Monday, September 15, 2008


By Bill Dunne

Memo to those on the fast track, or who’d like to be on the fast track: Beware of using PowerPoint as your main vehicle for presentations. Don’t take our word for it. Here’s Bill Lane in his memoir of his twenty years as speechwriter to Jack Welch at GE: "There is a way to be quickly taken for the opposite of a leader, and to be typecast within seconds as a dork, a dweeb, a jargon-monkey, a bore . . . It's called PowerPoint." Lane adds another warning: “Bore a stock analyst or a portfolio manager, and you represent a boring stock.”

Okay, he may be blunt — even brutal — but he’s spot on. There are few better ways to bore an audience than to “talk to” a succession of slides. As a means to excite or inspire or motivate, which normally is the goal of most high-level speeches or presentations, PowerPoint (or any similar slideware) barely beats smoke signals. Testaments as to its failings pop up all the time — including in prominent articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. A cartoon in the New Yorker magazine has an executive sitting behind a desk and saying to an underling: “I need someone well versed in the art of torture — do you know PowerPoint?” But, like the Energizer bunny, PowerPoint’s reign as the presentation medium in today’s corporate world keeps going and going and going.

If you really want to be on the fast track, forget slide decks. Think story instead. We’ll get back to that in a moment. But are we saying slideware is useless? Not at all, not if used well; it’s just that it is seldom used well.

So how to explain the PowerPoint Syndrome? Expedience is certainly one explanation. You’re on the hook for a presentation due next week but haven’t had time to prepare? Just dive into the corporate server and pull up a collection of slide decks, tweak a bullet point here and there, and, voilĂ , pressure’s off. Only thing remaining is actually delivering the presentation.

But there, friends, is the rub. For the nature of PowerPoint — or “cognitive style,” as Yale’s renowned graphics professor Edward Tufte puts it — makes it fatal to a memorable, or even a coherent, presentation. Tufte even points to one instance in which the over-reliance on PowerPoint to convey information may actually have had catastrophic results.

He refers to the study-commission report on NASA’s Columbia shuttle disaster of 2003. The report suggests that the disaster might have been averted if mission controllers had had a full, narrative description of the situation they were looking at. Instead, they got a PowerPoint deck. The commission highlighted one crucial detail in particular that NASA had apparently overlooked in making the decision to go ahead with the shuttle’s re-entry into the atmosphere. And why wouldn’t it be overlooked? It had been buried as a cryptic sub-sub-bullet item at the bottom of one slide in the large PowerPoint deck.

Inherent Defects

Charts by themselves are lousy at telling a story. That’s one problem. Another is that they’re lousy at distinguishing the more important from the less important or the unimportant. Slideware language typically consists of incomplete thoughts or meaningless fragments. The connective tissue that might persuade the listener to buy into the speaker’s position — the transitions, explanations, elaborations — is missing.

A third defect is divided attention. The human mind doesn’t do well in processing multiple sources of information at the same time, and yet you’re trying to force the audience to read bullet points and simultaneously to listen to you. Ain’t gonna happen. A chart is either a distraction from what you’re saying, or you are a distraction to those who are struggling to read a chart.

A fourth defect, from a pure performance standpoint, is that a speaker is left to wing it when it comes to weaving a coherent narrative from a list of abbreviated, acronym-plagued bullet points. A coherent narrative is one that not only makes sense but is also free of the “ums” and “uhs” and other verbal ticks that, instead of keeping an audience interested, makes them flee to their BlackBerrys and Treos. Captive audiences are a thing of the past.

Chock full

So here’s the lesson in all this: When you’re on tap for a presentation, first develop the story you want to tell. “Story” means a narrative that stimulates basic human interest or emotions and draws people in to your message. It means connecting with your audience on a gut level. If you succeed in that they will follow you anywhere and not worry much about the details. If you don’t succeed in that, it doesn’t matter how much detail you shove at them.

Any organization populated by humans is naturally full of stories — whether inspiring, motivating, or simply entertaining. If anyone doubts it, he can look up a past article in the Harvard Business Review written principally by Gordon Shaw, a strategic planning executive at 3M Corporation, along with business professors Robert Brown and Philip Bromiley.

