Presentation Formats

From 4 minute public speaking competitions at school, to semester-long college programs, I've delivered nearly every type of presentation format that exists. Each method is exactly right for a specific time and place; but not all formats are great for the learner. In this article you will learn about the different presentation formats and their advantage for the speaker, and the audience.

Ignite / PechaKucha

Short presentations where the slides auto-advance after a given amount of time. Ignite presentations are 15 seconds x 20 slides. Pecha Kucha is 20 seconds x 20 images. Often this type of presentation is clustered, so that you watch 5-10 presentations in an evening instead of just a single presentation. Generally they are more on the entertainment side, and do not try to do more than inspire or inform the audience about a topic.

  • Presenter advantages: if you are very uncomfortable in front of an audience, you know the presentation will be over very quickly and you won't be stuck on stage forever. Generally the presentations are given as part of a "fun" event and the audience is usually a little more gracious if your delivery isn't perfect.
  • Presenter disadvantages: even though the presentation is only a few minutes long, you will need to spend relatively a lot of time cutting your ideas down into 1-2 sentence fragments. This is typically quite difficult to do unless you know the topic very well.
  • Audience advantages: presentations are usually very entertaining; the topics range from serious to farcical.
  • Audience disadvantages: you will not be able to learn about any one topic in depth.

Moderated Panel

Short, introductory presentations given by several speakers followed by a moderated debate or question and answer session.

  • Presenter advantages: Typically involves less preparation than a full-length conference presentation. Get to be associated with the other names on the stage. This is a great boost for new presenters.
  • Presenter disadvantages: If the panel is poorly moderated, it could end up as a poor reflection on you. Being in a lineup behind a table makes it difficult to engage your co-panelists in debate / conversation (optimised for easy audience viewing).
  • Audience advantages: Although the presentations are quite short, the overall experience can be much more cohesive than a collection of Ignite talks if the moderation is done well.
  • Audience disadvantages: Generally not well moderated and tend to be boring to listen to people repeating what the last person just said but in their own words.

Interview / Fireside Chat

Typically used by radio / podcasting. In this format, the interviews will often be edited for length and sometimes to remove verbal ticks ("um", "ah"). At a live event, the interview format will typically be done from comfy chairs on a stage.

  • Presenter advantages: Generally relies on pre-existing knowledge with little to no preparation for the person being interviewed. The interviewer will have more work to do in coming up with the questions (generally these should be vetted / agreed on by the person who is being interviewed).
  • Presenter disadvantages: Without supporting slides / presentation aids it can be difficult to explain some concepts.
  • Audience advantages: A good interviewer can make this an excellent experience, asking tough questions that the person might not have opted to put into a presentation due to their delicate nature.
  • Audience disadvantages: If the questions aren't challenging, and there are no presentation aids, it can be quite boring to listen to two people talking to one another.

TED(x)

Technology, Education, Design. Or was the "E" for Entertainment? This format started at an exclusive conference called TED where both the presenters and attendees were invited to be inspired by stories from other disciplines. Today the conference has expanded to local events (TEDx), and the shorter format has become more common for conferences. Presentations should not be more than twenty minutes. Unlike Ignite talks, the slides do not auto-advance (sometimes props are used instead of slides). These talks are inspiring, and often educational.

  • Presenter advantages: shorter format means there is less pressure to cover everything. Q&A is generally covered in the hallway track afterwards, not as a "sage on the stage" as part of your presentation.
  • Presenter disadvantages: more pressure to get the presentation exactly perfect while being inspirational
  • Audience advantages: When the presenter has invested the time, and does have a good topic, the short bites can leave you wanting to dig into a problem more...exciting you with possibilities instead of exhausting you with information.
  • Audience disadvantages: this is an "inspiration" format; and the audience will come away with ideas, but not practical, hands-on understanding of a problem

Demo

Used by startups founders, coders, and everyone who wants to do a "show and tell". This format seems like the easiest to prepare because when we're sitting at our desk, everything is easy to do. Successful live product demos generally have several rehearsals and very strict restrictions about the tech environment on stage (no last minute projector changes; everything about the stage setup is known ahead of time).

