Archive for the 'Presentations' Category

Presentations: Prose on slides = death.

Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

My mixed business and academic schedule exposes me to lots and lots of presentations, in all formats. Last week I was in the audience for an excellent, passionate, low-tech presentation from Bill Germano. Every week I hear graduate students delivering papers or leading discussions in seminars. Most weeks I sit through at least a couple of larger or smaller meetings at my office.

Let me emphasize “sit through” in that last sentence. Many of these work presentations are not nearly as good as they could be, which is another way of saying that they’re much worse than they should be.

Folks, let me convey something very, very clearly for anyone who uses PowerPoint slides to convey anything:

Do not use prose on your PowerPoint slides.

The longest stretch of prose you could safely use on a PowerPoint slide is one sentence–and not a long sentence. You can put in pictures. You can put in easy-to-read diagrams. You can leave in blank slides for effect. You can put one or two words on a slide, or just a symbol, to reinforce your points. But you must not ladle in sentences of prose onto a single slide. Seriously.

Yesterday I sat through a group presentation that was predictably uneven, simply because it was given by a group of presenters. All of them were basically comfortable working with the technology. Some of them had better slides. Some of them had better physical and vocal carriage. That’s to be expected.

But some of the slides we saw were simply pointless. The presenters missed easy opportunities to give us poor saps in the audience pictures that would have reinforced their words. Instead, they threw up blocks of text that fought with the words coming out of their mouths. It occurred to me, at some point, that these folks either don’t know that blocks of prose on slides is presentation death, or else they think it doesn’t apply to them, or else they don’t care. If they don’t care, shame on them, but I probably can’t convince them. If they think the rules don’t apply, I can reassure them that they do. But if they don’t know–if you, dear reader, don’t know–then I can use the media at my disposal to spread the Gospel of PowerPoint, viz., Slides with a lot of text on them undermine the purpose of a presentation, which is communication.

A decent rule of thumb for PowerPoint is “7-by-7″: No more than seven lines of text on a slide, with no more than seven words per line.

A much better rule is “5-by-5″, since five lines of no more than five words each forces you–in a good way–to boil down your thoughts and to keep any one slide from becoming too busy.

A much better rule is “5″: Five words or less on a slide.

So that we don’t leave this as an abstraction, how about a hypothetical example? Let’s say you’re giving a lecture to undergraduates on the final phase of World War 2 in the Pacific. You could put up a slide with this on it:

  • The Allies–led by the Americans, but with forces from Australia, New Zealand, and Britain–”island-hopped” from Australia and Hawaii all the way to Okinawa. From mid-1942 to mid-1945, they fought a series of bloody battles with the Japanese at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Kwajalein, Saipan, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, etc.
  • The Philippines was not necessarily en route to Japanese home islands, but Douglas MacArthur had vowed “I shall return” when his troops had to retreat from the islands early in the war. So the Allies retook the Philippines first, even though some strategists thought an eastern approach to Japan made more sense.
  • Once the Allies put themselves in bombing range of Japan, they started heavy bombing of Tokyo and other locations. Tokyo was firebombed around the clock; perhaps 200,000 died, mostly civilians.
  • Harry Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). This was done for several reasons:
  • –Kept U.S./Allies from making amphibious assault over hundreds of miles of open ocean.
  • –Brought a swift end to the war as a whole.
  • –Showed U.S. power to Soviets, who might have gotten ideas about expanding opportunistically in the region with Japan out of the way.

I say you could do this–if you want to put the class to sleep. Alternately, you could say the things above, with more detail and fuller explanations, while letting the slides hammer your point home visually.

Slide 1A: A map of the Pacific with big blue stars showing the locations of battles. Heading: “Island-hopping”.
Slide 1B: An aerial photograph of any island battle in the Pacific. Heading: “Naval and land battles”.
Slide 1C: The famous photo of GIs planting the flag on Iwo Jima. Heading: “Iwo Jima”.

Slide 2A: Same map of the Pacific, but with arrows showing the eastern and western routes of island-hopping. Heading: “Philippines campaign”.
Slide 2B: Famous photo of Douglas MacArthur wading ashore. Heading ” ‘I shall return.’ ”

Slide 3: Aerial photo of Tokyo under attack. Heading: “Tokyo firestorm”.

Slide 4A: Harry Truman sitting at his desk, looking serious. Heading: “Truman and the Bomb”.
Slide 4B: Any photo of scientists at Los Alamos. Heading: “Manhattan Project”.
Slide 4C: Photo of a mushroom cloud. Heading: “Hiroshima & Nagasaki”.

Click-click-click, you go through the slides as you’re making your points. How much easier is it going to be for the sleep-deprived 19-year-olds in your audience to follow you?

This thirtysomething is also sleep-deprived and prone to distraction, so throw me a bone: Speak your prose and use your slides to hammer home your points visually.

Here endeth the lesson.

Presentations: Control your environment.

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

My subject line here could be boiled down to one word: Prepare.

When you give a presentation, take responsibility for everything in your audience’s environment. Are the lights right? Can people see the screen clearly? Are your handouts legible? Is the room freezing, or broiling? Can you hear too much racket from the meeting room/corridor/kitchen next door? Can you be heard by your listeners?

