13 February 2015

Zen and the Art of PowerPoint

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love PowerPoint

Do you hate PowerPoint? I mean really hate PowerPoint? Get over it. It’s not going away anytime soon.

No matter who you are, no matter what you do, your time will come. And, if the odds remain consistent, your weapon of choice won’t be pithy remarks on 3x5 cards, a snappy information paper, or a brilliant “elevator speech.” It’s going to be a stack of PowerPoint slides.

From industry boardrooms to the hallowed halls of the E-Ring, PowerPoint (or a close derivative) is the medium of choice for communicating key ideas between groups of people. On any given day, someone somewhere announces the death of PowerPoint, yet when the sun rises with another day, it’s still there. Laughing at you, mocking you, dragging you down into the depths of PowerPoint Hell.

The reality is that PowerPoint really isn’t the problem. It’s just a tool, after all. The problem is the tool behind the tool. The major who seems to forget the “brief” in “briefing.” That clown in the G-2 who insists that the weather makes every slide classified. The half-illiterate buffoon whose slides would make Webster roll over in his grave. You know who I’m talking about. And you’ve endured the misery of their meager attempts to communicate.

But this isn’t about them, it’s about you. It’s about making you a better briefer. A better communicator. Someone able to convey ideas concisely and clearly. Someone who doesn’t make people cringe when they see you walking into a conference room. This is about finding your Zen. In a PowerPoint slide.

So, how can you attain Zen? How can you find your PowerPoint happy place?

Karaoke. This is the most common trap for briefers, the tendency to read back the slides. Every. Last. Word. Assume your audience can read. When you brief a slide, highlight what’s important, emphasize the key points. Give them time to read the slide and don’t linger in the silence like a bad fart in church.

The Auctioneer. You’ve got 150 slides and 30 minutes. The only way to get through them is to rifle from slide-to-slide like an auctioneer with a gastro-intestinal disorder. Here’s an idea: no matter the subject, start with 10 slides and cut from there. Take your time and makes sure that at least 1/3 of your time is left for discussion (the ‘2/3–1/3 rule’). Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

Bob the Builder. Don’t be the guy who uses one slide filled with a lot of complicated builds. One, you can’t print read-aheads. Two, it’s really annoying. Always remember that simplicity is a principle of war for a reason.

The Jedi Mind Trick. There’s nothing worse than someone who briefs something completely different than what’s displayed on the slides. It becomes a “These aren’t the slides you’re looking for.” moment. If you want to use a Jedi mind trick, stick to one that will leave your audience impressed.

Where’s Waldo? Then there’s the slide that never comes to a point, where the audience sits in silence trying to figure out the bottom line. Do your audience a favor: make your slides clear, and think about adding a banner across the bottom that highlights your key point. If you have to explain the meaning of a slide to an audience, you’ve already lost them.

The Big Voice. You’re not broadcasting missile alert warnings at Camp Liberty. Use a little voice modulation. Speak loud enough to be heard, but not so loud the audience starts looking for a concrete bunker.

The Slide Whisperer. The opposite of the Big Voice, this is the Seinfeld “low talker.” This might be a great method to make people listen really close to what you’re saying, but it’s a terrible method for briefing. Refer to #6, in the event you missed the point.

The Optometrist. Ever see a slide with font so small you needed a magnifying glass to read it? Briefings aren’t intended to be be eye exams. Pick a font of suitable size and appropriate format and stick to it. Your audience will thank you.

The Intimidator. Unless you’re a Sith lord, avoid using an intimidating posture and tone in the delivery of your briefing. That whole “I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it further.” mood does not lend itself well to most audiences. Try an even tone with a positive, engaging method. Look your audience in the eye, don’t try to chock them out.

National Geographic. Graphics can be a great way to emphasize or illustrate a key point. A lot of graphics can work against you. A lot of graphics that don’t relate to your briefing will undercut your message. When it comes to graphics, we follow the Pete Singer rule: one picture per slide, directly related to the message.

I learned long ago not to hate PowerPoint. When you stop to consider the evidence, everyone hates bad PowerPoint, and there’s just so much of it that it’s easy to lump it all together in a single intellectual cesspool. But there’s good PowerPoint, too. And if you take the time to do it right, if you take the time to master the tool, then the possibilities are limitless.

Ten simple rules that will have you hitting the sweet spot when you take the podium at briefing time. And you bring it all home with the “3 Bs”… be brief, be brilliant, be gone.

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