Tag

KF #35. Tech Savvy

272: How to Learn New Skills with Treehouse’s Ryan Carson

By | Podcasts | 2 Comments

 

 

Treehouse founder and CDO Ryan Carson shares lessons learned from helping thousands of professionals pick up new skills. We talk about the proper mental state, being realistic about your calendar, and how new confidence emerges.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The number one thing that stops people from learning
  2. How to embrace the discomfort that comes from learning
  3. Just how long it takes to learn coding, anyhow

About Ryan 

Ryan Carson is the CEO and Founder of Treehouse, where their mission is to bring effective, valuable and accessible technology education to everyone so they can change their lives and change the world.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Ryan Carson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Ryan, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Ryan Carson
It’s an honor. I cannot wait to chat.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. So I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. And I see in your fun fact you mentioned that you are an Eagle Scout. I’d love to know, is that something that comes in handy frequently, or any interesting stories or significance here?

Ryan Carson
It’s funny because I had kind of forgotten I was an Eagle Scout for a large part of my life. I moved to England for 12 years, and people don’t even start campfires in England, so my Boy Scout skills are not really needed. And then I came back to America, and I have two amazing boys, and I thought, “You know, we should maybe try to get into Boy Scout and we’ll see.”

And so we went, and I went to the meeting, and I said, “You know, I was an Eagle Scout,” I kind of whispered it. And the Scout Master looked at me and he kind of stood up straight, and he said, “Ryan, you are an Eagle Scout.” And it just made me smile, you know, I just thought that was great. So it’s just fun knowing, “Gosh, I know how to start fires and survive.”

I don’t love kind of the sad part of how Boy Scouts are kind of ended up on the side of some political issues. It makes me a little sad, but I love the organization, an idea of integrity and hard work and being kind, and all those kind of things. So I’m glad I did it. My dad made me finish to be an Eagle Scout really. He kind of said, “Ryan, you’re going to finish this whether you want to or not.” So I’m thankful to my dad.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I had my brother’s dog for a little while with the project, but all is well that ends well.

Ryan Carson
Oh, well. You know, a good hustle.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember if he finished it or…I’m pretty sure he did. I think he is an Eagle Scout, present tense.

Ryan Carson
That’s just, to me, that’s just sad. I feel sad for him.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s a lot of thing on your brother. I wasn’t keeping tabs as much.

Ryan Carson
That’s okay. I won’t blame you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so now, speaking of outdoor things, or maybe not at all, so you are the CEO and co-founder of a business called Treehouse. Now, do you make treehouses or what are you about there?

Ryan Carson
Sometimes I wish we did. But, no, we’re an online school, and our students are adults who are looking to change their lives by learning how to code. So we have 80,000 enrolled students, so we’ve gotten kind of big. I’ve been working on it for eight years, and I love my job. I kind of skip to work every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool. Well, so now, I want to dig deep into this learn to code business as well as kind of learning and skill acquisition even more broadly. But, first, I’m little curious, when it comes to sort of educational opportunities or where learning happens, you have a point of view which I find very intriguing, in that you say that you call the question, “Where do you go to school?” a cruel and dangerous one. What’s the story here?

Ryan Carson
Yeah, this really struck me a couple of weeks ago. So the whole premise of Treehouse is founded upon my experience, which was I was very privileged, I had this amazing family that encouraged me to go to college. When I was in college I studied computer science which is an amazing pick because there’s just a million jobs. And I did that.

And then I left college and I got my first job, and I realized, “I did not need my computer science degree to do that job.” It was like getting an electrical engineering degree to be an electrician. It’s just not needed. Coding and making apps is not computer science. For the most part it’s a trade skill. And it just struck me, “Something is really wrong here.”

All these people are going to college and spending a huge amount of money and getting a job that you don’t need the degree, something is not right, and it bugged me. So, fast-forward about five years later, I decided, “I want to try to solve that problem and see if I can give people the skills to get a job without all the expense of a college degree.” And I’m not anti-college, I’m just pro person, right? You know, I want someone to be able to get a job so they can support their family without student debts. So, began this journey.

Now, fast-forward to 2018, we’ve got tens of thousands of students, and we’ve made a lot of progress in giving people the skills to get a job. And I was having a conversation with a woman at an event, and she said, “You know what, I was an executive assistant, I don’t have a college degree, and it was really hard to get above the administrative role. Every time I try to get out of that job and do an operational role, they would ask me what my degree was or where I went to school.”

And she said, “It’s worse than that. Everyone that I run into at work, when they’re kind of looking for something to say to make small talk, they say, ‘Hey, so where did you go to school?’” And she’s like, “I didn’t go to school. I don’t have a degree.” And this would happen once a day.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you.

Ryan Carson
And I just thought, “You know, that is a brutal kind of statement that none of us even realize was hurting people.” And I think we need to unwind this idea that you need to go to college to be successful and that you’re less of a person if you haven’t done that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you. That’s a great perspective in terms of, “Hey, what’s the person, on the receiving end of that question, think and feel if they didn’t go to school?” Or if they went to a school that maybe has less, I don’t know, prestige or selectivity, then the predominant school in the room, you know.

Ryan Carson
Right. Right. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“Hey, I went to Notre Dame. Where did you go?” “Oh, I went to Northeastern something state, something.” It’s like, “Oh.”

Ryan Carson
“Oh.”

Pete Mockaitis
You know?

Ryan Carson
Right. Or a community college, “Oh.” And none of it is fair, and none of it maps to reality. I mean, we’re doing this interview, I haven’t asked you what your degree is. It doesn’t matter. And I’ve had very few conversations in my professional life where it’s at all relevant. It’s all about, “What is your work?” You know, I wanted to be on this podcast because of your work. And I think we need to change the conversation. We should just care about what people have done and if their behaviors are correct. So I’m excited to help unlock that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool and it’s great that you’re out there and you are creating opportunity for folks to do the advancement in that realm by acquiring the trade skill of coding. So I’d love to get your take, then. I imagine with 80,000 students, you’ve learned a thing or two about what makes people successful when they are setting out to learn something or acquire some new skills. So I’d love it if you could share some of the most actionable takeaway tidbits that would be helpful for listeners who are trying to learn some new stuff or pick up some extra skills. What are some do’s and don’ts?

Ryan Carson
You bet. The very first one is a mental exercise. So the number one thing that stops people from learning how to code is not math skill, it’s not analytical skill; it is mental state of mind. And what I mean by that is most people will say, “Okay, I’ve heard coding is exciting. I’ve heard there’s 1.3 million jobs. I’ve heard that these jobs pay $90,000 or more. I want in.”

And so they try it. And then they get a little bit of way in, and then they think, “Gosh, I don’t know if I can do this. All these people in the industry are, they seem really advanced and they all seem like they know what they’re doing. And I just can’t see myself doing that.” And so, they quit. And it has nothing to do with their capability, the amount of time they have, or their financial ability to pay for school. It’s everything to do with whether their mind says they can.

So what you need to do is envision yourself actually in that job. And it sounds kind of hokey but it’s important to write it down and say, “I am going to be a web developer, a mobile developer, a coder in 12 months’ time. And I’m going to be sitting on a desk, in a beautiful tech company, earning $70,000, $80,000, $90,000, and I’m going to be successful,” and plant that flag mentally.

I really believe in our mind’s ability to either unlock or close doors. So that’s where you start, actually envision yourself doing it.

Pete Mockaitis
So doing it. Now maybe it’s acquiring the role, maybe it’s doing the thing that you feel like you maybe can’t do right now, but, “Hey, I will be communicating confidently to groups of senior executives,” or, “I will be at a cool tech company and do my thing.” So, all right. So you envision it and your write it down, you stake it with a flag in your mind, so that’s sort of step one to give you a bit of resilience against the, “Oh, I don’t know if I could do this.” So, then, what else?

Ryan Carson
And then the idea is you have to accept that there’s going to be a consistent level of daily work involved, and you’re not going to want to do it all the time. It’s very similar to working out. So to go through any sort of learning transformation it’ll feel like going to the gym where it’s kind of exciting and fun for about seven days, and then you realize, “Gosh, this is hard work. And, you know, my kids are having trouble right now in school. I’m just going to set this aside and focus on that,” or, “Gosh, work is kind of crazy. I’ll come back to this.” And you have to tell yourself, at a time, “I’m going to want to quit.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Ryan Carson
And so when I say that to myself, “I want to quit,” you say, “I knew I was going to say that, and I’m not going to do it. And I’m going to commit to just doing another day. So I’m going to spend another hour tomorrow, and that’s all I’m going to commit to. And then I spend an hour tomorrow, and then I’m going to commit to another hour the next day.”

