Recent hacking attacks on Sony Pictures unveiled a huge amount of material that the company would prefer to have kept secret. Employee passwords and Social Security numbers. Executive salaries (and the fact that men in the same jobs make much more than women). Pre-release copies of that Annie remake that no one is clamoring for. And evidence that even major entertainment companies with huge marketing departments routinely crank out awful PowerPoint slides.
I’m really not surprised that these slides are so bad. I always ask my clients for examples of the slides they see in their workplaces and, in general, they’re pretty bad. But the clients are aware of that–it’s why they’ve hired me to help them. The good news is that a little bit of effort can make a huge difference in the quality of your presentations, and people are so used to bad presentations that the good ones really stand out.
If you’ve somehow been operating under the delusion that your workplace is the only one plagued by bad PowerPoint, you may find these slides oddly comforting.
Take the example above. Sure, it looks decent, mainly because the studio had access to the Spider-Man image (this is one of the rare instances where artwork like this isn’t pirated). But what’s the slide about? I’d guess that this is part of a presentation on potential marketing tie-ins for Spider-Man 2, but what do gas stations have to do with Spider-Man? Or travel? And what the heck is QSR? A quick google leads me to believe it stands for “Quick Service Restaurant,” but why hide behind the confusing acronym? Why not just call it “fast food?” In the end this slide just looks like a somewhat random collection of nouns.
But my favorite (meaning the worst) of the slides is this one for The Smurfs. Anyone trying to sell Smurfs as something that teenagers are excited about is facing an uphill battle, but putting words like funny, cool, and humor in quotes makes me think that they are being used ironically to indicate that Smurfs are none of those things–the same way that a tofu “burger” is not a burger. I used to think the same thing about a Thai restaurant in my neighborhood that put out a sign advertising “lunch.” If it’s not lunch, I always wondered, what is it?Aside from that, it’s just an unattractive slide. There’s too much white space at the bottom (were they trying to avoid the Smurf graphic?), the bullets seem unnecessary, and abbreviating “international” is a strange choice that makes it harder to read.
One of the most important goals any presenter should strive for is to make their message so clear that it feels undeniably true, and this slide doesn’t manage to do that. But then again, I was probably never going to believe Smurfs were cool.
Answering questions during or after a presentation can be stressful, and sometimes it’s hard to even hear what you’re being asked. If there’s a language problem, if you’re not sure what you’ve heard, or if you need a few seconds to invent an answer, there’s no shame in asking for the question to be repeated. Otherwise you might end up talking about something like getting rid of vampires in tennis, as Latvian tennis player Ernests Gulbis did at Wimbledon this week.
In case you’re wondering, he’s against vampires, but for “freedom of choice.”
There are certain events for which you should always have a few prepared comments at hand. They’re the kinds of situations where there’s a good chance that you’ll be asked to say a couple of words and where there are often powerful emotions involved that make impromptu thinking difficult. If you’re the guest of honor at a party (think birthdays, anniversaries and retirements) you need to be prepared to thank everyone. If you’re at a wedding where you’re close to at least one of the people getting married you should have something nice to say about the couple. And if you’re nominated for an award you have to have some kind of acceptance speech ready to go, no matter how unlikely you think it is you’ll win. Because you don’t want to sound like Jacqueline Bisset at the Golden Globes on Sunday.
That doesn’t mean you need a long script. In fact, trying to read or recite a long speech is often a total disaster. A couple of heartfelt or funny sentences are usually all it takes to make a great impression. If Ms. Bisset had simply said, “Thank you so much. I guess that Most Promising Newcomer nomination 47 years ago finally makes sense now!” she would have earned a big laugh. Instead, she said this:
(Sigh) God. (Lip smack.) (Laugh.) Um, I think it was 47 years ago that the Hollywood Foreign Press gave me, promising, a nomination for the Holl-uh, Promising Newcomer!!! (Sigh) Thank you very much, Hollywood Foreign Press. I’m absolutely shaken. I can’t believe this. God knows you’ve nominated me about five times I think, anyway. (Sigh) (Lip smack) (Lip smack) (Sigh) OK! Scottish background to the front! OK! Um, I always wanted to do something for the BBC. And we did this. And this was great. Chiwetel, where are you? Can I see Chiwetel? I need him for inspiration. Where is he? OK. We had a good cast, didn’t we? It was great. Starz thank you for putting this on and, uh, (lip smack) thank you to my British agent, Steve Kenis, and my American agent, Harry Abrams. (Music begins) I…I’m sorry, I’m gonna get this together! I want to thank the people who’ve given me joy and there have been many! The people who’ve given me shit, I say, like my mother, what did she say? She used to say, “Go to hell and don’t come back.” However, however, however, my mother was not entirely me. I (laughs) believe if you wanna look good, you’ve got to forgive everybody. You have to forgive everybody. It’s the best beauty treatment. Forgiveness for yourself and for the others. (Blows a kiss) I love my friends, I love my family, and you’re so kind! Thank you so much! (Giggles) Thank you!
