My friend Jim showed us how Nightingale presented her mortality statistics to the Army brass through the use of a rose diagram.
Her idea was to show the mortality rate of soldiers dying from infectious diseases dropped significantly from the winter of 1854 to the next winter as a result of the procedures she put in place. This was quite effective.
Most people (99.9% of the presenters using PowerPoint) would have just splashed the raw data on the screen and put the audience in a coma:
Nightingale did not do that. She was much smarter than 99.9 % of the presenters.
Another effective way to communicate Nightingale’s message to the brass would be through the use of a SIMPLE bar chart as shown below:
Very simple…no bells and no whistles….just the facts.
My friend Jim from the U.K. sent me a link to a “new alternative” to PowerPoint Presentation and asked me what I thought of it. He said it made him feel seasick. It made me drowsy after a minute. Here is what went through my mind as I viewed the presentation and gradually slipped into a coma:
“Look buddy – If you have something interesting to say to me, please say it. Tell it to me like we are having a conversation over a cup of coffee. Don’t splash a bunch of hideous words up there and expect me to read them while you mouth every bloody word of it.
For example, you don’t need to define for me the legal meaning of “marketing strategy”. Just tell me what it means to you – in plain old English. Every time you try to define some terms in a legalistic way, some smart attorney is going to tear it apart. He is going to say that you have missed something in the definition. So forget about it.
My friend – I don’t need you to tell me what your mission statement is in fine prints that are totally unreadable. Besides – mission statements are silly. Every company has pretty much the same mission statement: to make as much money as possible at the least possible cost while being the best in the industry and keeping customers happy. Have I covered everything? So what else is new? Tell me something new. Perhaps your mission statement is to not soil your undergarment while giving a boring presentation. That I would like to see on the screen.
If the subject of your talk is very complicated or technical, please give me a hard paper copy of your report and I will read it, analyze it, study it, and examine it in details later. Don’t put up your fancy equations and formulas on the screen. No one will be impressed. All you need to tell me right now is the overall layman’s view of your topic. As they say – if you can’t explain YOUR own topic to your 92 year old grand mother, it means you don’t really understand it!
You see – any fool can splash a bunch of words up there and read them. To explain them in good old plain English, that’s a different matter altogether.
So – enough of these bells and whistles. Just tell me YOUR story, please. Thank you very much.”
Ding ding ding….does my reaction ring a bell to you?
Steve Jobs is well known for his presentation skills and his slides are best known for their clarity and simplicity – the hallmark of a great presentation.
When the maestro made his presentation introducing his new iPhone 4, he ran into a major glitch. His iPhone was not able to connect!
Watch how he handled this glitch and potential disaster:
He did it with humor and never skipped a beat. This reinforces my point that your presentations do not have to be perfect in every way and how rehearsing is not a guarantee of success. I am sure Jobs rehearsed his presentations many many times. But he never foresaw the problem of too many people being online at the same time when he got on stage.
But because he KNEW his topic, he was able to handle the potential crisis with humor and aplomb.
A well-coached speaker with a graduate degree in French literature might have memorized his presentation with the perfect pitch and tone. But he never would have been able to handle such an unforeseen crisis.
One of my earliest posts on this blog was on “Tell them a story“. Every presentation is story telling. It does not matter how complicated your topic is, your success in presentation hinges on your story telling ability. In fact, all the great presenters and speakers have the ability to turn complicated and technical issues into SIMPLE story telling. Any fool can rattle off complicated equations and theories from a set of notes. Only the smart ones can explain them to a non-technical audience.
I think they call that communication.
Everybody is a sales person. How true! I remember when I was in graduate engineering school many years ago and of course I thought I knew everything, I used to look down on sales people. One day I made a derogatory comment about salesmen to my engineering professor who at that time also had a thriving consulting business going. He glared at me and said “Never lose sight of the value of a great salesman”.
Ten years later, when I was working for a small consulting firm, the owner of the company used to send out a note to all his employees that read” “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.”
So next time when you make a presentation, just remember that you are the proverbial sales person SELLING something to the audience.
In Henry Boettinger’s wonderful book “Moving Mountains – the Art and Craft of Letting Others See Things Your Way”, he describes an incident where his colleagues made a presentation to an executive before the real thing – a big presentation to a group of senior executives. The preview was superb. Every detail and lesson were brought to bear. Timing was exquisite.
When the group finished the preview, the executive just sat silently shaking his head. He told the group: “It’s no good. Your presentation is simply too slick.” The executive went on to say: “Yes, everything is perfectly clear. Yes, there is convincing evidence on every point. Yes, the alternatives all look bad. No, nothing relevant has been overlooked. Yes, it is a first-class job. Yes, you have carried out your assignment in a thoroughly professional way.”
So what was the matter with the preview?
The executive went on to say: “My colleagues will find the razzle-dazzle offensive and will become unconfortable. They will feel that they have no place at all to apply their judgment. I ‘m afraid if you show them what I saw, they will modify your proposal, and I don’t want that to happen.”
The presenters asked the executive for advice on what they should do. Here is what the executive told them:
“Make the visuals look cheaper and less finished…Miss a few cues when one man turns the story over to another. Right now you come on like professional actors. But don’t change the story’s message.”
The moral of this story from Henry Boettinger is that if your presentation comes over as being too slick (often as a result of too much rehearsal), it loses its credibility. When the audience sees you as a smooth talker (aka snake oil salesman or used car salesman), they will start to question your motive and the message of your story will get lost in the glitter.
That – by the way – is another reason why you should always keep your slides SIMPLE. No big company logo on every slide. And no cheesy clip arts and special effects! You want to keep your glitter to a bare minimum.
I can’t take credit for this heading. It came from a very interesting post by Kathy Reiffenstein concerning her recent presentations in Nigeria and Kenya. She reported that bad PowerPoint is just as viral over in Africa as it is here. One of her fellow presenters gave her this quote: “PowerPoint is too many points without power.”
An observation Kathy made during her trip is that people over in Nigeria are very formal in their presentations. They always address one another as Mr. or Mrs. during their presentations. This of course reinforces the cardinal rule about when in Rome (Nigeria in this case) do what the Romans (Nigerians) do. Always follow local tradition and protocol. In many cultures, it is rude to address people you do not know well by their first name.
Another observation Kathy noted was that Nigerian moderators forcefully enforced the time limits for the speakers. I wish more moderators in the U.S. would do the same. Unplugging the speaker’s mike would be a good start. The use of a taser should not be ruled out entirely on those recalcitrant gas bags.
I wonder if Kathy picked up the $30 million promised her in those ubiquitous emails from Nigeria.