So it really is a marathon that you run kind of a step at a time and commit to taking the next step and that’s it. I think those are two of the keys to actually transform your life whether it comes to learning coding, or becoming an executive, or selling something, or transforming your body. It really is astonishing what we can do if we get over our mind’s roadblocks.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I really like that. Thank you. So those are some sort of foundational cornerstones with regard to setting the groundwork for persistence and making it happen. So I’d like to get your thoughts for, then, in the moment when you’re trying to learn something, to build a skill you don’t have yet, are there any great perspectives in terms of doing the learning best?

Ryan Carson
Yes, so I would say you need to take your calendar and block it off. So what you want to do is be very realistic about the time you can spend. So look at the next seven days and actually schedule in little blocks for learning. And you have to be really realistic about it. Don’t do it at the end of the day when you’re going to be exhausted. Don’t do it when you’re supposed to be making the kids’ lunches. You have be really realistic.

And the first thing I’d suggest is getting up earlier. I have been waking up at 4:30 a.m. now for over a year, and it’s been transformational in my ability to deliver. And so if you can’t find time the rest of the day, just try getting up half an hour earlier, and you’ll be surprised you can do it. And then use that time and focus. And then when you’re done, say, “I did it for today. I’m just going to commit to doing it tomorrow.” So it’s a really tactical thing.

The other tactical thing is you have to recall what you’ve learned and then use it to build something. So if you’re watching a video about something, you have to take notes and kind of engage. But then the immediate next thing you need to do is stop watching the video and actually take that knowledge and then reform it in a new way.

So think about it like Lego. So you get a bunch of Lego and you pick up a piece of Lego, that’s like learning, and then you pick up another piece. You feel like you’re learning but you’re just kind of picking up pieces. What you need to do is actually take those things and build something with it. And there’s an actual chemical process in your brain where synapses are formed when you take that knowledge and you use it to build something new.

And it’s really uncomfortable. It actually feels like working out. It’s not nice, like, “I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I thought I learned something but I’m trying to use what I learned but I feel like I don’t know what to do.” That’s where you’re actually learning, and you want to embrace that uncomfortable feeling because that is actually learning and that means you’re making progress.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued. I guess, now, if it’s a coding situation, you know, oh, man, I’m thinking back to my youth. I did a few BASIC, just a smidge.

Ryan Carson
Nice. Nice. Impressive.

Pete Mockaitis
And so I’m thinking, “Okay, I learned like what an “if” statement does.”

Ryan Carson
Nice.

Pete Mockaitis
So, “Okay, I learned that but I read it from a book or something,” and then you’re saying recall it like use it in some format. And so I would just maybe try to put that in there. So, I guess I’m curious, if we’re talking about sort of non-tech skills like, let’s say, I learned, well, hey, on this podcast we had a guest who said you can calm your nerves before speaking by holding a cold bottle of water or something. That’s something I learned.

Ryan Carson
Right. Piece of knowledge.

Pete Mockaitis
So you’re saying I should go for it and do that right away. Or what do I do?

Ryan Carson
Sort of. So I think another skill that I learned is selling. So I didn’t think I was good at selling things, it made me uncomfortable, I didn’t like it. And then I thought, “You know what, I bet I can learn how to do this.” And so I watched a couple of videos for how to sell things. Okay, you have to identify a target, you have to write a pitch, you have to be consistent, etc. etc.

And then the video stopped and said, “Okay, now you actually have to go write your own pitch for your own product and try to pick some people to sell it to.” So you go from like imagining the work to actually doing the work, and you’ll feel really terrible at it because you don’t know what you’re doing. And most people quit at that moment because they say, “I’m terrible at this.” And that’s the whole point, you are terrible at it and that’s why you’re learning, and that’s why you’re practicing. And you can’t get good at it unless you get through that terrible part.

I’m a fan of a guy named Ryan Holiday who wrote a book called Ego Is the Enemy. And one of the phrases he says all the time is, “The obstacle is the way.” And so getting through that uncomfortable period where you’re writing that pitch, and it seems terrible, and you think someone is going to laugh at you if you send it to them, that’s the most important. That is the way. The obstacle is the way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So you write a terrible pitch, and what do you do next?

Ryan Carson
Then you send it and you’ll probably get laughed at.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Ryan Carson
And knowing that that’s going to happen, again, is part of the process. So coding is another good example. So you’re going to learn a bit of code, and you’re going to make a very simple website, and then you’re going to put it on the internet, and you’re going to be ashamed of it. And that is the process. Then you do it again, and you do it again, and you do it again until eventually you realize, “Actually, I kind of know what I’m doing here.”

And then what we actually encourage people to do to get in the tech industry is not to learn everything and then go apply for a job. We say, “Learn and build, and learn and build, and then build for a friend for free.” So go to a local butcher shop and say, “Can I make your website for free?” and that’ll be uncomfortable and scary but it’s free, so, hey, what’s the worst that can happen?

You do it and they go, “Oh, it’s okay. Thanks.” And then you go to another shop, the florist, and you say, “Can I build a website for you for $100?” And they’re like, “Meh, it’s still pretty cheap. Sure.” And you do it and then you realize, “Oh, I just got paid to this.” So you’re building up your confidence slowly. And then you just keep doing that and raising your prices and raising your prices, and eventually you are a web designer, a web developer, and it was through that uncomfortable process. So I think that’s applicable to almost anything.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s so funny. I’m thinking, I’d love a free developer right about now.

Ryan Carson
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
If anyone is listening.

Ryan Carson
Hit us up. I mean, but that is the door. If you’re willing to do a little bit of work and look a little bit dumb, there is nothing you can’t achieve.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, there you go. That feels like a pulled quote, Ryan.

Ryan Carson
It’s true, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Ryan Carson
It’s one of the essences of life. I mean, I have two boys, and I say this over and over to them. You know, they’ll say something like, “Dad, I can’t shoot a basket. I can’t make it.” And I’m like, “Well, it’s because you haven’t practiced. No one gets good at anything unless they practice.” And it’s the same with getting a job, getting a speaking gig, getting a raise. It’s amazing what we can do if we’re willing to do the work and look a little dumb during the process.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like that. Well, so, Ryan, this is a tricky point here in the midst of this. Now, at the same time, I think we, as varied human beings, have kind of different levels of aptitude or the levels to which this stuff come, a given thing comes naturally to one versus another, you know, multiple intelligences and all that. So, in a way, that’s kind of a dangerous idea because it can lull you into maybe some fixed mindset territory or you say, “Oh, well, I’m just not good at that.”

So, I guess, I hear that it’s dangerous to give too much credence to that belief but, nonetheless, there are some variations in our aptitude for stuff where there’s a lot of good research suggesting that you’ll get great results to the extent that you focus in on your strengths. So how do you navigate some of that tricky water?

Ryan Carson
Yeah, that is hard. I think that sphere of what we’re talking about here, there is kind of general skills that relate to getting a job, or being successful at work, or becoming well-known in your hobby. I think, in general, aptitude is a very small indicator of success. I believe it’s mostly about hard work and discipline. I think we way overcount natural skill or aptitude.

Now, there’s a certain reality here, right? So, as a skinny white guy, am I going to be successful in the NBA? No, my genetics just are not going to allow me to be very successful there. I should probably not try to spend 10,000 hours becoming the best basketball player in the world. But I could. I could try. But I think, though, with knowledge work, there really isn’t a limit.

If you’re blessed and lucky to have normal cognitive ability and just a normal IQ, I think you can do almost anything. I really do. And I think that’s very empowering so I just want to encourage people. Everyone who has done something amazing started off knowing nothing, and they didn’t know what they were doing. So take heart, it’s possible. And I don’t want to be cheesy about it. It’s not easy but it is possible.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m thinking a little bit in the realm of, you know, if let’s say we have a hundred folks go to town trying to learn JavaScript with your world-class learning tool somewhere in Treehouse, you know.

