The CIO walked on stage with every apparent confidence, relaxed and ready to tell his story. His opener was a droll little anecdote about fending off starving vendors. The audience was smiling back at him, BlackBerrys tucked away, fully engaged. Then the speaker picked up the clicker, lashed himself to the mast of an absolutely stupefying, bullet-point-riddled PowerPoint deck and sank like a stone. Sixty seconds into his slides, the BlackBerrys revved back up and the audience was gone, baby, gone. Watching this death-by-PowerPoint scenario unfold, I imagined an intervention. I saw myself leaping on stage, snatching away that clicker and turning our hapless speaker back into a human being with a good story to tell. What a crying shame, I thought, that this executive addiction is so damn hard to break.
Each time I sign up a CIO speaker, I hopefully suggest the option of going slide-free. From the reaction I get, you'd think I suggested walking on stage pants-free.
"PowerPoint has become such a crutch because the speakers often don't know their content well enough," says Loraine Antrim, cofounder of Core Ideas Communications, an executive coaching firm in Philadelphia. "I tell people that every slide gives the eyes something to look at while it shuts down the ears. Even the speakers stop hearing themselves!"
A former college teacher of public speaking and rhetoric, Antrim has been coaching C-suite executives for the past 12 years. Almost no one has been willing to go cold-turkey from PowerPoint. "It's become part of corporate culture, so it takes a lot of guts to break away," she says. Executives are hooked on the way it structures information and saves preparation time (especially if the marketing department created the slides in the first place).
Yet like so many aspects of good communication, this unfortunate habit can be changed. You can actually do your own intervention with a few meaningful tweaks to your preparation style. One book that may help reconceptualise your approach is Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. It's filled with wise advice on how to prepare, design and deliver lasting messages. "Good presentations are about conversing, sharing and connecting," Reynolds writes. Some bits of his advice that I especially liked were to:
- "Storyboard" or brainstorm your presentation flow on paper, far away from the computer.
- Create and use striking images to illustrate your themes. That's what people will remember.
- Stop riddling your audience with bullet points. Use them so sparingly they become the memorable exception.
- Know your story line and supporting details so well that you barely glance at those distracting slides.
If you really can't kick the PowerPoint habit, then at least make your slides worth watching. Don't make me come up there.
Maryfran Johnson is editor in chief of CIO magazine in the US.
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