Rescue me now. Please.

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Clay Adams | April 30th, 2014

It was the sudden feeling of numbness that made me realize something was wrong. I should have expected it. I started to feel light-headed followed by drowsiness. My eyes started to become heavy and I found myself thinking of things that, well, I honestly can’t remember. All I know is my mind wasn’t where it should be and I was experiencing something I wish would end.

No, it wasn’t something I ate or drank (believe me, after years of my mother’s cooking I can eat anything anyway). Nor was it a drug-induced bender. This was something far more sinister.

It was a PowerPoint presentation.

You know what I mean. You’ve seen it before. It starts so innocently. An item on a meeting agenda that sounds interesting. Heck, it only has 15 minutes assigned to it so that should be ample time for a quick background summary and related discussion with a few questions and answers thrown in.

But then the horror strikes you. The presenter opens a PowerPoint document. A quick glance to the lower left and you see there are 45 slides. For a 15-minute slot. What happens next is the feeling of dread that, alas, is far too common.

The stomach tightens. You glance quickly at your watch. You check the agenda again. Did I misread the time? Was it supposed to be 150 minutes, not 15? You look at your cell phone and urge it to ring. Please, someone. Anyone. Just call me.

But then the cold reality hits you. It is too late. You are stuck like a car in a traffic jam, cursing yourself for not taking the previous exit.  There is nothing you can do but wait it out, hope the presenter will skip slides nine to 41, or pray that someone will rescue you from this PowerPoint hell by either a) calling you (yes, even a call from a telemarketer in Mumbai would be treated as a life-or-death call right now) or b) someone pulls the fire alarm (reminder – it is illegal to falsely pull a fire alarm and, unfortunately, being rescued from a PowerPoint presentation is still not grounds to do so).

The beast can be beaten

It is time that we all, like Peter Finch in Network, declare that enough is enough. It’s time to tackle the PowerPoint beast once and for all.what do we have to do? For a start:

  • Take a realistic approach to timing. I’m sorry but no matter how darn good you think you are, you cannot plow through 45 slides in 15 minutes. Rule of thumb is generally two minutes a slide – and that is if you are really focused, tightly scripted and a polished presenter. Despite what we think of ourselves, most of us aren’t this good.
  • Look at the content of the presentation itself.  Do you really need all the slides you think you do? Those who travel – well, except my missus – know that you should lay out everything you think you need to take then put at least of half of it back. Same can be said for presentations.
  • Lose the title and bio slides. People have the agenda or speaker topic. They get it. As for who you are, take a lesson from a speed dater and give a succinct and interesting verbal intro of yourself.
  • Avoid the history lesson. I don’t care what happened in 2012 let alone 2002, 1996 or when Adam and Eve were kids. Focus on what your audience needs to know now. Today. Sure, context is good. But I don’t expect my auto mechanic to tell me how an engine works before telling me he changed an oil filter!
  • Drop the “today I’m going to discuss the following” slide. Just get on with the presentation. You can also lose the “thank you for your attention” and “Questions?” slides. Both assume people are a) actually paying attention and b) interested enough to ask questions. Golden rule is “never assume”.
  • White space is not a bad thing. Fight the urge to fill every piece of a slide with text, charts, squiggles, lines, bubbles or any other bloody thing you think will make people go “wow”. They won’t!
  • Resist the temptation to use the “animation” function. Your slides don’t need to look like a Cirque Soleil show. If you want to be animated, do it with your words and presentation style, not with silly on-screen gimmicks.
  • Remember your audience can read. In other words, DON’T READ THE SLIDES OUT TO ME. If you are worried people are bored by your presentation, this technique will totally kill them (or make them consider doing that to you).
  • Think visual. Slides should really only be used to support your content. That means use them for a clearly readable data set or chart that reinforces–visually–the understanding of your content. You should even recreate such data charts to make them functional in PowerPoint. Excel and PowerPoint, like lawyers and communications people, rarely go well together.

Time for change

I could go on and on (I usually do anyway) about my various PowerPoint beefs but you get the gist. Former Apple executive Guy Kawasaki suggests the 10-20-30 rule for presentations. It’s worth a look and take note.

So, stop and think about your next PowerPoint presentation. Stop being a trafficker of slide hell and become a purveyor of real communication. Think of your audience, focus on the content and – most of all – use your words.

About the Author

Clay Adams

Clay Adams is vice president of Communications and Public Affairs and has extensive experience in strategic communications and planning, media relations, issues management and stakeholder communications in Australia and Canada. Clay writes on communication related topics with a wry humorous style and has an interest in discussion about how we want to be understood by others. View all the posts by Clay.

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5 comments on “Rescue me now. Please.

  • Maria says:

    Bless you for putting this in one convenient package! For many years I changed the mantra “a social worker is a dangerous thing with a projector”, and proposed that we should no more give clinicians unsupervised access to powerpoint than we should give communications professionals unsupervised access to the medication cupboard. I must admit I have softened my position (and honed my presentation skills, mostly by trial and…well to be honest error and error).

    Many years ago I was at a conference and witness to an incident that exemplified the problem of power point. Two presenters, both equally knowledgeable with good timely material. The first had recently discovered powerpoint and the presentation was a series of slides, with all the content printed on them, in green and purple (which becomes hideous on anything bigger than a 15 inch monitor), marching red and black ants, and a different animated change between each slide, they shattered, they rolled, and the twinked in and out of existence. By half way through the presentation I had to take a gravol and close my eyes. This presenter was followed by one who had not yet discovered powerpoint. He stood up at the front, identified himself as low tech and advised us that there were people handing out a single sheet of paper with his key points on it and we were welcome to write things one the back of it if we liked. I remembered far more from the second one.

    Powerpoint is a good tool, but one that needs to be handled with proper training, skill, and care 🙂

  • Cathy says:

    Excellent Clay, thank you. And the quick (!) vid on the 10-20-30 was also great. Only beef I would have – I like speakers to ground me – tell me what you’re going to say, say it, tell me what you said. Doesn’t need to be boring.

    • Clay Adams says:

      You make an excellent point Cathy about the focus of a presentation. Far too often we are baffled (bored?) by irrelevant details that serve no purpose other than to waste time and help the audience lose concentration. A key element of any presentation is to clearly state what you want and/or expect your audience to get from your session. Be direct (ie. this is an ask for $5 million to free the goannas) and remain focused on the two or three key components your audience needs to know (and I stress “need”) to make that decision.

  • Carrie says:

    Check this out Clay. would make for considerably more interesting meetings….

    • Clay Adams says:

      It certainly would, although the concept of a bunch of athletically buff bodies gyrating around a meeting room is interesting, frightening and – frankly – probably distracting. Hmmm, come to think of it, you may actually be onto something after all. I also found it fascinating to think there are 30 million PowerPoint presentations produced daily. No wonder Bill Gates is always smiling.

      Thanks Carrie for sharing. Now excuse me, I have to try and buff up my body and work on some pirouettes.

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