The Successful Presenter

Communicate When It Counts

The Enemy is PowerPoint

Those words form the headline of a
Wall Street Journal article from a few years ago that focused on the amount of time and effort put into developing PowerPoint slides for the war in the Middle East, and how that time is relatively poorly expended.

picture of value
It’s a fascinating read. But behind the scenes are some excellent insights into improving presentations that come right from the top (the commanders themselves) and provide glimpses into the needs of senior executives from which everyone can learn and benefit.

The generals quoted in the article are all critical of PowerPoint, but each deals with the inevitability of PowerPoint in his own way. In their own way, each is implementing aspects of
The Audience Manifesto.

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reviews printed-out PowerPoint slides at his morning staff meeting, although he insists on getting them the night before so he can read ahead and cut back the briefing time.”

In other words, I can read faster than you can talk. Send me the reading. I’ll do it. Then you’ll answer my questions when we get together. And, by the way, don’t bring additional slides to the briefing.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that sitting through some PowerPoint briefings is “just agony,” nonetheless likes the program for the display of maps and statistics showing trends.

If you have a picture of value to show me — one that is truly worth 1,000 words — show it. Otherwise, bring two pieces of paper (instead of 20) and/or learn to use the “B” key on your keyboard (and blank the screen) when the picture’s no longer necessary.

General Mattis, despite his dim view of the program, said a third of his briefings are by PowerPoint.

In other words, there are may brave people in the armed forces. Everyone knows the Boss hates PowerPoint, but a third of those serving under him have the courage to ignore his wishes and use it.

Next Version of PowerPoint Should Contain ...

I have been watching a conversation unfold on LinkedIn under the heading: “What would you most like to see in presentation software that isn’t available now?”

I have two suggestions.

First, the software should not allow a font size smaller than 72-point. If you use slides, this would pretty much guarantee that everyone in the room can read what’s on the slide.

My second suggestion is that the program be linked to your bank account. For every slide you use over five slides, $50 would be removed from your bank account and donated to the charity of your choice.

This would ensure that every slide you use has value, and would eliminate ‘Death by PowerPoint’ worldwide in a heartbeat.

PowerPoint is a Tool

When people complain about ‘Death by PowerPoint’, someone often counters with: “Don’t blame the tool. PowerPoint is not the problem. It’s the person using the tool who’s at fault.”

I disagree.

Yes, PowerPoint is a tool. But it’s not the only tool available with which to communicate ideas. The problem is that it has become the universal tool used by everyone.

If you attend any presentation in a meeting room, boardroom, training room or classroom in our modern world, how many different tools will you see? In most of those venues, you won’t even find a whiteboard, which is another visual tool that can and should be used when appropriate.

Imagine that the mechanic where you get your vehicle serviced only has one tool with which to complete the job. Would that person be able to complete repairs using only a crescent wrench or screwdriver?

Possibly, but probably not.

If PowerPoint is the only tool you use, you’ve limited the size of your toolbox. If you limit your toolbox, be prepared to limit your results.

Ditch the Progress Bar & Buy an Alarm Clock

I saw an interesting online discussion recently that started with:

“We are preparing a long presentation to introduce Windows 7 and Office 2010 features. We are using PPT 2010. We would like our slides to have a progress bar to indicate the progress of our show.”

I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that, instead of a progress bar, an alarm clock might be more valuable.

What do you think? Good idea? Or not?

No Research to Support Use of Slideware

I have some bad news for the PowerPoint Rangers of the world.

There is no peer-reviewed academic research to support the extensive use of slideware like PowerPoint and Keynote as the basis for delivering effective presentations.

In preparation for a master’s thesis, author Robert Lane wrote the following in 2007:

“About a year ago, we began looking at studies in earnest, both to prepare for this book and to document upcoming grant applications. Considering digital presentation’s established history and widespread use, we expected to find that the cognitive effects of, and best practices for, PowerPoint-style communication had been well-studied. We certainly were shocked to find the opposite was true. Other than a handful of limited exceptions, researchers apparently have utterly ignored this vast slice of human communication, leaving an untold number of important issues and questions unexplored. As far as we can tell, hundreds of millions of speakers regularly follow various protocols and precedents for presentation design and delivery, with virtually no published validation of any kind to explain what works, when, why, and with whom.”

