"A Smattering of Observations, Musings,
Punditry, and Universal Truths

BLOG # 101

I am a little unsettled by the math. A widely quoted statistic claims 30,000,000 PowerPoint presentations are delivered every day.* The hard-to-get-down-the-gullet stat doesn’t indicate whether that is just in the United States or if it includes everywhere else on the planet, including Paris, Mumbai, and in dirt villages in Papua, New Guinea. For the number to be that high, I would think it might also need to include locations beyond our own solar system, where language and syntax differ, but bullets are still considered the way to go. I also hope that “every day” does not include Saturday and Sunday, which would sadly mean that American families are now replacing family discussions around  the kitchen table with executive summaries and break-out groups.

Thirty million presentations. And note, that’s presentations, not number of people viewing them. Since we seldom create PowerPoint for our eyes only, each presentation encumbers two, three, or maybe ten often-unwilling participants, all in various states of consciousness. So if I am calculating correctly, sometime during the day, upwards of a third-of-a-billion people are sitting in a darkened room looking at bullets or heavily annotated bar graphs. That would mean two out of three Americans, including infants and the elderly, are perhaps watching a presentation as you read this.

I do not want to place too much value in a number that is so stupifyingly high that it is just too hard for me to comprehend. Rather, I am more interested in the consequences of that number. It means that we are delegating a disproportionate responsibility for communication to slides—maybe ten trillion a month—and we think that the way we are using them is actually make our messages clearer and more persuasive.

We believe that if we can turn it into a bullet or a graphic, that those we wish to influence will enthusiastically accept and understand it. We think that more we can include, the better prepared and really, really smart our audience will think we are.

We have let a badly flawed technology dictate—and often limit— how we communicate, rather than subjugate that technology the way we want to, in order for us to tell our story better. We use software such as PowerPoint to help us make slides, not to  help us make our point.

Think about it. Most people use PowerPoint with very little training, and most training naively focuses on the mechanics of wrangling templates and making bullets twinkle, and not the more mature task of how to structure compelling content and create engaging visuals that clarify that trigger attention and retention. Most presenters create weighty text documents, because that is what PowerPoint encourages them to do. They do not know how to differentiate between slide and handout, so neither does its job well.

Most tragically, presenters forget what they are doing is telling a story.

If I were a betting kinda-guy, I would also wager that the next presenter I set eyes on is also spending unnecessary time and money on development, and would probably increase quality and streamline development this very day, if they were only given a handful of key practices.

If I were that betting guy, I would also predict that improving their presentations would get their audiences to nod “yes” a little more quickly.

If your presentations are not as effective as you know they can be, blame some of it on PowerPoint. In the past twenty years, we have learned a lot about how the brain processes and stores information and how decisions are made. A lot has changed in two decades, but the basic approach and architecture of PowerPoint has not. It grew out of a text-based technology and aside from the addition of schmancy effects and production add-ons, it is the essentially the same tool as was when it was released: a way to create documents for the screen.

But blame yourself a little if you haven’t done anything about it. Opportunities to increase effectiveness and cutting costs are, just maybe, being squandered.

But by looking at presentations a little differently, by applying some research and best practices, you can turn this selfsame technology into a persuasive tool and turn yourself into a more persuasive presenter, to inform, inspire, and move an audience to action.

About 300,000,000 people, here and in New Guinea, are counting on you.

* That statistics is many years old. I shiver to think what the updated number is, and pity the poor person who has to peer in conference doors and count.



BLOG # 102

Most presentations do not trigger openly aggressive behavior in an audience, psychotic fantasies of ritual mutilation of the presenter, or the hope that perhaps something in the room—- either a furnishing, a piece of equipment, or a person—-will spontaneously burst into flames.

Presentations are what people have come to expect them to be, and little more— a convenient container for presenters to throw everything they can think of, with talking points fully detailed and projected onto an adjacent wall, and then the invitation to the audience to sift through the salvo of words-they-hear and words-they-see  for the tiny amount of information that is actually important to remember.

When I go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, I know I am about to stand in a long, slow moving line and a irretrievable piece of the time I have left on this planet will be unfairly taken from me, and there is nothing I can do about, unless I am willing to commit the rest of life to walking.

When I enter a conference room and see an LCD projector crouched and ready to go, I set my expectations low, and I lower them further still,  if the first slide I see is a multi-bulleted prose-preamble in 12 point type.

Ask most people who just sat through a presentation, replete with a 20 slide document  they had to read from 25 feet away, and they will say that the presentation was OK, and pretty much like every other presentation they have seen or will probably ever see in their lifetime.