Ryan Carson
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Or I assume, I haven’t checked it out myself in great detail firstly, but in due time maybe. And so, now, it seems like folks are going to get a different level of distance or relative mastery than one another, and in some ways, hey, comparisons are odious, you know, compare and despair, I’ve heard it said. But in other ways, I don’t know, is there an indicator maybe, or do you have any kind of rules of thumb for, “Hey, you know, we gave this a great effort, you’ve learned some things, you’ve been sharpened and developed in some cool ways yet it seems though, pursuing another avenue of learning is going to be a bigger bang for your buck”? Are there any sort of rules of thumb or guidance you use there?

Ryan Carson
Yes. So the major indicator is something called grit. Angela Duckworth actually wrote a book on this and it’s worth reading. And it really is the ability to continue when you get discouraged. I think that ability will be a large indicator if you could be successful but that’s not a cognitive talent, right? It’s not, “Hey, I’m great at math.”

So this is people’s largest misconception about coding is that it is computer science. It’s just not. So most of coding is adding, is multiplication, is writing text, I mean, it’s not even geometry, it’s not even algebra. It’s actually more like writing a screenplay. It’s very creative. You use words. There are some rules, you know, you’ve got to put a period here and a semicolon there. But that’s it.

So, yeah, I think grit, it’s all about grit. And there’s some interesting tests, Angela has one in her book, which is kind of useful as a starting point.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So it sounds like that you don’t have much of a comment on the…you’re saying, “Hey, maybe they do get farther than 100 hours but whatever. It’s the grit and persistence that’s going to ultimately carry the day long term.” Is that kind of what I’m hearing from you?

Ryan Carson
It is. And it’s sort of similar to carpentry. And actually there are I think 10,000 open carpentry jobs in Portland, Oregon right now. So this belief that, you know, the trades are somehow not the place to get a job is false, number one. But, let’s take carpenters. So, we don’t think of carpentry this way where we say, “Gosh, we’re going to have a hundred people try to learn carpentry. Isn’t it really only the top 10 that are going to be good? I mean, come on, right? It’s hard.”

Like, no. If you put in the hard work, you can be a great carpenter, right? So much of what we do at work now, in the information age, has much more in common with carpentry than it does with science, right? So I want to put that out there.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I appreciate that analogy and metaphor there. As a recent homeowner, you know, looking at a lot of…and just having great respect for the different intelligences of these craftsmen who are doing stuff. It’s like, wow, I don’t much at all about plumbing or electrical or about carpentry.

Ryan Carson
Right. I wish I did. I wish I did.

Pete Mockaitis
And so it’s very impressive. And so it sounds like you’re saying, “Well, Pete, it’s not so much that they all have grand aptitude toward plumbing and electrical of which you do not possess, but rather they just dug in and spent the time learning and developing the skillset.”

Ryan Carson
Yeah, they put in the work and they developed mastery, and you can too if you really want. And this is the beauty, and this is why I’m so passionate about my job at Treehouse it’s because I’m alive at the right time in human history where there’s an explosion of jobs, right?

So if I was teaching some sort of skill where there’s just a couple of jobs here and there, I wouldn’t be as passionate. But there’s going to be 1.3 million new developer jobs in America in the next 10 years, only 400,000 are going to be filled by college grads, so we have 900,000 jobs that are available. And anyone listening can get one. They just have to learn a skill like carpentry, it just happens to be at a computer. That’s all.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Okay. Well, let me dig in a little bit more in terms of what that can look like in practice. So, hey, there’s many programming languages out there. What’s your assessment of which ones are sort of the most in demand right now?

Ryan Carson
You bet. So JavaScript is really, really hot right now.

Pete Mockaitis
So hot right now – JavaScript.

Ryan Carson
It’s the thing. But that probably means nothing to most people that are listening. So what I would suggest instead is that you start by learning how to build a simple website. Very simple, very approachable. You know, everybody understands what a website is, so start there. If you enjoy that process, then you can dig in, and say, “You know what, I kind of like using technology to create. Now I’m going to take a JavaScript basics course and build a really simple app.”

It’s really fun because when you learn how to code it almost feels God-like because you sit down at a computer with a blank screen, and then in the end you build something that actually does something really amazing, and you’ve sort of willed it out of nothing. And it’s fun. It’s really creative.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like the way you phrased that, and I felt similarly with my minor modest, you know, tiny programming accomplishments.

Ryan Carson
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Or even creating something else whether it’s a logo, or a work of art through Photoshop, or an assessment, you know, even a questionnaire that it has power to yield insights for folks that are having used it. It’s cool. It’s a thrill. Cool. Well, so then, could you give us maybe a rough sense for, okay, if someone did want to pursue that and to have, you know, to know enough JavaScript such that a company would say, “Hey, hiring you would be valuable to us and not a pain in our rear because you’re holding us all back.” Roughly how many kind of learning hours are we talking about here?

Ryan Carson
So what we usually suggest is people think of it as a nine- to 12-month journey where they’re spending about one to two hours a day. So in that time you cannot interrupt your life and stop everything but yet still make progress. So what we usually tell people do is try something free. Treehouse has a free trial or Codecademy is an option. There’s a number of free things you can try.

If something strikes you about it, “Oh, I think I like this,” then dive in. We’ve got a really affordable option to start with if you want, but there’s plenty of choices. And then do what I talked about earlier. Put on your calendar, commit to the daily work one step at a time, and enjoy the progress as you go. And you can become a full-pledged web developer in nine to 12 months.

And then, salary expectations-wise, we usually tell folks, you know, without previous paid experience, you can expect to earn about 55K to start in that first job, and that’s a very much kind of an apprentice level, junior level job. And then within five years you’ll be making between $70,000 to $90,000 a year, sometimes even more. I mean, depending on where you live, you could be making easily $100,000, or if you’re in crazy Silicon Valley you could make $200,000 to $300,000 a year, so the sky is really the limit.

Pete Mockaitis
And is this $200 to $300 like, you know, legendary super developer, I think, what is it, Marco Arment. I think he’s the ultimate. I love Overcast so much by a podcast.

Ryan Carson
He’s great. Oh, my gosh, he’s great. He’s like the grouchy old man of the internet. I think, no. If you live in Silicon Valley, the kind of crazy thing is you can be a good solid developer with five years of experience to be making hundreds of thousands of dollars. There’s just so much demand. Now, personally, I would not recommend going to Silicon Valley.

You know, we’re located in Portland, Oregon, a lot of our developers work from home, literally from home like Denver, Colorado and various places like that because it’s much more affordable, so the cost of living is way lower. So you can get a great job as a developer from almost anywhere. We have a lot of moms who are returning to work this way, “Hey, my kids are done with school now, or they’re in school. I want a job but I still want to be able to pick them up from school.” Becoming a developer is a great way to do that too.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Nifty. Well, tell us, any other pro tips on the learning, skill acquisition, focus, motivation, the goods here?

Ryan Carson
You bet. I really think it’s important to find your why, the deep, deep reason that you want to do something. I’ve come back to this over and over again over the past year. I have a very deep why in Treehouse. I feel like it’s the most important thing I’ll ever do. So if you can find that, that will be the reason that you wake up at 4:30 or you do that hour of work even though you’re tired.

If you can’t find that why, and I didn’t really find my why until I was about 32, I think you have to try to hold on to the faith that you can find it, that it’s a process, it’s a journey, and you’re on the journey to finding that why, and just to hang on a little bit longer. Hit me up on Twitter, I’m @ryancarson and say, “I’m looking for my why. I need some encouragement,” and I’ll give you a high five emoji back, and say, “Keep going. You can do it.” It really is so important to dig in and try to find that why.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Thank you. Well, any other thoughts before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?

Ryan Carson
No, I think that daily discipline to commit to a why is really what I’m all about right now, so let’s kick in the next section.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Let’s do it. Can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ryan Carson
“The obstacle is the way,” which is we talked about Ryan Holiday said that, that’s been so key for me.

Pete Mockaitis
And is he quoting a philosopher?

Ryan Carson
I think so.

Pete Mockaitis
Is that Marcus Aurelius or it’s one of the others?

Ryan Carson
I think so. I’m pretty sure he stole it but it’s still great.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Ryan Carson
I really love Angela’s work around grit. The idea of grit, understanding it, realizing it really can change the trajectory of your life is fascinating. So would highly recommend her book.

Pete Mockaitis
Any other books you’d highly recommend?

