Sunday, July 1, 2012

Powerpoint Pain

First, you know how people say there are secrets to great presentations (people title books like this all the time. The 7 Secrets of... horseshit). Well, in presentations there really is one. I say it's a secret only because I have yet to see anyone actually say it anywhere (most of my tips below, however, I've seen printed elsewhere).

Secret: it's all about authority. I don't mean power-authority— the ability to flick your fingers and have someone sent to the gulag (presentations would be a lot more interesting, though). I'm talking about credibility, as in the audience believing unequivocably that you know what you're talking about, that you're Revealing Truth. Anything that adds to your authority should be embraced and anything that detracts should be cut out like cancer.

Think about speakers who put on presentations. The best ones never leave you in any doubt that they know what they're doing and that their message is the word of God. Crappy speakers undermine their message, no matter how accurate or relevant, by casting doubt on their own veracity.

With that in mind, some tips:

1. Know what's in your Powerpoint presentation. You are responsible for it. Even if it's a group effort, it's still yours.

I saw presentations where the creator had obviously cut and pasted chunks of prose from the internet (probably Wikipedia) into a slide, and thought no more about it. When it came to present, that person then simply read aloud what was on the slide.

1A. Know what's on the slide. The creator/reader stumbled over sentences and mispronounced words (and I'm not talking about tongue-twisters like paraphenylenediamine or Zapatecas; I mean relatively common words like legume). This gives the impression that the presenter is reading this for the first time, or simply has no idea what he or she is reading. This completely undercuts the presenter's credibility as an authority. How do I really know any of this is true, valuable or applicable when the presenter obviously doesn't know what he or she is talking about? All he's doing is reading the screen.

1B. Just put bullet points on the slide. This is common advice, yet it's common because it's so often needed. People cut and paste a sea of print onto a slide. Nobody in the audience wants to read a page of prose. Think of the Powerpoint text as being like note cards: they're meant to have a few words--just enough to summarize the concept or make a point. You supply the patter to fatten it out.

2. Get your facts right. Reading one source (e.g. Wikipedia) doesn't cut it. If you use the internet for your research, check multiple sites and make sure they don't all site-back to the same single source. If you got the library and read a book, check a couple of other books as well. In some cases there really is only a single source; but very often there are several and one offers insight where another is blind.

2A. Don't assume that because this was new to you, that your audience doesn't know it either.. I'm serious—this will put your head into a noose faster than mis-pronouncing words like noose. I was watching presentations that touched on subjects that I happened to know something about, and it immediately became clear that the presenters had only read a Wikipedia page or a corporate About-Us web page and nothing more; the result was that they would toss out "facts," simple things that didn't have much to do with the bulk of the presentation, that were either flat-out wrong or gossimer-fragile. Either way, it destroyed the authority of the presenter. I know xyz and this isn't even my project! This is your project, why didn't you?

2B. Try to do a little independent research. Some people think if you're assigned to do a story on, say, Apple, Inc., that everything necessary can be gathered from or Wikipedia. Try doing some searches that take you farther afield. Do some searches on your own--don't just follow links from one person's bibliography; if only because you may stumble across something great that you would have found otherwise.

3. It's better to have two interesting facts than ten dull ones. I recently saw a presentation about Starbucks, and the presenter had the typical list of uninteresting trivia about the company; how many stores are open, how many employees they have, how many pounds of coffee beans they roast every day.

By coincidence, I had a book with Starbucks trivia, but it had "3 Things You Didn't Know About Starbucks." One was about using the foam on a latte as a way of keeping the coffee hot (it's not as efficient as a thermos but it does help), the second was that there really is a "short" size even though it's not on the menu, and the third is that there's a Starbucks barrista blog (actually there are many) which had the blogger's idea of the worst custom frappuccino ever (it included pomegranate).

Those three items were far more interesting than the dry facts. If he had tossed those out, it would have woken the audience up. People respond to the unusual and unexpected; it forces them to pay attention.

4. Care about how it looks.

4A. Powerpoint looks different when its projected on a wall than it does on your monitor. Typically the color is washed out and loses its vibrancy. At best it just looks drab, but you want to check that colors don't blend. I see this a lot—a colorful chart that looked great in Excel and even in Powerpoint on the computer becomes meaningless when it's presented because you can't tell the line colors apart. The fix for this is to use colors that contrast more strongly than you might otherwise use, and to use other visual indicators, like dash patterns, to differentiate lines.

4B. Simplify the Charts. A great chart can convey a lot of information, but again, what works on the computer or in a printout can quickly get confusing on the wall. It also goes back to the sea-of-print advice from 1B. Strip your charts down to the bare minimum of information. If there's too much info, consider making separate charts.

4C. Don't Be Lazy. I recently saw the single worst Powerpoint slide evar [sic]. The presenter wanted some info from a website but did not want to recreate the chart, so he just took a photo of it with his iPhone. The result was a blurry, ugly mess. The only message that slide conveyed was that the user was more interested in Tweeting complaints about making this presentation than in actually making the presentation.

5. Get away from the God-damned lecturn! People who are uncomfortable giving presentations, which is most of us, and even people who do it often, use the lecturn as a form of armor against the audience. Speakers will plant themselves squarely behind it and not budge for fear of being killed by stray gunfire if they step to either side.

If you have notes, put them on the lecturn and walk away. Stand to either side of it if you need to consult your notes, but walk away from it completely when you don't. If you're projecting your presentation onto the wall, stand on one side of it for a slide, then cross over to talk about the next slide. Don't be afraid to point to things on the screen directly.

Dynamic movement is visually interesting, even if it's just you traversing eight feet of floor. If you want to see this in action: turn on the local TV news and watch the weather and traffic casters--the people who have to stand in front of the local maps and point out things. They move back and forth from one side to the next. Same thing with good public speakers. If you ever see those motivational poeple that pollute PBS these days, they typically don't stand behind a lectern; they stand by themselves on the stage, and move back and forth across it.

6. Loosen up. This is easier said than done, and the hardest piece of advice I have. But it's also the most important if you don't want to bore your audience to death. Even if you're fundamentally shy (I am), you can fake it for the length of the presentation.

A few suggestions:

  • If you have props, use them. A prop can be something interesting that's related to what you're talking about. Is your presentation about the history of Starbucks? Bring in a bag of coffee, and open it and show off the beans. Get green (unroasted) beans if you can. And quakers. Anything coffee related is fair game, it will add visual interest, and it will give you something to do with your hands.
  • Give away stuff that's related to your presentation, like mini-bags of coffee beans. Or dixie cups of beans. You don't have to give something to everyone, just toss a few out among the spectators. Especially people you want to distract, because they'll be paying more attention to the freebie than what you're saying.
  • If you have a sense of humor, use it. You don't need to tell jokes, but if you have a wry comment or a funny anecdote that fits, use it. If you can find a cartoon (preferably a one-panel) that fits your subject, stick into the presentation somewhere at the most opportune time. Humor wakes people up.

And a last bit of advice for those of you who got this far—another secret that never gets mentioned but it's absolutely true:

Nobody knows what you meant to do.

This means that you actually have more freedom of movement than you think; you can change the order of slides on the fly; you can ad lib; you can go off the presentation completely to make a point. Unless your audience has seen you do this before, they don't know what to expect and what not to. It also means that you don't have to get rattled if something doesn't work as planned; steamroll over it and keep going.

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