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The Military and Powerpoint redux, Jon Stewart style

Here’s another view of the PowerPoint debate , thanks to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show.   Stewart offers a behind-the-scenes look at military’s greatest heroes who use PowerPoint to get their troops motivated for battle.

This obviously provides a bookend to my posting on the subject earlier this week and hopefully brings a smile to your face.

Generals miss the point on PowerPoint

Death by PowerPoint is no joke in the military

If your new tires fell off after installation, whose fault would it be — the mechanic or his tools?

If you’re a U.S. general, you blame the tool.  At least that’s what they’re doing in an article in today’s New York Times about the military’s use of PowerPoint.  Lost amid all the jokes and criticism of a “tool that has spun out of control” is a simple fact: PowerPoint done right enhances rather than undermines the quality of communication.

Great PowerPoint presentations seek to persuade rather than dump information.  Great presenters crystallize their message long before they sit down to design slides.  I was a multi-bullet, heavy-copy PowerPoint people in my previous life, but I now find myself spending more time thinking through the message and the appropriate visuals.  I think about the story, the audience, the decision-making journey, and how to make my points as simply as possible.

It’s a joke to see these senior officers moan about the quality of presentations and the time wasted delivering them.  As you read the quotes from the “PowerPoint Rangers” about the time spent preparing slides, ask yourself whether the generals delivering them had anything to do with crafting the message…or whether they even looked at their decks before delivering the presentation.

Hey, generals!  Fixing this problem is simple:

  • Limit the number of slides you can use in a given period of time.  General McCrystal, you’re the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for God’s sake.  Tell your people that their slide limit for a 30-minute briefing is five.  Period.
  •  Teach junior officers the right way to present.  Start them at West Point, in ROTC classes, and at Officer Candidate School.  Highlight the people who do it right; re-educate those who don’t.  Reinforce the message at the senior-officer schools.
  • At the beginning of a presentation, ask presenters to explain their objective.  If they can’t communicate it quickly and briefly, send them back to the drawing board.
  • Teach junior officers — and their bosses — how to WRITE clearly and persuasively.  There are times you use PowerPoint and times you use memos.  My high-school English teacher prevented us from graduating until we could put together a well-reasoned essay (thank you, Mrs. Banikowski).  Our children hit college (and eventually the work world) with expertise in Twitter (how persuasive can you get in 140 characters?) and IM’ing.  Ugh.
  • Know your audience.  I’ve spent time with Tyler on his college essays over the past few months and if he’s learned nothing else from our calm, collaborative sessions (he would characterize those conversations differently), it’s that you have to consider who is reading your paper (or listening to your presentation).  I hope he brings the memory of our time together to college with him this fall.

Of course, these tips don’t apply only to our soldiers in Afghanistan.  You can use them on your own personal and corporate battlefields.  Click here for other posts I’ve written about bringing brevity, clarity, and simplicity to your communciations.

What advice would you give the generals?

Sticky presentations require a great story

Syracuse squeezed itself out of the competition for Tyler

My son Tyler has narrowed his college choices to two.   How he got there gets to the heart of the importance of “sticky” presentations and why a two-day trip to two schools put one on the finalist list and took one pretty much off his radar. 

We started at Syracuse on a chilly October morning.  This part sticks with me because the presenter tried to make light of the weather from the moment we hit our seats.  Maybe it’s just me (and keep in mind, I actually went to the school and grew up in Buffalo) but cold weather should not be on the list of key selling points.

The presentation was dry, and the presenter was not particularly dynamic (although she seemed very nice).  She started with a video featuring famous and semi-famous alumni and appeared to have been made by an advertising firm that didn’t realize it was talking to teenagers.  Did Admissions forget that its communications schools is a selling point and that it has not one but two solid film schools?  Why not have a student film competition to highlight the school’s strengths. 

The rest of the presentation was more informative than memorable, with no real sales focus (I seem to remember a lot of bullets).  The worst part came as she dismissed the crowd by school for individual sessions.  She’d call out the name of the school (e.g., Newhouse) and then start highlighting the merits of the program as her target audience struggled to their feet, grabbed their bags, and headed out the door.

The tour wasn’t much better and I honestly think Tyler would have crossed Syracuse off his list then and there, had I not been along to talk about concerts on the Quad, Dance Marathon, games at the Dome, and late-night snack runs to Marshall Street.

So we left Syracuse and headed to D.C. and our tour of American University.

