Building Good PowerPoint – Part 1

June 3, 2010

I’m going to go off on a clear communication and PowerPoint harangue for at least the next few posts. Hopefully it will be interesting. At a minimum it will make me feel better.

A big part of my day job is spent teaching, helping construct, reviewing and delivering presentations to either classes or clients. I have helped build or witnessed hundreds of presentations over the last decade, so I see a lot of PowerPoint and have developed a strong opinion about what works and doesn’t work.

I just taught an executive education session on Critical Thinking & Communication that I’ve been offering for several years now. As attendance has steadily grown, I continue to be surprised at how much help people want with the basics of clear communication. I started with the class being largely about problem formulation and research design, as people struggle with that as well. But I’ll likely be breaking out the presentation component as its own class in the future because of the demand for help building well structured communication.

It re-enforced for me how few of us are ever really exposed to serious critical thinking training and feedback. I was fortunate to get beaten down for poor thinking from an early age in a good school system and had difficult teachers who actually wanted evidence. My business communication perspective emerged from this background. “So what?” and “Prove it!” are base concepts I took away. So how can we think about this in getting better at management/business communications?

I plan to post on three sub-themes over the next few weeks:

1)     Commenting on the “PowerPoint is lame/sucks talk”. My biggest argument here is (again) “so what?”. It’s the de-facto presentation format, so use it well rather than just railing against it.

2)     Building a useful and compelling story. The focus will be on structuring the communication vehicle, NOT on how to present.

3)     Building a good PowerPoint slide. Too much bad PowerPoint has been perpetuated on the world already.

Part 1: PowerPoint isn’t the biggest problem…

…it’s how simplistically people use it. It’s the thinking more than the tool.

A recent New York Times article “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint” offered up as an example of this tension as currently experienced in the US military.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

Here’s a graphic of that slide.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

My thought: That’s exactly right. It’s not a terrible slide if the takeaway is “this is immensely complex.” It is terrible if the author intended to actually go through it as a template for discussing causality in the conflict.

Later in the article, another officer, Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster likened PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

I agree. But would a 1 page word document be better? Maybe – I am an advocate of prose forcing you to actually articulate the thought. But crummy logic and weak analysis is what it is.

In this case, military officers are presenting in a format that is approved by management and allowing sloppy thinking to be passed along. I am confident that the presenters didn’t think “I’m going to show my bosses (the generals) something that represents my views in a format that has worked for me in the past” rather than “let’s show the boss junk and see what he says!”.

If I’m right, this means the material McChrystal and McMaster tear apart represents what their chain of command deemed appropriate. They didn’t come to that conclusion on their own. It’s been inculcated. That makes them just like thousands of other organizations.

So what’s a soul to do? We have to present our content and most of us reside in organizations that assume PowerPoint usage.

It’s not very practical to say “PowerPoint sucks, so don’t use it.” Many of us live in a PowerPoint world. As an executive at 3M and a large consulting firm, I didn’t have the luxury of saying “I think PPT is inelegant, so here’s my clever rendering of data in a form you are unaccustomed to. Please be impressed by my clear thinking and originality as I ask you for phase gate approval in a format completely different from the other 10 proposals you saw today.”

Edward Tufte is a thought leader in information design that I respect highly. I would echo his sentiment from this old article in Wired magazine:

“PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.”

He decimates PowerPoint in a pamphlet he published several years ago (The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint). I agree with his assessment of how he sees it applied and how its templates drive you to appearing shallower than you might like. (As an example, I mock my students who use “SmartArt” templates or stupid clip art as substitutes for actual thinking.The tool’s name is an oxymoron.)

Never-the-less, I think we are stuck with PowerPoint. So how do we make an admittedly challenged tool as useful as possible? We’ll explore that in several coming posts. The keys are actually having a point, a story to communicate it and then building specific slides that represent your thinking.

In parting, I saw this hilarious video of Don McMillan offering funny, but sound, advice on using PowerPoint on David Airey’s thoughtful blog on design and branding.

It’s important to laugh or you’d cry. Let me know your thoughts…


Pre-selling Ideas

March 28, 2010

A big part of any professional’s success is the ability to get buy-in for their ideas. The ideas could be big investments, changes to internal process that require significant change, making a major hire…anything really. In situations where a group will weigh in on a decision it is particularly important to “pre-sell” your idea.

What do I mean by “pre-sell”? Simply allowing other stakeholders or decision-makers sufficient prior input so that you can factor it into your ultimate presentation and delivery.

