I don’t usually write articles; instead, I am usually the one for whom others write. For almost a decade I published the Presentation Pointers newsletter and managed the Presenters University Web site. We brought solid presentation-oriented advice to hundreds of thousands of people. It was satisfying work.
Well, all good things eventually end, and sometimes we need those endings to shake off the cobwebs and open our eyes to the changes happening around us. As I leaped from 1998 to 2008 to become the publisher of PresentationXpert, I was struck by how many changes had occurred in the Web world. From blogs, RSS feeds, and wikis, the Web has gone from a one-way, broadcast-type tool to a participatory medium where anyone can get the information that they want, when and how they want it, and have fun while doing so.
Have presentations changed similarly? Can we draw parallels between the evolution of the Web and changes in presentations? Like the Web, I think most of the changes have occurred in how the information is delivered and how the audience participates. And although changes have occurred across all aspects of presentations, many of the premises upon which good communications is built remain eternal.
Presentations sit on a three-legged stool
Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design may have been the first person who shared with me the analogy of presentations being like a three-legged stool, but this presentation concept is timeless. Effective presentations sit on the legs of a compelling message, clear visuals that support that message, and a solid delivery that does not detract from the first two fundamentals.
If you compare presentation advice in 1998 with today, there have been some shifts and changes for all three legs of the stool.
Visuals – From Better Bullets to Relevant Images
By far the presentation leg that has received the most press and attention are the visuals. In 1998, it was standard for most people to present slides consisting of primarily text-heavy bullet points. In fact, the advice of the day was to just cut down on the number of words. “Old-timers” may recall the 6-6-6 rule: no more than six words to a bullet, no more than six bullets on a page, and no more than six bullet slides in a row. And then you had to insert a chart or something for some visual relief!
Then there was the trick of putting the words inside different shapes to disguise the fact that they were really bullets. Here is a good example, and although better than a list of bullets with complete sentences, bullets they are nonetheless.
While many will argue that there are still too many mindless slides filled with copious numbers of words and bullets, the industry has changed, and started to do so seriously soon after the turn of the century. Edward Tufte famously declared that “PowerPoint is Evil” and Death by PowerPoint became a rallying cry to change presentation visuals from something that impedes comprehension, to graphics and design that actually supported the message.
Microsoft may have been alarmed about the animosity directed towards PowerPoint in particular, although probably not too much. The popularity of Corel Presentations had dwindled with the decline of the WordPerfect Office Suite, Keynote wasn’t yet very well known, Impress had a small following and the Web-based presentation tools weren’t yet available. So PowerPoint was, and still is, the main game in town. But the pointed attacks on PowerPoint may have played a part in Microsoft Press publishing Cliff Atkinson’s book, Beyond Bullet Points, which advocated writing your script first and then choosing simple photos and images to use as visual props and prompts for the vocal delivery.
For those who are interested in the research behind it all…
The use of simple images and narration as the basis for effective audience comprehension has its roots in Allan Paivio’s 1986 dual-coding theory— that visual and verbal information is each processed along distinct mental channels. Thus looking at a photo and listening to a narration relative to that image can help with comprehension because the visual and verbal information does not compete with each other. (…still with me?) But, written bullet points do just the opposite, according to Dave Paradi in his remarks at the 2007 PowerPoint Live Conference. As I understood what Dave said, when we see written words on a screen, we almost can’t help but read them to ourselves. Thus we have created narration in our heads while also trying to listen to the presenter, and by doing so overload that channel and decrease comprehension.
So should your presentation consist solely of photographs and images supporting your verbal comments? Possibly (and if you do, follow these steps from Geetesh Bajaj’s Compressing Pictures in PowerPoint to reduce file bloat), but that isn’t always practical. For many SlideShare presentations, those without accompanying audio, you need at least simple titles to act as the narrator for your story, as was delightfully depicted in Ethos3’s “Meet Henry.”
I have one last point about visuals, and that is about business graphics. A photo isn’t always going to do it, especially if you are presenting data to your client or to your boss. In Designing Winning Business Presentations, Mike Parkinson reviews 10 rules for presentation graphics. In my mind, rule #8 is the most important. All visual elements should have a specific role in the explanation and a reason for being chosen and incorporated. The important point is that the graphic is relevant to your message.
