How to improve your presentations – a simple lesson

Presentation advice

A friend recently challenged me to provide him with my number one tip for improving his presentations. He was looking for that famous ‘low-hanging fruit’ that wouldn’t require too much effort and energy. I didn’t have to think long and hard about that question. In my past job role, I attended many conferences and sat through hundreds of presentations. Unfortunately, a majority of the presentations did not reach their full potential. It wasn’t the content. The speakers were ok in many cases. It was the slides that lowered the impact of those speeches.

Death to Bullets

Around 75% of all the slides you and I get to absorb everyday contain tons of text. Take a look at the example below. And trust me, this is a gentle case.

 

Ugly Powerpoint
The classic Powerpoint slide. Lot’s of bullets and lot’s of reading material

There is a huge problem with this type of slide design: The minute you bring it up on the screen, people will start reading. You immediately loose the attention of your audience. The more words on the screen, the longer the attention gap. It’s a natural human reaction to be drawn to the text. There is nothing you can do. I have seen really good and charismatic speakers struggle to hold the attention of their audience with these type of Powerpoints. And it get’s worse. Once you have read the text, you tend to drift off. Hey….you know the content anyway. Let’s face it – listening is for longer periods of time is hard. Your brain is constantly searching for an easy escape. Don’t believe me? Observe yourself next time you attend a presentation.

The alternative

There is the famous saying: A picture says more than a thousand words. It’s true. Instead of sticking lot’s of text on your slides, try to simplify. Reduce the text. You can try something really simple like this:

Better Powerpoint
It takes less than a minute to create a slide like this.

Or even better – use a simple picture. I am talking about tasteful photographs or graphics. But stay away from cheap cliparts.

eBook Reader
Granted this is nothing fancy. But this slide allows you to grab and hold people’s attention.

Why is this a better approach? There are several reasons why you should consider this:

  • People tend to remember pictures much better than words. You can do a test….see if you can remember the last slide.
  • Your audience doesn’t loose focus. You are the star. They need to listen to you to understand what the presentation is all about.
  • If you use beautiful and meaningful slides, people often look forward to the next set of slides. It literally keeps them engage.
  • You cannot read your slides. Reading a slide is the best way to loose the attention of your audience. Simple Powerpoints on the other hand force you to have a conversation with your audience. You sound natural and you can easily inject stories.

Easier said than done? You can purchase awesome looking stockphotos for less than a dollar today. Services like iStockphoto or Fotolia have amazing collections and their prices are very decent. Even better: Few people know that Microsoft actually offers a huge collection of awesome pictures on their Powerpoint website – for free. Check it out.

Drop those bullets

Want to improve your presentations? Drop your bullets then and develop simple slides. It’s not that difficult.

If you want some advice about how build beautiful slides that have an impact, I highly recommend the following two books:

slide:ology by Nancy Duarte – This book is probably the best one about presentation design. It’s gorgeous and there are lot’s of amazing ideas for designing awesome presentations. This is not necessarily a book that you read from the first page to the last. It’s rather an amazing compendium. I use it when I’m stuck and I need some creative ideas.

Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds – Excellent advice about designing slides. This book is concise and provides the basics for proper and elegant presentation design.

 

Making data sing in presentations

The other day, I made a bold statement about presentations: many of them suck and they especially suck when it comes to presenting data. Real meaning is often hidden in complex and dense charts. The problem is sometimes amplified by poor communication skills.

PRESENTATIONS ARE DIFFERENT

There is a fundamental difference between sitting in your office analyzing data and sitting in a meeting listening to a presentation. The second setting requires a lot of focus. Listening can be really hard at times and it is easy to loose track when we drop our attention for a few seconds. And there is no rewind button. Every time a new slide comes up our attention shifts to that slide. Our brain tries to make sense of it. Following the speaker during that brief moment is tough. The more complex a slide the longer this moment lasts and the higher the probability that the audience gets lost. To ensure that our messages are understood, we have to be thoughtful about how we present our data. Here are a few ideas that you can use to make your data sing:

1. VISUALIZE

One of the basic things I recommend is to utilize charts for presentation slides whenever we can. Reviewing raw data in a presentation setting is extremely difficult. We should not have to stare at a projector screen to make sense of data. It takes away too much focus.
Sure, there might be cases when people need to see that raw data but we can always share printed documents as backup materials if necessary.  Make it simple for your listeners and visualize the data. Look at the two contrasting examples below: it takes a while to consume the table, but the line chart immediately makes sense. Even on first sight.