It included fully-formed sentences that often replicated—word-for-word— the script that the  presenter was mouthing, as well as a cluster-bombing of charts and graphics, whose one or two important conclusions were eventually visible to those who squinted. The slides were identical to the review handouts the presenters passed out before he or she began, so the audience, if it got impatient, could read ahead, though couldn’t leave the meeting until the presenter caught up.

Most people do not expect much from presentations, and they are seldom disappointed. As a long as it is not a disaster, a presentation is considered a success. This is how it has been seen since the beginning of time.

But with the bar set so low, anyone with even the even the most basic skills of content structure and storytelling, anyone with a few tips of how to use visuals for clarity/ emphasis/attention/retention, anyone who has applied a handful of Best Practices, and anyone who has been warned about the obvious and ridiculously-simple-to-sidestep-pitfalls that beleaguer most presenters, will surprise and impress an audience.

It will not take much work to be better than the next-guy.

When you can confound expectations, the result will be a more effective presentation that an audience will sit forward to hear.

Be even a smidge better than they expect, and you will own the room.

In the land of the mediocre, that which is “just-a-little better” is king.



BLOG # 103

Mr. Crenshaw was the worst teacher in the high school. For students, finding his name on the Fall schedule was like losing the lottery: he was a terrible teacher and never gave a good grades. Mr. Crenshaw was in his early 70's, well past retirement age, and clinically cranky when I had him. Though universally disliked by both students and fellow teachers, no one on the School Board had the courage to ask him to retire because, rumor had it,  his son was connected to local organized crime, allegedly part of its senior management.

In his prime, Mr. Crenshaw was perhaps a decent History teacher, cared about what he did, and didn’t mind getting up every day to face high school sophomores. But he had been teaching from the same History text that he used when my mother took his class, and it appeared that he was now quite bored with the limited sliver of world goings-on between 1066 AD and the Renaissance he was assigned to teach. Unlike Physics teachers who can be rejuvenated cerebrally by the discovery of new sub-particles or English teachers who can add emerging writers to their curriculum, there is not much more to say about the Norman Invasion today than was said in 1940 when he started teaching, and probably not too more than was said in, say, 1067. So, he lost his enthusiasm for his content and in doing so, lost his ability to make World History anything but a mind-numbing experience for the rest of us.

Each day, he droned on about the reign of King Philip or an otherwise pivotal moment from the past as if it were some worldwide inconvenience, and he even made the Black Death—which in gore-value alone should have been a very cool topic for 10th graders— sound bland. Mr. Crenshaw just read word-for-word, without inflection, from the text book pages we were assigned to read the night before, stopping when the bell rang, often in mid-sentence. We often napped during Mr. Creshaw's class, since he seldom noticed, nor probably cared.

While it was sad for us, having the very life sucked out of a subject that students having anyone but Mr. Crenshaw enjoyed, it was perhaps more tragic for Mr. Crenshaw, who lived in abject boredom for the thirty years and felt the 45 minute class crawled even more slowly for him than us. He was unable to find ways to keep his own enthusiasm kindled, which in turn prevented him for igniting ours. As a result, few of his students ever went on to pursue a field that needed to acknowledge anything happened prior to 1690.

I have encountered many Mr. Crenshaws in my professional life: people who have delivered the same information day after day, and have lost the ability or even common courtesy to portray it enthusiastically. Or people who present ideas that might not be their own, and fail because they seem not to be convinced themselves. Or people whose insecurity or lack of confidence surfaces as apathy or dispassion.

An audience will never buy a concept that a presenter does not appear to be sold on.  Whether languor is a product of boredom, weariness from a busy schedule, or uncertainty, the end result will be the same: the audience will see the topic as unimportant to them as it appears to be to the presenter.

Enthusiasm is contagious. That which seemed unimportant can take on urgency if the messenger is committed. Low priorities can be elevated by excitement.

Embedded in every topic is that thing that will makes it appealing to you and to your audience. Find it. If you can’t immediately, look again or try harder. If the spark has gone out, rekindle it. Keep in interesting for you and chances are you make it interesting for your them. Tap your passion. Show it in your voice. Portray it in your visuals. Convince people of it when you look them in the eye. Make your enthusiasm the catalyst for theirs.

You owe it to your audience and your content. And there'll be less napping.

Blog #101. Muddle
Through On Your Own

Blog #102. The Bar Is
Set Extraordinarily Low

Blog #103.
The Contagion of Enthuisiasm


Blog #104. Celebrate
Your Disasters

Blog #105. They Shouldn't Call it "Give" a Presentation

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