Shaw notes that slide presentations are essentially lists, and that lists present only an illusion of clarity. “If you read just bullet points, you may not get it, but if you read a narrative plan, you will. If there’s a flaw in the logic, it glares right out at you. With bullets, you don’t know if the insight is really there or if the [presenter] has merely given you a shopping list.”

In contrast, he says, “Stories give us ways to form ideas about winning.” And it doesn’t matter how seemingly dry the underlying topic is. 3M’s Post-it Notes? Delightful story. Masking tape? Ditto. Sandpaper? Ditto. They all have basic human-interest angles to them. People remember stories. They don’t remember lists.

Reeling Off
Conflict or tension is the heart of a good story, and that’s what Hollywood screenwriting coach Robert McKee teaches in another Harvard Business Review article directed at executive speechmakers. McKee explains why your pitch shouldn’t be a matter of just reeling off facts and statistics and citing a few authorities. “[T]he people you’re talking to have their own set of authorities, statistics, and experiences,” he says. If you don’t connect with them on some emotional level (or “gut level,” as we said above), they are questioning and arguing with you “in their heads.” No connection, of course, means messages don’t get through.

Says McKee: “If you look your audience in the eye, lay out your really scary challenges, and say, ‘We’ll be lucky as hell if we get through this, but here’s what I think we should do,’ they will listen to you.”

How, then, do you connect? How do you develop a story?

First: Make it personal. Think of something that has happened in your life that can be related to the message of your talk. Something about yourself or your kids, your spouse or your uncle, a friend, a colleague, anybody you know. If it’s about some failure or misstep on your part — some doubt or fear or confusion — so much the better. They’ll be vastly more receptive to what you say next.

Maybe your message involves a subject you fear is too dull, too arcane. Say, for example, computer visualization. Well, tell how you, or somebody you know, first realized that you or he or she was color-blind. That kind of stuff can’t be put on a chart.

Second: Develop and organize your presentation — in writing. This, together with the subsequent expansion into a full draft, is — naked commercial plug here — what a professional speechwriter can help you do. A written narrative forces you to think through the logic and persuasiveness of your argument, enabling you to spot any flaws or weaknesses, and correct them, before the audience gets its shot.

Third: Only after that process has begun should you start thinking about what charts and visuals might be used to reinforce your main points. And that’s what their proper role should be, to reinforce, to punctuate your main points. Whatever visuals you choose, try to make them impactful — like big animal pictures, or cartoons and the like. Along with the smallest number of words possible.

Fourth: Refine and rehearse the narrative — aloud — until you’ve got it internalized. (Note: We didn’t say memorized.) Once comfortable with the flow, the logic, and the messaging, you may then choose to use the full script as your podium or Teleprompter support. Or you may shrink it down to a set of notes, to whatever level works for you. Whichever way you do it, you want the audience focused on you and your ideas.

Is this hard? Hey, no pain, no gain. The preparation may indeed be harder than sorting a slide deck. But the rewards? There’s the real bottom line.

Or as a senior GE executive told Bill Lane to pass along to other GE executives: “Tell them they are going nowhere in the General Electric Company if they can’t do a great business presentation.”

If nothing else, that means story first, PowerPoint, if anywhere, last.

Dunne, a Gotham team member, is managing partner of Dunne & Partners, LLC

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom XII: How McCain Can Seize the Creative Middle

By Mark Penn Name

Some advice for John McCain from a moderate Democrat on how to connect with non-Republicans watching at home:

1) Don't call Obama a "young man." It's borderline insulting, and it was the worst moment of Joe Lieberman's speech.

2) Use cards, not a teleprompter. (This is a radical suggestion, I know, but I stand by it. You come off better this way.)

3) Re-up your town hall challenge. It's not too late. Why should we settle for three debates in the final two months?

4) Say something genuinely challenging that the zealots in the hall can react to only with silence. Your brand is courage, so demonstrate it. Don't worry, there will be enough applause lines when you attack big spending, champion tax cuts, sing the song of the surge and the like.

