Alan Kay on presentations

August 12, 2009 at 12:07 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I have always been an admirer of Alan Kay. In case you don’t know who he is, he’s one of the fathers of object oriented programming. He was also heavily involved in the creation of the graphical user interface back in the 1970’s. Anyway, I wrote to the receptionist of his company asking a question about his presentations and, shock of all shocks, he actually wrote back!

This is what he had to say:

Hi Steve,

Thanks for your kind words. I didn’t use any books to learn how to give presentations (but I most certainly did have to learn!). I was inspired by Seymour Papert who, when I asked him how he was able to be such a great presenter, told me that he had spent two years learning to “write and present to teachers”. This got me going trying to find my own solutions.

I forget what is in that reading list, but there could be a few books about the nature of theater. “The Magic Mirror” by Robert Nathan is a good one. Theater (like most arts, especially the visual ones) is all about trying to answer the question “What do we have to show the audience to get them to ‘remember’ deep things about the subject matter?” It is not about conveying information (and, the pace and short time duration are wrong for trying to teach anything but the most incremental notions).

What we are trying to help them do is get a glimpse of ways of looking at things that have not occured to them, and would be powerful if they were willing to put further effort into doing real learning.

I think the other key (which people do not like to hear) is the amount of prep it actually takes. For a 1 hour talk I never spend less than about 4 hours preparing, and often spend many 10s of hours preparing.

Part of the reason is that I need to do what it takes to reengage me in what the talk is about — what is really important, what is really cool about all this — so when I do the talk what you are hearing is just exactly how excited I feel about the ideas and the ways of looking at them. I never try to fake this.

This reengagement is the key to performing for an audience, and it is something that is familiar to every actor and musician, etc. Otherwise what one is doing is repeating rather than recreating, and it’s the recreation that produces the shared excitement.

Another thing I do which most people don’t is to give my talks in our own dynamic media. Using something like powerpoint is silly when the subject is computing (even those rare occasions when someone actually understands how to use something like powerpoint).

Bottom line: quite a bit of success in giving a talk is directly related to just how much the speaker cares about the audience and how they are trying to help the audience. From this, the learning and prep that the speaker actually needs to do follows pretty straightforwardly.


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