I was once asked by a pharmaceutical company to provide one-and-one-half hours of presentation skills training to a group of urologists. These physicians had gathered to put the finishing touches on a continuing medical education (CME) program.
As a presentations skills consultant, my role was to help them understand how they could effectively communicate their knowledge when they later fanned out to conduct workshops across the country. I was scheduled to speak from 10:30 to noon.
From 8:30 to 9:15 a.m., one of the urologists who was leading the content stood at the front of the room and took 30 or so of his peers through the information they would later be asked to present. To my very pleasant surprise, he was a brilliant communicator. He didn’t use slides. He showed two short videos.
He created a conversation with 30 of his colleagues. In 45 minutes, he provided incredible insight and answered close to a hundred questions. It was a case study in communication effectiveness. Everyone was engaged.
During a short break after his talk, I circulated through the room and noticed that people were talking in small groups. There was a buzz in the room. Everyone was commenting on how much they learned, and how the session was one of the best (if not the best) they had ever attended.
After the break, they broke into groups to put the finishing touches on their slides.
This exercise took longer than anticipated. When they reconvened at 11:40 a.m., I had twenty minutes remaining for my session before we had no choice but to break for lunch. I could have given a short version of my presentation, but I didn’t.
These are highly educated individuals, I thought to myself. I’m going to challenge them a bit.
I focused their attention on the presentation we had witnessed earlier. They agreed it was brilliant. Everyone learned a lot.
I then asked how many slides were used. This caught them by surprise. It took a minute before they realized their colleague hadn’t used any, which he verified (he was still in the room).
Then I asked if they were going to use the slides they spent the past two-and-a-half hours working on when they delivered their own CME sessions. They said yes. I asked: “Why?” At first there was silence. Then they pushed back.
To say that this evolved into a spirited conversation would be an understatement. Anyone watching would have thought I had refuted the holy grail of urology without a single shred of evidence.
“That’s the way CME programs are delivered,” one physician commented. Another told me that CME programs had been delivered that way since speakers actually carried carousels of 35-mm slides from presentation to presentation. That’s the way it’s done, and that’s the way it’s always been done.
Perhaps, I said. But is that the best way? Wouldn’t it be better to re-create what we all witnessed earlier?
My parting thought was that I hoped they would bring a similar analysis to the communication process that they bring to their profession.
There’s no doubt that communication is an art. But make no mistake, there’s a growing body of social science research around communication. Three credible studies have shown that you can increase communication effectiveness by up to 30 per cent by delivering the same information without showing a single slide.
This research needs to be understood and properly applied, because it clearly shows what we all know in our heart-of-hearts: that slides impede communication.
The bottom line on communication effectiveness is simple. What someone says to an audience is less unimportant than how the audience applies the information or takes action on it.
I have no doubt that the 30 urologists I observed learned things they will be able to apply to their practice by participating in their colleague’s 45-minute presentation.
But could their audiences do the same? If they showed the slides they spent all day developing, the research is actually quite clear.
I believe that six seemingly innocuous words have been decreasing the quality of conference presentations for nearly 20 years now.
These words are so common that you’ve probably written or seen them a hundred times without giving them second thought. Yet every single conference I’ve spoken at during the past 20 years has included these six words in their instructions to presenters and subject matter experts:
Why are these words so damaging?
￼The reason is simple: They make the assumption that slides are necessary and expected in all presentations delivered at the conference. However, as research now shows, this assumption decreases communication quality, ultimately leading to lower comprehension and retention among conference attendees.
According to three separate studies from universities on two continents, if each presenter delivered the same information without showing a single slide, conference attendees would receive 20 to 30 per cent additional educational value.
Researchers from Purdue, Barcelona and Munich tested understanding and retention when exactly the same information was presented with and without slides. Depending on the study, those who receive information without slides being shown score 20 to 30 per cent higher on quizzes administered after the presentation.
And, all three studies confirm that what is lost in oral retention during regular slideware presentations is not made up anywhere else. “It is remarkable,” the Munich researchers wrote, “that this suppressive effect of regular slides on retention of information from speech could not be demonstrated to be the downside of a trade-off in favour of the retention of information on the slides.”
What Alternatives Exist?
Ultimately, the best way to eliminate this problem is to simply encourage conference presenters to turn off the projector, leave their laptop open and deliver their presentation—delivering exactly the same information without showing a single slide. I talked someone into this exact approach at a professional development event with excellent results. But to help others ease into a new paradigm, I have a few other suggestions.
