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.
Over the years, I have had some interesting conversations with organizations, such as municipalities and school boards, that have delivered presentations to upset and disgruntled community members.
Prior to the presentation, they know the community is upset. Often, they know why.
To prepare, the team spends days (and sometimes weeks) putting their presentation together. They assemble the best, most logical ideas possible. And, when they deliver the presentation, they wonder why it fails to reduce the tension in the room.
I have often used an analogy to help them understand why the audience doesn’t “get it.”
I ask them to imagine their bank has made a major mistake with their account. They try to call and email the bank, but are told they can only fix the problem at their local branch.
By the time they get to the bank, they are agitated. When they start explaining their perspective, the person on the other side of the counter interrupts and says: "Before you go any further, I’d like to tell you how we do things here at our bank."
Compare this to the presentation delivered to the community by a municipality, school board, or other organization. The team knows the people in the room are upset or downright angry. This anger may even have been the catalyst for the public meeting being organized in the first place.
Like the misguided employee at the bank, the team is talking rather than listening. When you make an audience (especially an angry one) wait any length of time before answering their questions and/or listening to their concerns, it doesn’t matter how perfect the presentation. Nobody is listening.
Let’s examine how the core values for the practice of public participation can guide a more successful approach. The first of those states that public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have the right to be involved in the decision-making process.
To bring this value to life, the team needs to open a receiver-driven dialogue at the public meeting. The needs of the audience outweigh the needs of the team. Because they are upset, the audience is like the disgruntled customer at the bank. They are not ready to receive information. They first want their questions answered and their concerns addressed.
Without a receiver-driven process, it is impossible to achieve the second core value: Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision. If the team’s desire is public participation, they must listen closely to what the community has to say, and directly apply this information to their final decision.
Within any aspect of public engagement, the organization should be willing to listen more than it speaks. Demonstrating good listening skills within a receiver-driven dialogue is the surest path to achieving the values of public participation.
The next time you face a potentially disgruntled audience or community group, keep a couple of concepts in mind. Listen before you talk. And when you talk, communicate. Don’t transmit.
It’s the best way to prevent public engagement from resembling a bad day at the bank.
Eric Bergman is the author of The Engaging Public Participation Presentation. For more than thirty years, he has helped his clients shape their stories and tell them effectively.
He left government in 1985, and has since been self-employed as a communications consultant. As a significant part of his consultancy for nearly a decade, he wrote hundreds of speeches for executives in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.
In the early 1990s, he shifted his focus to providing presentation skills training in workshops and seminars, and one-on-one coaching. Over the ensuing years, he has helped his clients develop strategic, compelling content for a host of presentation challenges, and provided his unique insight to also help them deliver that content effectively.
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.
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.
It is common knowledge that Steve Jobs set an extremely high standard for the presentations he delivered. But how did he do it? How was he able to give presentations that not only provided valuable information, but also potentially allowed people to apply that information and teach it to others?
The YouTube video below is a clear demonstration of how and why Steve Jobs was so successful. And there are lessons here from which every presenter — and indeed every leader — can learn.
First, Mr. Jobs matched the needs of his audience with his business objectives. In this example, he clearly defines the future direction of Apple computers for developers, and how that direction will influence the ways in which developers can support Apple's hardware with meaningful products.
Second, he carefully structures the conversation. It would be easy to imagine him having this same conversation with three people sitting around a boardroom table, or with 3000 software developers in an auditorium. He pauses between ideas to allow the audience to absorb what is being said. By delivering his ideas conversationally, he is able to convey his message and personality effectively.
Third, he minimizes the visual aids he uses. While one could make the case that one or two of the visuals did not add value (were the binoculars really necessary?), most did not distract from what was being said, and indeed directly supported his objectives. Rather than bombarding the audience with words on a screen, he minimizes the number of words and carefully selects a few images that help the audience follow his ideas.
By using these strategies, Steve Jobs presented a completely new direction to developers in a way that enhanced understanding. By simply paying attention, developers could go back to their office and effectively explain his vision to their colleagues.
And that is the true test of presentation success. If you’d like to test the power of this approach, watch the YouTube video now, and see if you can explain his vision to a colleague tomorrow morning over coffee in relaxed conversation.
Then try that with the “average” presentation you attend this week and compare the results.