Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Keep well away from your computer when planning a PowerPoint presentation

For anyone who starts the process of creating a presentation by staring into a blank PowerPoint template, I encourage you to adopt a whole new approach and think like a film director!

There are at least three benefits to getting into a ‘Hollywood frame of mind’. The first is one I have discussed before – filmmakers work around a principle called ‘High Concept’ whereby a single phrase sums up what the whole movie is about. Giant Shark terrorises holiday resort was the High Concept that helped a little film called Jaws kickstart the phenomenon of the summertime blockbuster. More recently, High Concepts have even been adopted as the film titles – think Snakes on a Plane and Cowboys & Aliens. It’s all about making the message memorable, motivating and word of mouth-friendly – which is generally exactly what you want in a business presentation.

It is the other two benefits I want to discuss this time. One is that film makers think visually when storytelling, constantly creating and referring to storyboards.  The other is that they don’t get their cameras out until they have decided what they want to film! So the lesson is to plan what you want and need to say, together with any visual support and then consider how PowerPoint can help you achieve your objectives – if, indeed, PowerPoint is the best solution. It might be better achieved by props, boards, exercises or a simple sketch pad.

A management consultant I was coaching some years ago illustrated the benefits of this thinking – and the perils of reaching for the computer too soon – more clearly than I have ever seen. He entered the room loud and proud, but shrivelled somewhat once the door was closed. “I have a problem”, he confessed, “I’m 48 years old and I am getting worse at presenting; and I don’t know why”. The moment he started presenting I could see exactly what the problem was. His main focus was on ensuring that he matched his spoken words with those on the screen, what was coming up next and whether he had covered everything laid out in his slides, whether or not it was strictly required. He was being driven by his slides rather than supported by them!

I could see without even starting to discuss it that he was dissatisfied with his performance, so I asked him to do it again – without the slides. He gulped at the thought, but I knew it was not an unreasonable request as he was an expert on the subject matter. As soon as he started he was more fluent than before and it wasn’t long before he was relaxing and becoming engaging, convincing and clear in everything he said. 

So did we decide to abandon all those slides? Not entirely, because the process was also very effective in highlighting where some visual support was actually needed. Whenever he struggled to describe something or needed to convey a lot of information quickly, that was where we needed a visual aid – probably using PowerPoint. And there is nothing actually wrong with bullet points, provided they support you and don’t start competing with you for the audience’s attention.

So next time you start planning a presentation, try a pencil and a storyboard template before you go anywhere near your computer. Even better, just start talking; the moment you begin to struggle is probably the place that a visual aid can help you. The clue is in the word aid.

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