Humanizing PowerPoint

Humanizing PowerPoint

Summary: Cliff Atkinson inspires me every time he writes about how to use PowerPoint to engage rather than lecture to audiences. While PowerPoint is, for too many people, one of the things that is broken in their work, it doesn't have to be.

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TOPICS: Telcos
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Cliff Atkinson inspires me every time he writes about how to use PowerPoint to engage rather than lecture to audiences. While PowerPoint is, for too many people, one of the things that is broken in their work, it doesn't have to be. Cliff's blog, Beyond Bullets, provides some excellent ideas and techniques to get you thinking about PowerPoint as a storytelling tool rather than a sleep aid.

Cliff has also written a book titled Beyond Bullet Points that I think should be on the desk of everyone who uses PowerPoint on any kind of a regular basis. He teaches you how to approach building a great presentation in much the same way you would develop a film - start with the story and do the production only after you have a compelling tale to tell with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. If your normal approach to creating a presentation is to open a new PowerPoint file and begin typing in bullet points,  Cliff will literally turn your world (and your effectiveness as a presenter) upside down.

In a post today, he talks about how using a Tablet PC to deliver his presentations has provided a new dimension in engagement with his audiences. Having used the same techniques he discusses, I can assure you that his experience is not unique. I do much the same thing when building mind maps with a group. There's an incredible sense of participation and ownership transferred to every person who sees their contribution to the conversation appear in handwritten form on the screen.

Three other big thinkers who always inspire me have contributed excellent suggestions about how to work with this much-maligned application. Tom Peters is a PowerPoint master and freely shares his slide decks (some of which he works on right up until minutes before he makes his presentation) on his blog. The post-Re-imagine TP is a PowerPoint artist.

Guy Kawasaki, the iconic Apple evangelist turned VC, recently began blogging and has already posted some sage advice about how to present properly. While Guy uses Keynote, Apple's presentation tool, the principles he shares are every bit as applicable for PowerPoint users (or cavemen presenting on a rock wall for that matter).

Seth Godin wrote the book on PowerPoint - literally. His Really Bad PowerPoint was one of, if not the, best-selling ebook on Amazon.com and cost under two bucks. The ebook is apparently no longer available although Seth did offer it as a premium if you bought one of his books some time ago. Cliff Atkinson interviewed Seth about Really Bad PowerPoint and you'll get the key concepts from their great conversation.

Here are my three best PowerPoint tips:

  1. Use a meaningful visual element on every slide - pictures have power. Try to maintain a 50%-50% balance between text and graphics. I usually manage to do quite a bit better. The best presentations I've delivered, according to the audience (the only people whose opinion matters), have contained 80% images. Pulling this off well is based on tip #2.
  2. Know your material - don't memorize it. If you recite something from memory, not only can you end up sounding like an automaton, if you get interrupted (hey, it happens) you're lost. Ask yourself this question: "Could I continue to deliver my presentation if the power went out?"
  3. Engage the audience - and that doesn't mean open with a joke. Jokes are fine, especially if they're topical. But really engaging the audience means getting the people in the room emotionally invested in the topic you're speaking about. Solicit stories from participants and then work off of what they share. This also requires mastery of tip #2 as well as the ability to keep the participant you've engaged from stealing your position as speaker. Set ground rules like "in two sentences, tell me about..." Sometimes planting a "ringer" to get things going and define the format of the engagement can be a great help if you plan to use this conversational technique.
Finally, always make a conscious decision about whether or not PowerPoint is appropriate for your presentation. I have often seen a speaker get their biggest round of applause when they announce that they don't have any PowerPoint slides. The dynamic in the room changes whenever this happens. I almost always see people sit up and lean forward in their chairs (the best possible body language you can generate from your audience) as soon as this statement is made.

Topic: Telcos

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4 comments
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  • Spicy meat -a-balls

    Remember the Alka Seltzer commercial that produced a catch-phrase? The advertising agency that created the campaign probably won awards, but it definitely lost the account.

    Though it makes no sense, many people thought the commercial was for a brand of tomato sauce. One that kept the buyer up all night with an upset stomach. The Alka Seltzer part of the message disappeared.

    I thought about that problem when I read:

    Use a meaningful visual element on every slide - pictures have power. Try to maintain a 50%-50% balance between text and graphics. I usually manage to do quite a bit better. The best presentations I've delivered, according to the audience (the only people whose opinion matters), have contained 80% images.

