I think the engineering job is a fine one. If Microsoft managed to squeeze a fully functional PC, with a USB port and a decent (or so they say) keyboard in this ultra-slim case — well done, I have nothing but respect and admiration. I am very skeptical that the same operating system will be able to serve well for touch-based devices and for touch-pad-based ones — you can see Steven Sinofsky struggling with this exact issue at 19:10, but that is beyond the point here. Fully functional Windows on a tablet? Impressive. They also managed to get the message across. One point to Microsoft.
Secondly, Micosoft has greatly improved on their slides. They have a long and proud history of abusing bullet points, I don't think they got any bullet points in their presentation this time. Great job and a great cultural shift. Simple graphics, vivid colours, decent typography. Nice change, one more point to Microsoft. Incidentally, this is also where the "HUGE BUTS" begin.
Those slides, despite being very clear and beautiful are mostly useless. They don't remind the speaker what to say, they rarely explain anything, these are just photos of the product taken from different angles. Slides should help the speaker — these don't. It could not be any other way since the speakers don't use remote controls to advance the slides. I understand that it's challenging to hold a a tablet and a remote in your hands all at the same time. But why take the device unless you are giving a demo? Don't. Put it down. Take the remote instead. Show a slide with a device. It's bigger, it's better.
Remote control has one important aspect: it is about control. Microsoft's presenters do not control their slides. Their slides thus become a backdrop, not a companion. I think this is a bad idea. Granted, bullet-infested slides encourage talking to the slides rather than talking about the slides. But. Now the speakers mostly avoid mentioning their slides altogether! They behave like the slides don't even exist! But of course the slides do exist and when the speaker doesn't talk about the slides the audience sees them anyway. Once again slides compete with the speakers for the audience's attention. I don't like that.
Also, when speakers cannot rely on their slides to remind them what to say — they memorise and rehearse too much. Guess what — they sound canned. Their speech becomes unnatural, they screw up timing, they want to get out their precious memorised text rather than talk to the actual audience in front of them. This is bad.
By this point I am really, really tired of typing the word "speakers". I would love to put some actual names instead but I can't because for a 45 minute-long presentation Microsoft had four speakers! Four! First Steve Ballmer came to say how great Microsoft it and to unveil the device. Second Steven Sinofsky came to talk a bit about the device in general. Finally, two lesser-known guys, Mike Angulo and Panos Panay came to talk about different features. Of all those people the last two were actually quite good, they had real passion, they were talking to the audience rather than reading a script — all because they were mostly doing demo. Why bother including the other two? Well, apparently because this is how things work at Microsoft, this is their chain of command. I don't see any other reason to put both Ballmer and Sinofsky onstage. This matryoshka structure dampens the whole show. I just don't like people reading scripts to me, no matter what positions within the company they occupy. Especially the script as bad as theirs!
Ok, the script is full of words like "great", "re-imagine" and "it just clicks". One more point here for copying Apple, well done. But it fails to build excitement. Ballmer doesn't even get the applause for the moment of unveiling! It wasn't even close, how can you screw up this? During the iPad presentation Jobs got the applause even without showing the device, merely for putting the word "iPad" on a slide! Ok, Microsoft's keyboard got the applause — but mostly they just put up a new feature without building an anticipation.
You build anticipation by talking about the problem that the feature solves. Sinofsky talks about "dual wi-fi antennas" but I never actually see the need for that with my iPad. Lots of people having problems with wi-fi reception on other tablets? Well I didn't know that, please explain this to me beforehand. Compare the following two ways of introducing a feature: "Do you know those tablets you cannot put anywhere because you're afraid to put a scratch on their new shiny back cover? Well, our back cover is made of magnesium alloy. It is so scratch resistant, you can put your new Surface right on your keys — it might scratch the keys, but not the Surface" and "the back cover is made of magnesium alloy which is very hard to make and which is very scratch-resistant". I think the first one works slightly better.
Microsoft's speakers talk a lot about how difficult it was to do something — but I don't care much how difficult it is unless you tell me why do I need that. I don't care about your attention to detail unless you explain why those details are so damn important. Tell me a story. Tell me how you first made it and it didn't work. Tell me how you've researched your competitors products and didn't like their approach. Tell me why. This is the key thing where Microsoft's presentation falls short. They talk about features but they didn't talk about needs. These two are not the same.
Finally, to the most horrible part. At one point Sinofsky's tablet just froze — and he tried to hide it. It was so embarrassing, I cannot even describe it. Just watch it yourself. Notice that this video was viewed by the astounding 3 million people, which is 2 million more than the whole keynote. This is what happens when you script your talk word for word: you have to go on no matter what happens. Otherwise you just don't know what to say. Bad, bad, bad idea. It seems very safe but it's actually not. Stop doing that, people. This is how Steve reacted to problems with his demos. He actually manages to get applause for his software glitches. What a master presenter he was. I feel somewhat stupid always comparing the Redmond guys with Steve but you just cannot escape those comparisons. YouTube is full of them.
So, to sum things up, what can we learn from Microsoft's presentation? Three simple points:
1. Don't script your whole bloody talk, leave space for improvisation
2. Take control over your slides, use them to remind you what to say next (but of course don't read them)
3. Discuss problems first, features second
That's it. Thanks for reading this and good luck with your next presentation.