Samsung has been very successful at emulating Apple’s iPhones and iPads. What they haven’t been able to copy nearly as well are Apple’s slick and effective product presentations. In fact, Samsung’s efforts have frequently been seen as strange, awkward, even sexist. But they’ve seldom gone as spectacularly wrong as when Samsung included director Michael Bay in the rollout of new televisions at CES this week.
After getting confused about which part of the script he was reading from the teleprompter, Bay fumbled around and was unable to recover. Trying to help, his co-presenter gave him an opportunity to ad lib by asking, “Tell us what you think,” but Bay was so dependent on the prepared script that he was totally lost. “I’m sorry,” he said as he walked off stage.
Here’s how he later described what happened:
Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing.
Unfortunately, the temptation to script live events ruins far too many presentations. Scripts get lost, notes get shuffled, unexpected events interrupt a speaker’s train of thought and they can’t get back on track. While I encourage everyone to write out their presentations as an exercise in working through their thoughts, it’s almost always a bad idea to depend on a script in order to deliver your talk. There are just too many things that can go wrong, and very few of us are good at memorizing or reading a speech in a way that will actually engage an audience.
If you’re giving a talk, it’s your job to know the material well enough that you can speak with a few notes or an outline to remind you where you’re going. And you need to be willing to improvise a little when things don’t go as planned. For example, if you’re the director of Transformers and you’re asked what you think of the giant TV you’re standing next to, say something like: “That TV is huge! Explosions, robots, and exploding robots will look great on that thing!”
If you’re giving a presentation and want to emphasize something on your slides, the laser sight on your handgun is not an appropriate substitute for a pointer. This is a tip that had never occurred to me before because, well, it just seems obvious. And you’d think it would be especially obvious to someone who is, say, in charge of homeland security for the state of New York. But an incident recently reported by the Albany Times Union shows that some people could use a little clarity about the different uses of guns and laser pointers:
Jerome M. Hauer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s director of homeland security, took out his handgun and used the laser sighting device attached to the barrel as a pointer in a presentation to a foreign delegation, according to public officials. It happened Oct. 24 in Albany at the highly secure state emergency operations center below State Police headquarters.
These officials, one of whom claimed to be an eyewitness, said that three Swedish emergency managers in the delegation were rattled when the gun’s laser tracked across one of their heads before Hauer found the map of New York, at which he wanted to point.
Reading this account, I can’t help but think of the Simpsons episode where Homer gets a gun and starts to use it for every task, including turning off the lights. But a gun should not be used like a Swiss Army knife with a laser attachment.
So just to be clear, unless you’re doing a presentation about guns, they are not an appropriate part of your talk.
It’s always nice to see someone get a chance at redemption, and Marissa Powell got hers this morning on The Today Show. Asked the same question she famously flubbed over the weekend, she did much better when she just gave a straightforward answer (just as I had suggested). Once she can drop the trappings of the pageant she also seems much more natural and charming.
Think about how you can apply this lesson in your own presentations. Can you get rid of the formalities (slides, script, lectern) and just talk to people? Chances are your audience will like you better and you’ll be more effective.
I have to admit, I love a good beauty queen breakdown.