I find it somewhat ironic that there are thousands of academics the world over who deliver presentations to students, peers and others via PowerPoint while using the modern communication equivalent of “the sun revolves around the earth” or “the world is flat” as the basis for their communication.

Interestingly, not one of those academics would allow someone to make any general statement about their area of expertise without substantiating that statement with evidence. Yet they all happily lean on PowerPoint without having a shred of evidence to indicate that being slide-driven is even remotely more effective than having a structured conversation with their audience.

Food for thought, isn’t it?

Denial: More Than a River in Egypt

Over the past few years at conference presentations I’ve facilitated, I have asked people to respond to three statements:
  • Raise your hand if you use PowerPoint or Keynote to develop content for your presentations.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced ‘Death by PowerPoint’ as an audience member.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve ever evoked ‘Death by PowerPoint’ on others.
Almost everyone puts up their hand to the first two statements. In today’s topsy-turvy world, the vast majority of presenters are using PowerPoint (or Keynote or Prezi) to develop content for their presentations, and everyone has experienced ‘Death by PowerPoint’.

However, it is extremely rare when some brave soul puts their hand up to the third statement, in effect saying “yes, I have bored the daylights out of people with my presentations.”

But let’s be clear here. If you use PowerPoint or Keynote or Prezi to develop content for your presentations, you almost certainly must put your hand up to the third statement.

‘Death by PowerPoint’ does not mysteriously occur when people gather to view a presentation (and notice I said “view a presentation” not “participate as an audience member”).

But let’s be absolutely clear here. If you truly wish to stop glazing the eyes of people who give up their valuable time to listen to you, you should not use PowerPoint or Keynote or Prezi to develop your content.

Use them after you’ve established your strategy—after you’ve considered the audience, established business and communication objectives, and structured your side of the conversation. Until you do that, leave your slideware program closed. That’s not the purpose for which it was designed.

Slideware (like PowerPoint or Keynote) was created to emulate the horizontal format of 35-mm slides, at a time when 35-mm computer-generated slides cost anywhere from thirty-five dollars to seventy-five dollars each on the open market.

I worked on a college field placement in late 1981, in which the director of public relations ordered slides for a series of employee meetings at seventy-five dollars apiece. Today, accounting for the change in the value of a dollar, those slides would cost at least two hundred fifty dollars each.

If someone had to find twenty-seven hundred dollars in their budget for a thirty-six slide presentation to the monthly management meeting, nobody would worry about being exposed to too many slides.

But today, with projectors and printers everywhere, slides are “free” and slideware programs have become slide factories.

But slides have never been effective at developing content; opening, pointing, clicking and typing is actually what’s killing us. The presentation itself is merely the visible result of a flawed critical thinking process.

Presentations Killing Productivity

During a period of more than fifteen years, I have asked more than twenty thousand people at workshops, seminars and presentations to raise their hands to each of the following statements in turn:
  • Raise your hand if most of the business presentations you’ve attended in the past few years have made extensive use of visual aids.
  • Raise your hand again if you can say that 51 per or more of the presentations you attended in that period were a good use of your time.
Virtually every hand has gone up to the first statement. I think the only people who didn’t put up their hands are too tired, too skeptical or too independent.

Everyone knows that modern presentations are accompanied by slides—either projected, printed or both. We’ve been visual-ed to death since acetates first met laser printers, and overhead projectors began popping up in meeting rooms, training rooms and boardrooms the world over.

Response to the second statement has been interesting. At the workshops, presentations and seminars I’ve facilitated, about six to eight per cent of people put their hands up. With twenty thousand-plus people asked, there is no question that less than 10 per cent say that more than half the presentations they had attended were a good use of their time.

No matter how you examine them, these are poor results.

I once had a group of scientists challenge my informal results. One participant said that people could sense in my voice that I didn’t want them to put up their hands to the second statement. I countered that my persuasive skills are not that highly refined.

To quote a phrase from our son’s favorite movie, Die Hard, if my persuasive skills were that effective, I’d already “be sitting on a beach earning twenty per cent.” But let’s suppose that I convinced half the people who wanted to put up their hands to not do so, the standard would still be extremely poor.

What does this tell us?

