Why presentations become bullet list deserts

Now wheres that banana icon?

I assume that many of you are familiar with Edward Tufte and his indictment of current presentation practices: “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint“.  If not, you should read the essay.  For me, it was like looking at a personal “worst of”.  But while Tufte tells me what’s wrong, I don’t get much insight on how to make it right.  In particular, I wonder why so many default to bullet lists when the point could have been made so much more effectively with a simple graphic.

Nancy Duarte post’s title says it all: “It Used to Take Three Highly-Trained Professionals to Make a Presentation.”  A single person has all these wonderful tools, but none of the skills and experience needed to convey the information.  It’s safer to dump it into lists or into a overly-detailed graphic.  There’s no cure, but per Duarte:

Next time you have an important presentation that uses charts or data of any kind, at least meet with someone else to get another perspective on whether you’re using the data in the most effective way.

Structuring that presentation story

Leave the branding to me...

Leave the branding to me...

My last full post — on effective presentations — highlighted the “Post-It” method for composing and arranging one’s story.  There are other techniques that help to structure one’s story line and its foundation.

I’ve found affinity diagramming an essential tool for brainstorming.  The process is can be really just as simple as outlined in the affinity diagram wikipedia entry (here):

Record each idea on cards or notes (Post-It’s work great)
Look for ideas that seem to be related
Sort cards into groups until all cards have been used.

There are a number of ways in this basic process can be refined.  In particular, I like to conduct the basic process in silence, which encourages participation from less vocal members.  Discussion can resume once it is time to label groups, tag folks with follow ups, etc.  As you’d imagine, affinity diagrams on Post-It’s can easily be transformed into a nice presentation story flow.

Glen Alleman outlines an even more story-oriented approach in his comment to my original post.  While I’m not familiar with the author he cites, the idea of adapting the classic “three act structure” to presentation structure is outstanding.

Let me tell you a story…

That’s the way my strategy professor at business school introduced us to vision and mission.  And that’s what the most effective presentations do, IMO: tell a story.  However, many of us technical and semi-technical folks feel nothing but fear and trembling when we’re asked to “put together a deck.”

To that end, Jonathan Becher here passes along some great tips on creating compelling presentations from Nancy Duarte.  Duarte makes three points that Jonathan summarizes neatly. We too often:

  1. Try to make presentations serve as documentation.
  2. Skimp on preparation.
  3. Misuse or ignore visual design principles.

While I haven’t read the book, the post’s summary and the video clip sure make it sound appealing.  In particular, I like the practical guidance — e.g., the “Post It” approach — that Jonathan passes along.  I can testify to this method’s effectiveness in condensing thoughts into single points, which can then be moved around into a coherent story.

PM Quote of the Day — Baldassare Castiglione

Employ in everything a certain casualness which conceals art and creates the impression that what is done and said is accomplished without effort and without its being thought about.

I used to believe that sprezzatura — the “unstudied nonchalance” Castiglione describes in The Book of the Courtier — must be something one is born with.  A hint about the truth is in Castiglione’s own words: “which conceals art and creates the impression….”

My closest partner in a business school entrepreneurship project was an experienced and accomplished sales executive.  He appeared so fluid and at ease when selling an idea, advancing a position, or pitching a business plan.   But his apparently innate grace was actually quite studied.  For example, when prepping for a sales call, he dedicated hours, even days, to careful preparation.  I was a bit shocked at the effort he insisted on for all our project’s communications; I had always thought sales folks winged it most of the time. 

This approach came in handy when we delivered our new venture pitch.  It took us weeks to revise the story line, refine the presentation, and familiarize ourselves with every nook and cranny of the venue.  At showtime, our delivery was notably more polished and assured than our competitors. 

But the real benefit was when something unexpected came up on one slide: an “obvious” typo.  I knew the material so well that I didn’t freeze.  With a sense of ease and comfort, I simply talked to the slide’s point.  Well, with one twist…

We’re have a pilot customer lined up — insert Company Name here — and we’re going to start the implementation shortly… just as soon as we learn to spell obvious.

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