Presentations: Balancing Slides and Code

At Microsoft UK we run at least one free developer event a week on average, catering for all levels of skill from novice to expert. Over several years of delivering presentations at these events, I've built up an array of presentations on different aspects of .NET development, ranging from introductory overviews to in-depth "under the hood" sessions. One balance that is often a challenge to get right is the trade-off between showing slides and demonstrations.

My gut feeling is that most presenters rely far too heavily on PowerPoint slides as something of a comfort blanket. When you have an audience of several hundred and 70-90 minutes in which you're expected to entertain and inform them, the length of time feels like a huge chasm that needs to be filled. The temptation is to bring enough slides to ensure there's no possibility of running out of material. Of course, this almost never happens - instead presenters often take far too long over the first couple of introductory slides, then realise they have far too much material and wind up rushing through the more interesting stuff to finish on time. I know I've done this myself on more than one occasion, yet ultimately it will never deliver the best experience either as a presenter or an audience member.

This is not a unique phenomenon to the computing industry, but it's not helped by the way PowerPoint slides are treated as documentation by many. I've lost track of the number of times I've heard people say "I can't make the presentation, but I'll read the slides" as if the two things were interchangeable. My aspiration at least is that my slides would illuminate and illustrate the concepts, rather than be the core material of the presentation itself. I've no problem with making the slides available in printed or electronic form to those who attended the presentation, but it seems to make less sense to use them as an alternative to the session itself. Imagine trying to read a book from the illustrations alone without having the prose that goes with it! Yet this is the norm, internally in Microsoft as well as externally. I'm sure I can't be the only one to have had the ridiculous experience of seeing a slide I authored presented back to me by somebody else - who clearly had little idea of the point I was trying to get across originally!

The other challenge is finding the balance between instruction (the slide bit) and demonstration (the code bit). Across the thousands of technical presentations I've either attended or delivered myself, I've seen about every point on the scale between pure slides and pure demonstration. I've decided that there's no one hard and fast rule on the right approach: different presenters, topics and audiences merit different styles. But I'm coming to the conclusion that for me at least, the more practical code demonstrations, the better. Rather than trying to get a complex concept across purely through diagrams and explanations, I find it much easier to explore it through practical demonstrations. Furthermore, as an attendee I find it far easier to believe somebody who shows something working in a real scenario than someone who simply tells you that it works! The downside is that it's harder for attendees to review the material they have learnt back in the office than if they had more in the way of slides, which brings us back to the original problem.

Lastly, one of my managers recently commented to me that he thought I could improve my presentations by going further "off-piste". Rather than having everything slick and well-honed enough that there's no potential for digression or exploration, the fun comes when you are experimenting with things for the first time in front of an audience. For example, I've started getting audiences to vote on which language I use for a particular demo (C++ and COBOL are out for the time being!) Taken too far, this could lead to all kinds of blind alleys, but I've certainly seen this used to good effect by DevelopMentor in their training courses. The concept of extreme programming certainly comes into its own when you've got several hundred people looking at your code quality and spotting bugs before you compile!

In summary, I plan to work on making my presentations:

  • Have fewer, higher-quality slides - mostly diagrams rather than text

  • Include more demonstration than presentation - I'm aiming for an average 70:30 ratio, depending on topic

  • Travel further into "off-piste" territory - trying things out based on audience feedback

If you've attended one of my presentations in the past, I'd be interested in your comments - feel free to add your honest feedback below. I've delivered some that I'm truly proud of and others that cause me to shudder when I remember them (TechEd 1997 was one event I'd prefer to forget...)

Comments (12)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Tim Sneath: "My gut feeling is that most presenters rely far too heavily on PowerPoint slides as something of a comfort blanket." The "PowerPoint: 99% bad" syndrome is an easy one to fall into, and Tim is right that canned

  2. Anonymous says:

    Flatlander has some interesting thoughtson the powerpoint madness piece by Tim Sneath. (Partially this post is also to test

  3. Anonymous says:


    Apologies – whilst your name is familiar I cannot remember if I have been to one of your presentations, but you get my vote.

