CME’s Deeply Ingrained Assumption

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.
Presentation Skills Improvement for CME

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.

Probably not.

_________________________________________

Eric Bergman
Eric Bergman wrote his first speech for a senior executive during the summer of 1982. He has been self-employed since 1985, and speechwriting was a substantial portion of his annual billings for many years. Since 1993, however, he has primarily provided presentation skills training, executive coaching and content development services to business, government and not-for-profit clients from five continents.

He is author of
5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint’, a book that embraces a conversational approach to presentation effectiveness. He believes successful conversations require compelling stories, not engaging slides, to communicate effectively.

His logic is simple: Do humans engage with slides? Or each other?

Eric Bergman
The foreword of 5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is written by John Sweller, Ph.D., a global expert on how the human mind processes information to learn. He writes: “Eric Bergman’s techniques are a window to the future of this important human activity.”

Eric holds a bachelor of professional arts from Athabasca University and a two-year diploma in advertising & public relations from Grant MacEwan College. He is an accredited business communicator (ABC), an accredited public relations practitioner (APR), a master communicator (MC), and a member of the College of Fellows of the Canadian Public Relations Society (FCPRS). He has earned more than a dozen local, national and international awards for his work.

He is also a fifth-degree black belt in Japanese-style karate. When not traveling, he teaches karate two evenings per week.

Eric has a variety of tools to help you and/or your organization turn off projectors to enhance communication results.
Contact him if you’re interested in learning more.

Six Words That Are Killing Conferences

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:

sleeping conference attendee
“Please send your slides in advance.”

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 presentationdelivering 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.

Please don’t ask. And, if asked, please don’t.

No Presenter? No Presentation

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.

170096223
In other words, if there is no presenter, there can be no presentation.

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.

Period.

How Steve Jobs Did "It"

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.

Even More Bad New for Slideware Users

bored_audience
A study conducted at the University of Munich has confirmed the results of two previous studies I’ve written about—a study from Purdue and another from the University of Barcelona.

And the news is truly bad for the 30 to 40 million slide-driven presentations, lectures, workshops, seminars, and training programs delivered worldwide each day.

If slides are your crutch, it’s bad news for you, too.

There is now absolutely no question that your audience misses large portions of what you say when you show your slides and talk at the same time.

The Munich study confirmed that “the retention of oral information was significantly lower in the condition with regular slides than in the condition without slides.”

Of course, if you believe that what the presenter says isn’t important, perhaps it makes no difference. But there is a critical question to ask of those who believe the presenter isn’t absolutely essential to every effective presentation: If what the presenter says isn’t important, why is she or he taking up our time in the first place?

In another objection to the research, some might ask: “If the audience loses a large portion of what’s said, isn’t there an offsetting gain by showing the slides?”

According to the researchers, the answer is no.

munich sample slides.002
“It is remarkable, however, that this ‘suppressive’ effect of regular slides,” they said, “could not be demonstrated to be the downside of a trade-off in favour of the retention of information on slides.”

In other words, if you use what the researchers called “regular” slides in your presentation (like the one to the right), your audience is going to miss large portions of what you say, no matter how well you say it or how hard they struggle to absorb it.

Logically, this would apply even more to charts and graphs, which require more reading and more concentration to decipher than the regular slide shown here.

And there is no question that what you lose by asking your audience to read and listen at the same time is not regained in any way by showing your slides.

Regular Slides vs Concise Slides
munich sample slides.001
The researchers also tested the retention and understanding of presentations using what they called concise slides.

The regular slide format contained a total of 12 slides: a title slide; a structural slide; and 10 additional slides. No slide in this series contained more than eight lines (excluding the heading) or six bullet points.

Conversely, concise slides used six slides to explain the same information: a title slide, a structural slide; and four additional slides. The researchers also used “black” slides between the regular slides. No slide in this series contained more than seven lines (excluding the heading) or five bullet points.