Ryan Carson
I always say this, and people laugh, but How to Win Friends & Influence People. My mom made me read it when I was in high school, and I just thought, “Oh, mom, what is this? This sounds like some sort of cheesy sales book.” And it fundamentally changed my life because I realized, “Oh, I need to think about what’s in it for other people.” That’s really the foundational principle in life.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Ryan Carson
So I highly recommend that. If I can get a bonus one in there.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Ryan Carson
We just went through some training from Franklin Covey called Speed of Trust. And I’ve done a lot of training in my life, and this was I think the most valuable, and that’s from an organizational perspective. So if anyone is listening, is working inside a company or an organization, please check it out. I have no financial reason to say that other than it was really, really helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
And, well, can you give us a taste?

Ryan Carson
A little hint?

Pete Mockaitis
What was the transformation or result that unlocked for you and how?

Ryan Carson
You bet. So the foundation of the idea is trust is a multiplier for results. So you can imagine it this way. As you listen to this podcast, close your eyes, think about a project that you worked on with someone that you didn’t trust, and think about how that project went. Well, I’m sure it went badly. Now why is that? Why was trust so important?

So the training digs in that. Okay, so obviously trust is going to be a hidden variable in your success. So how do you build trust with people? What if you don’t trust someone and you want to build that. So it walks you through the foundations of what trust is. So I’ll give you a little hint. So in order to trust somebody you have to believe someone is credible. So what is credibility? Well, they’ve broken it down into four concepts, and it’s a tree.

So imagine a tree in the ground and it’s got roots, it’s got a trunk, it’s got branches and leaves. So to be credible, you have to have four things. The roots of the tree is integrity. So someone has to believe deep down that you have integrity, that you will do what you say you’d do, that you are a good person. If you don’t have that root you’ll never build trust.

Okay. So, say, you believe someone has integrity. The stem of the tree, the trunk of the tree, is the intent. You have to understand the intent of that person. So why are they doing this project? What’s their real motive? What are they trying to get done? Do you feel like you can know it and understand it? It’s about intent.

Pete Mockaitis
And so it doesn’t have to be like good or bad, it’s just that you know it and understand it instead of it’s a hidden subversive thing. Is that the idea?

Ryan Carson
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Ryan Carson
Yup. Just got to know it and believe it.

Pete Mockaitis
“Trying to get a fat bonus, that’s what I’m trying to do.” Good enough.

Ryan Carson
Yup, now I know, right? And then the branches are capability. So you have to believe that person actually has the ability to deliver results, that they have the capability of doing so, you know. They have the skills, they have the time, etc. And then the final are the leaves which are results. Ultimately, you have to deliver results, right?

You could have integrity, you could have clear intent, you could have the capabilities, but in the end if you never actually deliver results then you’re not credible. And those four things, the tree, makes up credibility and you have to have credibility to have trust. So that’s like the edge of the training. The rest is amazing because, then they’d say, “Well, that’s great. But how do you establish those things if you don’t have them?”

And there’s 13 behaviors of trust, and you learn how to use them at the right times. It’s just great. It was shockingly valuable.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And so you saw in your own organization that trust increase and results multiplied?

Ryan Carson
It seems so. So we did this training two weeks ago. At Treehouse, we have 70-ish employees. We got together for a company meetup in person because we’re a remote team so we’re spread in the United States. And as soon as we finished the training, the first thing we did is we all went back and did our one-on-ones with the people that we manage, and we asked them, “Hey, what behaviors of trust do you need from me to help build trust?”

And we literally wrote them down, and it was really interesting to say, “Oh, wow, this person needs straight talk from me. That’s one thing they said. It’s a behavior they need from me so I need to do that.” So we’re already seeing an uptick in trust, and it’s just so exciting. It’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
Great, yes. Cool. Well, thanks for going deep there.

Ryan Carson
No problem. That sounds like a big commercial for Franklin Covey but, honestly, it was a really good training. I really, really appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued by trust myself these days, and how is that for cryptic?

Ryan Carson
That’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
Everything is okay, everybody. No need to worry. All right. And then how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Ryan Carson
Oh, boy, I love my Bullet Journal. Do you know what Bullet Journals are?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s like a style of journal that helps you with like to-do list or tracking things, but sort of back and forth.

Ryan Carson
Yes. Okay. So here’s my method and it really works for me. It’s not a silver bullet. But what I do is in December I plan my year using a GANTT chart, and they’re really high-level things. Say, I want to get three things done in 2018, what buckets are they? So the first one is the Treehouse two-year vision. All right, I’ve got to move that forward. And then the second is family and friends, and the third is health. Okay. Great. All right.

And then I’ll break that down eventually into these large rocks and roughly when I need to work on them. And then every day when I wake up at 4:30, I immediately open that GANTT chart and I take what I need to be doing that day and I transfer it to written bullet points in my Bullet Journal, and it takes this large yearly planning and distills it down into, “Hey, what do I actually have to do today?”

And then the thing I love about it is I’m such a digital person. My phone is always on, I’m always on a computer. Using a written piece of paper and to check off my to-do list, for me, is just so satisfying. And it’s really focusing. I can turn off all screens and I just open my journal and I know what I got to do. So that’s one of my favorite tools. Love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And any favorite habits in addition?

Ryan Carson
Habits. Waking up at 4:30. I know I keep saying it but waking up early, I really believe, is the beginning of success.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to resonate, connect with folks, gets them re-tweeting and note-taking and head-nodding?

Ryan Carson
I think it’s the theme I’ve been kind of banging on about which is you don’t need a college degree to succeed in life anymore. You really don’t. You don’t need the debt. You don’t need the outdated knowledge. You just need to go out and start stacking skills and build things, and then show people what you build. That’s the future.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch with you, where would you point them?

Ryan Carson
Please go to either Twitter or Instagram, I am @ryancarson, nice and simple, R-Y-A-N C-A-R-S-O-N, or Google Treehouse, and I think we’re number one and you’ll find us there.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. And do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Ryan Carson
Yes, hit pause as soon as we stop talking on this podcast, and start thinking about your why. Dig into that really hard. And if you think you know it, tweet at me and Pete, and tell us what it is. It’d be fun to hear that.

Pete Mockaitis
And any pro tips for when you’re doing that digging, prompts, questions to get the wheels turning all the more?

Ryan Carson
Yes. What have I’ve been consistently coming back to in my life? Where do I keep kind of being drawn to? What is that thing? Is it a person? Is it a cause? Is it an idea? Is it a dream? Go back to that. For me, it was I just really want to help people. I really do. And I’m passionate about tech, so if I could help people learn tech, okay, yeah, that’s my why. So dig into that, dig into what do you do when you have free time and you kind of pick something to do. What is that about? And start unpacking that.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Ryan, thank you so much for taking this time to share the goods. I wish you and Treehouse tons of luck and keep on living the why there.

Ryan Carson
Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be on the show. It’s been fun.

261: Powering Up Your PowerPoint with Heather and Alan Ackmann

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

PowerPoint gurus Heather and Alan Ackmann share perspectives on how to take full advantage of PowerPoint for more impactful presentations.

You’ll Learn:

  1. When, why and how you should PowerPoint – and when you shouldn’t
  2. The three fundamental factors to consider when designing your slides
  3. When to use emotionally-driven graphics

About Heather & Alan

Alan Ackmann is the professional writing  for business coordinator in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse department at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. His teaching specialties include professional and technical writing and the rhetoric of slideware and presentations. He has led professional development seminars for teachers on the local, state, and national level. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two children, as well as jogging, reading, and singing (though not always in that order).

Heather Ackmann is an author, Microsoft Certified Trainer, and Microsoft MVP. Since 2006, she has designed, authored, and narrated over 300 hours of video-based training for a variety of public and private entities. In 2016, she cofounded AHA Learning Solutions to provide high-quality learning materials to educational institutions and businesses nationally. She is an active member of the presentation community and a proud member of the Presentation Guild. You may find her sharing advice and Microsoft Office news on Twitter: @heatherackmann.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Heather & Alan Ackmann Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Heather and Alan, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Heather Ackmann

Good to be here.

Alan Ackmann

Thanks for having us.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m so intrigued that both of you climb stairs competitively. Tell us how did that become a hobby of yours and why do you keep doing it?

Heather Ackmann

Well, “competitively” is probably not the word to describe me; I’m usually like the last to finish. Alan’s got much better time than I do. And our son did it with us last year and he had great time. But we got into it through one of the companies I used to work with; that was TrainSignal, yeah. It recently got bought out – not recently but a few years ago – bought out by Pluralsight – that’s the company now.
But one of our colleagues – he was really involved with the Respiratory Health Association, and he would volunteer with them, and he would climb stairs. And he got our company involved, and our whole entire company like, “Yeah, let’s go climb stairs.” And so, that’s what we did as a company – we all joined a team together and got family members involved, and that’s how Alan got into it.