  • Presenter advantages: You can pre-record the demo and playback the screencast if anything goes wrong on the day of. (It's like having a theatre understudy, but better.)
  • Presenter disadvantages: It's a lot more work than you think to get this right on stage. Congrats if you happen to get lucky, guaranteed Steve Jobs did not rely on "luck" for his keynote demos. You look ridiculous if your live demo fails.
  • Audience advantages: When it goes well, it gives you proof that the thing works. You can often learn ancillary tips/tricks as you watch someone work.
  • Audience disadvantages: Wastes your time if the demo fails (presenter is generally too occupied by trying to fix the tech to answer questions while you wait). If the presentation was not recorded, there are no follow-up resources to help you review the information.

Sales Pitch

So long as you know ahead of time what you're getting into, a sales pitch can be a great way to receive an overview of how a product works, along with the benefits the manufacturer perceives the benefit to have. One of the most famous examples of a sales pitch is the Apple developer event where new products are introduced. Of course this is a highly polished event, and no one is conning you into what the event is supposed to be, but it's an example of how this type of presentation can work.

  • Presenter advantages: You have a captive audience for a short amount of time.
  • Presenter disadvantages: No one likes a sales pitch. You are starting with a very skeptical audience and trying to build trust from there. You must learn to use benefit language, and raise interest very early in the presentation. Presenters generally perceived as a marketing people, rather than a technical so it could harm your reputation as a technologist if you are not able to answer questions correctly and briefly.
  • Audience advantages: Learn the benefits of a particular product.
  • Audience disadvantages: A sales pitch rarely goes into deep technical information; and the person delivering the pitch doesn't always have technical knowledge, so you may need to go to someone else in the company to get questions answered.

Conference Session

"Sage on the stage" delivery of information. In a conference scenario you should aim to inspire and educate people, but not expect any type of mastery. While it is tempting to simply post your slides at the end of the session and consider your work done, if you really want to be perceived as an expert in the topic; or an expert educator, you will offer the information in multiple formats. The video recording of the in-person delivery is an artefact of that one format; the slidedeck is another artefact. A blog post, blog post series for a complicated topic is another format. A screen cast with demos is another type of format.

You should not expect people to be able to do anything as a result of your presentation...other than do follow-up research on the implementation details. That said, you must provide sufficient information for the audience to have the confidence to do their follow-up research. You may also be able to provide people with an idea to implement, but without the expectation that they will have the skills to actually succeed at the implementation without additional support. If you've promised mastery in your session description, expect to get bad feedback when your session can't deliver.

Typical time slots are 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and 1 hour. Clarify with the conference how long you will have before submitting your proposal so that you don't promise more than you can deliver in your allocated time slot.

(In my informal Twitter survey showed conference sessions are the least favourite delivery method for attendees.)

  • Presenter advantages: Easier to prepare because you can be lazy about learning outcomes. Goal is to engage the audience, so it's generally accepted you'll be a bit more "fun" than "serious" in your delivery.
  • Presenter disadvantages: Often you will be recorded so any of those fun jokes that you made will be visible to a much wider audience (including potential future employers).
  • Audience advantages: Great way to get exposure about new techniques with just enough information to get you started.
  • Audience disadvantages: Often under prepared, making it confusing to follow the presentation. Often lacks implementation details, and does not have supporting resources for follow-up learning.

Webinar

Much like a conference session, but delivered online. Generally the presentation needs to be a lot tighter, and have more "forced" points of interaction to keep people engaged. For example, asking yes/no questions which people can reply to in the chat window.

  • Presenter advantages: Generally you can recycle content that you might have also presented to a meetup, or at a conference. Because you can't see the audience, it's less scary than having that many people in the room at once.
  • Presenter disadvantages: Hard to stay motivated / upbeat for the entire presentation as you can't see the audience.
  • Audience advantages: Very convenient to attend as you do not need to go to a specific venue.
  • Audience disadvantages: Delivery is often dry and difficult to engage with. Can be very difficult to not get sucked into work, or otherwise be distracted while the presentation is happening.