Reasons for doing it include:

Understanding. You want to be clear on the politics and decision making process. Who in the room gets along with whom? What are everyone’s pet projects or interests? Etc.

Testing. Running your material by people in advance allows you to understand what specific elements of your story and analysis are or are not working. You can iterate your work to better tune it to your audience’s interests and biases. An example can be as simple as using the right language or concept. The same idea may be sold on “profit growth” or “revenue growth”. Which is a better tack given the culture? In a past life, I went through having to describe everything as a Six Sigma initiative. So be it.

Quality Assurance. In “testing” I mean more pre-flighting the content. QA means making sure your math and assumptions are correct. If a key number or assumption is wrong in a public/decision making forum, your idea will die a painful and public death. This is particularly important on very technical or detail oriented topics.

Efficiency. Having more intimate 1:1 conversations allows for fuller explanation of ideas relative to a particular stakeholder’s concerns. For example, the CFO may have much more detailed financial concerns than others. If you can walk her through all your spreadsheets in advance and she knows they are in the appendix, you have her on board and don’t need to dwell on the details in a large group.

Anticipating. You want to make sure you understand who doesn’t agree with you. This allows you to plan the presentation accordingly and either directly address concerns through adapting your material or planning your rebuttal. This is particularly important in meetings where you need a decision and the group meets infrequently. Examples include quarterly gate review teams. If you miss a window, you can’t revisit for 3 months. Not good.

Inclusiveness. If an idea is “yours” it may or may not sell based on your reputation. If many or most of the people in the room listening have their fingerprints on it and can see their interests being met, it will be much more consensus driven process. The best examples are when someone challenges a number in you presentation and someone else can explain and defend the value.

Avoiding. Often politics are involved. You never want a big debate or fight to break out when your idea is up for discussion (unless you have consciously set it up that way). If several stakeholders actively disagree, get that out before the meeting and figure out how to best satisfy all parties if you can.

So some simple rules for pre-selling:

  • Show your work in advance
  • Listen
  • Give people opportunities to provide meaningful input
  • Take advice
  • Offer credit where credit is due
  • Understand stakeholder’s perspectives
  • Get work done early enough to be able to share
  • Construct content that it is clear and professional

Some obvious “don’ts”:

  • Ambush people
  • Surprise people
  • Avoid feedback
  • Go it alone

If your idea doesn’t fly, you don’t want it to be for lack of planning or effort.


Performing When the Lights Come On

May 3, 2009

This week we began our cycle of final client presentations and I was reminded of the importance of performing well in the meeting. This is another “obvious point from Phil”, but let me elaborate.

You can have the most dynamic, data driven and compelling story in the world. But if you don’t sell it and respond credibly to questioning in the meeting then you’re dead. Don’t forget that your audience is not just buying into your content. They are deciding whether they buy you.

So what can we do to improve our likelihood of success? Let’s break it down into components:

The Presentation

I won’t spend too much time here as I think this is an entire multi-post series. However, a few important points are worth making.

1)     Make sure it looks professional – If you couldn’t take the time to make it appear decent, why should I take time to listen? 

2)     Be sure to have run it by stakeholders for vetting and input (as appropriate) – You don’t want to be surfacing “new” or controversial information in most cases. You want people to be saying “I agree” and “that will work” etc. Particularly if you are looking for a decision in the meeting you need all “Ts” crossed and “I’s” dotted. Any doubts will send you to “take another look at that and we’ll re-consider this…” hell.

3)     Have organized it logically to tell the story you want to convey based on your audience – Make sure the story flows and builds sensibly. Your audience won’t all be at the same place, so be careful to ensure you’ve given enough context or background. If you are building to one conclusion you organize differently than if you have a series of decisions etc. Never jam up your material with lots of junk slides. Feel free to use your appendix liberally. A general rule of thumb on slides is that if you don’t have 2-3 minutes of discussion per slide (on average) then you should push it to the back.  I’ll write more on this in the future.

4)     Don’t fall in love with your research/data. There is a phenomenon called “the curse of knowledge”. It essentially states when you know something too well you have a hard time summarizing it simply for novices. Never forget you have spent hours, weeks or months thinking about some of your material. Your audience has 30-60 minutes. Bring it up to an understandable level of summary. Also exclude unnecessary charts or data that are “cool” but not relevant to your central story. The appendix can be huge and is great for this content. You certainly want people to understand how much work has been done, but don’t want to distract.