Alan Ackmann

Yeah, it’s actually a pretty big thing here in Chicago, (a) because there are so many scrapers and (b) because the weather is so terrible for six months of the year. So, you can have a lot of 5K or 10K runs in the summer time…

Heather Ackmann

It’s beautiful.

Alan Ackmann

Right now, I look out the window and it’s nice and sunny, but it’s also -4° outside currently. So that means that people have to find other ways to stay active. So there are climbs for the Hancock building, the Willis Tower, the Aon Center, and a lot of the other iconic Chicago skyscrapers.

Heather Ackmann

But the Hustle Up the Hancock, I personally believe is the most fun to do. They usually put people in the stairwells with the big foam fingers and they’ll high five you every four floors or something and be like, “Oh, yeah!” And they put signs inside the stairwell to tell you how well you’re doing, like, “You’ve climbed higher than the Eiffel Tower.” And it’s a lot of fun.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s right, Paris. You take that. We’re way taller.

Heather Ackmann

Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

I did the Hustle Up the Hancock once at Bain and I remember… You talk about competitively – I remember, I think as compared to everybody in the Hustle Up the Hancock I think I was just slightly above average.

Heather Ackmann

Good for you!

Pete Mockaitis

Thank you. And then as compared to my Bain colleagues I was like last or second to last, and it’s like, “This is how I kind of feel about my career.”

Alan Ackmann

It’s kind of funny – for a while when I was young doing it, it was a question of trying to beat my time from the previous year. And as I’ve gotten a little older into the upper 30s, it’s more like trying to not be significantly worse than my time from the previous year. So, it’s more like competing with previous performances.

Heather Ackmann

Or yourself. I just want to finish at this point. After two kids – yeah, I just want to finish and not pass out and have to be carried out on a stretcher. It’s kind of my goal.

Pete Mockaitis

And you’re succeeding, so kudos on those accomplishments.

Heather Ackmann

Yeah, I’m here to talk about it, so I’m succeeding gloriously.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, you two are an interesting couple, not just for your stair-climbing enthusiasm, but also because both of you study and teach on PowerPoint. And sometimes that happens together, or is it all in your own unique context?

Heather Ackmann

Well, on rare occasions we do talk about it together, but most the time we kind of pass projects off to each other. We have our own separate audiences that we train too. Alan deals more with an academic audience – students and other professors.

Alan Ackmann

Yeah, students and professional development for teachers.

Heather Ackmann

Yeah. And I deal more with professionals, people in business context, or more “train the trainer” situations for the professional context.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool. So now let’s really… Boy, we could talk about PowerPoint for a long time, and maybe we’ll need a follow-up interview to go into it. So, could you tell us broadly speaking, when is PowerPoint the ideal tool to use, versus when should we use maybe another software, tool, or an entirely different approach to doing a presentation?

Alan Ackmann

For me, I guess it starts not with the question of when to use PowerPoint, but why to use PowerPoint. I think that there are a lot of people who will sometimes go for PowerPoint as the default tool, where they use it either because it’s something that they are expected to use as part of a presentation for example, and so it’s really easy to think about PowerPoint as something that you just kind of inherit.
But if you are making your own choices, then PowerPoint is the best I think when you have an opportunity to use it in a way that will benefit the viewer or listener’s experience, because when PowerPoint I think is used in an unproductive way, it becomes something that is used because it helps the speaker. It turns into something like a teleprompter, it becomes a way of taking the burden of explanation off of you as a presenter, and kind of shunting it off towards the slide themselves.
And in that case it’s not PowerPoint as something that’s going to help a reader understand your main ideas, or organize the logic behind what you have to say, or create some kind of an emotional impact. It’s just a way for an instructor to get through it. So, one of the biggest challenges that I see is people kind of falling into that trap. So, if you don’t have a situation like that where it’s good for a listener, then that by itself is kind of indicative of it might being a bad choice.

Heather Ackmann

Along the same lines, even in terms of our various audiences. There are certain people in both groups, who shun PowerPoint, or just slideware in general, doesn’t necessarily have to be PowerPoint. And the reasons that they shun them aren’t necessarily surrounded about the “When” or even the “Why”, but the tool itself, because it’s been overused or because it has been abused. And those are also the wrong reasons to shun a particular tool. You need to look at, I would say more along the lines of the context, or why it’s helping that particular presentation or that moment.
So, when looking at why you would use a tool such as PowerPoint, like how is it helping that presentation – PowerPoint is created as ideally a visual aid. Why would you need a visual? How is it helping the content of the presentation, how is it helping the speaker collect their ideas or tell that story? And those are the questions you should be asking in helping determine when and how you should be utilizing PowerPoint.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, perfect. I like that. So not just accepting it as the default: “Oh, this is the thing to do because it’s there.” Thinking about it not as a teleprompter, and more a tool for the audience and not for the presenter, and thinking when would a visual really do the trick. So that’s helpful to think about slideware, which is such a fun word. It brings back the consulting days. It sounds so elegant, like glassware in a laboratory. Slideware. So then, let’s talk about slideware. When would you say maybe Prezi or Keynote or something else might be a wiser choice than PowerPoint?

Heather Ackmann

Oh, gosh. Prezi. I don’t use Prezi that often. In fact, you’re familiar with the conference The Presentation Summit?

Pete Mockaitis

It’s ringing a bell. I’ve never been.

Heather Ackmann

Oh, you have to go! It’s so much fun! It’s where all of the great presentation designers and presenters, speakers… Dr. Carmen Simon, who I know has been on your show.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh yeah.

Heather Ackmann

She speaks there, she’s a keynote speaker there almost every year. Everyone loves her. 
So The Presentation Guild is kind of a non-profit organization for presentation designers, people who design presentations, who speak in the industry, who work in the industry. It’s an organization for them. And they go to the Presentation Summit and basically help fellow designers there. Yeah, it’s a place to go.

Pete Mockaitis

Cool.

Heather Ackmann

So at this conference, someone off-handedly referred to Prezi as kind of a one-night stand – you use it once and… I think that was a bit harsh, but Prezi does have its place and certainly companies do expect – or not expect but request Prezi presentations from time to time. And it does have kind of a unique look and feel, but I’ve also seen Prezi used what I’d say poorly, where it’s just basically sections that have been called out and with the title and the bullets underneath, and it’s just zooming from one place to another.
Another context where Prezi is not really appropriate is for webinars, where you just don’t have the screen capture, the upload, the frame rate to really handle it. So again, you kind of have to think of the environment where you’re presenting, and whether or not it can handle it. I’m an online student at DePaul, and I’ve had some professors try to use Prezi, and when you’re watching back a lecture as an online student you just miss all those animations; it’s just not there. So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, so that’s the Prezi story. So now Keynote is pretty similar to PowerPoint, although with its own flavor. So, how might you speak to Keynote or some of the other slideware tools available?

Heather Ackmann

Honestly I really don’t use Keynote. I know a lot of my PowerPoint MVP colleagues, they use Keynote a lot more than I do. I’m a PC girl; I stick to the PC.

Alan Ackmann

Yeah, in terms of persona, I’m kind of the same way. Thinking back to the old marketing campaigns, I’m much more the dweeby PC guy than the hipster Mac guy in the end. And my loyalty is with PowerPoint, kind of go the same way.

Heather Ackmann

Yeah, they run pretty deep, so…

Alan Ackmann

I think it’s interesting though, with PowerPoint – if you look at it from kind of a market dominance point of view, it’s difficult for me to answer a question about Keynote, because it seems fundamentally to operate along kind of the same software logic that PowerPoint does. So, a lot of the best practices for it are pretty similar. And so in that case you’re talking a little bit about maybe what tool would be optimal, but I don’t think a lot of the underlying strategy would change very much, especially if you think about PowerPoint and Keynote as being something using it purposefully as opposed to what technical advantages it can offer. Can I go back to Prezi for just a second?

Pete Mockaitis

Oh sure.

