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.
There is an interesting story that Lou Gerstner told in his book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance”. Lou is the former CEO of IBM who turned the behemoth around. Apparently, he was able to make the big elephant dance.
At an important meeting, as one of his executives was making a formal presentation on an overhead projector. Lou simply stepped to the table and, as politely as he could in front of the presentation team, switched off the projector. After a long moment of awkward silence, Lou simply said to the staffer, “Let’s just talk about your business.” Lou Gerstner mentioned this episode because it had an unintended, but terribly powerful ripple effect throughout IBM.
Formal presentation is just one of the many ways for you to convey your message to your audience.
The pervasive PowerPoint slides have not just invaded the corporate world where complicated business strategies have been reduced to clusters of bullet points. In his best seller book “Fiasco” on the Iraqi war, Tom Ricks describes how General McKiernan was unable to get General Tommy Franks “to issue clear orders that stated explicitly what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why. Rather, Franks passed along PowerPoint briefing slides taht he had show to (Defense Secretary) Rumsfeld.”
Not all in the military were big fans of PowerPoint. Colonel H. R. McMaster “all but banning the use of PowerPoint briefings by his officers. The Army loves these bulleted briefings, but McMaster had come to believe that the ubiquitous software inhibits clarity in thinking, expression, and planning.”
McMaster was finally promoted to brigadier general in 2008 by none other than General Petraeus.
Tell me a story
I was asked by Olivia Mitchell to write a blog on what I would like to see in PowerPoint in 2009. Here are my thoughts:
Every PowerPoint presentation is a story. You are either telling your audience about something or you are trying to persuade your audience to do something.
You introduce your story with five slides. These are the most critical slides in your presentation. Each slide should have just one short sentence as heading and a photograph that is relevant to the heading. NO bullet points. The first slide sets the stage. The second slide identifies the characters in your story. The third slide describes the starting point of your story and the fourth shows the ending point. The last of the five slides shows how the characters can go from the starting point to the ending point.
Once you have introduced your story line, you then go on and use as many as you need to elaborate your story. Forget about those rules that say you must present no more than three points in your story. It all depends on your story. If you have 100 points to make, use 100 slides. If you are telling a story about the Ten Commandments, you are going to have more than three points to make in your presentation.
The conventional wisdom says “rehearse, rehearse and rehearse”. I say “Not so fast”. Do not over-rehearse your presentation. Familiarity breeds contempt. Many people over-rehearse their presentations to the point of memorizing the script. The end result is that they will make a stiff and robotic presentation and the audience will see through it. When you make your presentation (tell your story), you need to show passion. You need to show the audience that you actually believe in what you are saying. Focus your time and energy on learning the topic of the presentation instead of the words. If you know the topic well, your presentation will be received by the audience as genuine and sincere and believable. It will come from
Theory of Relativity
your heart and not your brain. If you are not comfortable with the topic or you do not understand the topic, you have no business making the presentation. Any fool – given enough time – can memorize Einstein’s Theory of Relativity word by word and give a presentation. But can that fool answer a question from the audience?
To sum up: No bullet points, one point per slide, use as many slides as you have points to make, know your topic, do not memorize your presentations.
The whole idea of NOT having bullet points in your presentation is to tell your story as if you are showing a movie. Your story has a setting, cast of characters, starting point, end point and how to get from starting point to the end point. These make up your first FIVE slides. (see below for a short video of the concept). Once you have defined the theme of your story, you are FREE to tell your story the way YOU want to.
You should not be bound by some artificial rules that say you must have three acts with each act containing three scenes. In other words, the rule says that you are supposed to tell your story by focusing on only three main ideas and if you must explain each idea, you should not use more than three points to explain it.
I say BREAK that rule!
Why? What if you have to tell a story about the Ten Commandments? Which three commandments do you focus on? which seven do you discard? Will you be stricken by lightning?
