There is one nightmare that nearly every presenter has both experienced and witnessed—one thing of which audience members are terrified when they walk into a presentation.
Not only do presenters often bore audiences, but in the worst circumstances, presenters bore themselves.
An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “The #1 Killer of Meetings (And What You Can Do About It),” Peter Bregman describes the journey he took to stop boredom and enhance engagement during his presentations. His conclusion is simple. If you don’t want anyone to be bored during your meetings or presentations, there is one simple thing you can do: turn off the projector.
Bregman’s transformation began after a two-day off-site meeting several years ago as he both watched and delivered slide-based presentations. In each presentation one of two things occurred: the audience tuned out or they poked holes in the presenter’s content.
“People tune out because nothing is required of them,” he explains in the article. “Or they poke holes because, if they don’t tune out, it’s the most interesting thing to do when someone is trying to prove there are no holes.”
After his experience, Bregman was determined to find a better way. “Over time,” he says, “I identified a single factor that makes the biggest difference between a great meeting and a poor one: PowerPoint. The best meetings don’t go near it.
“PowerPoint presentations inevitably end up as monologues,” he continues. “They focus on answers, and everyone faces the screen. But meetings should be conversations. They should focus on questions, not answers, and people should face each other. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve found that even the hum of the projector discourages dialogue.”
Bregman’s findings directly support a recent experience I had with a group of emergency physicians from the Toronto area. Prior to this one-day workshop with a group of very experienced presenters, each participant was asked to bring a presentation with them to the training session. One by one, they stood up, loaded their slides, and began their presentation. After a few minutes, the projector was turned off and they were asked to and continue their presentation, using their slides as notes.
The results were amazing. As soon as the projector was turned off, everyone’s full and undivided attention shifted to the presenter. The audience immediately became engaged.
The tone of each presentation shifted from a monologue to a conversation and the audience started asking questions. The presenter became focused on answering questions and building understanding, rather than going through the pedantic exercise of marching through one slide after another.
Presenters began to think more before speaking, bringing more precision to what they said. They paused to allow the audience to think and absorb their information. They connected with the audience more effectively because they were looking at them, instead of at a screen.
All of which are aspects of a good conversation and, ultimately, an effective presentation.
Some people think that slides are not the problem. They believe presenters that don’t use slides properly is the reason we experience Death by PowerPoint. But, slides don’t bore people, people using slides bores people.
Throughout the last thirty years, I have watched the evolution of slides. I have never seen the use of slides improve the skills of any presenter, but I have frequently seen the use of slides make good presenters less effective.
If you wish to reduce boredom at your presentations, the answer is simple: Turn the projector off. Carry on a conversation with your audience.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.