First, let speakers know that they can use a projector, but they’ll have to pay for it themselves. This works particularly well with not-for-profit organizations. You can generate significant savings and your audiences will ultimately learn more. (I recently helped a client save $10,000 by removing projectors from breakout rooms.) You may not want to ask your keynote speakers to pay for their projectors, but you can encourage them to focus more on telling compelling stories than showing slides.
Second, ask speakers to contribute articles and information that can be sent to participants to “prime the pump” in advance of their presentation, rather than slides as handouts after the presentation. When everyone gets together, tell stories about how the information can be applied. Case studies, examples, anecdotes and comparisons aid retention. Bullet points kill it.
Third, make sure flip charts and/or whiteboards are available in each presentation room—particularly breakout rooms. If someone has 30 to 50 participants in a breakout room, a flip chart will work well when a visual is needed (and any visual used in that medium can be precisely adapted to the needs of the group and that conversation at that moment in time). Consider removing projectors in breakout rooms with fewer than 50 seats.
Fourth, encourage dialogue. Again, if someone has 30 to 50 participants in a breakout room, why should everyone wait until the end to ask questions? They should be able to ask questions throughout. Everyone benefits when the process becomes two-way and receiver-driven.
These are a few suggestions; there are many ways in which dialogue can be enhanced (panel presentations that encourage structured dialogue with all the speakers, for example). But the bottom line is simple when it comes to “Please send your slides in advance.”
Please don’t ask. And, if asked, please don’t.
When reading blogs on the subject, or by simply talking to people and asking them what they think, there is often some confusion as to what actually constitutes a presentation.
But let's be absolutely clear: for a presentation to exist, the presenter is the only essential element. Everything else is secondary.
To put this into perspective, let's suppose your senior management team has assembled to attend a presentation that will be delivered by an outside consultant. When the presentation begins, the projector suddenly breaks down. PowerPoint is unavailable.
Could the presenter still deliver the presentation? Of course.
In fact, according to three research studies that measure audience retention when slides are used versus simply talking to the audience without the use of slides to convey the same information — one from Purdue University, one from the University of Barcelona and one from the University of Munich — the audience will understand and retain up to 30 per cent more information from the presentation if the projector does break down than if the slides are actually delivered.
(Hint for future presentation effectiveness: Turn off the projector to deliver your next presentation and you’ll achieve 30 per cent greater audience retention.)
Now, imagine another scenario. The presenter is on a flight that has been delayed and he or she can no longer deliver the presentation in person. Instead, the slides are sent via email. Would the presentation still exist? Would the senior management team assemble in the boardroom to go over the slides and discuss the information? No, probably not.
If slides are sent in advance that can be understood without the presenter, a horizontal written document has been circulated. A presentation has not been delivered.
Let's be clear. A movie is not a presentation. A slideware file is not a presentation. A presentation deck is not a presentation, no matter how often some people use the words 'presentation' and 'PowerPoint' interchangeably.
And that brings us to the original assertion.
If there is no presenter, there can be no presentation.
Like the Purdue study, the Barcelona results are bad news for the 40 million people each day who deliver “standard” slideware presentations.
Their slides are getting in the way of the communication process, leading to lower understanding and retention by the audience.
However, the study indicates that presenters can achieve better outcomes by turning off the projector, talking to their audience, and using a chalkboard, whiteboard or flip chart when needed.
205 Students in Four Classes
Researchers conducted their study with a base of 205 students registered in a course entitled the Psychology of Education during the 2010-2011 academic year—a compulsory course for those working toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
The course was divided into four groups and led by two professors. Each professor taught one course in the morning and one in the afternoon. For this test, each professor used slides for one class and a blackboard for the other.
The two professors worked together to develop a 19-slide presentation for the class in which slides would be shown. The number of lines in each slide did not exceed 13. The number of words per slide varied between 42 and 93.
This is actually a “light” treatment of the use of slides by industry standards (as this page of conference handouts clearly demonstrates).
The professors prepared a 10-question multiple-choice test to evaluate the knowledge acquired by students during the class. The test was administered immediately after the presentation. The questions and their correct answers were based on information taught during the class.
During the first 40 minutes of class time, the professor delivered the presentation (lecture). The remaining time was devoted to allowing students to complete the quiz.
Results Are Significant
There is no question that slides impeded the communication process. The students who weren’t exposed to slides scored higher on the quiz than those who were.
The average score for those who didn't see slides was 8.21. The average score for those who were exposed who did see the slides was 6.73.
In other words, eliminating slides enabled students to score 22 per cent higher on the quiz.