You should use as many slides as you need to present your ideas. If you had 100 points you wanted to make and you had jammed them into 10 slides with 10 bullet points each, now is the time to break these out into 100 slides. Each slide will represent each one of your ideas. I promise you – the PowerPoint police will not come and arrest you for having 100 slides or 1000 slides.
Your content is the same as before except now you are presenting the same 100 ideas with 100 slides and this time around you audience is no longer in a coma.
The difference between a boring presentation and an exciting one is the tone of voice used by the presenter. Never use a monotone. At various stages of your talk, your tone should go from slow to fast, loud to soft, humorous to serious and melancholic to joyful.
Try to use plenty of interesting and out-of-the ordinary examples throughout your presentation. A speaker once discussed the boring topic of aerodynamic equations by citing the example of the flight of a bumble bee. Examples like that can keep your audience’s attention focused on your presentation.
The difference between a presentation with variety and one without is like the difference between a rive and a canal. If you are floating down a river, it offers you different surprises at every bend. You may go from farmland to gorges to forest just by floating along a river. A canal, on the other hand, is a man-made ditch that is straight and not very interesting.
A good presentation is a river. A bad one is a canal.
When the Columbia space shuttle broke up upon re-entry to earth in 2003, the President appointed the Columbia Accident Investigation Board(CAIB) to look into the causes.
As part of the investigation, the Board looked into how engineers and contractors at the National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA) transmit their technical information to their management. When NASA discovered that a piece of foam had fallen off the shuttle during take off and had impacted its wing, a team of engineers and scientists began a series of analyses to assess any risk that such impact would have upon re-entry. The concern was that the damage done to the wing during take off might impair its ability to withstand the tremendous heat that would be generated when the shuttle began its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. That turned out to the fatal cause of the incident.
On Day Nine of the mission, the engineering team presented the results of its risk assessment findings to NASA management in a PowerPoint presentation while the shuttle was still in space. One of the critical slides used in the presentation contained six levels of hierarchy. The Board hired Dr. Edward Tufte – a Yale Professor who is an expert in information presentation – to analyze that particular PowerPoint slide (shown on the right).
According to the Board, important engineering information was either “filtered out or lost in the small prints within the bullet points.”
The CAIB further concluded as follows: “When engineering analyses and risk assessments are condensed to fit on a standard form or overhead slide, information is inevitably lost. In the process, the priority assigned to information can be easily misrepresented by its placement on a chart and the language that is used. . . . As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analyses to mid-level managers to high-level managers, key explanations and supporting information is filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation. . . . The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical reports as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”
The Board also observed that “generally, the higher information is transmitted in the hierarchy, the more it gets ‘rolled up,’ abbreviated, and simplified. Sometimes information gets lost altogether, signals drop from memos, problem identification systems, and formal presentations. The same conclusions, repeated over time, can result in problems eventually being deemed non-problems”.
One avenue by which information gets “rolled up” and confused – according to the Board – was through the technology of PowerPoint presentations.
One of Tom Peters’ presentation tips is “By hook or by crook..connect, connect and connect” with your audience. There are many ways you can achieve that. The most obvious one is to maintain eye contact with the audience by NOT reading your notes. Talk to them the same way you talk to your friend.
Another way is to relate to your audience’s experience by telling stories. Remember: every presentation is a story. You connect with them by sharing part of your experience that is similar to theirs.
For example, when I give my 2-day presentation on environmental regulation (a potentially deadly dull subject) to an audience made up of environmental managers, I relate to them by telling them the failures and successes that I had when I was a corporate environmental manager. I connect with them through a shared road map of our past. I was experiencing the same challenges that they are having now. That’s where the connection occurs. As a result, I am able to make a deadly dull subject sound interesting to the audience.
Contrast this approach to that taken by many attorneys before the same audience. The attorneys cite regulations ad nausea because many of them have never visited a factory or have to be responsible for compliance in a corporate setting. They have no stories to tell that the audience can relate to. On top of that, these attorneys show up in full business suits when there is not a single tie in the meeting room.
You just can’t connect this way.