Which brings us to content…
Content—From Mechanics to Emotion
The content leg of our stool has incurred more subtle changes than visuals in the last decade. As I perused the presentation articles of the late 90s, the emphasis was on a repetitive formula of “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Presenters were advised to use a strong opening, with perhaps a startling fact to get the audience’s attention, then follow one of the then-prescribed models to inform or persuade—depending upon your objective—and finally end with a memorable conclusion that you knew cold and could launch into at a moment’s notice if the decision-maker suddenly announced that you needed to “wrap it up.” It was all pretty mechanical.
What was just then beginning to emerge was a focus on the audience. You didn’t just decide what you thought was important to tell them. You needed to understand where they were coming from, what was important to them, how to connect with them emotionally and collaborate so that you journeyed together through the presentation.
Where we are today is the dominance of storytelling as the means to share your content in a manner that resonates with members in the audience. A story demonstrates the human quality of your presentation. People have been using stories to inform and persuade since prehistoric times, so there is nothing new here. But perhaps the advances in technology, specifically software that could not only make snazzy visuals, but allow them to be changed on a whim, got in the way of relating the story. Today there are many resources to help you with your story, two of which are Scott Schwertly’s The Power of Story or Doug Stevenson’s YouTube demonstration of Leadership Story Presentation Skills.
Bert Decker wrote in his recent SlideShare post that YOU are the presentation, when he was talking about personal delivery. And in 1998 I would have agreed with that statement. In fact, I routinely gave a presentation on behalf of the now defunct Proxima Corporation that declared just that. And I do still believe it. YOU are the presentation when it comes to a powerful and well-crafted delivery. But I would argue that YOU are the presentation when it comes to your presentation content as well. It is YOUR message, supporting YOUR purpose, and above all, it’s YOUR stories, ones in which you are personally committed, that will get the job done.
Content will always be king. That’s why you do it first. Then you craft your visuals to support, not interfere with your story and finally deliver it in the most meaningful way possible.
This brings us to the final leg of the stool…
Delivery—A World Wide Difference
In looking for parallels between changes in presentations and the changes in the Web from 1998 to 2008, delivery is where I found them.
It all has to do with the control now demanded by us, the audience. We don’t have to physically show up for a presentation. We can see it on the Web—or in Second Life. If you missed it live, for sure there will be a link where you can access it later when it is convenient. And if you do show up live, you want the presenter to cover the content in the order that you prefer and address your questions as you go along, rather than sit end-to-end through a linear slide deck. So the presenters have had to adapt. Ellen Finkelstein offers one approach to dynamic presentations in Use a Menu to Create an Audience-Centered Presentation.
For the presenters giving Webcasts, slidecasts, podcasts and the like, new delivery skills are required. How do you physically change your presentation style when your audience can only see you from the chest up, or the neck up? What about if they can only hear your voice?
For those giving in-person presentations, the advice for 2008 is remarkably similar to the advice in 1998. You need a relaxed presence and good eye contact with the members of your audience, so that you are conversing with them as you share your story. But it doesn’t end there. You need to engage in what Jim Endicott of Distinction Communication calls purposeful movement—specific and planned body movements that you make with intent in mind. Here is an example. When beginning a story to make a point, move forward, towards your audience and stand close to them. All eyes will go to you and the audience will be drawn to what you are saying. As you complete your point, back up towards the screen, which is your physical cue to the audience that you are now moving on with your presentation. (This technique also works great if you have a disruptive audience member in a small setting who keeps interrupting your presentation. Walk up close to him or her. Actually get into their physical space. You’ll get their attention and the rest of the room’s too. Then you can back away towards your screen while speaking and take back control of the presentation.)
Technology—the Fourth Leg?
The tools we use, from projectors to software, all influence our presentations. Our goal should be that we use the technology to complement our efforts and not let it be a distraction. Where will presentation technology take us a decade from now? For a peek, see what Robert Lindstrom found when he was Trawling the CES Floor in Search of Presentation Treasure.
So much has changed since 1998. Ten years doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but when it comes to presentations, like the Web, sometimes it’s a generation.