Getting Off Target With Presentations
How presentations evolved to their sorry state.
Thirty million presentations will be given today. Millions will fail. Millions more will be received with yawns.
As a presentations coach, I work with many people who give many different types of presentations: to raise venture capital, launch a public company, introduce a new product, develop a strategic relationship, get a project approved or solicit contributions to a nonprofit cause. Yet, somehow, most presenters don't quite get it right.
One might ask why? Why wouldn't every presenter, seeking that clarion call to action on his or her mission-critical message, be, as the U.S. Army advertisements urge, all that they can be? Why wouldn't they present themselves and their businesses in the most effective manner possible? The answer lies in the history of how presentations evolved to their sorry state. What's past is prologue.
Presentations originated as a form of communication back in the dark ages of the mid-20th century when small peer groups within companies gathered around a flip chart perched on a rickety easel and exchanged ideas. In that setting, the flip chart served as a. large surface that all the participants could see and share, but also as documentation that could be copied and distributed to others not present at the session; a distinct improvement over the blackboard (and its later cousin, the whiteboard). In its earliest incarnation then, the presentation served two purposes: as an enlarged illustration during the meeting, and as a record capable of duplication afterward. The duality can be called the presentation-as-document syndrome.
This first step landed firmly on the wrong foot. By combining the two functions, it formalized an essentially misguided assumption. In successive generations, the document aspect went beyond handouts - or "leave-behinds" - to include "send-aheads" (before the presentation), speaker notes (crutches and crib sheets), validating evidence (highly detailed data), or a biblical manual for the scattered legions of the company to say exactly the same thing about each slide. The original sin morphed and mutated into its current state of worst practices.
The platform for the first step onto the right foot already exists. In Microsoft PowerPoint, the lingua franca of business communications, there is a little-known and infrequently-used feature called Notes Page: a single sheet view that positions the graphic image at the top, and a box for additional text below. This unique option drives a wedge between the illustration and the document. It enables each function to stand on its own, and to serve its pure purpose. To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose. The Notes Page rectifies the original sin.
The next step: go beyond bifurcation and design your slides to serve their proper and sole purpose, which is as illustrations of the ideas in your presentation. The overarching design principle for all your slides should be "Less is more," the three powerful words attributed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), one of the foremost architects and designers of the 20th century who designed the sleek bronze-and-glass Seagram Building in New York City. Make minimalism your default.
"Less is more" slides allow you, the presenter, to add value to your presentation. Remember that the old name for graphics was "visual aids," not visual hindrances. Relegate your graphics to a supporting role and elevate your role to that of the interpreter. Follow the role model you see on any news broadcast. Peter Jennings, Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw provide the story; the fancy graphics that go flitting by behind them are merely headlines. The presenter provides the body text.
If you need a document, create a document, and do it with word processing. If you want a presentation, create a presentation and do it with presentation software. In Microsoft Office 2003, two of the bundled applications are Word for documents and PowerPoint for presentations. The two exist in the same box, but they are distinctly separate entities, and never the twain shall meet. Use the right tool for the right job.
We're all familiar with Andy Warhol's comment that everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes. I would extend Warhol's observation to say that every presenter has 15 or 30 or 60 minutes - whatever time is allotted or assigned - to win over his or her audience. Don't waste a single second of that time by compromising a single element of your presentation. Optimize every tool and technique at your disposal. Make every one of those minutes be all that it can be. A presentation cannot be a document and a presentation. A presentation is a presentation and only a presentation.
An ancient Chinese proverb tells us: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." The central phrase should be the fundamental guideline for designing graphics in business presentations. Unfortunately, most presenters heap a host of other functions, ranging from handouts to speaker notes, from leave-behinds to send-aheads, on top of the true - and sole - function of graphics: to reinforce the presenter's ideas in the audience's minds.
This multi-tasking not only subverts the core function of graphics by overloading the audience's sensory system, it also makes the presenter a reader who merely mouths the words on the screen. Sadly, this all-too-common practice compounds the other negative effects by irritating the audience members who think, "I can read it myself!"
The solution is to consider all graphics in all presentations as headlines in a newspaper and the presenter's discussion as the body text of the full articles. In this approach, the headline serves as a prompt for the presenter, a visual mnemonic. It also captures the attention of the audience, succinctly summarizes the main theme for them, and impresses the key takeaway in their minds.