“The evaluations of contents presented without PowerPoint yielded better results (more correct answers and consequently fewer mistakes) than when the same contents were presented using the PowerPoint methodology,” the researchers concluded. “If we take the class taught without PowerPoint as a reference, the effect of this technology used according to the procedure described is to lower learning by 18%, which can be considered a significant effect (or defect).”
Verifying Step Three: Minimize Visual Aids
The researchers are verifying step three of the 5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint’: Minimize visual aids.
If presenters need a visual to explain a concept, they should use a visual (and, as the Purdue study indicated, there is no added value to developing a slide versus simply drawing a diagram with a whiteboard or flip chart). Once it’s no longer needed, remove the visual from view and talk to your audience.
But if presenters feel compelled to always have something in front of the audience, they are negatively impacting their ability to communicate effectively.
For those who believe that communication, understanding and retention are important to their personal and/or professional business success, there is a lot to be gained from the Barcelona study.
When slides are used, the researchers concluded, the audience retains nearly 30 per cent less than if presenters eliminate PowerPoint and simply talk to their audience.
In other words, by simply turning off your projector and using your slides as notes, you can significantly enhance your communication effectiveness.
Two Styles of Lectures
The researchers conducted their study as part of a course entitled “Human Factors in Engineering” that was delivered to students from four majors—engineering, humanities, management and technology. The course was attended by both undergraduate and graduate students and was taught three times a week for 16 weeks.
There were two separate streams of classes for the course, which was based on the textbook Human Factors in Simple and Complex Systems.
For two lectures, two distinctly different delivery styles were used—one that showed slides during the lecture and one that did not.
Researchers then used a 20-question quiz to test students’ ability to recall information in four categories: oral information presented during lectures, graphic information presented during lectures, alphanumeric information from the lectures, and information presented orally with visual support.
The Negative Affect of Slides
The researchers’ first hypothesis was that PowerPoint would have a negative effect on what was said during the lecture—that it would be more difficult for the audience to listen to the presenter while slides are shown.
And there is no question this is true. Students who didn't see slides during the lecture scored 29 per cent higher on the quiz in recalling oral information, and achieved higher overall scores with the recall of all information. “The presence of PowerPoint negatively affected the recall of auditory information,” the researchers concluded, adding that “graphic scores reveal there was no notable gain when using PowerPoint to display graphic information.
“The same could be said for alphanumeric information. There was no notable gain for using PowerPoint vs. the chalkboard.”
Ever spent hours putting a slide together? According to this research, that effort was virtually a complete waste of time.
But the news gets even worse for habitual users of all slideware programs. In addition to testing lectures with and without slides, the researchers also tested those people who didn’t attend class at all during the two lectures in which the comparison was made. Unbelievably, those who didn’t attend either lecture “heard” more than those who attended the slide-driven lecture.
“The negative affect that PowerPoint has on the retention of auditory information is similar to not attending class and hearing the information at all,” the researchers wrote in their conclusions.
In other words, if you use slides, your audience is better off reading your slides and skipping the meeting, webinar, training session or conference at which those slides were presented. They’ll understand and retain more.
Fortunately, if understanding and retention are important to your business success, you can enhance both with one simple action:
Turn off the projector, or close the deck, and simply talk to your audience.
I had a fascinating experience last fall that underscored everything I’ve believed about how using slides kills interactivity and audience engagement—and that by simply shutting off the projector you can reverse those negative outcomes.
The title of my presentation was: Cognitive Science + Common Sense = Effective Presentations. Once I showed a short video during the first part of my presentation—to demonstrate that humans cannot read and listen at the same time—I shut the projector off.
During the lull between my presentation and the next one, the speaker (we’ll call her Shauna) started up the projector, attached her laptop, and began loading her presentation.
Watching this on-screen, one of the participants commented: “Wow, look at all the slides! Didn’t you hear anything Eric said during the past hour?”
He said it quietly and politely, but his point was well made. Shauna looked a little lost, so I walked over and quietly said to her: “If you need your slides as notes, use them. But shut the projector off.”
She did shut it off and, shortly after she started her presentation, an interesting thing happened. The group began asking questions. And they didn’t just ask questions, they fired them at her.
“I’ve just changed jobs,” one person said. “What information do I need from my previous employer? Is there anything different I need from my current employer?”
“I’ve just been laid off,” another said. “How will that affect my path to becoming licensed? Can I get an extension if I need it?”
On it went. Shauna was easily asked more than 50 or 60 questions, which helped audience members shape the licensing information to their particular circumstance, which is when communication actually works.
