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?

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