While their research confirmed that the “retention of oral information is higher with concise slides or without slides than with regular slides,” they could not state that the overall retention of concise slides was any better than not using slides at all.

The Bottom Line
In
5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint’, the third step is: “Minimize visual aids.” I am 100 per cent confident that the research from Purdue, Barcelona and Munich supports the logic of that suggestion.

There are three things to keep in mind when minimizing visual aids, two of which were dealt with directly in the research.

First, to enhance your success, you must absolutely minimize the information on slides if you cannot overcome your PowerPoint addiction and eliminate them altogether (or only use one or two where needed). If your slides look like the regular slide shown here, turn off the projector, use your slides as notes (visible to you, but not to the audience), and talk to your audience.

Second, you must absolutely minimize the number of slides you use. As the researchers demonstrated, by cutting the number of content slides by 60 per cent, and by using blank slides between content slides, retention of information increased.

There is a simple test to determine this. If someone can read your slides and understand your presentation, you have too many slides and too much on each slide.

Third, don’t be afraid to use other visual aids. Whiteboards, flip charts, blackboards and pieces of paper are not only excellent visual aids, they are not slides. Each one is a different tool; each one has a different purpose.

Finally, don’t be afraid to turn off the projector and talk to your audience. If you believe that what you say is important, the research is clear:

Simply talking to your audience, while minimizing your visual aids, is absolutely the best way to be heard, understood and remembered.

More Bad News for Slideware Users

Even more bad news for PowerPoint users
A study from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain confirms the conclusions of a study from Purdue University I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

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.

Bad News for Slideware Users

PowerPoint causes students to fall asleep during presentations
Researchers at Purdue University have some bad news for the 40 million people worldwide who deliver “standard” slide-driven presentations each and every day.

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.

Shauna Overcomes Her Slide Addiction

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.

raising hand
I was the scheduled keynote speaker at an evening forum for aspiring professional engineers sponsored by a chapter of Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO). After my hour, a speaker from PEO headquarters was scheduled to spend about 40 minutes talking about the steps required to achieve the professional engineering (P.Eng.) designation.

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?

Sales Conference Eliminates Slides, Saves Money & Generates Results

Effective Sales Presentations At Conference
This past fall, I had the pleasure of working on a project that verified everything I believe about effective presentations in general, and successful sales presentations specifically.

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.

PowerPoint-Free Zones Enhance Sales Presentation Results
Slide-Free Zones
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.
All speakers achieved a rating equal to or greater than 4.0 out of 5.0, with a median grade of 4.3. This is an amazing accomplishment, especially with a group of investment advisors, who are arguably one of the most difficult audiences to please. To put this into perspective, the final keynote speaker (Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame), achieved a rating of 4.5.

In addition:
  • 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.
Based on the success of not using PowerPoint to develop content, many of the portfolio managers are now saying that they plan to adopt this approach in all presentations—everything from internal presentations to their teams to road shows that promote products and services.

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.

Physicists Ban Slides. Can Others Can Learn From Their Experiment?

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.

Ban on PowerPoint enhances communication
The move came as a direct result of the project’s leadership seeking ways to enhance engagement from the audience who, until that time, was like every other audience trying to follow a series of slides.

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?

Absolutely:

  • 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?
The list goes on.

It takes courage to implement a ban. But it appears that those organizations who do are gaining significant benefits as a result.

LinkedIn & Amazon Eliminate Slide-Driven Presentations

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.

Jeff Bezos says banning powerpoint saves time
During an interview with Charlie Rose, Amazon.com’s CEO talked about why he would take such a seemingly radical step, which not only includes eliminating projected presentations but printed decks as well.

“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.”

Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn talks about eliminating PowerPoint
The benefit? “You may be pleasantly surprised to see a meeting that had been scheduled for an hour is actually over after 20-30 minutes.”

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.

Non-Verbal Communication Not Really Communication

On a recent LinkedIn discussion, I stated my belief that we really only have two methods of communication as human beings: the spoken word (the communication tradition of orality) and the written word (the communication tradition of literacy).