This simple concept makes any slide, whether it is text, bars, pictures or tables, the point of departure for the presenter to add value. All the other ancillary business functions of graphics, while equally important, can be rendered in other formats such as the Notes Page of Microsoft's PowerPoint or as straight text documents.
Beyond that fundamental approach, there are three other major guidelines that can enhance the graphics in your next presentation:
• Less is More: Architect Mies van der Rohe's famous adage became the guiding principle for many of the greatest architects and designers of our time. Make "Less is more" the guiding principle for your presentation graphics. And remember its corollary: When in doubt, leave it out.
• Minimize Eye Sweeps. Every time you click on a new slide, the eyes of every audience member involuntarily sweep across the screen to take in the entire image: the larger the screen, the greater the sweep. Each of those sweeps, while individually insignificant, accumulates over the course of multiple images or multiple lines in multiple slides in a presentation. All that effort builds until it becomes a resistance, at first to the graphics, and soon after that, to the presenter's message.
To avoid this destructive spiral, minimize the number of times your audience's eyes have to traverse the screen to comprehend the image.
In text slides, avoid wordwrap; restrict every title and every bullet to one line.
In bar charts, remove the left axis and place the numbers directly on top of the bars; move the legend from its conventional location at the bottom to the far right - at the end of the eye sweep.
• Create Graphic Continuity. All too often, business presentations are a collection of slides cobbled together from diverse other presentations, resulting in a progression of slides, none of which has any relationship to the next. In my book, Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story, there is a full chapter containing five ways you can add continuity to your presentation, making it easier for you to deliver and easier for your audience to follow. Here is a condensed version of the Five Graphic Continuity Techniques:
1. Bumper Slides. Insert graphic dividers between major sections of the presentation to serve as clean, quick and simple transitions. Published books use this method to separate chapters.
2. Indexing/Color Coding. Use a recurring object as an index, highlighted in different colors to map the different sections of a longer presentation. Wedges of a pie or sections of a cube make simple but effective indexes.
3. Icons. Express relationships among ideas using recognizable symbolic representations. Interlocking circles or arrows draw concepts together. Pyramids or triangles represent hierarchies. Arrows represent movement or timelines.
4. Anchor Objects. Create continuity with a recurring image that is an integral part of the illustration. Repeat an image, such as a logo, a picture or a product shot, over the course of several slides, but change the other information adjacent to the anchor object to create continuity going forward.
5. Anticipation Space. Use empty areas that are subsequently filled, setting up and then fulfilling subliminal expectations. Build a text box on the left side of the screen, leaving the right side vacant. Then add a matching text box on the right and fill it. The two complete boxes create balance and harmony.
In summary, you can create either a presentation or a mutation. If you attempt to make your presentation double as a document, it will be neither fish nor fowl. If your graphics are designed to serve as a document, you will put more on the screen which will be less effective. Remember: Less is more.
With this model, you can add value. You can provide interpretation, proof points, benefits, endorsements, examples and statistics, all of which will enhance your presentation. Use the right tool for the right job. A presentation is a presentation and only a presentation.
Microsoft's latest version of PowerPoint brings fresh fodder to the ongoing debate about whether the software is the curse or the blessing of business presentations. Both sides have it all wrong.
Chances are, if you've been in the business world for more than a minute and a half, you've suffered through a mind-numbingly poor PowerPoint presentation or have become so distracted by the pyrotechnics in a slide show that you lost track of what was really being said. For this, PowerPoint has recently come under fire. But to blame PowerPoint is like blaming the Mont Blanc pen company for illiteracy and illegibility.
The real issue is not the pen, it is the penmanship. Presentations go awry because presenters try to make the slides stand alone - a show without tell - to serve as both handout and speaker's crutch. This is akin to a coach expecting every player to play both offense and defense.
The primary, and sole, purpose of presentation graphics is as support for the presenter, not to replace the presenter. Except perhaps in the what-you-see-is-what-you-get world of art, a decision will never be made based on a slide show itself. If you want your audience to say, "Yes," then focus on what matters most, which is what you say. The tools and features in PowerPoint are excellent for helping to focus an audience or add some professional spark, but remember this golden rule: Less is more.
Consider the bullets as simple headlines and your verbal discussion as the body text. Consider the numeric charts as visual aids, while you bring the numbers to life. Consider the illustrations as talking points, while you added illuminating examples. All the narrative flow and value-added information should come from you.
Look in the mirror and remember: The show is only as good as the tell.