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Markus on Development and Publishing

This is Markus Egger's professional blog, which covers topics such as development, publishing, and business in general. As the publisher of CoDe and CoDe Focus magazines, and as the President and Chief Software Architect of EPS Software Corp., Markus shares his insights and opinions on this blog.

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Friday, November 12, 2010
The Presenter’s Fallacy: Lack of Context

The other night, I read a mildly interesting article in one of my all-time-favorite “just for fun” programming magazines (Game Developer Magazine). It talked about the lack of context in many games. What made the whole thing very interesting to me is that they illustrated the example with something that is just as applicable for technical presentations, and it happens to be one of my pet peeves: Too many presenters explain things in great detail in ways that can be followed by just about anyone in the room, yet still, attendees have no concept about what the heck the presenter is talking about, since no context was ever given. The best explanation is no good if people do not understand what it is you are trying to explain!

The article used an interesting paragraph to showcase what happens when there is a lack of context. Here is that paragraph:

“The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, then that is the next step. Otherwise, you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things; that is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run, this may not seem important, but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will just become another facet of life.”

There you have it! Quite simple to understand, isn’t it? It is clear and concise English language. A good English speaker should have little trouble making sense of this and walk away enriched and enlightened. (And if you aren’t, go and read that same paragraph one more time right now!). Still doesn’t make much sense?

Well, of course it doesn’t. While it may all be normal and simple English language, the above paragraph doesn’t teach you anything at all unless you know what it is about. So let me set the stage and provide the context: Today’s presentation is about how to clean your clothes. Let’s call it “Bachelor’s Laundry 101”. Now, go and read the above paragraph again. I’ll wait.

As you can see, it now all makes a lot more sense, and it really is quite simple. And the same thing applies for any kind of presentation or communicative situation (and really a lot of other things too). I can’t begin to tell you how many sessions I attend where the speaker doesn’t seem to understand this simple aspect. Another area where I encounter this a lot is during requirement analysis. A customer will explain to me in great detail how things are to work, but it is like pulling teeth to get to what the heck he is even talking about.

Example: I can explain in great detail how the new C# “await” keyword works and how the compiler internally handles it and re-arranges code and all that. But it will be completely meaningless to anyone unless I previously explain why the heck anyone would want to use “await” and what it does and what problem it solves. Seems trivial, but more often than not, the speaker forgets to mention little details like that. And when that is forgotten, it will take you half the session to deduce the context from the explanation. Once you have that, you can back-track and try to figure out how the explanation applies, and by the time you have done that, the speaker has moved on into more complex areas and you are lost. You feel that “the talk was over my head” when it probably shouldn’t have been. (Ironically, the speaker my sound clear and coherent and may demand great admiration from the audience, because he clearly understands things that people feel are too difficult to understand for them. Not so!).

So there you have it: If speakers (and other people) would just learn to add context, we could comprehend things more easily and at a more rapid pace!



Posted @ 4:09 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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