I’m thinking about all of this because of a two-hour seminar I sat through a couple of days ago. I hadn’t had enough sleep the night before (all too common for me) and I had been fighting off a headache all day (very uncommon for me). The seminar was scheduled from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. (mistake #1) and when I got into the room the environment was anything but friendly to a person fighting off a headache. The meeting room in question is the largest one in my company–the one where we hold our all-hands meetings. It has many banks of lights that can operate independently to provide you with whatever pattern of lighting you need. But in this case, only the area lights were on, and they had been dimmed partway. This created three problems:
1. The entire room was lit at the same level, which didn’t work given the type of stand-and-deliver seminar it was.
2. The light was too dim for audience members to read the handouts clearly.
3. This particular bank of lights emits an awful buzzing hum when it is dimmed partway.
On top of this, no one had shut the big door at the back of the room that leads to the break room outside, so conversations and other racket from outside rattled into our room. (We finally did shut the door, but belatedly.)

So, in short, it was too dark and too noisy, and there was a headache-promoting background buzz throughout TWO HOURS of a presentation. It’s not just that this was bad–it was completely avoidable. A minute or two of experimentation with the lights combined with the simple foresight to shut all the doors all the way would have made life easier for everybody. I know this because I’ve been in a hundred other meetings in the same room where the lights and noise were no trouble.

The good news, in this case, is that the room has a deluxe built-in projection system, so there were no technical troubles on that end. The two presenters were quite polished, and clearly used to working off of each other in a back-and-forth presentation mode. But some of their slides featured dark-colored graphics that looked dramatic on the screen . . . but washed out to black on the handouts. Again, a simple lack of foresight undermined their presentation. This was more annoying because the date printed at the bottom of each handout page made it clear that they were working from a template they had prepared three years ago. They’ve had tons of time to get these handouts right, or simply to prepare a version of the handouts with the fancy graphics removed . . . but they never thought of it, I guess.

These shortcomings hit home for me all the more because earlier in the week I had listened to Guy Kawasaki’s podcast on “The Art of Pitching,” which is full of savvy advice on how to give killer presentations when it counts–that is, when you’re asking for a lot of money. In one section, Kawasaki puts the burden on presenters to take responsibility for everything that goes into the presentation. I don’t have his text in front of me (the podcast is a chapter of G.K.’s book The Art of the Start), but in paraphrase:
–If the projector doesn’t work, it’s your fault.
–If the projector won’t cooperate with your laptop, it’s your fault.
–If the projector bulb goes out, it’s your fault.
Kawasaki encourages you to bring your own projector, not one but two laptops loaded with your presentation, a USB key loaded with another copy of the presentation, and then printouts of your whole presentation in case all Hell breaks loose with the technology.

I love this because it means taking full responsibility for all parts of the communication process, which I think is what distinguishes great communicators from lesser ones.

Two modest examples in this vein from my own little speaking career: I can remember a slide show I gave to the Rotary Club in Perth (Scotland) when I was on a Rotary scholarship. The old-fashioned slide projector got jammed partway through my presentation, but fortunately I had drilled on the material so thoroughly that I could ad lib and keep the audience’s attention for the minute it took to untangle the machine. Then recently I gave a presentation on short notice in an office that didn’t have a room with a projector: it gave me the chance to revise my whole presentation in a way that made sense as a handout. The talk was fresher than it would be, because the process of revising it made me rethink it for the new audience and the new format.

The two ladies who gave the seminar at my office this week were very nice and generally well prepared. Clearly they knew their material, and when the seminar turned interactive (only after 80 minutes of sit-and-listen) it was really valuable. But it would have been ten times better more effective if they had showed more commitment to taking charge of their environment on behalf of their audience.

For presenters, there is no such thing as being overprepared.

Presentations: Guy Kawasaki.

Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

Kawasaki is an author, speaker, Macintosh evangelist from back in the day, and now an outstanding blogger. He’s known for giving great presentations, and now he’s been addressing different aspects of presentations in a series of recent posts.

The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint
Lessons from Steve [Jobs]’s Keynote
How to Get a Standing Ovation
How to Be a Demo God

If you give presentations, all of these are worth reading and re-reading — and, for that matter, so is the rest of his blog, which is why I’ve put it in my permanent links on the right-hand side of this page.

Garr Reynolds has also ably summarized the ‘Kawasaki Method’ of presentation.

Presentations: At all costs, never be dull.

Sunday, January 29th, 2006

There is no excuse for a dull presentation. This is true despite the prevalent use of PowerPoint in corporate and academic settings, and despite the inherent flaws in the cognitive style of PowerPoint. Here are some examples of what a good PowerPoint presentation can be.

Lawrence Lessig on copyright. (Augmented by this interview with Cliff Atkinson.)
Dick Hardt on secure identity software.
–A summary on Masayoshi Takahashi’s compelling presentation method.
–A summary of Tom Peters on “Presentation Excellence”.

As the last two references will suggest, Garr Reynolds’s blog is excellent for those in the business of making presentations. Cliff Atkinson also has a helpful Web site on presentations, and his accompanying book is useful.

When in doubt: Read more Tufte.