    I cannot think of anything more boring than listening to a presenter effectively just reading the slides.

    As a regular attendee at Microsoft presentations for the last 10+ years, mostly in the UK although I did get to spend a week in Redmond for the Office 2003 beta, I have seen a steady improvement in the presentation because of the increased use of demonstrations – long may it continue.

    Personally, having been lucky enough to notice a pre-compile bug, I now find part of the fun of attending is trying to spot them.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Tim, having seen my first ever Micosoft presentations last year (I’ve seen 4 now if you include one last week which was given to my company), yours are on the ‘must see’ list. I do however blame both you and Mike Pelton for me buying a Tablet PC on the way back from a presentation last year!! oh and now I want a SPOT watch (how’s it going with that anyway?)… sorry back on track! I fall into the category of more demos please, but it would be nice if these could be made available for download, warts and all…. as I look back at some slides and go ‘hmm no how did he code that again?’

  5. Anonymous says:

    Tim, I’ve seen you present two or three times now. You do it well. Your delivery has a sense of infectious enthusiasm which I only see in those who really enjoy what they do. Your balance between slides & demos at the VS 2003 launch event last year was spot on AFAIC.

    However, I don’t think there is a ‘magic ratio’ for presentation content vs. demonstration content. It depends on the audience, the material, the duration etc. Personally I like to have detailed notes to take away from the presentation for future reference *as well as* a good demo that inspires me to cut code.

  6. Anonymous says:

    <p>Personally I try to scatter my presentations with demos – it breaks up the delivery and *most* people like watching demos – especially if coded from teh ground up (although you have to be careful not to try anything too ambitious – there’s only so much an audience will bear of me and my terrible typing in one stretch). Demo sequences that build on eachother work well too – you can end up with a reasonably sophistcated "thing" by the end – but they take some planning.</p>

    <p>Tim is right in that spinning off on an audience influence tangent can be fun (although can be fraught with danger if you haven’t been down that direction for a while – but that just adds to the thrill 😉 )</p>

    <p>So personally i tend to be relatively demo heavy and use the slides as a backdrop to the narrative.</p>

  7. Anonymous says:

    LOL, obviously Tim’s blogging engine is more sophistcated than mine where you have to enter HTML 🙂

  8. Anonymous says:

    Interesting things that you say. I think however that you could be even more creative when doing presentations. I for example have code examples in the ppt and use mouse or pen to make remark in the code while presenting it. This could also be done with graphs and diagrams. You just build the background, use a pen, and make drawings on the slide.

    But I really like they idea with off-piste coding.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Tim, I’ve seen you present a number of times and you have a rare ability to combine demos, slides and humour (oh well maybe not!!) in your sessions. I do not think you have anything to worry about 🙂

    I think a *limited* number of slides/diagrams etc can often help structure and illustrate a presentation (and keep the presenter on track!), but the demos/coding sessions tend to be the most interesting bits! It of course also depends on your audience and what their expectations are – those attending an MSDN event are likely to want to see you "coding" (and maybe make a cock-up or two, which they no doubt have great pleasure in pointing out!)

    One of the most revealing and enjoyable talks that sticks in my mind is one by Don Box when he did a keynote at the UK .Net launch conference, London, a couple of years back – no slides, no visual studio etc… just notepad, the command prompt, csc and some salient points… Nice…

  10. Anonymous says:

    Like many others, I have enjoyed several of your presentations and I would definitely say you are one of the better (if not the best) UK evangelist?

    In my view – yup, you are quite correct – more spontaneous code stuff and fewer slides. I think that the mark of a good slide deck is –

    a) to introduce some a concept from 50k feet

    b) good enough to remind someone about the concept say 2 weeks later

    To digress…During a presentation, you often feel compelled to take notes. What I would prefer is to get hold of the slide deck after and use that for a reference. Then the deck doubles up as a bunch of notes + a concept reminder.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Detta tycker jag är ett mycket intressant ämne. Själv gillar jag verkligen att göra presentationer. Och när man håller på att förbereda sig ställer man sig frågan hur mycket som skall vara slides och hur mycket som skall vara kod?

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