Monday, 22 October 2007

PowerPoint Palsy

PowerPoint encourages exhaustive detail that in turn causes audiences to twitch with exhaustion.

The software is addictive. There are always a few more slides that you can create ……and just a little bit more that you can add on to each slide. This leads to delusional pre-presentation satisfaction:

I’ve created loads of slides, so I must have prepared properly. In fact, that is all I have to do. The exact words that I need to say will just come to me when I am actually speaking.”

Some presenters are actually proud of their reputation for length and detail. They wear the mark of the serial PowerPoint criminal as a badge of honour. They feel it is the fault of the audience if they can’t quite find the message inside the maze of slides. This type of presenter is quite happy to facilitate the tyranny of PowerPoint: a one party state where Big Brother Is Boring You.

This is submission to software. The presenter is surrendering his central role to the visuals onscreen. He is abdicating from his role as a leader.

A presentation only works where human-to-human contact is maximised. Slideware can get in the way.

I once saw a presentation delivered by a high ranking IBM executive. Some technical foul-up occurred just before he started, so that he was forced to present Commando (without slides). Mysteriously, his laptop started working again about a minute before he finished. Showing remarkable mental agility, he managed to immediately access and display his summary slide. This acted as a superb overview, bringing together and focusing everything that he had said in the previous 15 minutes.

He then experienced a PowerPoint Epiphany. He paused, looked at his laptop, looked at the audience, looked at the screen, back at the audience, paused again and said, in a dramatic whisper:

“Maybe that’s the only slide I needed in the first place.”

I managed to restrain the urge to leap up from my seat and shout, “Hallelujah! Amen, brother!”

In the bar that night, his was the only presentation that people were talking about. The previous eight presenters had used over 150 slides between them. I asked some of the people in the bar which of the day’s slides they could remember. And they could only remember the IBM guy’s 3-point summary slide.

This is the best way to use PowerPoint: just one notch above total absence.

Dump the Queen's English

"To boldly go where no man has gone before" is the most split infinitive of them all, but it has also made the opening sequence of Star Trek probably the most quoted in TV history. Hamlet's unforgettable slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are part of an equally incorrect mixed metaphor.

You don't need good grammar to communicate well. The key to success is to make your message memorable.

"Gillette: the best a man can get". No verb, no sentence and no doubt about the message. Even grammatically correct phrases can be misleading. Menzies Campbell recently referred to the Liberal Democrats as “The Third Party". I assume the other two are Fire and Theft.
You can't abandon grammar entirely. But use it as a platform, not a straight jacket. The best political speeches contain phrasing that is hard to forget (mind you, John F Kennedy's "Ich bien ein Berliner" actually means "I am Jam Doughnut").

Don't worry about grammar, worry about grabbing them. Colourful phrasing stimulates the memory. You want to be remembered for your message. Your message is what you would say if you only had 10 seconds in which to say it. It is the core, the essence of your speech, what you want the audience to remember above all else.

You should spend more time formulating the message than on any other part of your preparation. If you don't have a clear message, you don't have a clear presentation.

In a business speech, the message must clearly encapsulate what your audience needs to know. You don't need Churchillian poetry, but you need clear, concise, plain English. "John Bull Building creates unique homes for families who value space, light and quality".

In politics these days, memorable phrases are commonplace. Even from William Hague: "The powers of this country are being taken away slice by slice with our own Prime Minister wielding the knife."

If you can mix your metaphors so effectively, then your business presentations will become a whole new kettle of ball games.

Getting a Brief

Who on earth are they all?

If this is your first thought when you stand up and see the audience in front of you, it’s too late.

You’ve got to know everything you can about the people you’re talking to: it’s the first thing I do, to research the audience in detail. And it isn’t as simple as it sounds. Whoever gives you all the background information has to take an objective view of people they invariably know well, which means, surprisingly in fact, that they often omit the most salient points. I suggest you do your own research, and these are the basic questions you should ask:

What are the social mix, age and gender split?
What do they understand and what do they think they understand about you and your subject?
What do they want to know and what must they know?
What’s in it for them to hear you speak?
How do they feel about themselves?

Pick up the phone and talk to them. Personal contact is invaluable, even if its via BT. Quite incidentally, it also impresses them with your thoroughness and professionalism. Even if you see your audience every day, have you talked to them about your presentation? You may be surprised at what they will tell you if they are given a chance.

With external audiences, you can glean a lot of information about a company from its website. However, this won’t give you the mood of the moment. Again, the answer is to talk to them. Talk to several people who will give you different viewpoints. If you’re addressing 400 people, make sure you meet four or five of the rank and file. It’s not too difficult. People like talking about themselves, their companies and their products.

Ask them about their greatest successes, failures, opportunities, surprises and problems. Ask them to name the three most important issues in their business. By the time you’ve done this you will have a lot of information and, possibly more important, a real feel for the people you are addressing. As a lawyer, I’m all too aware of the power of the right question. I’m even more aware of the need to act on the answer. The answer to these questions will go along way to forming the fabric of your presentation. It will also help you to develop a camaraderie with the audience. This is vital, and it’s only possible if they feel you understand who they are.

So....don't prepare anything unyil you have found out who they are and what they are about.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Being Interviewed on Stage

When politicians are interviewed they use the questions as a springboard to get across what they always wanted to say anyway. They don’t answer the question unless it really suits them. Often they virtually ignore the question.

Corporate audiences do not like to see questions “answered” the political way. They like to see issues dealt with head-on.

The facilitator/link presenter is not likely to have an aggressive attitude (unless it’s John Humphries). The questions will not be deliberately phrased to catch you out: they will be a genuine attempt to seek your opinion.

You also will probably have a major advantage over a politician on TV. You will have had the chance to speak to the interviewer in advance, to discuss the parameters of the questioning. But don’t just assume that you will get this chance: make sure that it happens. Take as much control of the situation as you can.

During your pre-interview chat (which might be very short), find out the likely topics to be covered and actively suggest better topics if you disagree with his choice. You won’t be able to completely dictate to the presenter, but your aim should be to influence him. At the very lease, you should find out what his first question will be. He is unlikely to lie about this, unless you are Jeffrey Archer.

You must apply the same focusing methods to an interview as you do to any presentation situation.

  • What is your desired Finishing Position for this interview?
  • What is your Micro-Message?
  • What are the essential facts you need to support the Micro-Message?

I know I have warned you against the politician's bulldozer approach of pushing your own agenda at all costs. Nevertheless, at some stage you must get your message across in reply to one of the questions.

You must ensure that it is you, not the interviewer who decides what the audience will take away.

By Graham Davies