Things were different there.  A 20-something admissions person (and alum) talked about her experiences.  Trick or treating at embassies.  She illustrated her point about the high percentage of international students by talking about political science classes on Middle Eastern politics with students who lived through bombings and fighting in the streets.  She actually made the pursuit of dual majors interesting.   Last week — yes, five months later — I asked Tyler what he remembered and the kid who can’t remember to turn off his lights or stop texting while doing homework rattled off a number of memories from the presentation.

American has been the leader in the clubhouse since that visit.  A recent visit to Drexel made it a two-horse race for a similar reason: The head of the film department sat down with Tyler to talk about her vision for the program, talking about her ability to “see beyond the curve” of the road.  Once again, passion carried the day.  She also had a great story — no deck, but a great ability to communicate the path — and that, combined with outstanding facilities and equipment and the willingness to put a camera in his hands from Day One, means it’s now a two-horse race.

I’ve posted here before about a story-driven, bullet-light approach to PowerPoints.  Dan Heath is in Fast Company magazine this month talking about “sticky” presentations and has some great resources on his website (links are in the FC article).  And both Nancy Duarte (slide:ology) and Garr Reynolds (Presentation Zen) have great presentation-centered blogs and are passionate advocates of storytelling.

I suspect many of you have had similar college-admissions experiences.  Take some time to think about your story, your audience, and your message.  What will you do differently the next time you have a presentation that’s designed to capture someone’s imagination or ignite their passion?

Lost: In search of Simplicity

Good or evil? Is that the core question Lost's finale will answer?

Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly just posted a 12-page summary of last night’s episode of Lost (the Richard Alpert episode).  You can read it here if you have nothing better to do or need someone else to theorize what’s going on.

I hope Lost is not going to turn out to be as complex as this guy — and others — make it out to be.  I think it will turn out to be a relatively simple “good vs. evil” story where the resolution hinges on which of two character (Jacob or the Man in Black) is evil and who among the castaways is going to step up and be a hero (Note: I’ve thought the island is Purgatory from about the third episode).  And where all of us feel the journey and investment of time was worth it.

Regular viewers will need to feel their questions have been answered and that the key moments from the show are consistent with the answers provided in the last few episodes.  It will also be critical that you don’t need a PhD in literature or the willingness to Google each and every plot reference to understand the show.

The show’s executive producers claim they’ve know where they were headed from Day One.  If true, that’s impressive.  They’ve done a great job of storytelling, but then they’ve been granted the time to do that by loyal viewers

Even if Lost has a simple core and a simple resolution where everything ties together, their approach probably won’t work with your presentations or business writing — even if you know where you’re headed from the outset.

How many viewers have left the show out of confusion or because they feel the production team thinks they’re smarter than everyone else?  The ratings indicate that that number is high.  Even if all the loose ends are headed toward a single strand, your audience won’t stick with you if they don’t believe the payoff will be worth the time invested.

I’m struggling with a couple of presentations right now for two reasons.  First, I need to crystallize my core message.  What’s my “one thing,” which I’ve referenced on these pages before?  I want to keep the message simple, using stories and examples to make my case, and I’m trying to strip it down to achieve that.  Second, I need to ensure my slides (and my stories) don’t take my audience down seemingly divergent paths.  I can’t have too many strands, even if they lead back to that single point, or I’m going to lose my audience.

As communicators in search of simplicity and clarity, we often walk a thin line between the Lost approach (trust me, and I’ll get you to a great place) and the 24 approach (trust Jack Bauer, and he’ll get you to a great place but he’ll need a bunch of implausible plot twists).   We can’t get so familiar with our subject matter that we forget the audience doesn’t know where we’re going and isn’t emotionally invested enough to stick with us.

What do you think?  Is Lost an example of great storytelling and are there lessons that great communicators can take from the producers’ approach?

PowerPoints: Fewer bullets, more confidence.

My PowerPoint decks have always been heavy on the bullets.

OK, really heavy.

But I tried something different this week for my presentation to a conference of graduate-school financial aid professionals.  I was asked by the Access Group to talk about the impact of the new credit-card legislation on their students, and I certainly could have gone down the “heavy on the bullets” approach.

Two examples: The Kudzu and Fear slides

But I decided to go the other way.  I outlined my presentation, wrote my speech, spent a lot of time thinking about how to illustrate my points without hiding behind bullets, and used iStockPhoto.com to find professional quality photos for my slides.  I then created two pages of Speakers Notes, which I copied onto one page and passed out in lieu of a deck that wouldn’t mean much to someone who wasn’t in the room with us.

