While this global pandemic changed almost every aspect of our lives, one thing is, sadly, still going strong: bad PowerPoint presentations.
While we have endured “death by PowerPoint” for years, presenting via videoconference creates so many additional challenges for the presenter—and for the audience. Videoconference audiences have many distractions, and it’s almost impossible to “read the room” when the room is a virtual one. As a result, one of the realities of “the new normal” is a significant increase in bad presentations, wasted time, lost opportunities, and executive heartburn.
So, what to do? We can’t simply “ban slide decks,” though some companies have tried. Research shows that, for most situations, using supporting visuals instead of just memos or speaking without any visual support is demonstrably more effective.
A better solution is what my friend and colleague Andrew Abela, a widely recognized expert on effective communication who also happens to be the Dean of the business school at Catholic University, calls evidence-based presentation design. Having trained and consulted to companies like Microsoft and JP Morgan Chase, never mind his prior career as a brand manager and McKinsey consultant, Andrew has deep expertise in what works when you’re giving a presentation … and what doesn’t. I sat down with Andrew to get some tips on how to give better presentations generally, and especially when you have to give them on Zoom, Teams, or Google Meet.
“Evidence- based presentation design,” Andrew explains, “is an approach to visual communication that’s based in extensive empirical research. We’ve been teaching it for more than a decade now, and the results are spectacular. Our graduates learn to convert stultifying 30- or 40-slide PowerPoint decks into one to five visuals that seize their audiences’ attention and influence them to take action.”
There is, of course, a catch, as Andrew explained to me. When it comes to giving presentations, all of us, even the Millennials, are Old Dogs. We’ve all been indoctrinated from a young age in how to give PowerPoint presentations—and evidence-based presentation design is a New Trick. Most managers and staff have been designing (bad) PowerPoint for decades: your 25-year old analyst has been using PowerPoint literally since she was in grade school—or maybe even longer. So there is a lot of unlearning to be done—but it’s worth it.
To get you started on the learning and unlearning, following is a synthesis of evidence-based presentation design into a dozen principles. You can learn these; you can teach them to your team; and you can all get better together … and have much more productive meetings, whether by Zoom or as we transition back into “live” presentations.
1. There is no single solution to overcoming bad PowerPoint. It’s not simply a question of getting the storytelling right, or the content, or the visuals, or the audience-focus. You have to get all of them right, simultaneously.
2. You must develop an understanding of how your audience wants and likes to receive information, and present accordingly. Forget the “Golden Rule”: don’t treat your audience as you would like to be treated; treat them as they would like to be treated. Everyone is different: you may be detail-oriented, but there will be some in your audience who care much more about the big picture. You may be action-oriented, but some in your audience will find you impulsive if you don’t consider all the options. So think about these differences, and make sure that your presentation will resonate with all the styles in your audience.
3. Every presentation must have a clear set of objectives, but those the objectives should not only be about your agenda. That’s just self-indulgence. As you plan your presentation, you must work to be clear in your mind about how you want your audiences’ minds and actions to change after your presentation. How do you want them to think differently? What do you hope they will do? Those should be your metrics for success.
4. Your entire presentation should be focused on solving a problem for your audience. Why is your audience taking the time to listen to you? What do they need help with? What are they struggling to overcome or achieve—and do they even fully understand the core problem, or just the symptoms? If you don’t know what their problem is—or if you don’t let them know you know it by minute two of your presentation—you can be sure that they’ll be doing email by minute four.
5. None of these principles is meant to suggest that your content itself doesn’t matter. Of course it matters a lot, but only if it matters to the audience! Which is why the first four principles all focus on audience. That said, there is good content and bad content, and both research and common sense tell us which is which. Good content is new, detailed, relevant, balanced (i.e. arguments both for and against your proposal), and, especially, surprising. Bad content is tired, irrelevant, the wrong level of detail, boring, or anything intended to induce guilt or irritation.
6. In order to be memorable, each of your main points should be illustrated with some kind of story or example. These should be specific and particular. So much of our presentation content consists of abstract generalizations and conclusions involving millions of observations, transactions, dollars. Yet daily life for each of us takes place in the particular: this spouse, that colleague, these kids, that car. So take every general point and bring it down to the particular—why does this point really matter?
7. Whenever you can, deliver your presentation in the form of a story. Stories work by creating and then resolving tension. Begin by creating tension for your audience: ask a pressing question (their problem from principle four is usually a good one) or tell a frightening story, and then resolve that tension with your content and recommendation. You’ll never resolve the tension fully, so then raise a remaining concern, and resolve that. Remember that human beings are narrative creatures—stories move us much more than mere data does. One tool you can use is the S.Co.R.E. framework: Situation, Complication, Resolution, Example. After a brief (30 second) setting of the stage (the Situation), you create tension (Complication), provide content to resolve it (Resolution), and then share a particular case (Example). Then you repeat the Co.R.E.: anticipating each of your audience’s likely objections (Complication), in turn, and resolving them (Resolution and Example), as many times as you need to, until you’ve overcome all likely resistance.
8. Think carefully about the format of each chart or diagram you share. Whenever you use an illustration, that picture should clearly support the point you want to make. Make sure the depiction is objective and remove extraneous data or noise. The message you’re trying to convey with your data should guide your choice of image. People have found the Chart Chooser graphic to be helpful: it’s been translated into over a dozen languages.
9. Don’t start to create a single slide until you’re satisfied that you’ve completely fulfilled the first eight principles. No exceptions! Be clear on your purpose, what the audience wants and needs, and the arc of your narrative. Before you boot up PowerPoint, be sure you have a compelling narrative with support for all your point. Consider using an outline or a storyboard. Even the best presenters can’t free-compose on PowerPoint.
10. Each and every slide should pass the “squint test”: when you squint at the slide so that it blurs and the text is illegible, do you still get a sense of what the slide is about? If not, redesign it until it does. If you have trouble getting this right, you might want to try the nifty Slide Chooser tool.
11. Each and every slide should show all of the relevant details and data to support your message, and only the relevant details. Eliminate, mercilessly, every word, bit, digression, or embellishment that is not absolutely necessary to communicate or reinforce your message.
12. Finally, send your presentation deck to your audience in advance. “But then I’ll lose control of the conversation!” You never had control anyway: your audience is gone the moment they’re bored. You want your audience to engage with your content, not sit passively while you drone through it. For some this will mean reading in advance; for others, marking the deck up while you present; for still others, reading ahead while you talk. It’s all good: allow people to engage on their own terms, and you’ll get what you want: impact.
The more of these principles you violate, the more your presentation will waste your audience’s time—and your own. Follow these principles faithfully and you’ll experience new-found engagement with and impact on your audience, no matter how remote they are.
We’re not pretending any of this easy—remember, we’re all Old Dogs, and this is a New Trick. But the effort is worth it: time saved, greatly improved impact, and—because you get to agreement sooner—fewer Zoom meetings.
If you’d like to learn more about evidence-based presentation design, check out Dr. Abela’s “Extreme Presentations” website.
Communication skills are one of the most important competencies for any manager, and almost every performance review and employee survey points out how we can all get better at communication. The dozen principles above really work. You and your team should practice them as if your business and careers depend on them … because they do.
I am a leadership advisor and coach who helps CEOs and other senior executives navigate through critical “inflection points” in their careers and businesses. In my recent