I recently came across an interesting article in the Small Wars Journal, in which military commander Ben Zweibelson expresses his belief that because the “military has become addicted to the benefits of PowerPoint,” decision-makers have become blinded to “the many negative impacts on organizational learning, creativity, and critical thinking” of slide-driven briefings.
There are a number of reasons why Zweibelson believes that PowerPoint negatively impacts decision-making:
- PowerPoint-driven briefings focus on the “What” versus the “Why”
- PowerPoint-driven briefings kill productivity
- PowerPoint-driven briefings emphasize quantity over quality
￼Zweibelson uses a bicycle metaphor to make this point. Imagine that your briefing is focused on the strategic benefits of using bicycles during war. PowerPoint-driven briefings focus on each individual part of the bicycle—the seat, the gears, the wheels, the tires, the spokes, the handlebars. Information is categorized into small, isolated packets.
Because of its linear nature, PowerPoint encourages decision-makers to focus on data, rather than how that data could and should be interrelated, even though interrelationships are critical to effective decision-making.
Ideally, decision-making should focus on why. In other words, the bicycle needs to be assembled and consideration given to where or why (or if) it should be ridden, and could be used strategically in battle. The interrelationships of the various parts should be the primary consideration when people sit down to make decisions.
Instead, Zweibelson writes that PowerPoint presentations are used to standardize briefings into “uniform and repetitive procedures that codify organizational perspective into ‘group think.’ We follow the slides, and conform to the slide requirements. Next slide, please.”
Zweibelson points out that modern military briefings (and indeed the vast majority of presentations to all decision-making groups) consist of densely packed slides. More often than not, the person conducting the briefing reads from the slides while offering little additional information of value.
He recommends that decision-makers ask the presenter to turn off the slide projector as soon as this situation manifests itself. “If the presenter is unable to articulate their thoughts or convey much of anything,” Zweibelson writes, “you might determine that the slideshow is the actual briefer, while the human has become the willing presentation aid.”
We’ve all witnessed the same issue with printed presentation decks.
When everyone gets together, the conversation focuses on the “what” in the deck, not “why” it’s important to the organization. If you want to change this, put the decks away; they should never form the basis for any meeting.
Painstakingly (and painfully!) plodding through decks may very well be the ultimate productivity sin of the 21st century.
Quantity over Quality
In any presentation—whether briefing a group of decision-makers or delivering a keynote to 1,000 or more—there is always more information than time.
The challenge is to apply critical thinking skills to bring precisely the right information to create understanding and facilitate effective decision-making. However, as Zweibelson points out, PowerPoint-driven briefings always attempt to cram “ten pounds of dirt into a five pound bag,” which “does little to improve organizational learning” or facilitate effective decision-making.
Zweibelson makes some interesting recommendations to enhance critical thinking, improve productivity and facilitate decision-making:
- Presenters should be limited to a maximum of three slides, yet the length of the meeting should be maintained. Group discussion will identify critical issues that require attention.
- The projector should be turned off and presentation decks should be put away.
- Other briefing aids should be encouraged and staff should be challenged to conduct briefings with no PowerPoint whatsoever.
- And, in a radical departure, he even recommends removing chairs and tables. “We become programmed to behave in certain ways because we are conditioned to sit and be silent while a briefer spoon-feeds us information while the same information is projected,” he writes. “Why? What happens when everyone is no longer seated for a briefing?”
Copyright © Eric Bergman All Rights Reserved
When seeking body language advice for presentations and television interviews (or sales calls and job interviews, for that matter), the best place to begin is with the work of psycholinguists.
In her book Hearing Gesture: How our hands help us think, psycholinguist Susan Goldin-Meadow points out that no culture has been discovered in which people do not move their hands as they talk. In other words, if you're reading this, there is an extremely high probability that you gesture in conversation -- even if you're not aware of it.
As Dr. Goldin-Meadow discovered, a person speaking does not even have to be sighted to use gestures. In her book, she describes an experiment in which children and teens blind from birth participated in a series of conversational tasks. All of the children used gestures. "The blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group," she writes, "and conveyed the same information using the same range of gesture forms."
Regardless of our culture or language, we all use gestures to help us think and communicate.
