With the mass adoption of PowerPoint, the ease of manipulating computer graphics, and the rampant availability of projectors, air mice, and laser pointers, it's easier ever to deliver a high-impact presentation.
And yet few human activities are done as poorly as presentations.
The pervasiveness of social media, with its random collection of pretty images that get attention but rarely make more than a fleeting impression, has not helped.
How many of the presentations you have attended were truly memorable, effective, and persuasive?
How many left their point clear in your mind?
After how many did you feel as though you had benefited from the experience?
You'll rarely have sat through a presentation that was too short or too simple; a presentation refreshingly bereft of irrelevant detail. It's as though we're so giddy about being given a captive audience that we resolve to take as much of their time as possible, regaling them with overly technical or even entirely extraneous ideas whose sequence is often confusing and difficult to follow.
If we spoke to each other in the manner that we often give presentations, we'd be unbearable. For someone to understand anything, they'd have to be told everything. As a presentation coach once put it, it would be "like being asked the time and responding with complete instructions for building a clock."
There's definitely something about the prospect of public speaking that encourages us to hide behind our slides, creating complicated stories without continuity, overwhelming and failing to establish a clear bond with our hapless audience - and worse yet, too few presenters are flexible enough to adapt to (or even notice) eyes that have glazed over in silent protest.
As we've written before, the more comprehensively a speaker understands a language, the better they are able to use it to deliver their message accurately and memorably. Moreover, studying a foreign language - its vocabulary, structure, and diction - can dramatically improve the student's understanding of the intricacies of their native language, and thus their confidence in conveying their message.
If we're tempted to let our slides do the presenting for us, PowerPoint, in and of itself, is also not the problem (although the military, among others, has suggested otherwise). That said, as the software rose to prevalence more than twenty years ago, one Microsoft representative expressed his astonishment that the "Outline" view was so rarely used. All too many of us begin eagerly pasting photos to slides, whereas Microsoft's original intent was for the entire text to be entered and hierarchically organized in basic plain-white "Outline" mode before being prettied up with the relevant visual aids.
In addition to completing text-based content in "Outline" before succumbing to the temptations of templates, clip art, and animations, here are ten points you may wish to consider before your next PowerPoint presentation:
Here, then, are ten points you may wish to consider before your next presentation:
1. Imagine your audience as divisible into three types: uninformed, dubious, and resistant. The point of your presentation is to inform the uninformed, reassure the dubious, and convince those mentally committed to a contrary position to reevaluate their stance.
2. Remember what your English professor told you about writing essays. Tell them what you're going to tell them, relate everything you say back to that point, and - at the end - remind them of what you've told them. This provides your audience with a roadmap and a forecast of the time, material, and goals involved. Consider it a promise to your audience - a promise you break at your peril. Have this promise clearly in mind with every new slide. As in branding, everything that does not add to the promise detracts from it. Clearly, creatively, and briefly referencing your promise at every turn and twist reassures your audience that you'll stay on track as they follow you.
3. A good story disarms your audience. Telling a joke is risky, for you can never predict its outcome. However, an engaging story, well told, is a worthy opening gambit. Analogies work well, too. Some substitute a quotation or aphorism of questionable relevance; do so at your own risk.
4. You have ninety seconds to engage your audience, with your roadmap, a short story illustrating why the topic is important and relevant, and a clue as to what you'll be asking of them and why. If you lose your audience within that first ninety seconds, chances are that they will be lost forever.
5. In informing your audience, give them only what they need to know. Set time aside for a Question and Answer session to expound on aspects that interest your audience - and perhaps even predict those, with a hidden slide or two.
6. Information you give your audience should consider their point of view. How well do you know your audience? Think about their desires, wishes, fears, and passions. Tell your story in a way that indicates that you have viewed it through their eyes. People like being talked to (rather than at). Engineers, in particular, are prone to selling their story as a lifeless, logical proposition, forgetting that the information which they are privileged to understand is out of the reach of the general public.
7. Don't read your bullets verbatim. Your annoyed audience will invariably think, "I'm not a child! I can read it myself!" Bullets should be brief reminders to keep you on track. They need not be complete sentences - indeed, it is often preferable that they are not - and should certainly not contain all or most of what you want to say. If you absolutely most use more than one sub-bullet level, PowerPoint animation (used sparingly) can help to keep your slides clean.
8. In choosing your graphics, don't treat your presentation as a document. PowerPoint is not Word and should not be used as such. The slide and its graphics are there to support the presenter, not the other way around. Like the evening newscaster, you - and not your slide - are center stage. Modify your tables, charts, and graphs to suit an audience that glimpses rather than reads. The point of each slide should be clearly visible in a single sweep of the eye. Feel free to provide handouts with more detail, but only after the presentation. Remember: Less is More (and the corollary, When in doubt, leave it out).
9. In convincing your audience, take as little of their time as possible. A few well-planted questions will encourage any intelligent person to at least consider your position, in relation to their own. Moreover, the answers they come up with will be dearer to them than those you ham-fistedly attempt to implant in their minds (in the same way that well-crafted radio ads can be more effective than their television counterparts).
10. Assume that you will convince your audience. What call-to-action do you suggest? Have you explicitly told your audience what you need them to do or recognize? Few audiences are as immovable as those who have been forced to sit through something that they feel had no point.