Every medium of communication we’ve ever had—or ever will have—can be divided into one of those two categories.

Tablets from the mount or Dead Sea scrolls? Literacy. Sermon from the mount or stories around the campfire? Orality.

body language natural
Newspapers and magazines? Literacy. Radio and television? Orality. Blogs, online discussion groups, Facebook and Twitter? Literacy. Podcasts and YouTube? Orality. E-mail or text to a friend? Literacy. Conversation with that same friend via Skype or over dinner? Orality.

Whether we’re trying to inform, persuade, reminisce or share a tender moment, we either say it or write it. Nothing more; nothing less.

When I posted this, someone asked: “What about non-verbal communication? Don’t you think this is a separate method of communication?”

Interesting thought. But, honestly, I don’t think so. It’s simply a subset of orality.

Imagine you’re standing with a friend and you want to communicate something. You might be able to communicate basic emotions: joy, sadness, confusion, anger.

But you wouldn’t be able to give your friend directions to the nearest washroom without pointing or gesturing in some way. Once you do that, you’re engaged in sign language, which is simply another form of orality.

In my experience, when someone puts that much faith in non-verbal communication, they have probably fallen prey to
The Mehrabian Myth, which is something I’ve often written about.

Your body language must be natural. You cannot mimic or create gestures. As Mehrabian’s research indicates, when you do that, you’re sending one message: “My words cannot be trusted.”

Copyright © Eric Bergman All Rights Reserved

Relaxed Conversation: Your Best Style

Whenever we deliver a presentation, we need to achieve two goals: convey our message; convey our personality. Each of us achieves those goals every day in relaxed conversation.

The fundamental premise, therefore, is that relaxed conversation is our best possible presentation style. This video examines why it’s important to have the same conversation with the group that you had one-on-one.

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Lessons From the Military: Turn Off the Projector to Enhance Decision-Making

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
What vs Why
PowerPoint at Briefings

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.”

Killing Productivity
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.

Recommendations
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?”
Whether the group is seated or not, the net effect of turning off the projector and putting away the deck is clear: Better decision-making that enhances productivity by focusing on the quality of the “why” rather than the quantity of the “what.”

Copyright © Eric Bergman All Rights Reserved

Body Language: Gestures Are Essential

When seeking body language advice for presentations and television interviews (or sales calls and job interviews, for that matter), the best place to begin is with the work of psycholinguists.

Pasted Graphic 1
Wikipedia tells us that psycholinguists study "the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, and understand language." It has been a recognized field for about 50 years.

In her book Hearing Gesture: How our hands help us think, psycholinguist Susan Goldin-Meadow points out that no culture has been discovered in which people do not move their hands as they talk. In other words, if you're reading this, there is an extremely high probability that you gesture in conversation -- even if you're not aware of it.

As Dr. Goldin-Meadow discovered, a person speaking does not even have to be sighted to use gestures. In her book, she describes an experiment in which children and teens blind from birth participated in a series of conversational tasks. All of the children used gestures. "The blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group," she writes, "and conveyed the same information using the same range of gesture forms."

Regardless of our culture or language, we all use gestures to help us think and communicate.

Most of us intuitively know that gestures help us communicate. "Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system," Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. "The gestures that speakers produce along with their talk are symbolic acts that convey meaning." This is why we get more out of face-to-face meetings than telephone conversations.

But the evidence also indicates that gestures make it easier to think. "When the act of speaking becomes difficult, speakers seem to respond by increasing their gestures," Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. Her hypothesis is that gesturing reduces demands on a speaker's cognitive resources. Attempting to reduce or eliminate gestures (i.e. being told to reduce your gestures by a psycholinguist conducting an experiment or, potentially, by a presentation or media training consultant trying to get you to convey the "right image") adds to your cognitive burden. It makes it more difficult to think of what you're trying to say at times when, during presentations and interviews, you don't need the added pressure.

