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business/ organizational communication, collaboration, file sharing

powerpointing 2g

PowerPoint is ubiquitous, and much like the rest of Microsoft Office is, in one format or another, inescapable in the business world.  However, I have bruises on my forehead from banging my head against the wall because yet another person is reading their slide verbatim during a meeting.  There are probably dozens of things wrong with that scenario, but the two most important:

  1. I can read.
  2. If I’m reading, I’m not listening to you.

In other words, you just lost WAY more than half your audience.  Even more so if you have shoehorned every possible piece of text and visual information that you can into that single slide.  As Stephanie Krieger puts it in this very nice but too long piece on Microsoft’s site, it’s “not about fitting as much as you can on the screen.”

Part of that particular puzzle is that everyone thinks they multitask, but nobody actually does.  It’s a myth.  And it’s particularly a myth if we are using two different senses.  As soon as we begin to read, we stop listening.  Two sensory inputs means that one must be moved to the back burner.  And if you’re reading out loud the same words that I’m seeing, I’m way ahead of you, and if it’s a virtual meeting, have probably started checking my e-mail by the time you get to your second bullet point.

A lot of this is old news.  We all know it, but we can’t resist putting that next piece of information in.  The second generation of the way that PowerPoint slide decks are used is now in full swing.  These are no longer just presentations, built only to be put in front an audience.  They have morphed into something that actually has much more power (bad pun) to influence, persuade and share information. 

There are three categories to slide decks now, and while each one actually requires that you not simply read the dang slides out loud, there are some violations of the “fit as much as you can” rule into a single slide that you may now violate as necessary.

There is also, necessarily, an element of inform and persuade in the two slightly newer uses of PowerPoint – to train and to report.

We’ll start, though, with the most familiar usage:

Presentations:  If you are presenting, whether virtually, over a webcast form, on video, or in person in front of a roomful of people, and your intent is to influence or persuade, then the basic rules apply.  Your slide should contain short, bulleted points that are visually interesting which pick out the meaty bits of information.

These slides should not be read out loud, but simply an anchor point for your spoken words that allows you to give the heart of the presentation verbally, with a simple influencing or persuasive statement at the end.

Sparing use of media that drives the listener/viewer away from your voice is appropriate, but people cannot seem to stop using it once they start.  Don’t put more than one video piece in a presentation unless the presentation is about pieces of video.  Seriously.

Training on Programs/Systems: When using PowerPoint for training, particularly on programs or systems, you need to tell the whole story on one slide for one instruction set, if humanly possible.  If you’re constructing a video, the slide should be subsidiary to watching the action, as you move through screenshots of the selections you’re making in the program you’re training. Your voice should guide the viewer/trainee through these screenshots.

The slide itself should capture selected snips to show exactly which button you’re pushing in the program, or which box you’re filling in, and the instruction text should point the trainee geographically to what they are selecting and why.

After the training is over, the deck should become a clear reference set of how to use the program.  During the training, if possible, the trainees should be following and repeating your actions.  If not possible, the slide set should be able to assist them, post-training, in walking through the exact steps they need to accomplish, including any “gotchas.”

Statistics/ Reporting:  Statistics are overwhelming at the best of times, and complex datasets require complex slides.  However, your verbal exposition of the slide should, at a very minimum, give the “so what” of the data.  The analysis of the answer to the “so what” should be added to the visual set of the slide.  Every slide should, again, tell a single story:

  • Beginning – the “so what,” why the data that you’re reporting on matters to your audience (note:  your audience, not you).
  • Middle – the assumptions the data rests on, not in clinical detail, but the high points.
  • End – the bottom line–what the data actually tells you that actually answers the “so what” question.

Do not, under pain of attention loss, read the numbers themselves to your audience.  Make sure, like the training slides, that the entire deck is available to your audience after the presentation, so that they can look at the separate data pieces at their leisure.


About Lisa

Senior Communications Consultant - exploring and blogging about the 2nd generation of business communication - social networking in the professional world. How to keep what's best from first gen communication and attain the best from Business Communication 2.0.


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