My PowerPoint New Year’s Resolutions

January 1, 2014

In reviewing the past year, I realize I’ve frittered away too much time looking at boring, useless PowerPoint presentations. I’ll never get those hours back.

Fewer PowerPoints would make this a better world.

A presenter and an audience should have real, authentic conversations. Such conversations almost never involve a PowerPoint presentation.

PowerPoint presentations might be helpful when someone is sharing graphs, pictures or other visual content. Too often, though, PowerPoint slides are overcrowded with text that stifle communications, especially when the presenter reads aloud—word-for-word—the endless prose projected onto the screen.

I believe fewer PowerPoints would make this world a better place in which to live, to learn and to work. Do you agree?

Towards that end, I hereby resolve that during the coming New Year I will become a better communicator by minimizing or even eliminating the boring PowerPoints that threaten to clutter my life. Are you with me? Will you join me in this important revolution? Here’s what I commit to do.

When I’m presenting, I resolve to:

  1. Use PowerPoint only when it is the best option for communicating. Contrary to popular opinion, not every workshop or training session requires a PowerPoint. When I’m in front of an audience, I’d much rather talk with people rather than at them. I want to create an atmosphere where we have an authentic conversation. Yet I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had a real conversation that included a PowerPoint presentation.
  2. Never create a PowerPoint using bullet points. Okay, there’s a slight chance I’ll break this resolution if I’m trying to explain a hierarchy of ideas. Wouldn’t it be better, though, to create a separate slide for each bullet point? That would make things cleaner and would also keep the slides moving faster.
  3. Never use complete sentences on a PowerPoint slide. If the audience needs the exact wording of something for future reference, I can provide that in a handout. Otherwise, a couple of keywords or images on the screen will be enough to focus our attention and prompt me to say—in my own words—whatever idea I’m trying convey. Read the rest of this entry »
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Things I Hope Never to See (Again) in a PowerPoint

July 15, 2012

Recently I awoke from a long afternoon nap. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I looked around and realized I was in a conference room with other people.

At the other end of the room was a laptop, a projector and a screen. On the screen I saw a sleep-inducing PowerPoint that served as the teleprompter for a presenter who spoke in a monotonous, soothing and hypnotic voice.

Hoping no one noticed my return from a soporific state, I reached for my pen and tried to give the impression I was taking notes. Instead, I found myself making a list of things I hope to never again see in a PowerPoint presentation. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. More than six words per slide. PowerPoint should be the backdrop against which the “actor” performs. With more than six words on a slide, it’s too easy for a speaker to use it as a teleprompter and read from a prepared script.
  2. Cheesy images or clip art. Not every slide needs artwork. If in doubt, leave it out. Less is more, and I appreciate simplicity.
  3. Spreadsheets or tables. Some business people do not realize that PowerPoint and Excel are actually two different Microsoft Office products. For me, a spreadsheet projected onto a screen never works. Never.
  4. Fancy slide transitions. The purpose of cute transitions is simply to wake up an audience, alerting them that a new (and hopefully more interesting) slide is coming. If the presentation is designed correctly in the first place, elaborate transitions are merely distractions.
  5. Hyperlinks. Really? If I can’t click on them, don’t show them to me.
  6. Bullet points. Here’s an idea:  take each bullet point and make a separate slide for each. Then move more quickly from slide to slide.

Somewhere right now, someone is preparing a PowerPoint presentation that I must endure in the coming days or weeks. If I could give that person only one bit of advice, it would be this:  Please, please read Garr Reynold‘s book Presentation Zen.

The book gives practical advice on reaching an audience through simplicity and storytelling. Now in its second edition, the book is available in both paper and digital formats. I own both, so next time I’m incarcerated by another boring PowerPoint presentation, I can make good use of that time and re-read Presentation Zen on my iPad.


Why I Hate Committees (But Love Task Forces)

November 5, 2009

I think committees are a colossal waste of time. Too often they focus on process rather than impact. The typical agenda emphasizes “coloring within the lines” rather than creating collaboration. Attendees are probably there because they are required to be, not because they necessarily have something to contribute.

Over time, a committee tends to take on a life of its own. It creates work to perpetuate its existence. It looks for problems to solve in areas where problems didn’t exist until they were created by problem-solving committee members.

When I’ve chaired committees I’ve often struggled to understand why the committee was originally created and why it continues to exist. I’ve been a member of committees where I was able to catch up on my reading while held hostage by PowerPoint presentations intended to torture me with a meaningless dump of information. As a nonprofit leader, I’ve staffed numerous committees where I wondered how to best use the time of busy volunteers who thought committee work was a good way to be engaged in a worthwhile cause.

Read the rest of this entry »


Why Are You Telling Me This?

August 25, 2009

Too often I find myself sitting in a boring meeting, reading a dull newsletter or yawning through another pointless PowerPoint presentation.

I’m tempted to interrupt and ask, “Why are you telling me this?” Or “What do you want me to do with all this information?”

Quietly, though, I endure and amuse myself by mentally replaying a favorite scene from the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Steve Martin, as you may recall, turns to John Candy and says, “When you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea:  Have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener.”

Excellent advice, Steve! Effective communication must have a purpose.

As simple as that sounds, communications planning too often begins at a tactical level. In a meeting someone might say, “We need to raise awareness!” My immediate question is “WHY?” Raising awareness is a means to an end, yet we tend to think that “getting the word out” is the ultimate, end objective.

Tactics not tied to strategy only contribute to the noise and clutter.

To help me think more strategically and communicate more effectively, I developed the following chart to visually illustrate how certain questions should be asked in the right sequence.

Strategic-to-TacticalPurpose and Goal. First, why do we want to communicate? What do we want to accomplish? What measurable outcomes do we we hope for?
Target Audience. To whom are we trying to communicate? What do we know about our primary audience? What is our relationship with them? Are there secondary audiences who might be looking over the shoulder of the primary audience?
Desired Impact. Once the target audience has received our message, how do we anticipate they’ll respond? What actions do we want them to take?
Key Message. In one sentence, what single message do we want to communicate to achieve the desired results? If time permits, what secondary messages would we like to communicate?
Barriers. What perceptions or misperceptions might hinder the effective delivery of our message? Are there other barriers that might obstruct our communications?
Media. What are the most effective ways to deliver the message to the target audience? What is the right combination of traditional and new media? A newsletter? Print ads? Web site? Billboards? Twitter? Verbal presentation? Facebook fan page? A blog? News release?
Communications Activities. What specific tasks must be completed to achieve the strategic objectives? Who will assume primary responsibility? Who else will be involved? When is the deadline? What budget is available? How will we measure success?

My mantra is simply this:  Think strategically before acting tactically. Anyone with me?


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