In other words, if you want to increase your ability to think on your feet during presentations, or in your seat during television interviews, bring your gestures with you and let them happen naturally.

Or, as Dr. Goldin-Meadow was quoted as saying on page 14 of the November 25, 2003, edition of the
Chicago Sun-Times:

"At the very least, we ought to stop telling people not to move their hands when they talk."

Copyright © Eric Bergman All Rights Reserved

Two Changes to PowerPoint Could Make the World a Better Place

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.

PowerPoint slide for presentaiton skills
First and foremost, it would reduce the amount of information that someone can cram onto a slide, as the sample here demonstrates. The person presenting would never have to ever again say “I know you probably can’t see this” because everyone would be able to see it!

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.

Any Visual Distraction Can Reduce Presentation Effectiveness

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 In-Class PowerPoint Survival Guide

Making the Most of a Bad Situation
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.

working memory is overloaded by powerpoint in the classroom
And that's in five seconds. Imagine what happens during a two-hour, slide-driven lecture.

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.

work in pairs to deal with powerpoint in the classroom
If slides are posted after class, reverse the process. Ignore the slides in class and take notes on what the professor is saying. Review the slides later, especially notes are re-worked during that critical first 48 hours after they were taken.

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.

couple things you can do to deal with powerpoint in the classroom
One is to print this article and leave it on his or her desk. If they read this far, they’ll now be learning that there is no direct evidence to indicate that using slides in any format, classrooms and lecture halls included, is even remotely effective. In fact, one of the world's top cognitive scientists says the evidence is pointing in exactly the opposite direction.

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.”

What is a Conversation?

Conversations are two-way, receiver-driven and adhere to the principle of "less is more." Ever been stuck at the party beside the person who talks non-stop? Is that two-way communication? Or is it a one-way transmission of information?

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.

Presentations should be more like conversations
When the picture is no longer necessary, it is removed from view. And the conversation continues.

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?

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.

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.

Not One Reference to PowerPoint

I love it when irony comes calling.

The video below is an interview between Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications, and Justina Chen Headley, who writes speeches for Microsoft.

They’re discussing effective speechwriting and Ms. Chen Headley certainly exudes a passion for her craft. They talk about the value of storytelling, which I have long believed is the essence of orality (spoken language) and they key to success for all presentations.

However, there is not a single reference to PowerPoint anywhere in the interview.

People engage with people, not with slides. People are motivated by anecdotes, examples and stories, not by charts, graphs or bullet points. People remember stories told by other human beings, not what’s projected onto a screen.

I have yet to see an audience lean forward and focus intently on a relentless march through a presentation deck. Like Ms. Chen Headley, however, I have seen many audiences lean forward to listen intently to effective stories told well.

The lesson (and the irony)? Minimize (or eliminate) charts, graphs and bullet points in your presentations and tell powerful stories, and you can be as effective as the Microsoft executives with whom Ms. Chen Headley works.

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.

The Golden Rule of Presentations

There is one important universal rule regarding presentations. It should be obvious. But it must be said because, for some unknown reason, it keeps happening.

Under no circumstances whatsoever should you read your information aloud to your audience. Do not read your slides. Ever. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve projected them, printed them, or both. People who read slide after slide to their audience should spend eternity listening and following along while someone else reads to them. Actually, they won’t need eternity. One full weekend will usually suffice.

If you put a quote or case study up on the screen, stop talking until we read it. To ourselves. In silence. Most of us can read twice as fast as someone else can talk. And usually we can do so with high levels of comprehension, unless someone is disturbing our concentration by reading the same material to us, or even talking about or around it while we’re trying to read it. On this, the science is clear. We get less than if you simply stop talking and let us read for ourselves.

Please, in the name of all that is good, beautiful and merciful on this planet, stop reading to us. If you want us to read something, send it to us in advance. If we haven’t read it, that’s our problem. Don’t read it to us when we get together. In fact, don’t present the same information you sent in advance.