Alan Ackmann

So, Prezi is a really interesting use case for me, because it almost reminds me of some of the earlier versions of PowerPoint and how it was marketed. In the earlier versions of PowerPoint, when they were first debuting a lot of animations and transitions, it was all about the new kind of gadgets and impacts that PowerPoint could have, going back a couple of variations back in the program.
And I look at Prezi presentations, and a lot of it reminds me of what you would see in PowerPoint presentations from like 10 years ago, when animations were first becoming available, because when used badly it becomes less about, “Look at the message I have to say” and more about, “Look at what this cool tool can do.” So when people get into Prezi and they get kind of enamored with the various transitions and swoops and zooms and all those things that can really add a neat… I’ve seen a lot of Prezis where they add a lot of neat aesthetic texture, but not a lot where it complements the material.
The exception is when people are giving presentations that are kind of about dealing with the individual components of a larger thing. So, if you’ve got a presentation for example about a departmental reorganization and you want to start with a global view, and then zoom into the individual departments themselves and their components and purposes – that can do a really good job of maybe demonstrating how the individual things fit into the larger perspective, which can really I think serve a very persuasive purpose.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, yeah. Or maybe from a sales presentation perspective, if, “Hey, here’s this cool piece of hardware and here’s how it works, with regard to some of the sub-components.”

Alan Ackmann

Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, I’m with you.

Alan Ackmann

I would love to see a Prezi that’s almost in technical communication, kind of an exploded diagram of components and how the individual component of an engine works, or something like that. Again, that’s a purposeful use, instead of just, “Look at the thing that it can do.”

Heather Ackmann

Yeah. And it’s really hard for individuals who are not naturally visually inclined to be able to take their material on black and white paper and to translate it into something that is largely visual. It’s easy for me to do, but not everyone’s like that. And so, it’s just when you have a tool like Prezi that’s like this large open canvas, where there really isn’t a lot of suggestions – you just see this large open white piece of paper. And I think that kind of just stumps the user, and what do they do? It’s like opening up a white butcher paper almost, like, “What do I draw?” It can be really intimidating, and so without a little bit I think of hand-holding or examples to look at, I just think people just don’t know how to visualize their own ideas in a three-dimensional space, which ultimately that is Prezi.

Alan Ackmann

And a lot of what PowerPoint does through its use of smart art and those kinds of quasi-directed template-driven design, is to give the user that direction that you were just expressing.

Heather Ackmann

At least some kind of ideas with what to do with it, even though they’re not always perfect and they’re not always necessarily helpful to that rhetorical context, to throw out that word there. But it can be helpful, it can be harmful, but I think more times than not those aids in PowerPoint are helpful.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool, thank you. So we talked about when to use a PowerPoint or a Keynote type tool, and then you’ve also done some teaching on some potential uses of PowerPoint, sort of beyond the traditional, “Hey, I’m going to do a presentation. Here’s a slide, here’s another slide.” Can you share some of those?

Alan Ackmann

Well, the one that immediately leaps to mind is kind of the most far-out one; isn’t necessarily a practical one, but the kind of neat, almost artistic experimental work people are doing with PowerPoint in movies, like trying to make little short films or cartoons just using PowerPoint as a device. And those kinds of things are about stretching the boundaries of what is typically considered a presentation software and what it can be. So, the part of me that just likes kind of tracking emerging ways to create art, is fascinated by that.
And a lot of other use cases in PowerPoint get near the further away you drift, almost, from the conventional sales presentation, like for example everybody’s seen a presentation at a wedding for example, where it’s a slide show of the people as they’ve grown up and met. It can play something soft and manipulative from easy listening stations.
But the thing is, a lot of PowerPoint is I think splintering off into little sub-genres like that, where you’ve got PowerPoint that is something like a family togetherness aid. That’s an awkward way to phrase it, but PowerPoint is serving a social function more than a persuasive or professional function there. And the thing that I’m also kind of interested in… Some of my background is in literature and creative writing, before I got into studying professional communication. And we would study different forms of poetry, and formal poetry like sonnets and things like that. And there’s a style of PowerPoint now that’s kind of emerging – Pecha Kucha. Is that how you pronounce it? Well, mangled that one.

Heather Ackmann

I don’t even know if I’m saying it right. It’s one of those words that’s just you look at and…

Alan Ackmann

No, I remember that – it’s like the old Muppet thing – Pecha Kucha. I think that’s how I’ve heard it pronounced.

Heather Ackmann

I don’t know, we’re probably butchering it.

Alan Ackmann

But it’s a very kind of regimented way of doing PowerPoint, where it’s only like 20 slides at 20 seconds each.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, like ignite or a fire or lightening round. I’ve heard them call that at events.

Alan Ackmann

Yeah, everything is constrained, so it’s about what people can do with their material within those constraints. And when I first heard about that I was like, “Well, that’s just adding artifice.” But all art is essentially going to be artifice to some extent, and there’s going to constraints in there, just like you would have a sonnet of I Am, a pentameter in 14 lines, and all the other limitations. So I think it’s fascinating to see little things like that with PowerPoint kind of emerging organically as people start putting in this new formal structure to it.

Heather Ackmann

I think the Pecha Kucha was started by architects.

Alan Ackmann

That makes sense.

Heather Ackmann

They wanted to showcase their designs without talking about them profusely.

Alan Ackmann

That’s really interesting.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s helpful.

Alan Ackmann

That’s the thing about architecture and that struggle between form and function. And it seems like the Pecha Kucha is kind of about that tension to a large extent.

Pete Mockaitis

And so now when you spoke about a family or a togetherness aid, I don’t know if I’m familiar with this usage. Can you unfold that a bit? Is it just for the two of you, or is it for other people?

Heather Ackmann

Well, PowerPoint has brought us together.

Alan Ackmann

No, I was referring more to the PowerPoint at weddings than that kind of thing.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s what you meant. Okay, I’m following.

Heather Ackmann

And funerals.

Alan Ackmann

Yeah, I’ve seen that too, where people will make at a wake for example a presentation about significant moments in a person’s life. And I think that those kinds of situations are hard for most people. It’s hard to be articulate, it’s hard to say everything you want to say, and so people turn to things like PowerPoint as a means of…

Heather Ackmann

Coping, like a script for the moment.

Alan Ackmann

And as a means of kind of honoring and having a shared experience, where everyone watches the same slides and it triggers the same kinds of memories. And it’s a way of having a more insulated, safer way of grappling with the emotions of those kinds of big things.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, I like it. Thank you. So now let’s dig into maybe some of the core principles and concepts when it comes to…

Heather Ackmann

Oh, I want to go back a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Heather Ackmann

We talked about some of the uses of PowerPoint that people don’t know – I want to go back to this video thing. He mentioned movies. Well, social media – video is like king in social media right now, but a lot of people just don’t have the budget for a film crew or for just hiring people to develop videos. You can develop right now 4K resolution videos right from PowerPoint, and with the animation techniques that you can create in PowerPoint very simply through transitions like the morph transition – I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one – available with the Office 365 subscription.
Using that morph transition, animating between slides to move objects around and just to animate – it’s so fast. I’ve got a video on that on YouTube right now, just how to morph, use that morph transition – walks you through it. But it’s so easy and you can create really, really nice looking videos and export them right as an MP4. And you can follow the video specs for Twitter, for things like Snapchat. Just create the dimensions of your slide to those output specs and create your social media campaign right from within PowerPoint.
So that is a very simple use case that a lot of people haven’t thought of. And with social media, it changes so rapidly, you have to be able to produce content so quickly. And having that dedicated film crew to use those fancier production tools like the rapid-fire there, the ROI necessarily isn’t right there. But with PowerPoint, it is. You can create it quickly, cheaply, and have just about anyone produce it for those social media channels.

Pete Mockaitis

That is cool, thank you.

Heather Ackmann

Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool. So now I want to talk a bit about some of the principles and conceptual pillars associated with what makes a slide great. And so Heather, you sort of lay out a number of core principles to start with, with regard to thinking through this, even before we get into a given slide. What are those?

Heather Ackmann

Well, in the course I have on Lynda I kind of lay it out based on what you mentioned – the three pillars, and for that it’s the audience, the environment, and the message or the content that you’re trying to deliver for your audience. And that I just sort of define as pillars, but all that is based on really classic rhetoric.
But when you’re thinking of your slide, a lot of people just sort of think about the message and how it relates in PowerPoint, and that’s as far as it goes for a lot of people. They sometimes forget about the audience. Or maybe they’ll think about the audience a little bit and the message a little bit, but completely forget about the environment, or where the presentation will be held or presented.
And that can have a huge impact on the look of the slides or how the slides are perceived, where you’re presenting such as a huge auditorium with thousands and thousands of people where that message will be projected on giant screens, versus a small tiny boardroom with just 20 people. Or if that PowerPoint’s going to be opened on a mobile device and just read by the CEO of the company very quickly in his car on the way to the airport.
That’s all going to have a huge impact on how that message will be read and perceived. And a lot of people neglect to think about that when designing their slides, in terms of the font choices, even the colors, or the space or layout of information on that slide. And that all plays a part.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s so excellent. I’m also thinking in terms of, will they’d be printouts available to folks?