Conference Keynote

Much like a TED talk, a keynote is meant to inspire people. Generally they are given at the very beginning, or end of a conference...to introduce the theme for the event, or to conclude and give next actions from the event. Generally an hour in length. Sometimes a little shorter due to "conference business" (welcome from the organisers; introduction from a sponsor). Often it's okay to be a little controversial in your presentation of ideas as this will prompt discussion and "buzz" around the conference. Sometimes has Q&A, but not always.

  • Presenter advantages: Greater freedom to present atypical topics (e.g. "soft skill" topics at a tech conference, or high-level overview talks) that would normally not be accepted as a conference session presentation.
  • Presenter disadvantages: higher pressure due to the elevated status we assign the keynote. Less sympathy for awkward delivery. Presentation might need to be custom created for the event, which can take an extraordinary amount of time. Often has more people attending than individual sessions.
  • Audience advantages: Sets the stage for the rest of the event, or provides a summary / wrap-up for an experience.
  • Audience disadvantages:

Tutorial

Generally delivered as a "sage from the stage" presentation, intermixed with hands-on activities by participants. Common tutorial lengths for conferences are 90 minutes, or one half day. Public tutorials are very difficult to get right as people often bring a very large range of expectations about the session, even if the description is very explicit.

  • Presenter advantages: You get more time to dive into a topic than a "regular" conference slot.
  • Presenter disadvantages: It's just short enough that you won't really have time to dive into the topic. For example, you can expect to lose at least half an hour to technical setup difficulties with the participants.
  • Audience advantages: Extended format means you can get longer answers to your questions. Gives you the confidence to try a technique hands-on.
  • Audience disadvantages: While someone else is getting their edgecase question answered, you get bored. If the activities fail, or the presenter is disorganised, it can feel like a waste of time and leave you more confused than ever about the topic.

Facilitated Discussion / BoF

Birds of a Feather sessions are groups of like-minded people who agree to meet at a specific time/place to discuss a particular topic. Generally requires less preparation by an individual speaker. Instead they will spend more time promoting the event, and coming up with questions to prompt the conversation. Often the room is arranged with the chairs in a circle to emphasize the fact that no one person is the most important person in the room. Conversation / notetaking aids may be available to participants. The aids may be paper-based (post-it notes; whiteboard; flipchart) or digital (Hackpad, Google Doc). There are specific formats, such as Open Space Technology, and unconference that dictate how the event should happen. This description is for the individual sessions, not the event as a whole.

  • Presenter advantages: Requires less time to prepare. Informal setting feels like intimidating for those who don't like to speak from a stage. The presenter is more "connected" to the audience.
  • Presenter disadvantages: You may have to deal with dominant personalities taking over the conversation. Uses facilitation skills, not presentation skills, so it doesn't help you to move towards a conference session if you are looking to practice speaking to an audience.
  • Audience advantages: You will hear from a much wider range of people than a single "sage on the stage". Often is a great opportunity to network and meet people who might have snuck into / out of a single presenter presentation.
  • Audience disadvantages: Can by chaotic if it is not well facilitated, or feel like topic therapy 101 where people just want to complain, but don't have suggested solutions on how to deal with the issue at hand.

Workshop

A day-long, or multi-day tutorial. Generally includes a combination of "sage from the stage" presentations, hands-on practice sessions, and sometimes quizzes or other activities to reinforce learning.

  • Presenter advantages: Able to test the audience on their knowledge and have a greater chance to catch people who've not mastered an activity while they're still in the classroom.
  • Presenter disadvantages: Takes a long time to prepare. If you are re-using material, you need to run through all of the exercises to ensure they are still complete / correct and that the tech hasn't changed since the material was last delivered.
  • Audience advantages: Greater opportunity to gain mastery and test your knowledge through pratical, hands-on activities.
  • Audience disadvantages: Often not well designed, and don't have test opportunities to ensure you have attained skills to a sufficient level.