Most of us intuitively know that gestures help us communicate. "Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system," Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. "The gestures that speakers produce along with their talk are symbolic acts that convey meaning." This is why we get more out of face-to-face meetings than telephone conversations.
But the evidence also indicates that gestures make it easier to think. "When the act of speaking becomes difficult, speakers seem to respond by increasing their gestures," Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. Her hypothesis is that gesturing reduces demands on a speaker's cognitive resources. Attempting to reduce or eliminate gestures (i.e. being told to reduce your gestures by a psycholinguist conducting an experiment or, potentially, by a presentation or media training consultant trying to get you to convey the "right image") adds to your cognitive burden. It makes it more difficult to think of what you're trying to say at times when, during presentations and interviews, you don't need the added pressure.
In other words, if you want to increase your ability to think on your feet during presentations, or in your seat during television interviews, bring your gestures with you and let them happen naturally.
Or, as Dr. Goldin-Meadow was quoted as saying on page 14 of the November 25, 2003, edition of the Chicago Sun-Times:
"At the very least, we ought to stop telling people not to move their hands when they talk."
Copyright © Eric Bergman All Rights Reserved
I’ve given the issue much deliberation and I’ve come to the conclusion that the next edition of PowerPoint (or Keynote or any other slideware program) should encompass two changes. These two simple changes would not only improve presentations and other forms of face-to-face communication, they would also have the potential to make the world a better place.
The first change is quite simple. For all-text slides, no font smaller than 96 point. This would solve a number of problems.
Second, this change would make it virtually impossible for presenters to put their notes on-screen. Ever wondered what causes bullet-point boredom? Now you know. (Of course, the best way to avoid bullet-point boredom among audiences is to never, ever use PowerPoint as a content development tool. Instead, use the free workbook available from this website.)
Third, a minimum 96-point font would also solve the problem of presenters reading to their audiences. (As an aside, for those who feel compelled to read their presentations to us word-by-word, I would like to express a sentiment that the entire world shares: In the name of all that is beautiful and gentle on this planet, please stop.)
Finally, presenters who feel compelled to create all-text presentations will not be able to use much text, especially when we consider the second change I propose.
Link PowerPoint to User’s Bank Account
The second change is radical, but possible. It would improve presentations, and has the potential to make the world a better place in which to live.
Every PowerPoint user would be required to link the program to his or her bank account. They would be allowed four slides per presentation (which, by the way, includes the title slide).
For every additional slide, the program would automatically transfer twenty-five dollars (or the equivalent in pounds, euros, francs or yen) from their bank account to the bank account of their favourite charitable organization.
Think of it. More than 40 million presentations will be produced today. If we conservatively estimate 30 slides per presentation, we end up with more than one billion extraneous slides (40 million x 26). That’s $25 billion per day pouring into the coffers of charitable organizations the world over—or more than $125 billion per working week.
If people didn’t change their behaviour, we could tackle homelessness, hunger and health care around the world in less than a month. Half a trillion dollars goes a long way.
Heck, after a few months, we could focus on tackling the budget deficits of most major nations on the planet.
Of course, this is a no-lose proposition. If presenters do change their behaviour and live within the four slide limit (and focus on creating conversations with audiences rather than dumping data), the world would still become a better place for everyone.
This short video demonstrates why slide-driven presentations tend to be less effective than simply conducting a conversation.
If a blank screen can get in the way of effective communication, imagine what PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, SlideRocket or any other slideware program can do.
There is a single word that explains why constantly bridging and staying on message are doomed as media relations tactics: convergence.
As the embedded interview to the left illustrates (if the interview isn’t visible, click here to go to the TV network site), before convergence a spokesperson could get away with repeating the same thing over and over, especially when answering questions from a print journalist or providing a quote for a newscast.
Today, however, the rules have changed. A single article on a website can contain both the print article, which provides detail into the issue, and the actual unedited interview with the spokesperson. In this format, it becomes obvious that the spokesperson is avoiding all questions by stubbornly repeating the same thing over and over.
There are some lessons to be learned here:
- The only remaining forum in which blindly bridging and staying on message are even remotely applicable is politics. If the spokesperson is representing a not-for-profit organization, a private or public corporation, or a government agency, he or she cannot get away with these outdated tactics. There are too many other places to find answers to questions.