So challenge the party on immigration. Say we need to close Guantanamo. Say you know how much they disagreed with you on campaign finance reform and the gang of 14--but you'd do it again if you could. Return to your principled stand against torture. Catalogue a couple of the ways in which your party has lagged: on tackling climate change, on confronting corruption. Palin will send the base to the moon; you need to bring them back down to earth a little if you want to woo the middle and chart the course to victory.

5) Say something that sounds honest and real about health care. You're utterly tone deaf on what is many Americans' top domestic concern. Your refrain is that you're going to "bring down costs." Say you'll work with Democrats and Republicans to expand coverage to those who need it. If you can't summon even a twinge of your trademark moral outrage about the fact that millions of Americans can't afford a visit to the doctor when they need it, you'll lose millions of people like me.

6) Make clear that you understand earmarks--your whipping boy--are more symbolism than substance when it comes to bringing down the deficit and enormous debt. Most analyses say you're less responsible than Obama in tackling multi-trillion dollar long-term liabilities and borrowing costs. So acknowledge that you understand the enormity of the problem and will demand that everyone make sacrifices to get the country out of hock.

7) Say that you can work with a Democratic Congress, if that's what the people deliver (and they will). Say you expect it will be a sometimes contentious but ultimately productive relationship. But a Democratic Congress unrestrained by Obama will be dangerous. Or at least that's your argument.

8) Define your foreign policy. Sure, Bush's "humble but strong" promise evaporated like a puddle in the West Texas summer. You've surrounded yourself with neocons and those of the "American greatness" school. Is that really your animating philosophy? Or are you going to be tough and realistic in ways Bush hasn't been?

In picking Biden and repeatedly passing on chances to deviate from Democratic orthodoxy, Obama has painted himself as a typical Democrat. In a Democratic year, that may be enough. But it gives you a huge opening to seize the creative middle. Cite not only Reagan and (Teddy) Roosevelt, but a couple of Democratic heroes (and I don't mean Joe Lieberman).

Penn Name is a former Capitol Hill speechwriter

Monday, September 1, 2008

Unconventional Wisdon XI: McCain Has More Reconciling To Do Than Just With The Base

By Matthew Dallek

I would look for three things from John McCain in his acceptance speech this week. First, he must decide how vicious he will be in attacking his rival Barack Obama. McCain has already staked much of his campaign on trashing Obama and making him unelectable. When he takes the stage in St. Paul, Americans should watch to guage whether McCain has truly embraced that strategy and made it his own--or simply let his aides cut ads that attempt to destroy their opponent as un-American and too weak to lead.

Second, McCain must somehow pay tribute to a deeply unpopular incumbent president. After all, the hall will be filled with George W. Bush's diehard defenders. A lot of McCain's senior aides hail from Bush's camp, and McCain badly needs to fire up the Republican activists who believe that Bush has been a strong commander-in-chief and a solid steward of the nation's economic future.

Third, perhaps most importantly, McCain needs to walk a fine line: while championing many of Bush's policies (from tax cuts to Iraq to energy) in his convention address, he also needs to find a way to reinforce his image as a political maverick. This will not be an easy thing for him to do. While the John McCain of 2000 had a true claim to the "maverick" title, this year's incarnation not only has run a relentlessly shrill anti-Obama campaign; he has also embraced Bush's signature policies, and most tellingly, McCain has abandoned many of his positions that once had put him at odds with his own party and made him a maverick.

Instead of opposing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, McCain has now made tax cuts the centerpiece of his economic agenda. Instead of criticizing the administration's inept handling of the war in Iraq as he once did, McCain has praised the president's wartime leadership and hailed the surge for helping achieve victory in Iraq. And rather than denounce the intense partisan divide and acidic rhetoric in American politics, McCain has taken Bush-style attacks to a whole new decibel level, even questioning Barack Obama's loyalty to the United States.

This is the fundamental contradiction in McCain's presidential candidacy -- he is simultaneously trying to assert his maverick bona fides while wrapping himself in President Bush's controversial and relatively unpopular policies. How McCain addresses, and whether he can overcome, that contradiction is probably the central challenge he faces in his all-important convention acceptance address. It will go a long way towards determining who becomes the next president.

Dallek, a former Capitol Hill speechwriter, is the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics