The clone of documents war

A web project manager produces different kinds of documents including analysis, presentations, benchmarking, debrief, even wireframes. I work for many different companies and it happens that i am asked to use ready-to-use templates with institutional logos, colors and fonts.

This is where the battle begins. If it usually takes a couple of hours to produce the documentation, trying to make it fit into the template that was handed to me is often a titanic task.

The problem is that it is not, in most cases, a real template, but a clone of documents that have been emptied of content and with no trace of formatting guidelines.

Font type and size have not been made as document styles, but they have been applied to the text whenever necessary. And even if styles were used, they were only for the main text and (perhaps) for a type of header.

This approach is inefficient for several reasons:

  • every time you insert a new element, such as a title, you have to copy its style from the previous one
  • you lose the “semantics” of the document: headers should be as that because the information is specified in the document, while in these documents they are headers simply because the font is “bigger” than the one used for normal text
  • quality will degrade over time: the first two documents will comply with the standard in some way, the next will lose almost all the formatting
  • it is not possible to apply the styles at a later time, for example in the case of documents already produced; they have to be re-edited item by item

This occurs with Word documents, but not only. Powerpoint and Keynote also suffer the same problem. Rather than invest a half a day to create the master slide which can then be applied in each presentation, it is considered a simpler approach to create a presentation with some slides which are then copied and pasted over and over again.

Whenever I can I ask for the clients their “template” before producing documentation, so that I can check how they are made. If the quality is not satisfactory to me, but the number of documents that I plan to write is small, I still use these templates to produce the documentation.

But if have to write many documents, I usually prefer to invest some hours to completely rebuild the template. The operation usually takes me a couple of hours (in case of a presentation a little more), but it is time well spent, especially for me.

On the surface, compared to the template that was handed to me, nothing changes. But the work of producing the documentation is surely reduced.

3 things I learned presenting with slides

I am not a professional speaker at conferences: I do it on my spare time and usually no more than twice a year. But there are some things I learned and that I want to share with you. No, I’m not talking about using a Presentation Zen or Slide:ology approach because, as it was clear to the audience of Better Software 2010, the last conference where I spoke (on Recruitment 2.0, in Italian), 90% of the presentations already got rid of bullet points in favour of photos and terse contents. I am referring to a “parachute plan” in case something goes wrong and to avoid misunderstandings with the audience. Here are my suggestions:

  • Build two different themes – You prepared your slides and tried them some days before on your office projectors (maybe waking up half an hour in advance so nobody could see you). But, when you present, you notice that the quality of the projector lamps is very poor and some contrasts are difficult to read. This is a problem especially for presentations that don’t make use of white bullet points on black backgrounds (or viceversa) but slides with sentences spread in different positions or text put over a photo. The risk is that the “special effects” you spent your nights on are invisible to your audience and that they can’t connect all the dots of your speech. Prepare two set of them (you can use both Keynote or Powerpoint) so that a version is highly contrasted. If, once on stage preparing, you find out that it’s difficult to read your slides, you can easily switch to the highly contrasted theme. Sure, you can use high contrast from the start, but chances are that if you spent hours refining your work, high contrast could not have the impact you wanted. In this way, you have an easy backup strategy. Moreover, you don’t have to prepare two themes every time, because once you define the theme that satisfy your needs, you can use it for whatever presentation you like.
  • Put you Twitter username on every slide – When I was on stage at Better Software, the audience begun twitting excerpts from my talk. Unfortunately, one tweet contained a wrong username (avolpon instead of AntonioVolpon) and the following retweets and new tweets all preserved the non-existant username. So, if you can, if it doesn’t “ruin” your design, reserve a space where you repeat you Twitter username on every slide, and don’t limit this only to the first or last slide.
  • If you build a story, wait for your audience – I am a big fan of Made to Stick, and since I read it I try to build a story in every speech I give, when it’s possible (at Better Software I presented my various job opportunities, starting from the military service). Be very careful if the story is mandatory to understand the meaning of your talk. If so, and your presentation starts after a break, or if the audience can choose among different concurrent sessions (and so needs to move from a room to another), I suggest you not to insert the story in the very first slides, but to (reasonably) wait for most of the people to enter and have a seat.