Heather Ackmann

Oh yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

And then Nick Morgan’s favorite pet peeve is like, “I know you can’t read this, but…”

Heather Ackmann

Yeah, yeah.

Alan Ackmann

And I encounter that environment limitation a lot, because I teach at university but I don’t teach in the same room every term. And I’ve had rooms before where they’re really deep rooms and they go seven, eight rows back, and others that are more shotgun-style rooms, where it’s three tables or three rows with a bunch of lengthy tables. And so I’ve had times before where I’ve had a slide deck that I would have as a go-to deck for a lecture that I deliver every term. And I’ve had to modify it just because it’s going to be interfering with the environment. And sometimes you really can’t predict or control environments. Going to conferences is a big point of stress for me, partly because you never know what the room is going to be like.

Heather Ackmann

And a lot of times they give you a conference template that some designer created, not knowing what the environment’s going to be like. They booked the rooms after they create the template or the template designers have no idea anything about the specs of the conference itself.

Alan Ackmann

My favorite story about how environment can gum up the works came when I was actually sitting in a presentation. We have department meetings on a pretty regular basis for one thing or another, and there was one time I was at a department meeting where someone was giving a presentation, and it was a session that also had lunch accompanying it.
So I happened to be sitting in the back row, or kind of where they were going to be setting up the lunch buffet, catering was. And it was a lunch food tray that had this really kind of potent-smelling ham that was behind me during the entire presentation. So, I’m sitting there… I was an ideal audience member at that point – I was there by choice, I was actively interested in it, I was taking notes. There was no need to convince me of anything. And I’m just sitting really trying to listen, and all I can think is, “Wow, it smells like ham in here.” And not like good Thanksgiving ham, like a little bit of … to the ham.

Heather Ackmann

I still give this example when I teach, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis

I’ve seen a great speaker – when they realize that the wafting scent of the food is there, they’ll sort of take a time-out, check with the organizer: “Can they just eat this now and then I’ll talk after that?” Because then they just know there’s no hope.

Heather Ackmann

That goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – your participants are in the room thinking about food, especially when the lunch tray’s delivered. Why would you keep talking? Food comes before anything else.

Pete Mockaitis

Totally. And Alan, I really want to follow up on what you said, with regard to if it’s a deep versus a shallow room, you adjust the slides. Can you share what sorts of adjustments do you make within those environmental context shifts?

Alan Ackmann

Well, if it’s a deep room versus a shallow room, the first thing I have to adjust is the size of any text that’s on the screen, the resolution that a slide can support. The further back people get, the harder it’s going to be to be able to track what’s on the slide. And so in those cases if I would have a lecture for example that has kind of an anchor slide at the end, that’s a, “Here are the five most important things to take away from the class period” kind of slide, in a conventional classroom I might make those just a standard top-down bullet point, which I think that is a use case where it’s an appropriate design choice. But if it’s a deeper room, where I think it’s not going to be able to support the font for that, then maybe break that across five different slides and have one point isolated on each slide, in a way that even the people in the back are going to be able to hear it and use it.

Heather Ackmann

Yeah, white space between graphic elements is also important in those larger-room environments too, just to separate elements that don’t go together, because from far away anything that looks close together looks like it goes together. So, they look like one and the same, or they should be one and the same. But with the more space you place between graphic elements, they look more like separate ideas or separate elements.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool. That’s a great example there of how with a shift in environment you adjust what you’re doing in the PowerPoint. Could you also give us an example within the realm of audience versus message? Or sorry, so if it’s like, “Hey, if an audience is more like this sort of audience, do this, versus if they’re the opposite, do that.” And likewise, with message.

Alan Ackmann

This is a complicated question, because it starts moving outside of PowerPoint as just a software platform, and into PowerPoint as kind of a presentation practice. To take it back a little bit further from that, just thinking critically about the kind of audience you’re going to be talking to, and what their needs are going to be.
When I’m teaching, for example, it to students, a lot of what we need to do is just make sure that students would understand the concepts that are being presented. So in that case it’s mostly an informative presentation, and that’s different than something like a sales presentation, where you might have some content, but it’s about motivating somebody to a kind of action – you want them to go to a website or consider an idea, versus just trying to get them to understand the nuts and bolts behind a concept.

Heather Ackmann

That’s a good point. For a class situation, there’s objectives, there’s a group of information, material, that as a whole you’re hoping that they’ll take away. Not necessarily remember all at once, as soon as it comes out of your mouth, but you’re hoping that they’ll come back to the lecture materials and then study it on their own and at least remember the concepts to go back to either the textbook, the PowerPoint slides themselves, and basically to further study on their own, because basically your lecture and any PowerPoint slides you provide them are there to hopefully be as a study aid, so for further learning. That’s ideal, right?

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah.

Heather Ackmann

In theory. But in a professional context – and now I’m thinking of Dr. Carmen Simon’s book here.

Pete Mockaitis

Impossible to Ignore.

Heather Ackmann

Impossible to Ignore. So, for that one in that context, you’re wanting to pick out the most important details that your audience wants to remember and turn it into, again, that action item. And so for there, the goal is a very singular point and not a collection of points.

Alan Ackmann

Well, I’m thinking about occasions where the content of what you’re presenting doesn’t change very much, but the audience does, and the kind of things you would do to customize. Some of the most impactful presentations that I’ve seen, and I’m always going all the way back to Driver’s Ed, where there were presentations about drinking and driving, and why you shouldn’t do it.
And they were these very kind of emotionally-hinged presentations with a lot of clear attempts to demonstrate the possible stakes behind drinking and driving. And that’s very different than something that would be given on the same topic to a group of legal professionals about trying to defend and identify a legal standard of what classifies as driving under the influence, and if so, ways to defend or try to prosecute people in those kinds of contexts. Those are heavily logically-driven.
And you could pull in the same statistics about the impact that drinking and driving can have, high frequency among users in a young demographic, consequences, but in one case it’s a larger objective of convincing people not to do it, and in another case it’s a question of, “Here’s how to handle it if you’ve got a client who’s been convicted of drinking and driving.” And that’s very different from somebody where the same information might be, but for an officer who has a job where they’ve identified someone as possibly driving under the influence, and how to kind of identify or deal with people in those kinds of situations.

Pete Mockaitis

And so then from a slide perspective, what do you envision as being some key things you would do differently in that logical argument versus the emotional power persuasion?

Alan Ackmann

Well, this is all strictly back of the envelope here.

Heather Ackmann

Well, for the Driver’s Ed class it would be emotionally-driven graphics, so visuals would be very key there – full color, large…

Pete Mockaitis

It’s like the whole slide there’s a tragic human being, and blood and death.

Heather Ackmann

Yeah.

Alan Ackmann

I don’t think you even need to get graphic.

Heather Ackmann

You don’t even need to get horribly graphic, just suggestive.

Alan Ackmann

Although that is an interesting kind of secondary consideration, is how graphic would be appropriate? But you think of any kind of visual, particularly a pictorial visual, is going to be in many cases emotionally powerful. It’s something that’s meant to have a pathos appeal, versus a logos appeal. And the kind of thing that isn’t going to be effective, at least with the younger demographic in the, “I’m sitting through Driver’s Ed because I have to do it to get my license, and I’d much rather be out doing other stuff” kind of environment – you’re not going to get a lot of time to draw an audience in to the most important things you have to say. And so, the easiest thing to express there is not the kind of statistical ratios; it’s the emotional impact, and choosing visuals would be a short way to do that.

Heather Ackmann

And consequences.

Alan Ackmann

Yeah, consequences, and I’m also thinking about shorter text, less reliance on developing a logical argument, even though there’s obviously going to be kind of an implicit logic behind that “Why you shouldn’t drink and drive.” But those are the kinds of things that would jump out at me first.

Heather Ackmann

Then for the legal situation, it’s going to be a more logical argument. So for there, lawyers do a lot of reading…

Alan Ackmann

Yeah, it’s going to be able to support lengthier quotes, higher reliance on the speaker versus the impact of the slides themselves, because there’s generally going to be a little bit more audience buy-in, where you’re going to able to tolerate a little bit more of a patient delineation.

