slides are bad documents. The differences above are key and important. The way our brain processes the information in each differently.

People raise questions about that principle, though.

  1. How will I remember?
  2. What will I share?
  3. What if I’m not there to explain it?

The first question gets at questioning who really matters. You, as the presenter, are not who matters. Your knowledge and memory from the presentation are not central. Its that of the audience. To remember, create a story structure. This benefits both your audience and your working memory. Rehearse your presentation to create retention. These both work for your audience and you.

Matt Haughey’s guide to better presentations covers the question. Ultimately the content of your slides should not be the key thing you are trying to share. As Matt wrote,

The one thing you might notice in my advice and previous slides is that they don’t really make much sense outside of my talk. I’m ok with that, since I hope people get to attend the talk or see video of the talk.

The third question asks if you should be creating a document or a presentation. If you require those walls of text then perhaps the information is not best explained in a presentation. Sometimes the best deliverable is not a slide but a report or a text-based document.

What’s at stake here is that our documents suffer as well when we don’t understand the difference between documents and presentations. To start you can, well, document the difference between these formats of information. One way to look at this is to distinguish between a presentation and a conversation. They aren’t the same thing.

Christina ended with a bold proposal: work to eliminate the presentation within your organization. Amazon and LinkedIn have done this; they have meetings begin with 10 minutes of silence where everyone reads over the same document. Then they discuss things in a true conversation. By doing this you can ensure presentations happen only when necessary. You can then nurture a healthy culture of presentation.