After the presentation, I asked Shauna if this was more questions than she normally receives. “Definitely,” she replied. “In fact, it’s more questions in one evening than I’ve received in the dozens of times I’ve delivered this presentation combined.”
I also talked to a few aspiring engineers at the end of the evening. They told me they got great value from the presentation. They already knew the path to licensure. The interaction gave them the opportunity to relate that path to their specific circumstances.
And that is when face-to-face communication actually works.
So, if you want to improve your next presentation, why not learn from Shauna’s experience? Shut off the projector and use your slides as your notes.
Create an interactive exchange that has structure for you, but ultimately provides more value to them.
After all, aren’t they the most important people in the room?
What do I believe? You can enhance your presentation success and improve your sales results by telling your story effectively, while minimizing the slides you use or eliminating them altogether.
I was hired by a mutual fund company to provide presentation training to portfolio managers in advance of the company’s bi-annual sales conference in San Diego, CA. The conference was attended by retail investment advisors and was an important sales opportunity for the firm; investment advisors are its primary retail sales channel.
The purpose of the training was to help all portfolio managers shape their stories and tell them effectively in an interactive format. The goal was to create a conversational atmosphere that encouraged engagement, questions and dialogue with the audience. The assumption was that this would strengthen relationships and enhance sales results.
The portfolio managers were divided into six presentation teams according to investment style. For about five weeks prior to the conference, each team participated in five or six two-hour training sessions and rehearsals.
Using my strategic approach, which is freely available to everyone, I first helped each team shape its story for a 45-minute presentation on how they manage money to help clients achieve their financial goals. The remainder of training then focused on helping them tell their stories effectively, while answering questions clearly and concisely.
As the content development process unfolded, all breakout sessions became slide-free zones. This was not necessarily done by design, but it became clear to everyone that very few, if any, visuals would be needed to tell each team’s investment story effectively.
As an added bonus, the company saved US $10,000 by not using slide projectors during the breakout sessions.
And, instead of handing out thick, cumbersome copies of presentation slides at the conference (the previous conference provided a 176-page book of two slides per page that was likely never read), a short feature article (500-800 words) was written to recap each breakout session. The logic was that investment advisors could use these articles in subsequent sales discussions with their clients.
Finally, the group established the objective of generating a Q-Ratio equal to or greater than one for each breakout session. In other words, the portfolio managers would strive to answer more than 45 questions during their 45-minute breakout session, while still completing their presentation content and finishing on time.
The logic is simple. More questions from the audience equals more interest and more engagement. Interest and engagement are critical to sales success.
Results Demonstrate Success
The breakout sessions generated as many as 50 to 80 questions and exceeded a Q-Ratio of 1. Some of the comments on evaluations included:
- Very interactive, especially amongst the fund managers. Hope to see this more often at future conferences.
- Outstanding in every sense.
- Great interaction during the conference.
- Interactive and informative. Very enjoyable.
- The best conference of its kind that I’ve ever attended.
- Ninety-six per cent of attendees rated the investment team as industry-leading (36%) or strong (61%). Four per cent rated the investment team as average. For many attendees, this was their first opportunity to meet the investment team.
- Seventy-one per cent of attendees said they would be more willing to recommend this company’s investment products to their clients.
- Seventy-seven per cent of attendees said they will make this mutual fund company one of the top three mutual fund companies that they recommend to their clients.
At the start of the process, portfolio managers had difficulty understanding how they could deliver presentations without using slides. At the end of the conference, it was clear to everyone that minimizing the slides they use in presentations is the way forward to enhance engagement, understanding and sales success.
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.
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.
According to a recent article in Symmetry magazine, a group of physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider project at Fermilab has banned the use of slides at biweekly meetings in favour of whiteboards.
The result of the ban? The physicists say the move has led to more “interaction and curiosity,” made it easier for the group to discuss the project’s “ongoing work and future goals,” and enhanced the connection between speaker and audience to improve decision-making.
Are there lessons here that can apply to others?
- As I’ve written before, Amazon and LinkedIn have banned slide-driven presentations at their meetings, resulting in enhanced productivity and improved decision-making.
- I have long believed that boards of directors should ban slideware presentations at their meetings to achieve the same results: save time and enhance the overall quality of decisions made.
- Most conference organizers I know would like to enhance engagement. It’s a bold move, but banning slides (not just PowerPoint, but Keynote, Prezi, SlideRocket, Haiku Deck and others) would force speakers to use a variety of tools that lead to greater engagement.
