Are you Practicing PowerPoint – “Presentation Zen”?

As part of my reading for my Personal MBA, I am documenting the key lessons I learnt from Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. It is not intended to be a summary or review, rather a reflection of how the book has influenced my presentation style (or Zen).

I present regularly, I’m probably better than most. That doesn’t mean I am any good. I’ve seen plenty of presentations, few that have been excellent.

Like reading and writing. This is one of those assumed skills. The question is not, “Do you know how to present?”, instead, the safer question is aked, “Do you know how to use PowerPoint?“. The truthful answer to both is, probably “no“.

After reading this book I’ve realised that I use some of the best practice guidelines. But my number one failing is too much information. I’m trying to dual-purpose the presentation as a prompt and a reference. I will change this going forward.

An approach, not a method. A philosophy, not a formula.

It is easy to understand why we are not great at presenting, we see so few great examples and then dismiss those as innate talent. The good news is that we work well with examples. Once we have seen some good examples, we can overlay them elsewhere. Realising that few ideas are unique and this book is about giving us some examples, guidelines and principles. It is certainly not intended to be a rule book.

I read this book in small doses. Parallel to others, this can be tricky, as my prefered method is to dive in, but not all books work like that. It is an obvious truth, life doesn’t always match my preferences.

Present your message

A picture is worth 1,000 words“- a useful cliche, it makes a point. What is sometimes missed is that there are two sides to the cliche. The wrong picture, results in 1,000 distracting words, off the point. Sometimes no picture would be more powerful. Simplicity is better, or at least generally preferable.

In this multi-media age, we love full immersion experiences, targeting all the senses. The caution is that most people can’t listen and read at the same time. As people tend to read by hearing a voice in their head, trying to read and listen, is like trying to listen to two people at the same time. There is only space for one voice. When presenting it is necessary to decide whether that is your voice or your words on the screen. Pick one at a time.

A multimedia approach, keeps intrigue and is novel. It should retain its simplicity though.

The Message

Decide on the message. Have a core point, that if all else is forgotten, what would you want remembered. Then anchor everything on this point and why it matters. The so what?

Then take the busyness away. You owe it to the people you are presenting to.

So, what makes a message stick:

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility – quotes can help.
  • Emotions
  • Stories

Prompts not a reference

I typically use slides as a prompt for me, so I can feel confident that I don’t forget or miss key concepts. I also them as a reference for people to refer to later. I realise now, that needs to change. Too much detail is distracting and overwhelming.

My habits are not all bad though, I regularly use flip-charts and videos to fight attention fatigue and ensure I engage my audience.

Key elements to planning a presentation

  • Design – Design should not be noticeable, only the message should stand out. The analogy given is like signage at an airport, it should be functional.
  • Story – Tell a story. There are different ways to tell a story and one is to identify the problem, give examples of the conflict created, then why and how it was solved.
  • Symphony – Sythensize the ideas. They should not feel discreet, but flow.
  • Empathy – What does the recipient want to know.
  • Play – Not everything needs to be serious.
  • Meaning – Make a difference with the message.

The Slides checklist from Seth Godin’s advice

  • Do the slides reinforce and not repeat my words
  • No more than 6 words
  • Quality images, strong impact
  • No distracting transitions
  • Create a written document, notes to leave with them. Tell them they are coming, so they focus on you, not notes.

Seth is a master, with innate talent, matched with focus and determination. I’m probably likely to end up, with discipline, at best a poor reflection of him. I’d take that! – Better, not perfection.

Plan before you do – measure twice, cut once

It is better to plan away from the computer. A computer does not facilitate clarity or creativity, it is too busy. A better start is to draft a storyboard of the slides analogue style. For some reason I find it much easier to discard a drafted written slide, than a digital one.

Using a piece of paper or a whiteboard are my prefered methods. In fact when I add some post-its and I find it amazing how much more progress I can make, conceptualising the problem(s) and the solutions seem to just flow. The key is to start with the purpose, in this case the message.

We don’t like taking away from what we have. So, I take everything away, start with the first principles. Then all the scattered concepts can be moved and organised to find the right symphony. Sometimes I end up skipping using slides altogether.

Even in presentations and workshops, I get people to use post-it notes and a flip chart. They are very powerful tools to linke people to the idea. They can see it happening. There is no digital disconnect.

I find that planning and the re-doing it the way to go. “Doing it twice” is actually quicker and results in a better product. When building a house, it starts with the design.

From Planning to Design

With proper planning, putting the slides together based on your branded template should be easier.

The big four of design:

  1. Contrast
  2. Repetition – consistency in design. A balance between distraction and boredom.
  3. Alignment
  4. Proximity – make it easy for the viewer to link

Be careful with familiarity fatigue. In the past I liked to start with something familiar, this stops people putting up their defences. But it’s also hurt me, because people become confident there is nothing new. I was even stopped once, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve been through this already.

Less for more

The three key words are: simplicity, clarity, brevity.

With this, restraint is key. By setting constraints it allows creativity and flow. Take the example of a Haiku, very restricted, clear rules. It forces us beyond lazy creativity, the type which which comes easier, into a deeper level.

Once the first draft is complete, the editing starts, this can and should be brutal – if that slide wasn’t there, would the story fall apart? Does it really contribute? – To stave off, the inevitable, but they could want to know, there is always the option to put into the appendix.

Target improving the signal to noise ratio:

  • Don’t include all the data. Only enough to make your point.
  • Simple background.
  • Making the slide more interesting is not the goal, the message should be interesting, not the slide.

But they will forget anyway

There is the underlying temptation to add too much detail. To the point that the presentator becomes redundant. A simple and recommended solution is to create a detailed handout and simple slides. Then only give the  handout at the end. It is worth flagging at the beginning that you will give them a handout.

Some people pay better attention by taking notes, but I feel some people are so frantically taking notes, that they miss the point. It seems to go in the ear, through the brain, out the hand and onto the paper. Barely a Formula 1 pit stop in the mind.

The Delivery

The individual’s stye and experience will influence this significantly. It is also beyond the scope of this post.

A few universals though –

  • Grounding beforehand. – Take a moment to get in the moment. My mate tenses his muscles in his shoulders and then relaxes them. This grounds him in the moment and no doubt releases some tension.
  • Be in the moment. – “Be here now. Be somewhere else later. Is that so complicated?” – David Bader.
  • Connect with your audience. – Ask a question early on and write down what they say. They feed off your energy, so smile.
  • Enjoy what you are presenting. – If you find it dull, they definitely will.
  • Eat until 80% full. – Rather finish early and leave them wanting more than leave them stuffed and fatigued.

In the end

Make sure it is clear you are coming to an end. A lot of the time it’s done by ending with questions, which can work well, depending if there are questions and what they are. I’d always have a statement to end on though, remember when they leave you want them to leave with one thing. The message.

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