On any given day, according to my unscientific estimate, about one billion people on earth are giving PowerPoint presentations to the other five billion. At least it sometimes feels that way. Microsoft claims that 300 million people use their product at a rate of about a million presentations every day. Regardless of the numbers it’s definitely true that almost everyone who sells to other businesses uses PowerPoint, or a similar product, to deliver sales presentations.
So what’s so disturbing about that? Just the fact that the overwhelming majority of those presentations are lousy.
Including, I am mortified to admit, a lot of the ones I’ve given over the years.
Nick points out that the typical presentation is developed completely backwards. Instead of being designed as an aid for the audience, to hold their attention, help them understand, and maybe motivate them, the slides are set up primarily as a crutch for the presenter. The typical slide consists of a big topical heading followed by five to ten bullet points. There might be some little piece of clip art stuck on there, but usually it’s just words. The presenter looks at the slide, rambles his or her way through all the bullet points, and advances the deck to the next one. Which looks pretty much the same as the last one.
As Nick explained, what typically happens is that an audience member glances at the screen, digests the key points quickly (because we can read seven times faster than a presenter can speak), and then starts thinking about something else. After awhile, the presenter actually becomes an irritation to the reader. “Are you still droning on about that point? Move on already! We got it!”
People make some other dreadful mistakes with PowerPoint and its cousins. Sometimes the presentations are too long. Most audiences will start to lose interest after half an hour or so unless you work really hard to keep them engaged. Sometimes people simply cut and paste text from a report or a spreadsheet and slap it on the screen. Microscopic print, no highlighting or formatting, just a bunch of “stuff.” That’s a disaster.
For years I have quoted statistics that indicate a simple graphic will increase the persuasiveness of a message by about 47%. But the graphic has to be relevant to that message, not a piece of clip art or a generic photo of someone who looks like a model pretending to be a sales person or a customer. Using a good graphic works really well in sales proposals. Obviously, it would work just as well, if not better, in a presentation.
In fact, Nick urges his clients to use a lot fewer words and a lot more pictures for the vast majority of presentations. The goal is to create a slide that looks interesting but that isn’t automatically comprehensible at a glance. There should be just a bit of mystery about it. The audience member should start to think: “What does this mean? What’s the point here?” The presenter’s job is to explain the point or clarify the meaning, so that when the audience looks again at the slide, it makes sense and has an impact.
Of course, that puts some pressure on us when we are presenters. We can’t just glance at the screen and use it as a cue card to repeat the same points orally. The good news is that it will prevent us from ever lapsing into that most fatal of presentation flaws—reading the words on the screen verbatim.
What if you tend to be more verbal than you are visual? Trying to think graphically and create slides in the way Nick recommends will be like trying to play tennis left-handed if you’re normally a rightie. It’ll feel awkward and unnatural. It won’t be easy.
However, there is one important difference. Playing tennis with the wrong hand is likely to be a losing proposition. But forcing ourselves to use more graphics and less text, even though it doesn’t feel natural, will produce a lot of winners.