The vast majority of people use visual aids when attempting to communicate with their fellow human beings. We know that. But the vast majority of those visuals are ultimately wasting people’s time.

The promise of technology was to improve productivity, not kill it. And that much time wasted is anything but an improvement.

Entertaining Video Takes Shot at PPT

I found this little gem on YouTube. Entitled STOP: You’re Killing Me With PowerPoint, it’s three minutes and fifteen seconds of entertaining rapping, with some interesting messages woven throughout.

Your charts and your graphs
they’re offendin’ my eyes.

Do you think you could cram
any more on that slide?

I once had a client tell me that their senior management team felt that too much PowerPoint was being used during briefings and presentations, so they limited everyone to six slides maximum. Two things happened.

First, they started getting four graphs per slide. Second, on those slides for which there were no graphs, the fonts shrank and the white space disappeared.

So if you want to increase
your influence.

Practice bullet point abstinence.

In my presentation skills training, I’ve often had people tell me they don’t use notes. They use bullet points. They put their bullets up and talk to them.

I always have to catch myself before I ask: “But do they ever talk back?”

Here’s to what we’re asking
before you waste our time.

With a deck of boring slides
just to toe the corporate line.

Think about your presentation.
What you want to say.

Then tell your story
in a compelling way.


Watch the YouTube video.

Another "Avoiding Death by PowerPoint"

Thanks to J.D. for passing along an advertisement for a webinar entitled “Avoid death by PowerPoint: Create slides that engage, entertain and persuade.”

Huh? There’s more than a bit of irony here.

Slides aren’t supposed to engage the audience. The speaker is. Slides don’t entertain an audience. If they did, the phrase ‘Death by PowerPoint’ wouldn’t exist. Slides don’t persuade. People do, but only if the audience is looking at them, not the slides.

Now, I must admit the producers of this webinar seem to acknowledge some of this when they say in the secondary headline: “In just one hour, you can learn how to make PowerPoint slides work WITH your presentation, not against it.”

If you want your PowerPoint slides to work WITH your presentation, don’t use them at all. Or, if you feel that you absolutely must use them, develop them when all of your content is complete.

If you sit down to develop your presentation using PowerPoint, you will exacerbate death by PowerPoint, not avoid it. This is the only PowerPoint pitfall to avoid.

You do not want your slides to entertain while they inform. Nor do you want to choose fonts and colors that seduce your audience. You want your audience looking at you, not the seductive traits of your slides. It’s really quite simple. If the audience’s attention is distracted, your communication success will suffer.

Charts and graphs should not command the audience’s attention. You should. Learn how to do this by telling stories and creating conversations.

And always remember that the best conversations you’ve had in your life were over a cup of coffee, not a PowerPoint deck.

The moral? Listen more than you talk

I recently had a meeting with the director of strategic initiatives for a nation-wide presentation and staging company, who heard me speak at an IABC/Toronto evening event.

He was intrigued by my comments on PowerPoint, one of which is my belief that for one of the first times in human history, we have developed a communication technology that actually decreases our ability to communicate effectively.

He e-mailed me after the event to say that he sees “dozens and dozens of power point presentations every year. Much of the content (and the format) is underwhelming – even the font size,” adding that “I don’t think I will ever look at a power point presentation in the future without thinking of your comments.”

What can I say? As my kids will tell you, the quickest way to get something out of the old man is to pay him a compliment, so I suggested that we meet and chat about my perspective on the use of visual aids.

During our meeting, he showed me some of the visuals he uses for pitches to prospective clients. I must admit that the part that really intrigued me was the way they develop artist renderings to help carefully plan client events, which are then compared with photographs of the actual event.

The story here is that the company carefully works with its clients to plan events, which significantly increases the chances of achieving the success the client is seeking.

This is probably a good place for a visual aid, because it supports the company’s story; they carefully plan and execute events for their clients. But I did question the inclusion of an organizational chart. I didn’t think it added any value whatsoever.

During our conversation, he told me a story of when he worked in the broadcasting industry and three advertising companies were pitching for business. Two brought visual aids and were highly focused on delivering their message. One brought no visual aids, but focused on listening carefully and creating a meaningful conversation with a prospective client.

Guess who got the contract? The agency that listened more than it talked.

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