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July 2005

Length matters

ShortA consequence of Zen practice is increased attentiveness, a calmness and a good ability to focus on the here and now. However, for your average audience member, it is a safe bet that he is not completely "calm" or completely present in the "here and now" but is instead processing many emotional opinions and juggling several issues at the moment — both professional and personal — while doing his best to listen to you. We all struggle with this. It is virtually impossible, then, for our audience to concentrate completely on what we are saying, even for shorter presentations. Many studies, for example, show that concentration really takes a hit after 15-20 minutes. So, yes length matters a great deal.

Every case is different, of course, but generally, shorter is better. But why then do so many presenters  go past their allotted  time, or milk a presentation to stretch it out to the allotted time even when it seems that the points have pretty much been made? This is probably a result of much of our education. I can still hear my college philosophy professor saying before the 2-hour in-class written exam: "Remember, more is better." As students, we grow up in an atmosphere that perpetuates the idea that a 20-page paper will likely get a higher grade than a 10-page paper, and a one-hour presentation with 100 PowerPoint slides filled with 12pt lines of text will get a better grade than a 30 minute presentation with 50 highly visual slides. This "old school" thinking does not take into account the creativity, intellect, and forethought that it takes to achieve a clarity of ideas. We take this "more is better" thinking with us into our professional lives.

I gave a presentation at the Westin Hotel earlier this week for ACCJ in Tokyo. In that presentation I spoke briefly on the issue of presentation length and human attention span. Below I include a few of the slides so you can see how I introduced the topic. The idea of referring to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to underscore the power of a short, concise speech came from Why Business People Speak Like Idiots, though the example has been used many time before.

   1 Length_1    2 Date

To get the audience involved, I ask what happened on this date. Many knew the answer.

   3 Lincoln     4 270

Then the next visual comes in as I say something like "Yes, that's right, Abraham Lincoln's famous speech...." Then I ask people how long it was. Some know the answer, but many would assume it was perhaps a 20-30 minute speech or longer. They are surprised to find that it was a very short speech: 2 minutes and 270 words.

  5 Everett    6 13500

Edward Everett's speech, which preceded Lincoln's and had great content, was long: 2 hours and 13,500 words. Almost a century and a half later, which speech do many still talk about? A simple example to underscore the fact that shorter is very often better.

Learn to "think visual"

BookHere's another good book I can highly recommend for you this summer:

Going Visual: Using Images to Enhance Productivity, Decision-Making and Profits by Alexis Gerard and Bob Goldstein.

Hear an interview (podcast) with the authors of Going Visual on IT Conversations. The authors do a very good job of passionately describing the main ideas behind the book. Well done.

What is Going Visual? The authors state it very clearly in the opening chapter:

"At its most basic, the notion of Going Visual is rooted in overcoming the limits humans have faced throughout all history when attempting to communicate what we see to another individual who is another location."

They are not talking about using imaging technology because it is "cool" or "modern." Rather, they enthusiastically indorse the idea of thinking and acting visually because it will increase productivity and demonstratively improve the bottom line. Going Visual is about using images to improve communication in a very big way and take business to another level.

Many times a three-hour written report, for example, can be carved down to an email message of "see picture" with a few annotations. Time is money, and a picture of a problem is not only quicker, it also leaves little room for ambiguity. For example, you could write about or talk about how a recent fire impacted production, but wouldn't it be far more powerful to send pictures with a smaller amount of text (or spoken words) to describe the situation? What would be more memorable? What would have more impact?

In the book, the authors are not specifically talking about how to use visuals to enhance your slide presentations, though they touch on PowerPoint briefly. But, having read the book, I am confident that the authors would endorse the idea of removing superlutive text from your presentation slides and replacing dull bulletpoint slides with images that capture your point in a far more powerful and unambiguous manner.

Ask yourself this: What information are you representing with the written word on a slide that you could replace with a photograph (or other appropriate image)? You still need text for labeling, etc. But if you are using text on a slide for describing something, you very likely can use an image instead. And the image will be far more effective.

Here is just a quick example I came up with. The hypothetical problem is the snow storm of last winter hurt sales badly during that quarter. You are explaining the problem now in the summer to investors with short memories who historically hate excuses. You want to explain the severity of the storm and its impact on performance while underscoring the fact that the weather was out of your hands and disruptive to the whole city (without saying so directly and sounding like you're making excuses). This is a case that lends itself to good facts and photo images to tell the story...or you could just go through a data-filled, bulletpoint everyone else does.

          The usual "not-going-visual" way...

           Snow      Loss
           ...or you can use a series of images that take your audience
           back to that horrible week in January as you "tell the story" of how
           the storm impacted business and what you intend to now do about it.