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February 2005

Are good presenters like entertainers?

Entertainer "I think a presenter is [like a] so-called 'entertainer' somehow because a presenter has to talk well, make the audience interested in the presentation, and entertain them." This was the comment from Shunya, a Japanese student new to giving presentations with PowerPoint, regarding my post on bullets. In Japan, people are accustom to the "dull" presentation of information in academia and business. So it is not surprising to see a Japanese student refer to an engaging, graphical presentation as coming from an "entertainer." This raises a question: Are the best presenters in a sense, "entertainers"? We have to be careful with this term "entertainer" since it has many associations that serious business people will want to avoid. "Entertainment," for example, has synonyms which include terms such as distraction, diversion, leisure activity, etc., not what we usually think of in terms of business presentations. But "entertaining" is synonymous with many very appropriate terms such as absorbing, affecting, compelling, delightful, diverting, engaging, engrossing, exciting, fascinating, inspiring, interesting, lively, moving, poignant, priceless, provocative, stimulating, and so on. We should be so lucky as to have an audience describe our presentations with one or more of these adjectives.

So, do good presenters have to be entertainers? No, hardly ever, unless your explicit goal is to entertain only. Do good presenters have to be entertaining? Yes, I think virtually all solid presentations will be entertaining if targeted to the right audience. You say there are just some data sets that can not be interesting (or exciting, provocative, etc.)? Then, as the saying goes, you have the wrong data (or the wrong audience). The point of a live presentation is to make some sort of a connection beyond just the content of your words (numbers, data, facts, instructions, whatever). Otherwise, what is the point of getting people together? If there is absolutely no reason to make a connection with the audience beyond the mere words of your presentation, then save people the time and just send them an email or a PDF of your data or argument. Good presenters know that the content (data, evidence, logic) is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition for a truly world class presentation job.

How many bullets?

People often ask me how many bullet points is enough for their presentation. My answer is always the same: as few as about zero? In general, the more bullets your PowerPoint has, the less effective your presentation will likely be.  Over at BeyondBullets, Cliff Atkinson has a post that links to a great little article and asks the question, "As an audience member, do you think things are getting better, or do you detect a simmering sentiment of frustration?" I am an eternal optimist, but PowerPoint presentations are, I am sorry to say, not getting better, at least not in Japan. The "traditional way" of doing PPT (long, boring, ugly, text-filled snooze-fests) has been going on for so long, it is in a sense part of "culture." That is, part of corporate culture. It is simply "the way things are done." And one fact about culture is that it is slow and difficult to change. People are comfortable with the way things are done. (In documents, how many people put two spaces after a period and swear this is correct, for example? — Unless you are using Courier font, one space is correct, by the way). Here in Japan, for example, young employees entering the company will be taught, at some point, that when they do presentations with PPT they should put a minimum amount of text in each slide. Good advice, right? BUT, a "minimum" would be something like 7-8 lines of broken and complete sentences. The idea of having one or two words (or -- gasp! -- no words???) would be a sign of someone who did not do their homework. A series of text-filled slides with plenty of "chart chunk" shows that you are a "serious employee." Never mind that the audience is bored (or that the exec board does not really understand your charts). Looks complicated...must be good. I have a shelf full of presentation books in English and Japanese. All of them say "use a minimum of text." Most of them define "minimum" as being 6-8 lines of bullets. No one can do a good presentation with slide after slide of bullets, not Steve Jobs, not Richard Branson, no one. Bullets are for documents and only occasionally effective in multimedia.

Keep the lights on


It is a common reaction the world over I suppose: Just as the presenter is ready to begin, someone shouts "could you get the lights, please!" And the room becomes shrouded in darkness, save for the light reflecting off the screen. The presenter? She must be there somewhere, I can hear her speaking (or is the the audience breathing?).

If you want your presentation to be more effective, then don't touch that light switch! Even, when you are using slides, the more lights you can keep on the better off you will be. Remember, we're trying to connect, to tell a story, to sell an idea to the board or other decision makers. It is very difficult to make our pitch if the audience can't see us. The audience is not there to witness the narration of slides, they are there to listen to you and (we hope) become engaged with you and your topic. If the audience can't see you, they will find it difficult to listen, and they are certainly more likely to tune you out.

The audience must experience both your "verbal speech" and your "visual speech." Communication is only about 7% verbal according to an often quoted study. The rest of your message is expressed visually and vocally. Influencing people verbally becomes far more difficult without the other 93%.

Cliff Atkinson reminds us of the empirical evidence which supports the claim that the more the audience can both see you and hear you, the better. Says Cliff, "It turns out that when you watch people speak, the visual cues help you to predict and understand the auditory cues that follow soon after. These visual cues are actually not limited to the lips, but include the entire human face." See Cliff's weblog article "Read My Lips" for more on this.

In corporate meeting rooms across Japan, common practice is to turn all or most of the lights off for presentations. It is also very common for the presenter to sit on the side or back of the table operating the PC while the audience stares at the screen as the "presenter" narrates the slides. This practice is so common that it is considered "normal." It may be normal, but it is not effective at all. Audiences will better understand the presenter's message when they can both see and listen to the presenter. If you think about this, it is quite intuitive, even commonsensical isn't it? Still, it is very good to know there is actual scientific evidence that supports the idea of letting the audience both see you and hear you while giving your talk (with accompanying visual aids such as PowerPoint).

So, to be more effective always make sure that the audience can see you as you as well as hear you.