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?

Taglines: Is yours a home run?

Tyler chose his college on Thursday.  He’s headed to Washington, D.C. this fall to American University and its terrific film school.

At the risk of oversimplifying, American has a great tagline — Media That Matters — and a group of passionate people who believe the mantra and communicate it consistently.

From the academic counselor to the professors to whom he spoke to the School of Communication’s materials, the message is consistent and to the point.  Had I had my work hat on, I’ll bet I could have stopped anyone involved in the Film and Media Arts department and heard the theme (or a tight variation on it). 

Tyler wears his heart on his sleeve…and his eyes don’t lie, and both his mother and I knew the moment he made his decision.  It was when he heard “Media That Matters.”  He wants to make a difference.  He wants to make documentaries and touch people’s lives.  His path could change over the next four years, but I kinda doubt it.  The medium could change — film, Internet, or something else — but the direction and passion won’t.

As good as the tagline is, American backs it up with strong supporting messages…a great story, if you will.  Where better than Washington if you want to get involved in effecting change? If you’re interested in documentaries and environmental film, we have Centers devoted to those disciplines and we work closely with National Geographic, Discovery, the Smithsonian, and so on.  We have professors who work in the business and are looking for passionate students looking for experience.  You get the idea.

Media That Matters.  Three words that resonate with a kid like Tyler.  Three words that tell a story.  That ignite passion.  That change lives.

What’s the tagline for your business or your job search?   Is it simple enough?  Does it tell your target audience who you are and what you do?  Do you support it with all your other marketing materials, from your resume or company fact sheet and collateral to your LinkedIn profile?  And perhaps most important, does your tagline tell the person who’s reading it how you’re going to “scratch their itch” (i.e., solve their problem or address their needs)?

If it doesn’t, it won’t matter how terrific you actually are.  You just may finish second to someone who gets it right.

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?

Embrace your daemon: Write the next chapter of your life story

A few years back, I led a change to the way MBNA America — at the time the world’s largest affinity credit-card lender — negotiated with its partners (and ultimately with each other inside the bank).  At the heart of it, we learned to prepare more effectively and taught people that the best way to get what they wanted was to help the other side get what it wanted (for both internal and external stakeholders).  It’s my primary accomplishment…and a key component of my professional narrative. 

Since being laid off 15 months ago, I’ve focused on consulting while still looking for a challenging full-time position.  The reality is the job market is awful and there’s a growing trend toward building a portfolio career of 1099/consulting projects.  I’ve been helping companies sharpen their brand and strategic messages, primarily through the creation and/or refining of value propositions, RFP responses, and annual reports.  But I keep running into executive-level job seekers — many of them terrific, talented former peers — who are worried that their biggest success is behind them…and feeling their self-esteem slipping away in the absence of traction in their own job searches.

I invite you to watch this video in its entirety — it’s about 20 minutes and talks about dealing with these kinds of concerns, about wondering whether your best is behind you and about channeling your creativity in a positive way.

I’ve long believed that one thing that distinguishes successful people is their ability to consistently “show up.”  I also generally believe in the “daemons” that Elizabeth Gilbert describes.  I do believe you need to put distance between yourself and your creativity — partly because believing in daemons makes it difficult to give yourself  too much credit) and partly because I don’t want to run the risk of alienating them.

Over at ChrisBrogan.com, Chris is talking about the importance of story in people’s lives, urging readers to read Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  For me, I harken back to A Chorus Line: “I’m a dancer…And a dancer dances.”  The foundation of my story is my ability to communicate quickly and clearly (my ongoing challenges to simplify my own personal brand notwithstanding).  Blogging — something I never had the time to do before leaving the bank — enables me to do what I love…and the research and effort to generate ideas helps me work through my angst.  On my professional side, it can be challenging (but gratifying) to create for someone else, to capture their true voice and deliver something that the client can “hear” and feel as if they could have written or said it.  And yet the thing that led me away from business journalism in the first place was my sense that I could be just as effective in business as the people whose lives I was chronicling.

But how do you keep delivering?  How do you surpass your past successes? If I didn’t appreciate one thing before the past 15 months, I certainly do now:  Creativity takes order and process.  You need to eliminate distractions to give the “daemon” room to enter your consciousness.

There are times when I miss the hermetically sealed corporate offices where I used to work.  As I sit at home today, it’s 80 degrees, sunny, with a nice breeze flowing through my home office.  I’m resisting the urge to stop typing to go shoot some baskets or kick a soccer ball with my kids because I have deliverables.

