The problem with PowerPoint is that it makes it so easy to bore your audience to death. (Been there, done that…)
We all know the seductive ease of creating a new presentation: setting up a dozen slides with titles, and then filling in the slides with endless bullet points.
It’s Too Easy to be Boring
The beauty of this approach is that you don’t have to remember the details of your message: if you can see the screen, you just read what’s on your slides. This practice is all-too common when the people who create and those who present the slide decks are different.
But it’s deadly for your audience when you add nothing fresh beyond what appears on the slides.
According to presentation gurus, this is absolutely the wrong approach for designing and delivering slide decks. Wrong, that is, if you care about getting your point across — and being remembered for what you say or believe.
I can just hear my husband’s rebuttal: in today’s hyper-busy business world, there’s no alternative to decks full of bullet-point slides. What else, after all, can you do when creating a presentation due later today while watching yet another yaddah-yaddah webinar or attending an all-hands audio conference?
My counter-argument: if presentations were more clear and memorable for people in the audience, perhaps we wouldn’t waste our time in so many unproductive meetings or webinars.
What People Do Better Than Machines
Remember that we are living in a time when fundamental human talents are in great demand. Anyone — indeed any machine — can read a list of features or give a stream of facts to an audience. That’s not what we need or want. What we yearn for is to listen to an intelligent and evocative — perhaps at times even provocative — human being who teaches us, or inspires us, or who stimulates us with knowledge plus meaning, context, and emotion in a way that is memorable.
Although this point is often forgotten (especially in high-tech product marketing circles), Garr Reynolds reminds us that:
Presentations are not just about following a formula for transferring facts in your head [or the product manager’s head — ed. note] to the heads of those sitting before you by reciting a list of points on a slide. (If it were, why not send an email and cancel the presentation?) What people want is fundamentally more human. They want to hear “the story” of your facts.
In Presentation Zen Reynolds offers numerous examples of visually stunning and memorable slides, clearly designed by people with a visual eye and a knack for storytelling. He also lays out a set of principles for designing slides when you aspire to similar zen-like simplicity and memorability.
This assumes you have a clear story to tell, have clarified what you want to say, and understand how best to get your points across to your audience.
Back in the Real World…
People who market high-tech products are among the least likely to practice the principles of “presentation zen.” Think about all those product managers — people who are paid to agonize over and fight for all the gory details of their products. After all their effort getting the product ready for the market, they want you to appreciate all those details too. Point by point, slide by slide. Stack diagram after stack diagram.
Sixty-seven slides later, what do you remember of the presentation? Can you remember anything the next day?
The Best of Both
If you lack designerly skills to create visually stunning presentations, what’s the alternative (besides hiring a designer)?
I’ve blogged about the power of visual thinking, and have recommended a book by Dan Roam, Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. This is a great resource for business people (and teachers).
This book can help you learn how to think through and then convey complex situations through the power of simple visuals. Throughout his book Dan Roam uses simple, cartoon-like sketches to illustrate his points (as he does here on his company’s web site).
I think the approach that Dan Roam teaches offers wonderful possibilities for helping you crystallize your thinking and share your ideas — and how you got there — with others in very powerful ways. But some people might find his visual style too casual…
For situations that require more formality or visual elegance, the best of both approaches is to:
- apply Roam’s framework for thinking through the challenges and your communications options, and
- design the presentation (and your voice-over commentary) with the help of the principles outlined in Presentation Zen.
In a nutshell Presentation Zen explains that what makes messages memorable is some combination of:
I wish I had learned these principles back in school — or at least, much earlier in my career!