What?!? No PowerPoint?

Three different speech coaching clients have told me how they are planning to follow the steps of Amazon and do away with PowerPoint in their senior executive meetings. Fortunately, I was able to stop this colossal mistake before it was too late.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unaware of the torture and mis-communication that can happen when PowerPoint is used.  I agree and support that certain types of meetings are best conducted without it. But to toss it out completely, as a blanket absolute, is just lazy and poor judgement.  It’s also helpful to know that I’m a minimalist when it comes to the use of slides, so I’m not a PowerPoint pusher.

Because use of visual aids done poorly can render meetings a waste of time, I’m agreeing with Jeff Bezos. Why should any of us spend an hour or more to meet where there is no productive communication, no one being persuasive, no one able to successfully share ideas, so we walk away with no information?

Because we study and research communication, our team discusses this topic often. We’d rather the speaker really understand his or her point, its narrative, its framing, and then decide if print, discussion, or use of visual aids will be the most effective way to communicate. It’s simply not one size fits all.

You don’t have to panic and throw the baby out with the bath water (For my non-Western friends, this idiom refers to the idea that you want to throw away the bad and keep the good.) Let’s look at what’s really happening so you can decide for yourself if visuals such as PowerPoint, Keynote, or Prezi will be useful or not.

As stated by Monica Murphy,  a fellow communication coach, “A visual aid done well is remarkable. But to be effective one must consider the context.” In other words, the method of using visual aids should vary depending on what kind of presentation you’re giving or meeting you’re in.

For example, during a conference, keynote speech, TED talk, or high-level seminar, you might use pictures, short videos, and/or brief bullets. Slides should be minimal. Alternatively, during a board meeting, you may have a need to convey more granular information through charts, graphs and diagrams. For an academic or scientific presentation, you may need detailed, annotated, highly technical images to help convey complex ideas.

I’d like to draw attention to the word “may” in making those choices: You may not need those.

To help get a handle on this, our speech coaches advise clients to first write out their presentation in outline or full narrative mode, practice the framing, and only then ask themselves “Where would a visual aid help me as I communicate my ideas?” or “Do I need visual support at all?” This simple technique will eliminate a majority of the useless information that finds its way into many presentations.

Then, as they create slides, presenters find that some simple, powerful visuals really enhance the message. If people start with creating bullets on a deck, they are likely to leave out key information or rely too heavily on the projected words.

The Speech Improvement Company created three simple guidelines from years of research and experience with hundreds of thousands of speakers and we teach the following:

1. Synchronization. The speaker needs to be synchronized while using visual aids. That means your listeners should see it as you speak to it, not before or after.

2. Introduction and set-up. Being organized is important. You need to introduce the next topic and set up the accompanying visual before showing it. This is the secret sauce that Steve Jobs used in his riveting keynote presentations. It sounds simple, but it takes practice.

3. Talk and do. This is the ability to talk while you’re doing things at the same time. For example, if your computer crashes, can you continue your presentation as the computer restarts? Or if you are demonstrating a product, can you talk while opening screens?

Whether we are instructing at Harvard University, the White House, a company, or working with an individual, these guidelines will be taught. Why? Because they are universal, simple, and effective.

Here’s the psychology behind these techniques:

According to the late Dr. Paula Borkum Becker, Co-Founder of The Speech Improvement Company, and licensed speech pathologist, the average American English presenter, when speaking clearly, talks at a rate of 183 words per minute. Human beings can think at about 600 words per minute. Therefore, while the speaker is talking, listeners can hear the speaker, understand what’s being said, and in the back of their heads, they have around 400 or so extra words per minute available for other things. But if the speaker brings up a slide that’s busy with lots of text or other content, the brain needs to use that extra 400 words per minute capacity to process, and it doesn’t like it. It’s work. Too much work. Most people won’t do it past one or two slides, so they end up zoning out. However, in a small meeting that’s rude, so most people just keep watching, sometimes mindlessly.

People like Jeff Bezos have the confidence and authority to change the culture and say it out loud “This is not effective!” Everyone cheers, because the comment promises relief from boredom. I agree that sometimes turning off the screen is the best choice. The problem is that saying no to visual aids altogether can limit the ability to communicate complex ideas that benefit from the use of visuals. Or, it prevents even stronger transmission of ideas. Examples are showing trends, comparing numbers, analyzing data as a group, or keeping people focused on a concept. But remember, not all meetings are about analyzing data, some are presenting new ideas, so that’s why we say it’s contextual.

Imagine watching a movie with the audio and video not in sync. You can do it, but it’s not easy. It’s painful. But then imagine half-way through, it clicks back into sync. What do you feel? Relief! That is exactly what is going on with speakers who put too much information on their slides. The speaker effectively goes out of sync as listers try to digest it all. They would need to focus harder, and most listeners simply won’t do it. Instead, they zone out.

To fix this, you don’t need to abandon slides, you simply need to adjust them. Keep them simple and supportive of the narrative. If there are multiple bullets, they should appear one at a time, not because it’s cute, but because it keeps you in sync. You should think carefully if you need slides at all. Don’t assume every topic you’re talking about needs to be projected ten feet high. Somethings are simply better said than read.

Our research shows a majority of companies have a culture that asks people to communicate ideas using PowerPoint as a written form. People request the deck so they can avoid the meeting. And who can blame them when many times the meetings really are boring and a waste of time? In my book, Mastering Communication at Work, The former President of Boston Scientific, Mike Phalen, said “Sometimes I can get more from sitting with my people at lunch in 15 minutes than in a three-hour meeting”. This is because in those moments, he’s hearing an authentic narrative with the highlights. Somehow, during the formal meeting, people feel obligated to put every thought on a slide and attempt to communicate it that way.

If the decks are being created for someone to “read”, they must have enough detail to convey the entire message, with out the aid of a human. But, if the speaker shows up at the meeting and projects that deck while they are speaking, it’s asking listeners to read and listen at the same time. BAM!! Boredom. Some people call this being cruel to your listeners.

As a second generation speech coach, I can safely say with confidence that good synchronization, introduction and set up, and the ability to talk and do will help ensure you’re creating and using visuals in a way that truly helps.

I’ll share with you with one of my favorite examples of synchronization. It shows the power of thinking about your narrative and then considering visual support. I’m not proposing you use this technique, that’s a style and context issue, but this video does help demonstrate the concept. Dick Hardt does a remarkable job at using visuals to support his narrative in this famous presentation on identity.

PowerPoint and Keynote let you deliver killer presentations. With Amazon tossing it all out, they just gave up. Instead, simplify those slides, don’t ditch them. Question if you need them at all, but don’t make it an automatic no. Practice, hopefully with a speech coach providing a communication critique, by paying careful attention to the introduction and set up process for each idea. Follow our guidelines, and you’ll find your listeners saying how good you are as a communicator. They won’t even know why, they’ll just enjoy listening to you.

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