Friday, January 11, 2008

Dodging death by PowerPoint

I have been enjoying Frank Luntz's excellent book Words That Work. His subtitle for the book is: It's not what you say, it's what people hear. Which immediately begged the question in my mind – "What if they are not listening at all?"

This is a particular problem in a presentation setting. With so many adherents to the:
  • Bullet
  • Bullet
  • Bullet
  • Bullet
  • Bullet
  • Bullet
  • Chart!
school of presentation, I wonder how many people are truly listening any more?

I know I am certainly guilty of this. If a presenter starts by telling me that he/she will be making the presentation available to the audience, I give him/her my polite attention and if, three slides in, that presenter is merely reading his/her slides off the screen at me, a large switch in my brain gets thrown to the 'Off' position.

I don't mean anything by it. I'm not trying to be rude. Indeed, I would argue that the person displaying a total lack of concern for the feelings of others is the presenter. So why should I participate in the process? If the topic is of genuine interest to me, I will have a written record of everything the presenter said when he/she distributes the PowerPoint after the talk. In the meantime, I can hit the off switch and go to my happy place ...

Think of it this way – it is your duty as a presenter to be relevant. Why else should people take time out of their busy day to come and listen to you? Please don't read your slides out at me. I don't care if you are a subject matter expert, reading aloud utterly devalues what you have to say and greatly lowers my opinion of both you and your topic.

In the third of my series about the practical aspects of developing and delivering presentations, I've dropped some of my thoughts on moving past the Headline / Bullet / Bullet / Bullet model into a quick little slideshow. See if these strike a chord with you ...

[RSS readers may need to click through to see the file. It's a Slideshare thing - sorry]

Here's another little thought. In a moment, I want you to close your eyes and vividly recall some things. First, I want you to remember your front door. In detail. The keyhole, the handle, the colour, the texture, any blemishes it may have on it. Its weight as you push it open. The sound it makes as you close it behind you. Close your eyes for a few moments and try that.

Second, I want you to remember something from your schooldays - your first day in primary or secondary school, or maybe a particular class that you loved. Think of the classroom. The blackboard. Your teacher. Your chair. Your table-top. Your schoolbag. The people who sat near you. Once again, close your eyes for a couple of moments and retrieve those details.

Question - did you do all that visually or verbally? Did any bullet points feature in your memory? When human beings lock stuff down into long-term storage in their memory they do it visually. V-i-s-u-a-l-l-y. So if you are the King or Queen of Bulletpointland, it really would be a good idea to re-examine your presentation style because, quite apart from rendering your audience catatonic with your infinite stream of bullets, you are ensuring that little or nothing of what you say is going to be remembered.

As ever, comments, additions [yes please!], corrections, counter-arguments and insults will all be gratefully welcomed.

Related posts:
PowerPoint - The Appalling Presenter Manifesto
PowerPoint 1 - Presenting with visuals
PowerPoint 2 - The planning stage


  1. When I read the post I'd like to agree. I don't buy bullet-point presentation. I stop to care about presenter when he just reads the slides. But...

    We've done a little experiment lately with my friend and colleague - we've delivered the presentation in a very different way - slides were just a background switching automatically (no interaction from presenters here) while we were talking about merits.

    To my surprise we've been rated on average level. Like bullet-point zealots.

    I think it still depends on audience. You can meet people who actually expect you to read your bullets and are not prepared to see something untypical.

  2. Nice slide shown Rowan! Do you think tho that this applies to presentations in which the content is rather complicated?
    to use a strong example we can take my dads lectures in plant molecular biology (over the top maybe but you get the point) which are strong on scientific terms and mumbo jumbo that cannot be expressed through pictures and sparse wording as the content is quite complex. Granted he does include pictures wherever possible, but could it be possibkle that some topics are going to be much less conducive to nice looking presentations than others? Reporting financial results to shareholders, presenting detailed action plans etc, are they as easy to visualise?

  3. Excellent presentation Rowan, thank you! You've expressed it beautifully, and re-enforced something I've been trying to put into practice for some time now. My only problem is that I tend to struggle to come up with visual ways to present the information in my head... :( Mind maps are also a no-go for me because of this! Any tips?

