Wake Me When It’s Over!

It’s 9:30 in the morning and you’ve made it to the third presentation of today’s marketing meeting. Sam has a deck of 40 slides that he must cover in 30 minutes. He is pretty much reading word-for-word from the slides, which are mostly bulleted items and dense with words, with an occasional chart or graph thrown in. You have no interest in the topic, and to keep from falling asleep you are taking this opportunity to proof-read some documents for a pressing deadline. You realize you are missing about 75% of the material… but you have all the slides on a handout which you know you can refer back to you if you need to. The meeting feels like a complete waste of time and you have this important deadline…

Okay, rewind: Consider this scenario instead. Sam has a deck of 10 slides.  Three of the slides are charts showing some really interesting relationships of data. Two slides have images that seem to capture the essence of the issue at hand and the remaining slides have a series of bulleted keywords. These keywords give you a sense of the overall organization of the presentation, helping you keep track of what has been covered. They also seem to serve as a roadmap for Sam, keeping him on track with what he needs to cover next. In his presentation, the slides aren’t everything. In fact, Sam tells a couple of really interesting stories that capture your imagination and help you understand the material in a very different way.

In this scenario, Sam is comfortable with the material and speaks quite easily, almost conversationally. When Sam is talking about a topic not on the slide, he blanks out the screen. At the beginning of his presentation,
Sam announced that he will hand out a document at the end that covers most of the material. Everyone in the meeting seems engaged and you actually find yourself becoming interested in the topic. Even though you will have the handout to take with you and your pressing deadline still awaits you, you are drawn into the conversation and forget about the proof-reading. You can take care of that over lunch.

Microsoft PowerPoint® is ubiquitous and has become part of the very fabric of how we do business. But why
is this? Why is it that the first thing we think about in preparing for a presentation is to develop a slide deck? Why is it that if we don’t show up with a deck of slides we are looked at suspiciously? And why do we keep insisting on showing slides when most people in the audience are bored to tears… when they take advantage of the reduced light to take a much needed nap… when you know how deadening it feels to sit through a presentation that is entirely dependent on the slides?

When I ask people to describe the best slide show they have ever seen they either explode with cynical laughter, talk about a time when there was a technical glitch and the presenter had to wing it without slides, or they cite a particularly effective picture, one that captures the imagination and instantly conveys the message much more powerfully than words could ever do.

People use PowerPoint to organize their thinking before a presentation, but the software is actually a very clumsy tool for this purpose. There are far better software tools out there to help you think through your
talk (my personal favorite for planning and organizing is Inspiration, www.inspiration.com, which lets you easily map your thoughts and outline your ideas).

People fill their slides with way too much information because they don’t want to forget anything, and the mind-numbing consequence is that they often end up reading the slides word-for-word. A few select keywords are far more effective at reminding us where we want to go next and keeping the audience on track with our talk.

People often design the slide show to be used as a handout as well, but what is most effective as a handout is very different from what will support the audience in understanding the message during a talk. Why not prepare two separate packages? One, a slide show that enhances the messages of your presentation and the second, a document that people take with them.

Don’t get me wrong. There are very powerful and effective ways to support a talk visually through the use of software like PowerPoint. But it should be played like a fine instrument, with subtlety and finesse, rather than used as a club to be applied to every aspect of the presentation. The next time you are putting together a slide show, ask yourself on each slide: Is this slide for me or for my audience? Will it really help them better understand my message or just serve as a distraction? How can I remember what I’m going to say without putting the entire text on the slide? What can I do to simplify the slide so that only essential information is displayed? What do I really need to do at this point in the presentation to engage the audience and enhance my message? Is a visual the best way to convey the information or could a story do a better job?

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