Heather Ackmann

Quite frankly I don’t envision that talk necessarily being delivered as a talk. I imagine that PowerPoint file being handed off to someone and scanned as they’re going from one place to another. So that’s more of what we’d call a walking deck or an info deck.

Alan Ackmann

Yeah, I use the term “archival slide deck”.

Heather Ackmann

Archival slide deck, whatever term you choose to use for it. But that PowerPoint deck probably won’t be projected anywhere and presented in a traditional sense; it’ll be read. So, that one I think would be designed actually more like a document than a docuslide. I think that’s Duarte’s term, I don’t remember.

Alan Ackmann

I’ve heard docuslide, I’ve heard slideument.

Heather Ackmann

Slideument, yeah. People come up with all kinds of fun words. It’s not like a presentation in the traditional sense, but it’s more like a document. So that’s kind of what I envision for the lawyer audience in the end. For the third audience – that’s the cop – no PowerPoint. That’s all demo, that’s upfront personal demo, no slides.

Pete Mockaitis

Perfect, thank you. So now, we’re having so much fun, but I want to make sure that we touch upon a few of the key design principles that show up and slides.

Alan Ackmann

Which one do you want to talk about?

Pete Mockaitis

Let’s say hierarchy.

Alan Ackmann

Okay. For me hierarchy is about identifying what the most important element of the slide is, and then picking, making a visual design that is about supporting that main idea. I have a slide in one of my courses, where it’s about how students perceive a presentation and how long they’re willing to listen.
And the slide there is a kind of, not a forced perspective shot, but there is a student in the foreground who’s kind of turned around, and then in the background, farther off in the distance, there’s a blurred out version of a chalkboard or a whiteboard. So you can kind of see that it’s there, but it’s clearly secondary to the student themselves, because that design or that particular slide is not about what the presentation is; it’s about how students are going to respond to presentations, so that gets the visual focus.

Pete Mockaitis

Got you.

Alan Ackmann

And my favorite story on that – my first day of graduate school my instructor was an old Southern lady. And she walked in and said, “This is the most important thing I’m going to tell y’all about writing.” And on the board she wrote down, “Serve the whole.” And what that meant was that in any kind of story or point of communication you identify, “What’s the most important thing I want to say?” and then design secondary choices around furthering that important thing. But the reason I’ve always remembered it is because she had really bad penmanship and she kind of wrote it on the board without reading it out loud.

Heather Ackmann

With this really curly cute Southern scroll.

Alan Ackmann

Yeah. And so it looked like, “Serve the whale.” And so I’m looking at it and I’m going, “Serve the whale? What does that mean?”

Heather Ackmann

She never actually said, “Serve the whole.”

Alan Ackmann

So she just stepped back and had people read it and ponder it. And I’m like, “Serve the whale? What does that mean?” But I caught on after a couple of minutes, like, “Oh, this is ‘Serve the whole’. Oh, maybe graduate school is not hard, okay.” Then I think it’s a really important kind of anchor concept, because hierarchy is about identifying what’s most important. And I just talk about that in a visual way, but it also happens with things like the size of text – larger text is perceived as more important than smaller text, big visuals are perceived as dominant to captions, and those kinds of things.

Heather Ackmann

And for the structure of the presentation as a whole – you can have a hierarchy throughout the entire slide deck – what slides in the presentation stand out? You know how in PowerPoint you’ve got that slide sorter view, where you can zoom out and see all your slides from kind of like this bird’s eye view? What slides stand out? What’s the hierarchy there from that view? What five slides out of that, I don’t know, 100 slides that you have in that presentation – if you have that many – stand out? Because those five slides out of that 100 – those are going to be the ones that in theory will gain or garner that attention, if they do stand out visually. So there’s a hierarchy to the individual slides, the slide deck together, and then from a content standpoint as well. So you’re creating kind of a visual hierarchy and even a content hierarchy.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh excellent, thank you. Well, tell me, Heather and Alan – is there anything else that you want to make sure to mention right upfront, before we hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Alan Ackmann

For me, the most common question that I get is about text on a slide, and how much text should be on there, and how it should be used. And I think that that question kind of comes from misunderstanding how PowerPoint is designed to operate. It’s not a text-based medium; at heart it’s a visual medium that uses text elements. And I think that in terms of my own kind of professional development that I’ve lead, that’s one of ideas that really seems to resonate with people, is thinking of PowerPoint not just as something that contains your script, but as something that is meant to contain visuals that enhance the presentation itself, and considering text as just one of those fundamentally visual elements.

Heather Ackmann

See, for me, when people ask me how much text is allowed on the slide, “How much should I use? Should I avoid it?”, or even when you get to the bullet point question: “Can I use bullet points? Are bullet points okay?”, I really don’t like answering those questions because I just don’t feel that that’s the right question you should be asking. Because again, for me it comes down to the audience, their expectations, the content, the environment, and what’s appropriate to use for that presentation, in that moment, in that time.
And there’s a lot of “ifs” there. And if your audience is expecting text, if they’re hoping for text, like those students in the classroom that plan on using those PowerPoint files to help them study – they expect text, they want text. And it may not be the best visual, it may not be the most engaging, but they want some kind of text document that they can quickly search, quickly scan, and use it to help them study. You may not use that as your lecture slides, but they want something.

Pete Mockaitis

Perfect, thank you.

Alan Ackmann

And it kind of goes back to the initial comment that I made when starting this podcast, which is about who the slide deck is designed to benefit. And if it’s a deck that is often designed to help the speaker, it ends up kind of overburdened with text; and if it’s designed to help the audience or the students, then text can be moderated appropriately.

Pete Mockaitis

Very good, thank you. Well now, could you share with us a favorite book, something that you found helpful?

Heather Ackmann

Oh, gosh. Well, my favorite design book… We’ve been talking about hierarchy, space, color, all these different design elements. My favorite design book primer – if anyone’s listening and wants to learn more about graphic design – great primer is by Alex W. White The Elements of Graphic Design. And I strongly recommend getting the hard copy physical book as opposed to the Kindle edition, because the pages are beautiful. So that’s a great one. There’s a lot of other graphic design books out there that talk about the same kind of visual design elements and graphic design elements, but I like Alex White. It’s a quick read, enjoyable read, lots of pretty pictures.

Alan Ackmann

And if I’m picking one that I think has a nice general audience appeal, it would be Nancy Duarte’s Slide:ology.

Alan Ackmann

And I like Slide:ology mostly because it’s got a very academic foundation to it, but it’s not in any way inaccessible. It’s very grounded in best practices, and it’s also very actionable. There’s a lot of little exercises and suggestions about how to create a good deck, in addition to understanding what a good slide deck might look like in a moment.

Heather Ackmann

And of course, Dr. Carmen Simon’s book Impossible to Ignore – we mentioned that one earlier. She’s been on your show.

Pete Mockaitis

Absolutely.

Heather Ackmann

Love her book.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch with you two, where would you point them?

Heather Ackmann

I have a website at HeatherAckmann.com, and I also have a YouTube channel – same thing – YouTube.com/HeatherAckmann.

Alan Ackmann

The easiest way to actually probably get a hold of me is through DePaul University, where I teach, and my email address is very accessible.

Alan Ackmann

Just go to DePaul’s directory, and I’m really easy to find.

Pete Mockaitis

Perfect, thank you. Well, Alan, Heather, thank you so much for sharing this stuff. It sounds like we have much more to dig into, and I appreciate it and I wish you tons of luck, and rocking and rolling tremendous presentations and experiences in the weeks and years ahead.

Heather Ackmann
Thank you!

Alan Ackmann
Thank you so much! Thanks for having us on.

088: Getting Automated with Dan Caspi

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

Science genius Dan Caspi talks automation, software, and why we shouldn’t be afraid to learn a little code.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Processes that you can automate that you didn’t know you needed to
  2. Nifty hacks to help you maximize Excel
  3. A checklist to serve your need for computer speed.

About Dan
Dan has a PhD. In Organic Chemistry and is a senior scientist at AbbVie. He is also currently serving in a hybrid Process Chemistry/Chemical Engineering position as a member of the Center for Reaction Engineering.
Dan is highly proficient with technology, programming (Perl, Python, PHP, JS, HTML) and computers, and is the computer genius behind Element 26, a boutique computer consulting company based in Evanston, Illinois.

Read More