    Best wishes for 2008


  4. What a delightful post, the core of which is " Think of it this way - it is your duty as a presenter to be relevant.."

  5. My comment is here Robo:

  6. As Pawel said it can depend on the audience.

    At my company if you step outside the box too much there can be a danger of being seen as too different or showboating.

    At the risk of looking like an Apple fanboy I watched Steve Jobs' presentation to MacWorld last year and was very very impressed.

    I usually distribute handouts of the presentation and notes but try not to present from them. That way the audience can make their own annotation to the handout and capture what THEY saw and felt during the presentation.

  7. There is a differentiation between giving presentations to groups of people about a subject and small groups of people who will approve a proposal (i.e., higher management).

    Giving a presentation to a larger group about a subject should have the work laid out as described (and described very well!).

    But many, if not most, managers expect bullet points and their idea of excitement is a chart with bullet points explaining it.

    I would suspect that a PP is a better summary than a Word document proposal and that provides the popularity of the presentations.

    It's still the audience -- and identifying the audience is still a great challenge for presenters.

  8. Lovely, Rowan!

    If the commenters are skeptical about producing a scientific or technical PowerPoint that's image-based, check out the book "Beyond Bullet Points" by Cliff Atkinson. Not only can it be done, it can be done very well.

    Handouts can do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of charts, graphs, and data. Most of the time, this kind of information presented on screen is too small or detailed for the audience to read or comprehend, precisely because of its complexity.

    But here's the thing: most presenters of data try to present TOO MUCH INFORMATION.

    There's only so much the human brain can process in a given amount of time. It's not really necessary, or even effective, to present everything you know in the world.

    It's better to present key information and enhance it with simple visuals, and give the rest as handouts (or in a follow-up presentation), than try to cram every piece of knowledge you have on a subject into a PowerPoint.

  9. I have a suspicion, Robo, that some of the people above have missed the point. Either that, or I have.

    It may well be that many managers expect bullet points, but my understanding is that you are trying to educate not just the presenter but the audience. In any case, I'd challenge the "many, if not most" notion above. Where is the study that indicates that?

    It may also be that a scientific lecture cannot be encapsulated in a few images, but an academic lecture is not the same as a business presentation. The fact that the presenter in each case might choose to use the dreaded Powerpoint doesn't make them the same.

    As for reporting fincancial results, there is still no escaping the fact that people read to themselves faster than you can read to them. One can present the key points of a financial report with a few relevant visuals (graphs, charts, etc) without reading off a list of figures.

    And yes, PP is often a better medium than Word, so e-mail the PPT to people so they can read it in their own time.

  10. Pawel - very interesting, if a little depressing. Perhaps people have become conditioned by so many years of bullet points ...

    Sarah - a common problem. Try writing your presentation out in long form - literally every word you are going to say. Then read that out loud to yourself a few times and see if any images pop into your head. If not, I'm sure you have a tolerant friend in your circle who has that 'visual' wiring. Entice him/her with coffee and Jaffa Cakes ...

    Declan - love your presentation!

    Scot - You are so right. It is all about the audience. The difficulty I encounter with clients is that they are required (house style or whatever) to present using the ineffective approach and then don't gain approval because they essentially have one hand tied behind their back. The 'evolutionary' approach bears fruit in this situation - gradual shifts toward a more impactful, persuasive style. A couple of slides in your first effort. Add in another in your next. Stick with that level for your next couple of outings, then add in something else for the one after that ...

  11. Isn't it ironic that we complain about bad presentations and yet refuse to accept a new approach of presentation, one that is beyond bullet point, one that Rowan has painstakingly demonstrated.

    Personally I think it is the audience that needs to be educated on a new way of presenting. Some conditioning is required.

    So say you are in corporate world, add in a couple of slides that are beyond bullet point, test them out, and check in with your audience. At the end of the day, the acid test is in effective communication.

    Cheers from Singapore!

  12. Eric - spot-on as always. I agree 100% - the only litmus test that matters is "Did I communicate my points effectively?"

    Did the audience (a) take the information on board and (b) take the appropriate action as a result of your presentation? Far too few presenters think this way, as the resulting internal dialogue is rarely a comfortable one ...

    We continued the conversation on this topic here - - which I hope you enjoy.