Last week I gave a presentation for ACCJ at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Osaka. A great event. Wonderful people. During the seminar, the issue was raised of how text-heavy PowerPoint slides often conceal, obscure, and even hide — intentionally or not — important information. An often-quoted sample is the Boeing slide featured here (click to enlarge). In this slide, important information is there but easily missed. This particular slide, and others like it, were used as a handout for one-to-one reading. My point — (Edward Tufte first discussed this in the "Cognitive Style of PowerPoint") — was that using PowerPoint like this for handouts makes it too easy to unintentionally obscure important information or imply an unintended meaning due to the often encryptic nature of bullet points. The best presenters hardly use text at all in their slides, so a simple printout of their slides too will be of little use by themselves. Some people wondered if a document (rather than printed slides) wouldn't be an even "better" or more "diabolical" way to bury information deep in reams of text. If so, what is wrong with printed slides? The difference is intent. Yes, you could easily camouflage and obfuscate information in, say, a 15-page handout if that was your intent. For example, you could write the document poorly, illogically, choose a type size that is too small, etc. But if our intention is for clarity and expanded detail, and we do a careful job of writing and editing, then compared to a printout of slides, a written handout is far less likely to be misunderstood without our physical presence. People can sit down and read our handout. Printed slides are something people often "go through" and try to decipher (guess?) the meaning. A written document is a different animal completely. A document is something designed to be read by one person at a time. You are "telling your story" with the written word. Logic and clarity with the written word are paramount. Slides, on the other hand, are meant to display visual information to many people at the same time for the purpose of supporting and illuminating the logic and clarity that is coming from *your spoken word*. The slides are not meant to tell the story without you there. A good document, complete with text and graphics, is indeed designed to tell your story (often with even more detail and depth) without you there. (FYI: The slide on the right appears when I speak on this issue during some seminars. The aspect ratio of the PPT slide is designed for visuals — no coincidence, then, that a full bleed video image fits perfectly within a PPT frame and most TVs ).
A friend of mine in Singapore sent me a link to a short article on the Macworld editor's page entitled "It's all in the presentation." Interesting comments from someone who has seen a lot of presentations. Go down to the bottom of the article and click on the "Comments on This Story" link to read some more comments from the field.
I like this little quip by author, Jim Dalrymple, referring to some of the poor presentations he's seen: "... People who give presentations like this possess the unique ability to take a potentially interesting topic and put everyone in the audience to sleep."
Contrary to what some people think, I do not believe there are presentation topics which are necessarily boring. Likewise, I also do not believe that great content alone or a "sexy" or "hot" topic by itself will guarantee success. One of the worst presentations I ever saw was on how to get rich! That should have gotten every one's attention, but turned into a snooze fest. On the other hand, I saw a 20 minute life insurance pitch that I loved (never thought I'd admit that).
No excuses. There are no boring topics. If you believe that it's important enough to make a presentation on the topic, then what is the point if no one "gets it"? Sometimes it truly is better to just send a report or write a letter and save everyone's time. This is your call. On the other hand, never think that your topic is just so "cool" or "in" or "naturally compelling" that you can just slide into the talk and win over the audience. We have all seen Hollywood, for example, buy the rights to an incredible real-life event and then produce a terrible movie that fails to tell the story well.
I must have 30-35 books on presentations or PowerPoint. Some of them are good (such as Cliff Atkinson's new book), but many of them give the kind of advice that may help someone learn how to use PowerPoint, but will not teach them how to incorporate the slideware in a way that makes the media transparent and the visuals powerful and appropriate.
When it comes to making good use of visuals, most of the advice out there centers very much on the functions of PowerPoint instead of what makes for great visual communication. The books, when they do discuss visuals or PowerPoint, advise us to do what is commonplace today. Such as how to insert an MS clipart image, or what size typeface to use, or that we should use no more than seven lines of text and seven words per line. Many even advise how many slides to use and how many minutes per each slide!
When speaking of "typical" business presentations in the business world today, those which use the aid of PowerPoint may be visual disasters and generally ineffective, but they are so usual and commonplace that it has become "normal." Few complain — Seven sentences per slide? A screen bean thrown in for good measure? No one ever got fired for that, right?
Part of a more "Zen approach" to presenting well, if you will, is learning to give up what you have learned about making presentations in the era of "PowerPoint Culture." The first step, then, is to stop letting our history and conditioning about what we "know" (or thought we knew) inhibit our being open to another way, a much better way of presenting.
After a seminar, someone usually asks what PowerPoint book I recommend to help them make their visuals look much better. I reply that they do not need another PowerPoint book, but instead they should read up on the basics of graphic design and visual communication for ideas as well as inspiration. I like this one for a very good introduction.
