Sunday, August 26, 2012

Are you guilty of Death by PowerPoint?

I created the ghastly image above in exactly four minutes using the full range of PowerPoint's handy-dandy text, image and design options.  It's an extreme example to be sure but will not be completely foreign to anyone who has worked in an office environment in the past decade.

You may already be familiar with the phrase, Death by PowerPoint, and while there have been no confirmed cases of people who have actually expired while enduring a PowerPoint presentation, workplaces across the universe are rife with stories of people who metaphorically died, or at the very least, stated that they would rather die, than sit through yet another boring slide show. Not surprising when you consider that 30 million slide-driven presentations are delivered every day.

Toronto communicator Eric Bergman tackles the PowerPoint epidemic, its most common symptoms and potential cures, in his new book, 5 Steps to Conquer Death by PowerPoint.  The book chronicles PowerPoint's journey from shiny new software to boardroom staple, examines the underlying assumptions and misconceptions that force us to choose bullets over conversations, and provides guidelines for breaking free of our addiction.  More importantly, Eric goes back to the communications principles behind sharing data of any kind and reminds us that, before assembling any presentation, we need to be mindful of the needs and wants of our audience.  He even includes a downloadable Audience Manifesto that you can give to the next presenter you hire.

I am not a huge fan of PowerPoint but I can't say I hate it either.  I am not a natural presenter and in my experience, there are very few people who are capable of taking the stage and delivering information in a way that is informative, passionate, and captivating all on their own.  I approach public speaking with hours of preparation, weeks of rehearsal and tons of butterflies flitting around in my stomach.  Other people have the confidence to "wing it" but even then, only a few of them can truly pull it off and many of them are just confusing the desire to speak about themselves with the ability to inspire an audience.

When I present to a large group, I like the security of a few slides behind me.  They serve as an anchor to calm my nerves and prevent me from rambling or going over my allotted time.  So, for those of us who perform better with slides as a backdrop, Eric's five-step process helps ensures they augment our words rather than detracting from them.  The five steps are:

1. Put your audience first - Focus on two-way symmetrical communications where both the presenter and the audience have their needs met and there is equality between the information being shared and the questions and feedback from the receivers.
2. Structure the conversation - The spoken word thrives in an environment of storytelling even when you're imparting complicated information
3. Minimize visual aids - Question the value of each and every slide and only include visual aids if they supplement your story.  If possible, use flip charts, props or audience participation to bring things to life.
4. Convey your message and your personality - Every presentation needs a message and a call to action but no one will accept it if you are not personally believable.  Relaxed conversation is your best presentation style.
5. Answer questions throughout - Telling people you'll try to make time for questions at the end suggests they are not important.  If you have 20 minutes to present, plan a 10 minute presentation and make conversation a priority.

I liked Eric's inclusion of scientific research on how adults learn, the impact of body language and how we receive and process information.  Rookie and seasoned presenters alike will appreciate his Basic Presentation Framework which I'll be using to structure my next presentation.

In closing I'll admit that I would challenge Eric's assumption that we choose PowerPoint without thinking and just accept that it's the standard way of delivering information.  This may be the case for some users but most communicators I know agonize about whether slide-based presentations are necessary or useful and regularly question their value.  When I was running a PR agency, we often suggested to clients that we present without slides only to have them insist upon a formal presentation complete with paper copies they could scribble notes on.  Some of them urged us to put as much detail as possible on every slide so they could meet at a later date to review them on their own.

As all agency people know, getting clients to embrace modern approaches to communications is not just a matter of education.  Sometimes you just have to wait for them to come around.  But now I'm thinking that sending them Eric's book as a gift might not be a bad idea.  Thoughts?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

8 Commandments of the Checkout Line

The funny thing about etiquette is, it’s the little things that drive us nuts.  Sure, there are thousands of etiquette books and hundreds of guidelines about netiquette and dress codes and proper forms of introduction but when it comes right down to it, we become most infuriated when people violate the small, unwritten rules of civility.  Few of us are offended if someone wears white after Labour Day or sticks their name tag on the wrong side of their body, but try to sneak 11 items into the express checkout lane and we turn into Emily Post.  In my observations of everyday etiquette, I have noticed that the grocery store checkout lane is a bottomless pit of bad manners so I thought I’d address some of the worst offences here, in Moses style.

1. Thou shalt not disobey the express checkout rules – If you’re able to shop for, and pay for, groceries on your own, you must know how to count to 10 (or eight, or whatever the case may be where you shop).  Eleven is not 10.  Twelve is not 10.  Only 10 is 10.  And, in case you’re wondering, two of the same item still counts as two, not one.

2. Thou shalt have your cards ready – Before you enter the store, or at least when your groceries are being checked through, locate the card you wish to pay with.  Nothing is more frustrating than seeing someone dig through a wallet or bag searching for an elusive debit, credit or worse, points card, while a lineup of shoppers fumes behind them.  Have your payment card at the ready and if you can’t find your Air Miles or PC Points card, just leave it and vow to be more organized next time.  I actually stood in line once while a cashier let someone go out to their car to look for a points card.

3. Thou shalt not force price checks – I get it. There’s nothing worse than picking up ten frozen pizzas because you think they’re $2.99, only to see them clock in at $5.99 but that doesn’t mean you can hold up the entire line to prove a point.  If the deal was advertised in the flyer, show it to the cashier.  If you thought you saw a sign, and there aren’t too many others in line, have them check.  But holding up five other shoppers because you’re convinced the margarine was $.10 off when you have no evidence to back it up, is not cool.