- If transparency is a value of your organization, your spokespeople must answer questions. The question-and-answer process is the only bridge that counts, because it bridges the gap between “truth” and “transparency.”
- If you teach bridging or staying on message as primary tactics in any media relations course at any post-secondary institution, please stop. These are outdated paradigms in an information-driven world. Your students need better and, quite frankly, so does our industry.
- If your media training consultant focuses on constantly bridging or is mired in staying on message, find someone else to work with. Your spokespeople and your organization deserve better.
College and university students who have noticed that there's a direct link between the amount of PowerPoint the professor uses and the likelihood that they’ll be completely bored in class should take heart. They’re not alone.
This phenomenon occurs because of how the human mind processes information to learn.
The cognitive research in this area is quite clear. As human beings, when we try to read and listen at the same time, we actually understand less than if we do either one separately. Working memory is overloaded. We can’t keep up, so we give up.
This is relatively easy to prove. The next time you're watching your favourite all-news channel, try listening to what the news anchor is saying while reading what's scrolling across the bottom. Even if both are about the same story, it won't take more than five seconds to realize you have to block out one or the other to get anything meaningful out of the exercise.
So how can students make the best of a bad situation, especially when the professor is unaware that using slides in class is unsupported by cognitive research? Two ways, really.
The first is for students to adjust their behaviour by better understanding how they process information, and using that knowledge to adapt in class. The second is to find ways to change the professor’s behaviour so that he or she uses fewer slides in class (if any at all), and puts significantly less on each slide.
Adjusting Student Behaviour
If slides are posted online in advance, read them before class and set them aside. Do not bring them to class.
In class, focus on listening to the professor and taking notes. Ignore the projected slides, no matter how many times the professor refers to them.
If the class format allows, ask questions—even if it's to slow the professor down to finish absorbing an idea.
If the professor doesn't post slides online, ask if pictures can be taken of the slides projected in class. If it’s ok, pull out a smartphone, snap the picture, ignore what's on the screen, listen to the professor, and take notes.
If photos can’t be taken, find a partner and work in pairs. One person listens and takes notes. The other writes down what's on the slides. Copy and swap after class.
Adjusting Professor Behaviour
When it comes to changing the behaviour of professors, there are a couple things that can be done.
Those professors who use minimal PowerPoint or no PowerPoint should be praised, as should the rare professor (one in a hundred?) who uses PowerPoint well, but students might consider being frank about the use of PowerPoint on class evaluations.
If there were too many slides, say so. If the slides got in the way of learning, say so. If there were so many slides that the value of going to class is in question, say so.
And keep saying so until professors and administrators get the point. Education is far too expensive for students—and far too competitive for the institutions—to settle for glazed eyes in class, especially when those glazed eyes are created in the name of “that’s the way it’s done” or “everyone uses it.”
The person you want to talk to at the party is the person who has something interesting to say; someone with interesting and relevant stories to tell. A good conversationalist provides a bit of information, looks for acknowledgement (via a nod or uh-huh), and provides a bit more. This occurs one short idea at a time. Pauses occur frequently. The person talking thinks before talking. The people listening get the opportunity to think about what was just said.
If the listener has a question, the good conversationalist will immediately allow him or her to ask. If the listener has something to contribute to the conversation, based on his or her experience, the good conversationalist allows that contribution and builds upon it.
If a picture needs to be drawn, it will be drawn. Hopefully, the person drawing will not use one of the host's linen napkins, but the picture will be drawn for everyone to see at a rate at which everyone can participate. Six months from that date, everyone involved in the conversation would be able to look at the picture and remember specific elements of what was discussed.
This conversation will tap into the fact that human beings cannot think and listen at the same time. When the good conversationalist provides food for thought, he or she allows the receiver to think by stopping—by pausing. In that silence, the receiver is given the opportunity to move the idea from working memory to long-term memory, thereby finding a position for it within his or her existing cognitive framework.
The good conversationalist also knows that people won't remember what was said. Instead, they will remember what they thought about what was said. Conversationalists know how to use silence to influence when people think and what they think about, in order to communicate effectively.
I leave this thought with three questions: How many modern presentations resemble the person talking nonstop, versus the conversation?
Why can't all presentations be like conversations? And wouldn't the world be a better place if they were?