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, voilà, 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.
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.
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.
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
© 2008 Gotham Ghostwriters, All rights reserved.