Luckily, there’s a steady stream of them and we seem to have a new candidate for “worst answer since Miss Teen South Carolina Caitlin Upton’s” after every pageant. This week it is Utah’s Marissa Powell being asked how to solve the problem of unequal pay for women and responding:
I think we can relate this back to education, and how we are … continuing to try to strive to [long pause] figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem. And I think, especially the men are … um … seen as the leaders of this, and so we need to try to figure out how to create educate better so we can solve this problem. Thank you.
Honestly, I don’t think this answer comes close to taking the crown from Miss Teen South Carolina. How could it when Miss Utah doesn’t even manage to work “the Iraq” into her response? But it’s still pretty incoherent and a great opportunity for us to feel superior.
So what do we have to thank for these entertaining disasters that wind up being the most memorable events of these overblown pageants? The contestants are young and probably don’t have much experience speaking in front of an audience–anxiety is almost certainly an issue. But a big part of the problem is that they are over-prepared. Just like a political candidate, every pageant contestant has a platform. So, instead of just honestly answering the questions they are given, they do their best to work in their platform agenda while trying to sound smart and smile in a way which won’t make their lips stick to their teeth. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen. What do you want to bet that Powell’s platform had something to do with education (which, ironically, would have been the best angle for Caitlin Upton to have used)?
It may have been years since your last beauty pageant, but there’s still a lesson here for all of us. If you find yourself taking questions during a presentation, do your best to answer them in an honest and straightforward way. Audiences are quite adept at detecting bullshit and will quickly turn on a presenter who they see as dishonest or phony. Most of us just aren’t quick enough to speak and spin at the same time.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t prepare answers for questions you can anticipate, especially when you’re talking about emotionally fraught topics. Just deal with them honestly and don’t try to pigeonhole the answers to fit your own agenda. Always remember that if you want your presentations to be successful they need to meet the needs of your audience, not your own.
The scandal surrounding the NSA’s surveillance program broke while I was on vacation last week, and it’s pretty shocking. I mean, have you seen these slides? The colors used by their designer(s) are awful, the way they’ve placed objects on the background makes them look confused and cluttered, and they’ve made some really bad choices with fonts and typography. Worst of all, some of their illustrations just don’t make sense.
When I first saw these slides they reminded me of the exercises I used to lead students through when I started teaching PowerPoint in 1997. In order to train people on all of PowerPoint’s features we’d have them draw random shapes, fill them with colors and text, create charts and animation. We’d use every tool in the toolkit whether we needed it or not. Looking at the images of these NSA slides, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they had been created so that each element flew in accompanied by a zooming car sound.
But we probably shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of these slides. Most of the millions of PowerPoint presentations cranked out every day are ugly and poorly planned. I think the difference is that we assume that the government, and especially our spy agencies, have the resources they need to do a better job. If they can squeeze all those cool gadgets into James Bond’s Aston Martin, can’t they hire a designer who knows they should never use yellow and green as a color scheme?
The great thing about other peoples’ mistakes is that we can learn from them. Understandably, most presenters don’t want to share examples of their bad presentations, so it can be difficult to find useful examples to critique. But now that we have these wonderful, ugly, formerly top secret slides available, let’s see what they can teach us. (For bigger versions, click on each slide).
Why not start with the title slide? White can be a fine background choice (it’s certainly better than bright colors or distracting textures), but you have to limit the other colors you use on a white background. Light colors are very hard to read when you project slides against white, so the yellow, light blue, and even the red “Top Secret” stamp will likely wash out. So the slides’ overall design is questionable from the very beginning. The audience might not even be able to see some of the most important information.
Then there are the company logos splashed across the top. Why do they need to be included on every slide? Why not just give them their own slide listing the participants? Flinging them across the screen like this looks messy and makes everything hard to read–especially since the logos themselves are in so many different colors and fonts. The effect is a kind of logo soup. Bad design choices aside, I’m curious if they even have permission to use the logos of these companies. I highly doubt it, but someone must have figured that it didn’t matter if all of this was top secret.
And a couple of other things from this one slide:
- More logos: The “Special Source Operations” logo is unattractive enough, but the “PRISM” logo is ridiculous. Why does every program and initiative need a logo these days? And couldn’t they find one that doesn’t look like a misshapen reject for a Batman (the 60’s TV version) villain?
- Why does this presentation need two different titles (indicated by the “or”)?