    Ahm... would they have been even happier if you'd used 100% images and no content at all? Depending on the group, the day, and the topic, perhaps so.

    And even when the topic doesn't disappear, can't the images still distract(?), if not as badly as in the Alka Seltzer example.


    Admittedly, beats the presentations that start with someone silently handing out thick booklets containing every slide to come, but I think your discussion is a bit incomplete.


    One aspect I'm thinking about is personalization.

    Since you mentioned them, the cave painters in many cases left handprints made by blowing charcoal through a tube. The mark of someone with a damaged finger has become famous.

    The presenter benefits from being individuated within the presentation.


    Care to expatiate a bit?
    Anton Philidor
    • Excellent points - especially personalizing the presentation

      Anton - you raise a couple of excellent points. Regarding the potential for distraction created by heavy use of graphics that can certainly happen (and often does). In Beyond Bullet Points, Cliff spends a lot of time discussing how to selct appropriate images that support the point you are trying to make rather than the cheap thrills approach of using images to titillate or entertain the audience.

      An archetypal and extreme example is a story Tom Peters told a few years ago about worrying over a slide deck he had been working on for days into the wee hours prior to the day of the talk. After sleeping for an hour or two, he awoke with an epiphany and replaced the entire deck with a single slide that had a question mark on it. He delivered his entire presentation, which was about where the company he was addressing might go in the future, with this single image on display.

      That's extreme, of course. The analogy to the Alka Seltzer commercial is a bit of a stretch - commercials do not map to presentations very well IMO, but the point you make is well taken. In an effort to make their presentation (the commercial message) memorable, Alka Seltzer made the medium (the commercial itself) more important than the message (an effective remedy for indigestion). They did the same thing with "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." Memorable but not for the intended reason.

      The imagery I employ is a combination of graphic elements, text or numbers (1-5 words, a single number) or a photograph or graphic that is metaphorically aligned with the words I am speaking while that slide is displayed.

      I speak on the topic of productivity quite frequently and part of my presentation always includes recommendations of books I think the audience will profit from reading. Early on, I would use a small illustration of the book cover and 3-5 bullets summarizing the content of each. Invariably, the audience would focus on reading the bullets and did not really hear what I was saying about the value of the book. Today I use a large image of the book cover with no text. I have measured much better retention of the attributes I describe for each book with this approach. I also tell the audience that I have prepared a reading list handout which they can pick up after the presentation that provides a few key points about each book. This is built almost exactly from my old slides.

      Personalization, or at least customization, of a presentation can be a powerful element in establishing rapport with the audience. I make a point of learning something about the group I will be addressing and work it into my narrative. Less frequently, I'll adjust the actual presentation because unless that is done properly, it smacks of politician-kissing-the-baby showmanship, not meaningful communication.
      morchant
      • "Hello, Cuyahoga Falls!"

        People are glad just to know a rock star realizes he's in their town. A power-point presenter has a more difficult time effectively acknowledging the group he's addressing.

        I know what you mean by "politician-kissing-the-baby showmanship".


        The presenter also has to individuate himself to the group he's addressing, to obtain a connection which makes the group more responsive.

        As Beethoven knew, violating expectations works to gain and keep attention. Those unexpected silences.

        Mr. Peters' anecdote shows the good effect of being startling, though when I read:

        ... he awoke with an epiphany and replaced the entire deck with a single slide that had a question mark on it. He delivered his entire presentation, which was about where the company he was addressing might go in the future, with this single image on display.

        ... I did wonder whether they nicknamed him The Riddler.

        A sometimes useful gimmick is the sudden silence that follows turning the device off.


        I appreciate the points you've made. Thank you.

        Think Office 2007 will include CGI for Powerpoint? Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings can seem like competition.
        Anton Philidor
  • Overuse of meetings and so on

    Maybe part of the powerpoint problem is that we have too many
    meetings. Often in my experience they are very poorly managed.
    No agenda and so on. The same is true of presentations, where
    it isn't clear necessarily what the target of the presentation is, so
    the tendency then is to drop to the lowest common
    demoninator, and remove all technical meat.

    Without technical meat in the presentation, often the exercise
    becomes more like TV, with the audience being entertained by
    the performer. This wacky image, that amusing anecdote.

    Still if things are going to do that way, use some amusing stop
    motion video with paperclips, pencils and so on.

    If you really want to transfer information, set a higher barrier for
    entry level knowledge, turn the powerpoint/LCD off, and treat
    the whole thing like a workshop.
    hipparchus2001