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.
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.
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 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?