The table above is inefficient. The chart works much better with presentation slides

2. CHART TYPES

Make sure to carefully select your charts, though. Not every visualization lends itself to delivering a crisp message. Once again, the things that may work for us at our desk do not necessarily have to work when we follow a presentation. The rule of thumb is to choose the chart that can most easily be understood. That might sometimes require us to drop some information. Once again: we can always supplement our slide show with backup materials. If you have difficulties selecting the right type, take a look at some advice on this site.

What happened to our revenue? This is too busy & difficult for a slide
Revenue decreased in a dramatic way. Although it is extremely colorful, this chart is a lot easier to understand.

3. SIMPLIFY

But even charts can either be too complex or we load them up with too much noise: 3D, logos, gridlines, pictures and unwise choice of colors. As a result, viewers and listeners have a hard time understanding. Presentation guru and author Garr Reynolds calls for a maximization of the signal to noise ratio: eleminate everything that could stand in the way (noise) of delivering our message (signal). Take a look at the example below. There is too much going on and our eyes tend to jump around.

Too much noise

Let’s reduce the noise and focus on the just the signal (below). Isn’t this much better?

Same date, less noise: much better!

4. MAKE IT EASY

We should eliminate everything that stands in the way of being understood by the audience. In other words, we should make it as easy as possible for them to quickly catch the important items. We can do this by amplifying the signal. Take a look at the slide above: the headline features the key message. Also, note how the 2009 bar in the prior chart immediately pops out: This must be the year our CEO left! I can see it immediately. A simple but effective trick.

5. CREATE FOCUS

Too many slides are way too busy and people easily loose attention. My basic rule is that we should only deliver one message per slide. Don’t try to cram everything into a single slide. Remember: slides are cheap! Nobody is forcing you to deliver your message in less than ten slides. It’s up to you to decide. Allow the audience to absorb the information and then move on with your story. A simple and single message on each slide ensures that the attention is quickly refocused on you – the presenter.

There is a lot going on here. But what is this all about?

The slide above is way too busy. We jump around and try to figure things out. But let’s apply the rules and also create focus on a single message that we will spread across two slides:

Slide 1: Aha! Region 2 is in a difficult situation....
Slide 2: ..only two solid customers (A & B)...the story is obvious now.

NEXT STEPS

Try to incorporate these tips into your next presentation. They will make a big difference. And it does not have to be complicated. Applying these things will help you make meetings more effective. And by doing that you can make a big contribution towards making sure that the investment in Business Analytics does not go down the drain when we put our information on slides. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues.

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After the Oscars

Just quick thought today while I am waiting to board the next plane It seems to me that there is a bit of a common theme at the Oscars and Golden Globes this year: Communication. ‘The King’s Speech’ is probably the big winner along with ‘The Social Network’. Both movies relate to how we as human beings communicate with each other.

Colin Firth plays the king who struggles with his speech. He needs to inspire his nation and has to overcome some serious challenges with the help of a talented coach. ‘The Social Network’ shows the audience how Facebook was created along with the different human struggles (and lawsuits) along the way. Both are fascinating movies. Both movies deal with communication. Is there a reason for that?

Communication still is a major problem for us as human beings. Not only in our private life but also in business. And the issues seem to grow in this changing world. We are all traveling, we are busy, we deal with complexity. Here is the Dad who travels for business and wants to connect with his family. There is the finance manager who needs to communicate the brutal truth that the numbers are revealing. Or take the sales person who is trying to sell a new and complex product to a new customer who ‘who just doesn’t get it’. We sit through mind-numbing corporate slide shows without a clear message. But most importantly a great majority of people want their voice to be heard. And that is exactly what these movies are about. The kings is looking to convince his nation. Facebook is helping people connect with their friends and family so that their voices are heard and transmitted.

Luckily we have technology today. There is email, there are iPhones, there is Twitter. We use Powerpoint to deliver our message. We have Business Analytics to find meaning in data and communicate the information to our teams. The people in Egypt used Facebook and Twitter to organize themselves.

But at the end of the day we are still struggling with the same problems: how can we best get our personal message across? Technology is the enabler we still have to do the heavy lifting.