4. Thou shalt prequalify your coupons – So you’ve seen Extreme Couponing and you want to get in on the action.  Fine, frugality is good.  But, as a fellow couponer, I can tell you that Canadian coupons are much more restrictive than their U.S. counterparts and your efforts to save money will often be stymied by expiration dates, quantity limits and pairing restrictions.  Coupons are great but before you dig through your purse for that that crumpled scrap entitling you to $.50 off cheese strings, read the fine print.

5. Thou shalt try to pack your groceries quickly – Now that we pay for plastic bags and stores no longer pay teenagers to bag our purchases, many of us have to cram our fish fingers and milk into a mish-mash of reusuable bags, bins and backpacks.  Understandably, this takes time but there’s no need to be a perfectionist about it.  Finish the job as quickly as possible and move on so that the next customer can use the conveyor belt. 

6. Thou shalt not alleviate boredom by talking into your cell phone – I know checkout lines are boring but that’s what the National Enquirer is for.  If three-headed dogs aren’t your thing, browse the news on your smart phone but refrain from long, annoying conversations.  Remember that the people sharing the line with you are trapped and can’t get away from your inane conversation. If you can’t resist, at least hang up when it’s time to pay.  Trying to fish a credit card out of your wallet while simultaneously bending your head to keep your phone from falling, all while having a conversation, is not only time-consuming, it’s disrespectful.  

7. Thou shalt behave if you’re allowed to go ahead – Once in a while, you will find yourself behind someone with a bulging cart when you only have two things.  Depending on their mood, time constraints and level of awareness, they may let you go in front of them.  They may not and that’s their prerogative.  If they do let you go ahead, you must not hold them up in any way.  That means no questions, no price checks, no haggling over price.

8. Thou shalt not chit-chat – This is not really an issue in a large city where most transactions are anonymous and the chances that you know a cashier personally are minimal.  However, in the small town where I grew up, it’s not uncommon to wait in a checkout line while the customer in front of you chats with the cashier, getting caught up on everything from her mother’s hip replacement to the upcoming Rotary BBQ at the arena.  I know this is lovely and we all need to smell the roses, etc. but when people are waiting in line, it’s best to keep social chat for social events.

Is there anything you would like to add to the checkout line commandments?  I would love it if I could get two more to make an even ten. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Life is better when you know what to expect

Twenty years ago, I landed an amazing job at Canada’s largest public school board.  Reporting to a fabulous communications director, my role was to help our 200 schools better communicate with parents and the school community.   Two weeks in, my boss asked me to meet with one of our elementary school principals to chat about public relations tactics.  It was my first opportunity to actually counsel someone.  I was nervous but I prepared copious notes and took comfort in the knowledge that an informal discussion would be a trial run for more structured presentations in the future. 

When I arrived at the school and told the secretary I was from the communications department, she immediately picked up the microphone for the school’s PA system and announced “Will all staff please report to the lounge for the public relations presentation”.  

My heart started to race when I heard the word ‘presentation’.  I didn’t have a presentation.  I didn't even have handouts.  I wasn’t prepared to impress anyone.  It was supposed to be just a chat, a CHAT! Panicked, I weighed the options available to me.  I could race back to the parking lot, get in my car and flee.  Sure, I’d probably get fired, but I wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of being unprepared for a presentation.  I could pretend that I’d fallen ill and the meeting would have to be postponed to a later date.  This wasn’t totally inconceivable given that I already felt sick to my stomach.  In the end, I stayed, plastered a smile on my face, thanked everyone for giving up their lunch to listen to me and spoke with minimal authority from the notes I had written for what was supposed to be an informal chat between two people.  It wasn’t my finest hour but I learned a valuable lesson that served me well for the rest of my career – always confirm what is expected of you in any business meeting.

Being clear about your expectations is a vital part of business etiquette.  The purpose of etiquette is to enhance the comfort of the people around you and what’s more uncomfortable than arriving at a meeting, only to find that you’re in a pink sundress and everyone else is wearing a navy blue suit.  If you’re hosting a meeting, whether it’s a conference, social gathering, new business presentation or staff BBQ, it’s your role to tell people what they can expect and what is expected of them.  Here are some tips to help you:

Be crystal-clear about dress code – Let people know how you’ll be dressed or what is expected and refrain from using ambiguous terms like smart-casual or relaxed black-tie.  Rather than fall back on confusing terminology, I usually try to spell it out in a way that leaves no room for interpretation (e.g. Our office has casual Fridays so we’ll be wearing golf shirts and khakis to the meeting and you can feel free to do the same).

Set them up for success – If someone will have a speaking role at the meeting, explain the parameters.  Let them know that you’re looking forward to hearing their presentation, that you’ve allotted 20 minutes and that you will have an LCD display ready for them.  Let them know who else will be in the meeting, who else is presenting and who, if anyone will introduce them. 

Have an agenda – If possible, distribute the agenda by e-mail before the actual meeting but at the very least, distribute it at the start.  That way, if someone has come unprepared, they’ll at least have a few minutes to collect themselves, and their thoughts.

Establish meeting rules – If the meeting starts at 4 p.m. and you have a hard stop at 5 p.m., let everyone know they should stick to their allotted time to ensure everyone has a chance to speak.  If you are chairing the meeting (and every meeting needs a chair), keep everyone on track.

Manage technology – Most people are not so important that they can’t go one hour without responding to e-mails but I regularly see people tapping away while others are talking.  If you’re the meeting host, let people know ahead of time what your expectations are regarding smart phones and IPads.  If the meeting is two hours or longer, tell them you’ll have a 5-minute break during which, they can check e-mails but you’re looking forward to receiving their full attention when the meeting is in session. (Note: as a former agency person, I realize you can’t say this to clients who check their emails while you’re pitching your little heart out).   

Share follow-up plans – If there are follow-up items, share the process with meeting attendees.  Let them know when they can expect to hear back from you and, if a decision is to be made (as in the case of an RFP), tell them how much time you will need to make it.