Last night's Design Matters' meeting in the Apple Store featured a presentation by Swiss artists/designer/photographer, Markus Wernli Saito. It was simply excellent. Why? (1) the content was perfect for the audience, (2) he had a sincere passion and enthusiasm for the topic which came through loud and clear, (3) he used stories, anecdotes and painted pictures with his words, and (4) his PowerPoint (though the media was completely transparent) was highly visual, full screen photo bleeds with a bit of text highlighting what he was talking about at the time. The visuals were perfect because they reinforced what he was saying rather than getting in the way. And although the slides were very colorful and had a big impact, like most good design, people were not even aware of just how wonderful the slides were (though we always notice awful visuals). The audience did not focus on the fantastic visuals themselves except when the presenter actually pointed out parts of a graphic. The slides were powerful, true. But Markuz's speaking and his message were even more powerful. Together, the visuals and the verbal message were amazing. The presenter did not narrate slides. He told a story, and the visuals helped a great deal. A big mistake most presenters make is narrating slides. What we should be doing is designing visuals that help support our story and make our story stronger. This is true for a 15-minute insurance presentation or a 30-minute report on your recent research on global malnutrition. The title of Markuz's presentation was: "The integration of image and word:The process of designing an illustrated book." Checkout a few of jpeg copies of his PPT slides (cick on thumbnail to get larger image).
Today, while taking a relaxing break in a park near Kyoto, I began reading another book related to Zen. This one is entitled Z.B.A.: Zen of Business Administration - How Zen Practice Can Transform Your Work And Your Life. I highly recommend it. A very good read, by Marc Lesser.
The last chapter of the book has a section on "35 ways you can change the world." I liked number 23: "A simple rule to follow is do good, avoid harm. Of course, this is not simple or easy." Indeed, not easy at all to implement in our daily lives, yet what could be more fundamental or important? The simplicity of the statement does not undermine its importance, in fact it underscores it. Often the seemingly simplest phrases are the most profound and have the greatest impact.
When it comes to presentation design — and visual design in general — I emphatically stress the importance of simplicity and clarity. The greatest misconception by those who are not themselves designers (or design mindful) is that "simple" is another word for dumb, or shallow, or for that which
lacks depth. The idea of simplicity, then, seems "too easy." Trust me, simplicity ain't easy. But you'd be amazed at the power of simplicity when it is achieved.
Last night I had a discussion in a local Starbucks with a very bright university professor and expert teacher about about all the "bad PowerPoint" presentations she sees both here in Japan and throughout the world. I agreed, of course, that we live in a kind of sick "PowerPoint culture," but that PPT is, after all, just a tool. Tools can be used for good or evil. The professor, however, said that PowerPoint is not simply a benign tool, it is in fact a bad tool that is at least partially responsible for why very smart people do very horrible things with PowerPoint software. (She was sounding a bit like Tufte — is PowerPoint evil?) I said PPT is like a car. A car is a very dangerous thing without (1) proper knowledge on how (and even when) to use it, and (2) proper instruction from a pro, and (3) plenty of practice actually using it. Would she attack the automobiles or would she blame poor driving, poor maintenance, and human error and stupidity (as in "road rage")? But the professor said no. PowerPoint is inherently more dangerous than that (in the context of presentation design). I do not think we came up with an agreeable analogy. Is not PPT something like a set of sharp knives? Knives are very useful things for cooking, for example, but can indeed be used for evil. Chopping, slicing, dicing with sharp, professional knives also needs some instruction from an experienced chef. In the hands of amateurs, knives are quite dangerous. In a similar way, PowerPoint in the hands of inexperienced presenters also has undesirable consequences. Have any better analogies or similes for Powerpoint?
This week I had a friend of mine from Apple deliver a 90 minute presentation to an auditorium of about 300 college students from around the world. The presentation was fantastic. The content was good and appropriate for the audience. And since Apple is the the most popular global brand in the world right now (according to BrandChannel), the audience was naturally curious. But even those who are not interested in business per se were very much interested in the presenter's words. The reason why the presenter did so well, I think, is because he had a clear passion for his topic and that came through loud and clear at every turn. Passion and enthusiasm is something you can not fake, in my opinion. Yes, we have all seen talking heads giving "exciting" demos at trade shows and computer expos, etc. Those folks are often professional speakers with formal speech training and even drama backgrounds. They are good, but they often come across a bit too slick, partly because they sound rehearsed and a bit too perfect. My friend last week was not perfect — how can anyone be mistake free? But his overall presentation was just about as perfect as you can get because he made a connection with the audience, told his "story," had great, focused content, and brought excitement to the topic. (Oh yes, and by the way, his slides were simple, beautiful, and helped his cause, but even if he had no slides, he would have had a great presentation.) You never have to be perfect, but I do suggest you never hide your enthusiasm and passion for the topic. Tom Peters is a guy who I have seen present a couple of times. Tom is not perfect when he presents. And there is nothing slick to Tom. But Tom is one of the most passionate business presenters I have ever seen. Tom walks around the stage and through the audience, he asks questions, he asks why? As in "why damn it....?" Tom is provocative. Not all our business presentations have to be Tom Peters-like, but all our talks, to some degree, do need to provoke and connect on an emotional level, do they not?