The Delivery

As I mention above, if you deliver your content poorly it will die. You may not get eaten up, more likely you will just be ignored. Your ability to “stand and deliver” will have a big influence on your effectiveness.

1)     Be confident. Lack of confidence is a killer. It makes everyone in the room less sure of what you are telling them and raises unnecessary doubts. If you are not in fact confident, figure out how to seem so. As they say, “fake it ‘til you make it”.  The more you do it, the more comfortable you are.

2)     Understand your goals and be disciplined in what you do/don’t say. You can’t be trying to make 26 points. Pick your 2-3 major storyline elements and hammer them. You should not get to the end and have people say “that was great” and not know what they need to do.

3)     Pace your content appropriately for the level of thought and discussion required. If you have 63 slides and need several contentious decisions made then 60 minutes isn’t enough. Sometimes you are asked to recommend, sometimes to facilitate discussion. These are very different goals and require different structure of content and delivery of material. Plan accordingly.

4)     Be prepared for challenges. It’s important to have thought through who will be in the room (stakeholders) and what each person’s likely interests and objections are. Ideally you’re on top of this enough to have adjusted your slides to address this, but either way you need to be able to respond in real time.

5)     Plan potential responses. For the top likely challenges you can build well formulated responses, even including specific appendix slides. It’s very compelling when you can specifically address these types of challenges. First, you demonstrate that you thought of the issue. Second, you carried the thought through to analysis and built content around it. Third, it potentially allows you to show respect to opposing points of view. The act of building content can convey open-mindedness.

My experience is that if you are well prepared for key lines of questioning then you will receive fewer challenges as the presentation progresses. Basically, they’ve bought that you know your stuff and allow you to proceed. If you can’t address the first several challenges…ouch. It’s going to be a long day.

6)     Understand the room & setting you are in. You need to be prepared for all the little details of staging. Are we around a table, are there 5 or 50 people etc.? There isn’t a universal rule for “what’s best” . But you do need to understand the environment you’ll be in to effectively plan your delivery.

7)     Be respectful in responding. If you lose your temper or are casually dismissive of any audience member you severely limit your effectiveness.

8)     Practice. If the first time you’re going through your material is in the moment then you won’t have anticipated many of the pitfalls inherent in your content. Several dry runs turn up both flaws in logic, as well as slide/content mistakes.

9)     Manage your nerves/Have fun! I personally enjoy the “joust” of presenting and persuading, but I still get nervous. Practice helps this. In addition, I’d encourage you to take the attitude that this is your opportunity to show all your work.

There are many other subtle tips to offer, but if you actually work at the advice above you’ll have less pain and more success. A disproportionate amount of career success comes from how well you deliver in these key situations. You want to be building a positive reputation.

Let me know if you have questions or would like me to dig into any of these areas more.


Book Recommendation: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

February 7, 2009

Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) was recently recommended to me by a friend and former classmate. He feels Pink hits on an emerging trend towards different kinds of work and skills emerging. Then I put it together. Pink had also written The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, a manga style graphic novel on career management that I had seen reviewed in a few places. I decided to pick it up.

 

It’s great.

 

Pink lays out an entertaining, sometimes funny and most importantly brief overview of some core career management concepts.

 

Pink uses Diana, a magical career coach/sprite, to deliver the key themes in a step by step process. While torturing Johnny as he bumbles through trying to advance his career, six key themes are revealed as summary lessons learned from each “chapter” of the book.

 

1.      There is no plan

2.      Think strengths, not weaknesses

3.      It’s not about you

4.      Persistence trumps talent

5.      Make excellent mistakes

6.      Leave an imprint

 

For those who have read some of my posts or know me you can probably guess why I appreciate this piece. The positive, engaging, “find yourself” message that Pink delivers while also encouraging activity and progress lines up with my world view.

 

I have given a copy to all of my students and they all have said it was a fun and quick read. I recommend it to those who have grown up reading comics or who groan at the thought of reading hundreds of pages to understand a few key principles.


Presentation Advice from Chip & Dan Heath

December 18, 2008

Made to Stick is a great guide to building and communicating your ideas more effectively. I thought this link to the Heath brothers’ Fast Company column on delivering presentations was interesting.

It reinforces (and better states) my point about creating questions in your audiences’ minds and then answering them.

Whenever you are presenting, think of each slide or major point as begging a question you then need to answer. The gradual reveal pulls your audience or reader along. To do this you have to have layed out a logical storyline, thus imposing orgaizational discipline.