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Power but no point?

Tom Salinsky writes...

I’m just about old enough to remember the days before PowerPoint (yes, young ones, there was such a time). Without this technological magic, a presenter who wished to provide the audience with some visual splendour had a few options. With a small audience, a flipchart or whiteboard allowed key words to be written down. With a larger audience, an overhead projector would allow the same luxury, but many speakers had their visual aids in the form of 35mm slides. These came in little white plastic frames, arranged in the correct order in a box which permitted transportation to the venue for the talk. Once there, they would have to be loaded into the carousel of the projector (I know it sounds like the Middle Ages, but I was there) which would then allow the presenter to advance the slides by means of a remote control (on the end of a wire, natch).

Watching some people’s PowerPoint-oriented presentations today, it looks to me rather as if these were 35mm slides, and on the way to the projector, someone had dropped the box and picked them back up in a random order – it would essentially make no difference. This isn’t a smooth narrative, engaging the audience and bringing them along for the ride – each slide has become a discrete thought or fact, and the presentation consists of fact after fact after fact, strung along a washing line which simply continues until the facts run out. This is a very peculiar way of communicating information to anyone.

When we generally wish to communicate something to another person, we don’t arrange facts in this arbitrary manner, nor do we speak in presentation-ese. We tell a story, and thinking of presentations as stories in an excellent way of understanding what information this audience wants, and in what order.

Nobody present at Lakehurst on 6 May 1937 would have breathlessly told family and friends “During the docking procedure, the LZ129 suffered a catastrophic structural failure resulting in conflagration and the loss of 36 lives.” Instead they would have said “The Hindenburg blew up!”

This demonstrates firstly that when telling stories, we know automatically what the important details are and in what order to present them. Very few people would hear “Lakehurst, 6 May 1937” and think “Hindenburg”. On the other hand, almost everyone when they hear “Zeppelin” thinks “Hindenburg”. Including details such as its designation, the exact date of the disaster, the length of the balloon in feet and so on might reassure the audience that you’ve done your homework, but they won’t remember these details, because they aren’t really what the story is about.

On the other hand, some facts-and-figures are key. Here’s an example from a recent presentation which I coached. A fellow working for a housing association was walking us through the rather complicated and technical legal steps by which an existing building was about to be purchased, developed and resold. The reason for the long series of complicated steps was that without them, the housing association would have to pay far more VAT than in fact it needed to. But in the first draft of the presentation, this fact was glossed over and the amount of the saving never mentioned at all. In the revised version, this (very substantial) saving was given right at the top, so that the audience understood just why all of this purchasing, leasing-back, re-designating and so on was worthwhile.

Think of your material like a story and you are much more likely to use simple visual language instead of lots of impenetrable jargon, you are much more likely to accurately use your natural ability to prioritise information, you are much more likely to sound like a human being talking to other human beings – and all of that will make you a pleasure to listen to and easy to remember.

March 17th, 2014 - This post has no comments. - Tags: , , ,

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