- Why is the second title (“The SIGAD Used Most in NSA Reporting”) in italics? Why does it sound vaguely like an advertisement for sugar-free gum?
Here’s our second slide, and it’s as bad as the first one. The first thing I’d like to point out is that it really should be two slides–one about when each company joined the program, and another about its costs. There’s just no imaginable reason to include both here. Every slide in your presentations should represent just one main idea. Your goal should be to make your ideas as clear as possible, not to cram information on the screen. PowerPoint slides are pretty much a limitless resource, so go ahead and create as many as you need.
Other things to notice:
- The effect of having all those logos and a title at the top of the screen is really noticeable here. Combined, they take up a third of the slide and leave little room for what really matters.
- The colors. There used to be a house in my neighborhood that was painted these colors, and everyone called it the lemon-lime house. It’s a tasteless color combo anywhere, but it’s also bound to be very difficult to read whether this slide is projected or printed. And that pinkish “Program Cost” bubble? Ugh.
- The chart. What’s called for here is a timeline. So why do the yellow bubbles and green background rise as time goes on? What does that have to do with time? And why are there two separate green objects behind the yellow bubbles? Did they need to bend the line so it wouldn’t crash into the ugly PRISM logo (which it almost does anyway)?
Our third slide has more pink, but less yellow! Again, this should probably be two different slides, one with the text in the box and another with the diagram explaining network traffic. Putting them both on the same slide makes them hard to read. My image here isn’t the best quality, but I think the diagram would be hard to read on all but the biggest projector screens. Maybe I’m just getting old… Also:
- It looks like “U.S. as World’s Telecommunications Backbone” is italicized here, except for the initial “U”. That’s just sloppy, and the italics don’t really make sense anyway.
- “Cheapest” and “not the most physically direct” are both bolded and underlined, which is completely unnecessary and just makes it harder to read. If your computer lets you bold your text there’s rarely a reason to also underline it. (Indicating a hyperlink is one).
The fourth slide suffers from problems that should be familiar at this point. Notice again how everything has to be crammed onto the slide. There’s not nearly enough white space and the green arrow intrudes on both text boxes. The easy solution would be to get rid of the list of providers since we already know who they are. Why repeat them here? Also:
- There’s a note above the purple box that indicates that the information collected “varies by provider”. That makes me wonder how accurate any of this information is anyway, and why they’d wanted to list all of the providers here. Why not just say, “these are the things we typically collect”?
- This slide has text boxes in entirely different colors than we’ve seen before. Is the designer trying to make each slide novel? Only 5 of the 41 slides in this presentation have been published, but I’m starting to wonder if each one has its own color scheme.
See how much fun we can have analyzing other peoples’ presentations? Just imagine if we had all the rest of the slides from this deck! I thought about taking the next logical step and redesigning the slides myself, but after finding that others had already beat me to it I decided that the world didn’t need my own version of the NSA’s work. But it’s an exercise I wholeheartedly recommend if you’re interested in learning how to improve bad presentations.
When people think of presentation failures they tend to think of things going unexpectedly awry. Dead projectors. Missed flights. Wardrobe malfunctions. Really thirsty politicians. But some presentations are disasters even when they go precisely as planned.
I’ve been holding on to this video of the Samsung Galaxy S4 launch for a while now because it’s just so hard to understand what their marketing team was thinking. My best guess is that they finally decided they’d do something other than just copy Apple. Instead of putting together a streamlined launch presentation, they’d put on a show. With skits!
The video above is the full 50 minute event. I wasn’t having any luck getting it to start playing at my favorite bit, the Drunk Bridesmaid number, so fast-forward to the 38 minute mark if you don’t have the time or the stomach for the whole thing. As many others have pointed out, it’s at least a little sexist. But to me the bigger issue is that they seem to have lost track of why they’re putting on a show in the first place. Sure, you want to entertain your audience so they enjoy themselves and keep paying attention. But what’s important here is selling phones, not Broadway-level production values.
As you put together your presentations, keep in mind what you want to accomplish. Remember that all the pieces of your presentation (your slides, jokes, stories, musical numbers) are there to support your message. They should never distract from or overwhelm it.
Are drunk bridesmaids going to help you sell phones to women? Probably not.