The truth is, I probably will not resist those urges.  But that break will enable me to create something better this afternoon because I freed my mind and let the daemon in.  I now keep a little notebook to write down ideas when they hit.  In my current situation, I don’t sit through long, pointless meetings and I can try to turn neat ideas into business opportunities (although that poses its own sort of distraction away from the dual goals of feeding my family and doing something meaningful).

I have always worked in a world of real-life deadlines, budgets, and conflicting goals.  I’ve always been successful at balancing multiple priorities and executing on great ideas.  But life is different today than it was 15 months ago and I have a much greater respect for the process.  I thank Elizabeth Gilbert for reminding me that my greatest successes are not behind me…that the path to even greater ones requires me to keep showing up, respecting my daemon, and seeing them when I see them.

How about you?  How do you maintain your confidence that your next great success is just around the corner?

Nike’s Tiger Ad: Simplicity with an edge

I just finished The Art of Simplicity by John Maeda, who boils simplicity down to being about “subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” 

Nike “relaunched” its sponsorship of Tiger Woods today with an ad that subtracts any mention of its footwear or clothing, color video, music, or sight of Tiger hitting one of his extraordinary golf shots.  It instead uses a single zoom shot of Tiger looking incredibly sad with background audio of his dead father talking about responsibility.

So there’s no question the ad is simple.  But is it effective?  For those who haven’t seen it yet,  Tiger’s dad (who likely wasn’t talking about his son’s sexual indiscretions when he was recorded) is heard saying, “Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?”

I’d like to know Tiger’s answer to the question.  Based on his decision to approve using his father’s voice in this way I’d say no.  Did Nike achieve its goals?  Everyone’s talking about the ad, so the answer there is probably yes.  And it’s consistent with some of its previous ads focused on the personal branding of their spokespersons.  Remember Charles Barkley and his “I am not a role model” ad?  That was Nike too.

Tiger said during a press conference on Monday that he was just looking forward to getting back and playing golf.  This ad undermines that goal and leaves many thinking it’s all about the press coverage for Tiger and Nike.

The ad is simple.  The motives are not.  I doubt many of Nike’s target audience will change their buying habits as a result of this ad.  But the consistency of the brand message and subtly reminding people they didn’t drop Tiger may be enough. Not that it matters all that much, but I don’t see this ad as helping Tiger’s efforts to restore his brand, unless you want to view it as further penance.

Getting back to John Maeda and his Laws of Simplicity, I don’t believe Tiger and Nike satisfied the second half of his core law.  The obvious was subtracted, but very little meaning was added.  Perhaps a simple shot of Tiger juggling a golf ball at the end of a club, apologizing to fans and saying he’s back and committed to re-earning the trust of his family and fans would have been more appropriate…and more consistent with the Just Do It brand.

Don’t let perfect get in the way of better

I’m adding a new bullet to my What I Believe document up top, thanks to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“Don’t let perfect get in the way of better,” Goodell says he told NFL owners and general managers debating changes to the league’s overtime system.

Goodell may have been right when he said there’s probably a perfect system out there.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But was the new way — giving the team that kicked off the ball if the receiving team scores a field goal to start overtime — that perfect system?  No.  But it is better than what they have.  And they’re going to continue to look for ways to make it better, including considering whether the new approach should extend to the regular season.

How many projects break down over the desire to get it absolutely perfect?  While I do believe that “good enough isn’t,” I also believe that there are many opportunities to find ways to just do things better.  Incremental change gets you closer to the promised land.  And that can mean eliminating a required signer in an approval process, getting rid of an unnecessary click-through on your website, or enabling someone to complete a form online without requiring him to print it out and fax or mail it.

A few years back, I managed a project to streamline our marketing-approval process.  For a variety of reasons, we decided to make all the changes before rolling out the new process, which included the creation of very specific job descriptions for each position in the workflow.  The goal was to not have to re-educate people more than once and we accomplished that.  But it came at the expense of an additional three or four months of working with the old process.

In retrospect, I’d have worried less about the re-education and focused more on letting people see that the changes we were making were making us more efficient and accurate.  That might have reduced the pushback and the unending debates over minute details.  And that might have both accelerated the overall process and gotten us to an even better place than where we ultimately ended up.

We just shouldn’t have let the desire for perfect get in the way of better.

This same philosophy applies to your resume, your LinkedIn profile, the cleanliness of your desk, the way you manage your teams, or any of a myriad of other day-to-day tasks.  This desire for perfection can lead to paralysis, particularly if you spend too much time knee-jerking every time anyone gives you feedback.

How about you?  How have you avoided the push for perfect and just gotten to better?

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?