When we get together, create a conversation so we can explore your ideas further, ask about them, and relate them to our specific situation in ways that aid understanding and retention.

You benefit and we benefit, because creating conversations is what effective communication is all about.

What do audiences expect?

When it comes to audience expectations for presentations to which they are exposed, I suspect they would like to receive information that meets their need to understand. They want value from that information, the why and the how of it. Why is this important to us? How will this help us?

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.

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.

Presenter Qualities Most Admired

On a discussion board at LinkedIn, a communications consultant from New York posted a question: "What ONE quality in a presenter do you MOST admire?"

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."

The Polarization Model at Work

The YouTube link below demonstrates how someone can use open hostility to change the opinions of others in their favour.

Within my media training program, I teach a polarization model for handling hostility that can arise during media interviews and public meetings. The goal is to help my clients understand how to use someone else’s hostility to their advantage.

Normally I’m preparing spokespeople to deal with journalists. In this case, it’s the spokesperson who gets hostile, and the journalist who manages the situation brilliantly.

The story begins with a radio interview at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) studios with a band called The Boxmasters, who feature drummer Billy Bob Thornton. The CBC’s producers were told not to mention at any time during the interview that Mr. Thornton has had a life outside of music, most notably as a successful screenwriter and actor. Two small mentions of this previous life are made during the interviewer’s introductory comments. Mr. Thornton becomes increasingly hostile during the interview (with fireworks erupting at about the 7:00 mark for those who like to skip ahead) and basically remains hostile for the remainder, despite the best efforts of interviewer Jian Ghomeshi.

There are a couple of lessons here that all spokespeople can learn from when dealing with real or perceived hostility, whether from journalist or someone at an explosive public meeting.

First, keep your cool. Interviewer Jian Ghomeshi is brilliant. I suspect his heart was beating a mile a minute, but you’d never know it. He was able to maintain civility and politeness throughout the exchange. Pause and think before you talk.

Second, try to find common ground. Mr. Ghomeshi negotiates with Mr. Thornton a number of times in a series of attempts to get the interview back on track. “If we can call a truce,” Mr. Ghomeshi says at about the 10:00 mark, “then I can ask you about music.” This puts the interviewer on solid moral ground, which will not be lost to those observing.

Third, when all else fails, recognize that people (even those closest to the person displaying hostility) will draw their own conclusions about what they’ve witnessed. The rest of The Boxmasters looked uncomfortable with the exchange. From the looks on their faces during Mr. Ghomeshi’s introduction, they knew what was coming, and they tried to contribute to the interview early on.

However, it would have been an interesting ride to the airport. The remainder of The Boxmasters’ dates in Canada (including their opening gigs for Willie Nelson) were abruptly cancelled.

Finally, remember that the more reasonable you are, the less reasonable they become in the eyes of others. This can be a powerful force in changing opinion in your favor. It won’t always happen as quickly as in this short YouTube clip, but it will happen if you give it a chance.

Always a Call to Action

During a two-day presentation skills workshop I was conducting last week, a participant asked: “Should there always be a call to action in our presentations?”

In a business presentation, the answer is almost always “yes.”

As a general statement, there are three types of speeches or presentations: traditional, informative and persuasive.

A traditional speech or presentation would be something like an eulogy at a funeral, an acceptance speech for an award or a 25-year service awards gala for a corporation. Generally, you don’t need to have a call to action for a traditional presentation, although I have occasionally seen it to be very effective.

In an informative speech or presentation, you are informing the audience about something that should be relevant to who they are as human beings. It is important that you tell them why your information is relevant, and clearly state how you hope they will apply this information to their job, to their personal life, or to their professional life.

A persuasive presentation encourages the audience to take fairly immediate and direct action — vote for a candidate, sign a petition, or even get feedback from users by a specific date to ensure that a new software package is truly meeting the needs of the organization.

