“Those of You in the Back of the Room Might not Be Able to Read this Slide”

By July 3, 2017 No Comments

Disciplines Engaged: Think, Plan, Talk, Laugh

Think about the absurdity of that statement. And then how many times you have heard it.

When you are invited to make a presentation, someone has decided that your perspective or your story would be relevant, maybe even entertaining to a particular audience. You spend hours, sometimes weeks, preparing for the event. And when the big day arrives, you stand in front of an audience with slides that include text that’s so small that people can’t read it?

What sense does that make?

The answer is that it makes no sense at all to have text on PowerPoint slides that no one can read. But more often than not, you hear that exact statement from the title of this blog when someone makes a presentation

When you’re making a presentation, you’re there to tell a compelling and interesting story. Your PowerPoint is there to SUPPLEMENT that story.

I’ve written speeches and created presentations for probably 100 different people during my career. Every person, every speech, and every audience is different. I don’t have a specific set of rules or guidelines, but I do have some general advice.

They’re there to listen to you, not to look at your slides. Your slides should supplement and complement what you’re saying; they should not be the BASIS of your story. Build your presentation with an outline and THEN create the content of the PowerPoint, not vice versa.

Avoid bad slides like the plague. If you have to take more than a few seconds to explain what’s on your slide, get rid of it. Big charts with columns and more than about six or seven numbers? They’re mind-numbing, even insulting to the audience. Probably there are some exceptions to this, but the idea that an audience is going to hear what you’re saying while absorbing 40 different points of data on a slide? Not going to happen.

Break things up. Yes, sometimes you have data that you have to present. There’s no way around it. But break it up with anecdotes and stories from clients or luminaries in the field. As someone has said, no one ever asks for a bedtime story filled with data. Give them the human side of it, the application of whatever it is you’re talking about.

Make it funny. I am the king of bad jokes when I’m delivering presentations. Back in 1987 when I was in college, the stock market crashed. This joke circulated shortly after that: “What’s the difference between a pigeon and a stock broker? A pigeon can still make a deposit on a BMW.” I’ve used that joke a bunch of times as a transition between data points. It always gets a laugh.

There’s great, great content out there. Use it. I’m a huge, huge fan of using all of the video clips, quotations, cartoons, and other types of imagery that you can find that will be relevant, humorous, and memorable. Again, people need ways to remember what you say, to put it into context and great, supplemental content is what gets you there. Yes, you need to be sure you are comfortable with the content and that you have the proper technology in place for the audio and video (and do rehearsals beforehand to verify).

Don’t try to tell your whole story on the slides. A lot of people are guilty of this. You don’t need people to be staring at the screen the whole time. It should be a back and forth, looking at you and looking at the screen.

Have high and low moments in your presentation, leading to a climax. I’ve heard people say that people can pay attention for seven minutes. Other people say it’s shorter than that. It’s important to vary the cadence of your presentation, build to moments, and then change directions every once in a while to keep the energy up. Yes, ask for audience participation by asking questions. Encourage people to ask questions and share their own stories. And build these moments into your slide deck.

And practice, practice, practice. The more you rehearse, the more comfortable you are with the slides and the content and the preparation will shine through.

Let me finish with a story about a presentation I did as part of a job interview. It was June of 2014, and I was a finalist for the president and CEO position at the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI). The interview was out in Irvine, California and I was asked to lead a conversation and I was supposed to hit on several different points. I did a PowerPoint presentation around that concept.

I arrived at the interview location 30 minutes prior to the interview and set everything up and did a practice run (there was video, audio, and I wanted to be sure the projector worked correctly with my computer). I also had a printed version of the presentation that I put at the table for the seven members of the search committee and the executive recruiter.

I then left the room (no one had yet arrived) and was to return a half hour later after the committee had the opportunity to eat breakfast. When I returned, the recruiter stopped me at the door, alarmed, and said, “You have 90 slides? You have to cut back. You can’t possibly go through 90 slides in a two-hour interview.” It turns out the committee had laughed at it as well when they read through the slides over breakfast.

It turns out that investor relations professionals – of which all of the people on this committee were – use PowerPoint 180 degrees differently than I do, something I would learn after landing the job. They cram as much data, footnotes, and legal disclaimers onto PowerPoint slides that they give to investors and financial analysts as possible. They use PowerPoint not so much to tell the story of their companies, but to ensure that nothing of relevance is left out.

They had already decided there was no way I would get through my slide deck and that’s particularly funny because there were several video clips in the presentation as well that weren’t represented in the handouts.

I stopped at many points through the presentation to give people the opportunity to ask questions. I finished 15 minutes early and we used the rest of the time for a concluding conversation. How did I get through 90 slides with additional video clips? Because I was telling a story about me and my experiences and my PowerPoint presentation was there to supplement that story, not to BECOME my story.

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