- A recent Gallup survey indicated that only 30 per cent of employees are engaged. Fewer than one in three! Care to make a wager on how most of those employees receive information from their leaders? What has an organization got to lose by banning slides at internal meetings?
- Planning a sales meeting? Why not ban slides? The sales force undoubtedly has knowledge to contribute. Like the physicists, if the sales force was more engaged, wouldn’t the group benefit from the collective experience of others?
It takes courage to implement a ban. But it appears that those organizations who do are gaining significant benefits as a result.
Two of the business world’s top CEOs—Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn—have eliminated slide-driven presentations from their meetings.
“All of our meetings are structured around six-page memos,” Bezos says, pointing out that this also eliminates bullet points. “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.”
Bezos believes that slides make it easy for the presenter but difficult for the audience. As a result, his meetings may start with up to 30 minutes of silence while everyone reads the documents.
The result of separating the written word from the spoken word? “It saves a lot of time,” he points out.
In a blog post, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner points out that “at LinkedIn, we have essentially eliminated the presentation.” Information is sent 24 hours in advance, giving people an opportunity to review it. However, not everyone can find the time, so five to 10 minutes is set aside at the start of the meeting to give everyone time to review the written document.
"Once folks have completed the reading, it’s time to open it up for discussion,” Weiner writes. “There is no presentation.”
Are these leaders are on the right track? Absolutely. Cognitive science tells us that humans cannot read and listen at the same time. In fact, trying to do both is absolutely the least effective option and a virtual waste of time—terrible news for the “average” slide-driven presentation delivered in boardrooms, meeting rooms, training rooms and conference halls.
Organizations that wish to regain lost productivity, and to communicate most effectively to make the best decisions, should learn to separate the written word from the spoken word. There is a time to read and a time to discuss. For best results, those times should never, ever be the same time.
Let’s hope more leaders have the courage to follow suit.
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.
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?
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.
“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?
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?
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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
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.
They want a presenter who understands them — someone who not only understands who they are on the outside, but who has insight into their beliefs, attitudes and opinions. They want the information for their presentation to be tailored to their specific needs.
Audiences want presenters to get to the point as soon as possible. They want to know how they should apply the information (informative presentation) or take action on it (persuasive presentation) early in the process. Knowing the outcome up front helps them relate the information to their personal cognitive framework. That’s when communication works.
Audiences do not attend a presentation thinking: “I hope the slides are entertaining” or “I wonder which seductive font they’ll use.” If written information is needed to move ideas along, smart audiences want to see it in advance.
In the future, my hope is that audiences will raise their expectations to the level of a structured conversation. They will want the speaker to be well prepared. They will want visuals only where needed. They will want their handouts in advance or after the presentation.
But they will also want the opportunity to probe and ask questions. During precious “face time,” they will want information put into perspective, not have data driven down their throats.
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.
Because this discussion board lies within the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) group, the people responding were communicators and public relations practitioners primarily located in North America.
Some interesting themes arose as people responded to the question.
Storytelling is near the top of the list. A number of people mentioned storytelling specifically, or as an element of explaining the "big picture." In other words, too much detail in a presentation is a bad thing.
"Be able to structure the speech in an engaging manner and always tie it to the big picture," wrote one respondent. "The presenter should deliver a 'story' that is relevant, compelling and clever," wrote another. And a third contributed: "The ability to tell a STORY! (vs a never ending slide deck where text is read from the slides...)."
Which brings us to another theme that emerged — the use of visual aids. "A presenter who uses slide text to emphasize key points" gets the "thumbs-up" from a communicator based in Cincinnati. "One of my biggest pet peeves is a presenter who crams everything onto their slides," she writes, "then just reads the slides to their audience."
Brevity was mentioned a number of times, as was being able to understand the audience's needs, and creating an interactive experience. "The ability to stop, listen and respond while staying true to the material and themselves," wrote a communicator from San Francisco. "Being able to depart from the often-memorized presentation to actually answer questions," wrote another from Lincoln, Nebraska.
If I could be so bold as to summarize: Tell stories that relate to the audience's need to understand. Be brief. Be passionate about your subject. Be interactive. Keep your use of visual aids to a minimum.
And recognize that visual aids are often less essential than we think. As one communicator from Milwaukee put it:
"incidentally, regarding death-by-powerpoint, i once saw a presentation delivered completely without slides by a guy who arguably could have been a highly successful televangelist. it was incredibly well done, and at the end of the 45-minute sermon (which happened to be about the importance of effective visual design, which one might think would REQUIRE slides), the audience stood on their chairs and gave the guy a huge ovation."