As those who have been through my workshops know, I believe the call to action in an informative or persuasive presentation should be stated up front and again at the end in clear, concise terms. In a modern business presentation, if you don’t want the audience to apply what you’re saying, or you don’t want them to take some form of action as a result, I have a critical question to ask:

Why are you there?

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.

More Mehrabian Myth

I received an e-mail from Martin Shovel at Creativity Works recently with a link to the YouTube video I’ve posted below. It’s an interesting animated take on the Mehrabian Myth, which is something I’ve written here about a number of times, and something I almost always discuss during my presentation skills and media training workshops.

As I learn more about face-to-face communication, my faith in a balance of message and personality is constantly reinforced.

We need to achieve two goals whenever we communicate face-to-face. We need to convey our message; we need to convey our personality. Each of us achieves those two goals every day of our lives in relaxed conversation, which makes relaxed conversation our best possible communication style.

In a business presentation, this doesn’t mean you should be unprepared. You should set objectives for the outcomes you would like to achieve. You should have a structure. You should use notes to keep yourself on track and on time.

But you should always have a conversation that is as interactive, two-way and receiver-driven as you can make it. Be sincere and honest. Minimize your PowerPoint (if you use it at all). Encourage and answer questions throughout your presentations, especially with smaller groups of up to 50 participants.

Focus less on your “performance” and more on helping the audience understand, and your effectiveness will increase accordingly.

Enjoy the video!

Body Language: You can cross your arms!

A few years ago, I conducted media training for an organization that was potentially facing a strike. I was asked to provide one day of training for management-level employees who would manage strike sites as representatives of the organization. Prior to the start of my portion of the agenda, the company’s director of human resources spent about 45 minutes talking to the group about the logistics of managing the strike.

Later, when we discussed body language in broadcast interviews, I crossed my arms and asked if this was appropriate body language for someone delivering a presentation or being interviewed on television. Everyone said it was inappropriate; I looked closed.

I turned to the HR director and asked if she would ever stand in front of a group and present information with her arms crossed. She said she would never do that. I asked the group if she would ever do that, and they all said that she was far too professional to ever do something like that.

However, that was exactly what she did. I had been sitting at the back of the room at the time, with my video camera on a tripod, so I turned on the camera and recorded her after she crossed her arms while talking to the group. When I played back the tape, everyone was surprised that they hadn’t noticed she had committed what is often known as a body language “sin.”

The point I made to this group was that, because the HR director was communicating effectively and being herself, they did not even notice the body language. It was natural for her. Her body language was consistent with who she was and what she was saying.

Every individual is unique. Each of us has our own way of standing, talking and conveying our messages. If people express themselves with their hands when they are in conversation, they should express themselves in a similar manner when the microphone is on or the camera is rolling.

We need to “be ourselves” when engaged in a broadcast interview or presentation of any type. This is how we convey our personality, and this builds the trust that makes our message believable.

(Originally published in 2005)

Body Language: Gestures Are Essential

When seeking body language advice for presentations and television interviews (or sales calls and job interviews, for that matter), the best place to begin is with the work of psycholinguists.

Wikipedia tells us that psycholinguists study “the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, and understand language.” It has been a recognized field for about 50 years.

In her book Hearing Gesture: How our hands help us think, psycholinguist Susan Goldin-Meadow points out that no culture has been discovered in which people do not move their hands as they talk. In other words, if you’re reading this, there is an extremely high probability that you gesture in conversation — even if you’re not aware of it.

As Dr. Goldin-Meadow discovered, a person speaking does not even have to be sighted to use gestures. In her book, she describes an experiment in which children and teens blind from birth participated in a series of conversational tasks. All of the children used gestures. “The blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group,” she writes, “and conveyed the same information using the same range of gesture forms.”

Regardless of our culture or language, we all use gestures to help us think and communicate.

Most of us intuitively know that gestures help us communicate. “Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system,” Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. “The gestures that speakers produce along with their talk are symbolic acts that convey meaning.” This is why we get more out of face-to-face meetings than telephone conversations.