What did I learn?

  • I spent more time thinking about the flow of my presentation and the audience’s experience than I ever had before.  It finally started working when I decided on the “one thing” that I wanted them to leave with  — Risk and Fear are the drivers of changes in the card industry and the new business model that issuers are creating.
  • I spent coming up with stories to illustrate my points,  It helped that I set up a format for my outline that included Headline, Graphic, Key Point, Supporting Data, and Story for each slide.
  • My presentation was more memorable (i.e., sticky).  People were smiling at some of the images I put up on the screen.  For example, I used Kudzu (aka the plant that took over the Southeast) as the illustration for a slide about the unintended consequences that have arisen from the bill.  It took me two sentences to make the connection, but it worked.  Very few people smile at bullets.
  • I probably swung the pendulum too far in terms of marrying the illustrations to charts and graphs.  In retrospect, I could have easily added a few charts that would have made a few of the slides work even better.
  • On the other hand, I had a section that outlined changes in credit lines, household card debt,  account closures, and mail volume.  Would have made a mind-numbing slide of bullets in the past.  This time, I used a photo of a rollercoaster just before its first plunge and two 28-point boxes that showed open credit lines falling from $4.7 trillion to $3.4 trillion in just over a year.  That approach enabled me to tell a story that used data rather than being driven by it.
  • This approach also added a bit of serenity to my final preparations.  I was changing my own personal Speaker Notes, rather than changing slides.  I did make a last-minute decision to change the order of two slides to improve flow and help with transitions, but that was no big deal.

I know changing my approach will take time, but I got my feet wet on this one.  I’m sharing it with a few friends to see what they think.  There are some great resources out there to get you started — I’ve been reading Nick Morgan and Jan Schultink.  You can’t go wrong with Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, who has a Must Read book of the same title (and a new coming out soon) and a website.  The link is to the website.   Seth Godin put together a great site dedicated to becoming a really good graphic designer. 

The most important benefit to this approach was how I felt as I entered the room.  I had a strategy and I had a message.  And I had confidence.

With Twitter, power now shifting to audience during presentations

Twitter:  Distraction or Presentation Aid?

Twitter: Distraction or Presentation Aid?

It used to be enough as a presenter to know your audience, have strong content, practice, and repeat.

Not any more.

Now you have to worry about the audience Tweeting about your presentation…as you’re giving it.  And sometimes the comments are being projected over your shoulder, right next to your slides.

I can actually see pros and cons with this.  On one hand, if you really know your topic and have practiced, this can be an opportunity to modify your presentation when you see the audience isn’t getting something or incorporate the answers to their questions right then and there, rather than hoping they’ll ask after you’re done.

On the other hand, monitoring Twitter could distract you from focusing on presenting and watching the audience for their reactions and lead you down roads that will undermine the preparation you’ve done.

And with Twitter, people who aren’t even at your presentation have an opportunity to weigh in and add to the confusion. 

This issue has really come to the forefront with a recent incident at the HigherEdWeb conference in Milwaukee a few weeks ago.  For some context, feel free to click on The Great Keynote Meltdown of 2009.  Simply put, the presenter appears to have been ill-prepared, used outdated slides, and was a poor presenter who disrespected his audience.  He took an ugly public (and private — people also texted his phone number to tell him how bad he was) beating.  But this isn’t a new phenomenon. 

I’m thinking about this as I prepare for a presentation on The Impact of New Credit Card Legislation on Students at a conference of financial-aid professionals in Orlando next month.  Some will argue I should have already done this, but I’ll be asking the conference organizers on Monday about the level of my audience’s social technology adoption to determine whether I need to (or even can) monitor the backchannel while I’m talking.   The next decision is whether I want to.  What I do know is that I’ll be intensifying my preparation over the next few weeks to ensure I’m not “that guy.”

I wonder how people who Tweet during a presentation can be doing that and still pay attention.  My 17-year-old, who IMs, Facebooks, and the like far more than I like, says he could — but that he would never use Twitter in that way.

I’d like to get a dialogue going on this subject.  Should Twitter be banned from presentations or is it a reasonable way for the audience to interact with the speaker and just a sign of the times of the audience gaining more power?  What strategies are you using in situations where conferences have a backchannel?