It is said that the Buddha described the human condition as being much like that of a man who has been shot with an arrow. That is, it is both painful and urgent. But instead of asking for immediate medical assistance for his predicament, the man asks details about the bow that shot the arrow. He asks about the manufacturer of the arrow. He wonders about the background of the people who made the bow and arrow, how they arrived at the color choice, what kind of string they used, and so on. The man asks many inconsequential things, overlooking the immediate problem.
Some people say that our lives are a bit like this. We can not see Reality right in front of us, they say, because we chase ephemeral things such as salary, the perfect job, a bigger house, more status, and we worry about losing what we have. The buddhist would say that life is filled with "duhhka" (suffering, pain, loss) — we need only to open our eyes to see this. In a similar way, the current state of business and academic presentations bring about a fair amount of suffering and dissatisfaction, both for presenter and for the audience.
Pulling off a successful presentation is not an easy thing to do. It's hard. There is much discussion, then, among many professionals — not just communication professionals — on the issue of how to make presentations and presenters better today. For businesses and knowledge workers, the situation is both "painful and urgent" in a sense. It's important. Yet, much of the discussion focuses on PowerPoint and on techniques. This talk is not completely inconsequential, of course, but it often dominates discussions on presentation effectiveness. What about discussions concerning the best ways to connect, to teach, to persuade, to motivate, and on and on? These are important issues. Yet talk delves deeply into software, hardware, and tips and tricks. The focus on technique and software features often distracts us from what we should be examining.
Many of us spend too much time fidgeting with and worrying about words and images on slides instead of thinking about how to craft a story which is the most effective, impactful, and appropriate given the current set of circumstances before us (time, budget, audience, venue, etc.). In obsessing on technique and "tricks & effects" we are a bit like the man who has an arrow stuck in him — our situation is urgent and painful, yet we are asking the wrong questions and focusing on that which is relatively inconsequential.
We should be asking ourselves questions such as: What is the fundamental purpose of the presentation? How can I bring clarity to the content? Is there integrity in my pitch, in my research, my conclusions, and in my recommendations? What's the story here? What visual medium is most appropriate for this particular situation and audience? At the very least — absolute minimum — what should (can) this presentation accomplish?
A teacher for one who seeks enlightenment would suggest that the first step for the student is to see that life is somehow out of sync or off kilter, that there is "suffering" if you will. And that this "out-of-kilterness" is a consequence of our own attachment to that which is inconsequential. Likewise, the first step to creating and designing great presentations is to be mindful of the current state of what passes for "normal" PowerPoint presentations and that what is "normal" today is not good enough. What is normal is not good enough if we desire to communicate with more clarity, integrity, beauty, and intelligence. If we are searching for differentiation, is "good enough" good enough?
There are myriad books on presentation skills and also on PowerPoint. Most of them are quite good in their own way, yet they are also quite similar. Answers do not exist in books alone, of course, but a few today stand out. Books like Beyond Bullets and Presenting to Win each have grains of wisdom that will help. I point to others on my resources page and on the sidebar of this page. But they are just books; panaceas do not exist. The "answers" to how to improve our (or our team's) presentation skills are within us already. Yet, books, blogs, teachers, consultants...they can be a big help and a useful guide.
In your work group or with your team, have a brainstorming session where you examine your current views and guidelines (if you have them) concerning your organization's presentations. How are your current presentations out of kilter? In what ways are they in sync? What questions should you be asking about presentation design that you have not asked in the past? What aspects of the design and delivery process have caused "suffering" for your presenters and your audiences? Have past efforts been focused too much on the comparatively inconsequential things? What are the "inconsequential" aspects and where can the focus shift?