But the evidence also indicates that gestures make it easier to think. “When the act of speaking becomes difficult, speakers seem to respond by increasing their gestures,” Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. Her hypothesis is that gesturing reduces demands on a speaker’s cognitive resources.

Attempting to reduce or eliminate gestures (i.e. being told to reduce your gestures by a psycholinguist conducting an experiment or, potentially, by a presentation or media training consultant trying to get you to convey the “right image”) adds to your cognitive burden. It makes it more difficult to think of what you’re trying to say at times when, during presentations and interviews, you don’t need the added pressure.

In other words, if you want to increase your ability to think on your feet during presentations, or in your seat during television interviews, bring your gestures with you and let them happen naturally.

Or, as Dr. Goldin-Meadow was quoted as saying on page 14 of the November 25, 2003, edition of the Chicago Sun-Times:

“At the very least, we ought to stop telling people not to move their hands when they talk.”

(Originally published in 2005)

The Mehrabian Myth

When it comes to the use of body language in presentations and broadcast interviews, most of us have seen some sort of statistic that indicates:
  • 55% of the overall message is how the person looks when delivering the message.
  • 38% of the overall message is how the person sounds when delivering the message.
  • 7% of the overall message can be attributed to the words the person uses.
If you take these numbers and explanations at face value, they seem to imply that you can watch a foreign movie without subtitles. By simply observing how two actors converse, you can listen to how the words sound, watch the actors’ gestures and get 93 percent of the message.

However, this is not the case. You will recognize emotion, but if you don’t understand what is said, you comprehend significantly less than 93 percent of what transpires between the actors.

The numbers 55, 38 and 7 first appear in a 1971 book entitled Silent Messages, written by Albert Mehrabian and based on his research at Stanford University. But the way these numbers are now commonly misused bears little resemblance to what Professor Mehrabian originally intended.

Mehrabian uses two equations (on pages 44 and 45) to describe the results of one section of his research, in a chapter titled “The Double-Edged Message”:

Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking
Total feeling = 7% verbal feeling + 38% vocal feeling + 55% facial feeling
The bottom line is Professor Mehrabian’s assertion that words, voice and body language must be consistent with each other. If the receiver of information senses an inconsistency, he or she relies on more than the words spoken to get the overall message.

In other words, if you use body language to be someone other than who you are in a presentation or broadcast interview (i.e. by trying to create the right image to get as much as possible out of the 55%), the audience will sense this inconsistency and will be less likely to believe what you’re saying. As Mehrabian writes, “when actions contradict words, people rely more heavily on actions to infer another’s feelings.”

This emphasizes the importance of “be yourself” as a fundamental principle of presentations and/or broadcast interviews. You certainly want to be on your best behavior; there are certain parts of your anatomy you should not scratch or pick at when delivering a presentation or during a TV interview.

Quite frankly, if you use gestures when you’re engaged in a conversation on the telephone (and virtually all of us do), you should bring those gestures to your presentations and broadcast interviews. Let them happen naturally. They are an integral component of who you are as a human being, and therefore fundamental to the concept of “be yourself.”

Using gestures naturally is the best possible way to ensure consistency between the words spoken, how they sound when they’re spoken and how you look when they’re spoken. In that scenario, total liking and total feeling will be as close to 100 percent as possible.

And your effectiveness at influencing others will be enhanced.

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Please Don't "Deck" the Halls

I had an experience recently that reinforced everything I believe about presentations, and the ability of visual aids to interfere with an effective communication process.Read more...

The moral? Listen more than you talk

If you’re pitching business, the emphasis should always be on the prospect, not on getting through your presentation. Read more...

More Mehrabian Myth

This post links to a YouTube file with an interesting animated take on the Mehrabian Myth.Read more...

Always a Call to Action

This post answers the question: Should there always be a call to action in your presentations?Read more...