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Placemat presenting

Tom Salinsky writes...

The presenter stands in front of the audience. The audience looks at the presenter. The presenter picks up the remote control. The presenter brings up the first slide. The audience looks at the slide. The presenter begins to speak.

Whether you are aware of it or not, as the presenter you have set up an attention tug-of-war between you and the slides. Without careful management, the audience will not know where to put their attention. Should they be looking at you? At the slides? Somewhere else?

This is one reason why I recommend presenters do not carry notes and – more surprisingly – don’t put the laptop where they can see it. If you look down at your notes – and you will if you carry them, much more than you think – then the audience will only see the top of your head. Likewise if you look at your laptop screen, they will be cut off from you as you do so. But if you turn around to look at the screen on which your slides are being shown, then the audience can at least see what you can see. You lose eye-contact but you don’t completely lose your connection with the audience.

However, aware that Death by PowerPoint is a Thing People Don’t Like, some companies have banned slides altogether, as if the medium was the problem and not the use of it. Instead, they send out pitch teams with attractively-designed printed materials – usually one large format page, not a bound document. These “placemats” now play the role of the slides in what is hopefully a friendlier format.

Well, okay. What do we gain and what do we lose? We avoid the reputation of PowerPoint, but we don’t really gain a big advantage in the attention tug-of-war game. The other force fighting for our attention is now a piece of paper in someone’s hands rather than a big shiny screen, but nothing much has changed. Except, of course, that whereas the screen only shows one portion of the presentation at a time – the document contains material relevant to the entire meeting. Hardly an improvement.

Consider – one of the features of a presentation is that it is fundamentally linear. It starts, it continues and then it ends. All of the pieces come in a specific order. Great presenters understand that this is a wonderful opportunity to tell their story in a very precise and very controlled way – setting up simple ideas early as the building blocks for more complex ideas as the story unfolds.

The placemat is designed to allow the eye to wander across it. Viewers are enabled to explore it in any order they wish. But especially in a pitch context, I don’t want my audience to have that kind of power. I want to weave my own spell.

PowerPoint is an excellent tool for communicating to an audience. The problem is that presenters use it whether or not it is needed, and over-use it even in situations where it might have helped. A colourful placemat serves as a “peacock’s tail” in the same way that a beautifully designed slide-show does, but it sets up the same kind of attention tug-of-war as over-use of PowerPoint slides.

If you bring up on the screen only what you really need, at the moment that you really need it, when you turn to look at the screen, the whole audience will look with you. When you look back at them, all three of you will be in perfect sync, and the tug-of-war simply will not occur.

July 14th, 2014 - This post has no comments. - Tags: , ,

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