Ten years ago today, our third year software engineering team did our final presentation. Since then, I have done many presentations with a variety of visual aids, but that presentation remains my favourite visual aid.

Some context

Our third year software projects at Melbourne Uni were done in teams of four, giving us a chance to practice teamwork without getting overwhelmed. My project was building an Exam Creation and Management System (ECMS) for one of the lecturers. Our supervisor was also supervising another project which was building a presentation tool, and they were planning to use their tool for their final presentation. With a friendly rivalry between the two teams, what could be better than putting ours to use as a rival presentation tool?

The presentation

We had already used an exam cover for our project poster, so using a complete exam as our presentational aid was the logical next step. Fortunately our client had given us a LaTeX template for exams, so the end result looked nice.

My memory of exactly how we put the exam together is hazy, but I do have an email demonstrating the advantages of this presentation method:

My main idea was to use an exam as the script for the presentation instead of a classical PowerPoint presentation. This seems like a strange idea, but it continues with our exam motif [like with the poster], and has the following advantages:

  1. It demonstrates an important output of the system [saving the time we might otherwise use demonstrating a part of the system].
  2. It saves the need to do PPT presentation (I personally dislike such presentations anyway).
  3. It is unusual, and so should capture interest.

I don’t think there’s anything private about the presentation. So, without further ado, here it is (and no, ten years on I can’t answer all of those questions).

Pure good fun

The final presentation took place after we had already demonstrated our system to the world and then delivered it to our client. There were still details to finish, but I think we were pretty relaxed about everything, which helped. I see the subversive side of me in Question 11, where it looks like I was using the final presentation to criticise some of the marking requirements of the subject…

Over the year, our team had come to work together well, and I remember it being pure good fun developing that exam and making sure the presentation covered all the areas required. It is fun to push an idea like that to its limits to see how much you can squeeze out of it. Obviously we supported features like multiple choice answers, answer boxes (lined and unlined), and a suggested time marker. All of them were able to be used as presentational aids. Question 4 was a particular favourite, turning an information dump into a multiple choice question (obviously, it should be answered “All of the above”). The cover page was fun, too, though I doubt too many of our audience looked closely at the authorised materials on it.

We didn’t set out to write a presentation system. But once we realised we had one, we tried to make it count, and I think we succeeded.

A variety of visual aids

I don’t claim to be an expert public speaker. I have given many presentations without visual aids, and they were probably more long and rambling than I would like. I’ve enjoyed using a whiteboard and building up the big picture as I go. At work, we mostly use a Slidy-based Wiki system which allows presentations to be archived for later use. And yes, I’ve also used the ubiquitous PowerPoint, though I’m less keen on it.

However, some of the most memorable presentations I’ve attended have used unusual visual aids, pictures, or tools. They may only make sense in a very specific context (like our exam presentation), but they work really well in that context. I think it’s worth considering before any presentation whether there is a different way to do it which would be effective. But make sure you’re not doing it that way just to be different!

The downsides of PowerPoint

In itself, PowerPoint is just a tool, and I have seen many excellent presentations using PowerPoint. At its simplest, it is just a way to project helpful information onto a big screen.

It does have many fancy transition effects, though in my opinion most of those end up gimmicks that do nothing more than distract the presenter and audience. But my biggest problem with it is when it ends up influencing the content of a presentation.

In its simplest form, it encourages a presentation to be divided into a certain number of slides, with each slide containing a certain number of bullet points. That’s not necessarily the best way to present complex ideas. As General McMaster said: “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable” (source).

Many have written online about problems with bad presentations. My favourite is Peter Norvig’s hilarious Gettysburg PowerPoint presentation, including the mandatory preamble trying to get the technology to work. He also explains a little more about how the presentation was made (apparently the labour-saving Autocontent Wizard greatly assisted in making it difficult to read).

Ultimately, though, I don’t think PowerPoint is a terrible tool, but I do think it’s worth considering if there are other ways to present the same message. Because the right presentation that stretches the boundaries can be memorable and a lot of fun to do.