Improving Your Presentations: Ask Yourself These Questions

Last week I had the pleasure of serving as a judge in a presentation contest for people who were using Prezi for the first time. Staging a Prezi competition is such a terrrific idea that I’m already planning to steal it in the near future. It’s a great way to take advantage of our competitive nature in order to get people to engage with and learn the software. And, unlike an Excel contest, a Prezi showdown can be pretty fun. I enjoyed all of the presentations we looked at and was completely impressed with what everyone had come up with on their first attempt. It reminded me how easy it is to pick up Prezi and start making good use of it without having to deal with a steep learning curve.

And being a Prezi judge (I have to remember to add that skill to my LinkedIn profile!) was useful for me because I was forced to think about the criteria I was using to evaluate the presentations. I couldn’t just pick the one I liked best without having some solid reasoning for why. Which confirms my long-held suspicion that, as a judge, I’m more Simon Cowell than Paul Abdul.

You may never find yourself in an actual contest, but it’s important to understand that every presentation you give will be judged. So it’s crucial that you take some time to sit down and evaluate your own work before someone else does. Here are some of the things I considered while watching the Prezi competition. Most of them would be useful questions to ask yourself whether you were using Prezi, PowerPoint, or any other kind of visual aid.

  • Is my presentation’s message clear?
  • Is the overall look and tone of my presentation appropriate for what I have to say?
  • Do my visual aids support my message. Are they distracting?
  • Am I using features of the software for a good reason, or just because I can?
  • Are my visual aids cluttered? What could be simplified?
  • Are the words on the screen there to help the audience, or am I using them as a script for what I want to say?
  • Is the text easy to read? Is it big enough? Is there too much of it?
  • Is the color scheme I’ve used appropriate? Is it going to provide enough contrast for the audience? Am I using too many colors?
  • Do the images I’m using go well together? Are they clever, or cliched? Do I have the right to use them?

Prezi only:

  • Is the zooming between elements of my presentation likely to make the audience feel seasick? (If so, move them closer together and/or make them more similar in size to reduce the distance of the zoom).
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Visual Aids: The Danger of Oversimplifying with Bullets

Boehner slide

Click to embiggen

I’m not going to touch the politics of whether the looming sequestration is a good idea or who is responsible for it. But I am comfortable declaring that this slide used by House Speaker John Boehner to summarize the issue is a great example of what’s wrong with the way people use PowerPoint. There’s far too much information on this slide, and the widescreen format makes it really hard to scan the individual bullet points without losing your place. But the worst thing about this example is that it tries to condense an extremely complicated issue that will have a huge impact on the lives of millions of people into one easy-to-digest slide.

Robert Gaskins, one of the original developers of PowerPoint, has said that the biggest problem created by its overuse is that it has essentially made people lazy, that creating bullet points has led us to simplify things that we shouldn’t. People in business, he says:

have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don’t like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work.

Boehner’s slide is meant to distill the sequestration process into little bits that are easy for House members to process. But that’s the problem–each of the bullets on this slide represents a complicated idea that you’d hope the people voting on our laws would take the time to master. And the fact that the sequestration–designed to be so painful that it would never actually happen–now seems imminent shows that our representatives clearly didn’t see the implications of what they were considering. Edward Tufte has argued that reliance on PowerPoint slides hid the gravity of the threat to the space shuttle Columbia and ultimately helped lead to its demise. PowerPoint in the hands of politicians can be just as dangerous.

Boehner Debt Framework Slides

Edward Tufte: PowerPoint Does Rocket Science

Presentation Tools: Prezi For Visual Aids

If you’ve never used Prezi to create the visual aids for your presentations (or even if you just haven’t worked with Prezi in a while) now is a great time to give it another look. They’ve rolled out a new website, a new editor, and this introductory video. It even features my great friend David Park of Xterra Solutions, who was one of my earliest converts to Prezi!

Prezi Video

Xterra Solutions

Visual Aids: Think Poetry, Not Paragraphs

Excellent advice, whether you’re using Prezi, PowerPoint, or a good old whiteboard. Simplify your visual aids and treat them as exhibits for your audience, not as your script.

Think Poetry, Not Paragraphs

Visual Aids: Cute Kittens Increase Attention and Productivity

Don’t You Feel More Productive?

Think all of those cat ladies browsing Cute Overload are just wasting their time? You’re wrong.

They’re really preparing to out-compete you. A recent study shows that people are more productive when they’ve been looking at pictures of cute animals. As reported by the Washington Post:

…researchers at Hiroshima University recently conducted a study where they showed university students pictures of baby animals before completing various tasks. What they found, in research published today, was that those who saw the baby animal pictures did more productive work after seeing those photographs – even more than those who saw a picture of an adult animal or a pleasant food.

Sometimes these esoteric studies seem utterly ridiculous, but I totally buy this one. If nothing else, I think that looking at cute images serves to grab a viewer’s attention and provoke an emotional response that makes them more likely to focus on a task or remember a presentation targeted at them. I’m not saying that kitty pictures are appropriate for every presentation. But anything that makes an audience laugh or feel good can be very effective.

One of the most successful presentations I’ve ever done is one that almost never happened. I spent a couple of years trying to get a presentation I called “The Worst Mistake I Ever Made” approved at a conference. The idea was that panelists would talk about what they’d learned from their mistakes and tell the audience what they’d change if they had it all to do over again. But conference organizers kept telling me it was too negative.

So when I finally got it accepted I inserted pictures of cute baby animals throughout the deck of slides. I thought it would add some humor, but I was also being a bit of a jerk. After talking about a failed project I’d say something like, “Is that too depressing? Well here’s a picture of a baby panda.” And people loved it. The presentation got the best evaluations of any talk from the week-long conference and I still have people tell me how much they enjoyed it years later.

Should you put a picture of a baby walrus in your financial presentations? Probably not. But anything you can do to entertain your audience and make them enjoy being there will also make your presentation interesting and memorable. It’s up to you to determine what’s appropriate within the context of your talk.

The Problem With PowerPoint: The Gettysburg Address Slides

I’ve been using the Gettysburg Address PowerPoint in my presentation training since the very first class I taught. Because the speech is so well known (partly because it’s so brief), these slides by Peter Norvig provide a great example of how PowerPoint can drain the life from even the most powerful and important ideas. Reducing the speech to bullet points is so ridiculous and at the same time so familiar that it never fails to provoke uneasy laughter from an audience. They’ve all seen–and usually given–presentations just like this.

At this point these slides are almost 15 years old and Norvig is now the head of research at Google. But it’s just as good of a lesson about the over-reliance on PowerPoint as it was way back in the 20th century. If anything, it’s become an even better example as the dated PowerPoint design looks more and more ridiculous. You can almost imagine Lincoln agonizing over whether to use this template or my old favorite, “Dad’s Tie.”

But I hadn’t heard the story of why Norvig created the presentation until I came across this video on YouTube. It turns out that he put it together in 1998 while working on a team at NASA investigating the failure of two Mars probes. He felt like PowerPoint was allowing participants on the project to distance themselves from the real issues they should be concerned with and that they’d be more productive if they just sat down and had a discussion instead of creating slides. So he built some slides of his own to show how PowerPoint could obscure or even hide what was really at stake.

I particularly love the part of the video where he describes being concerned that he’d have to spend a lot of time finding the worst possible combination of colors and fonts for his slides and discovering that the PowerPoint wizard solved that problem for him with no effort at all.

If you’re reading this in email format, you can view the slides and video on my blog or here:

Gettysburg Address PowerPoint

Peter Norvig Video

Create Amazing Visual Aids For Your Presentations: Mars Rover Prezi

Here’s a great example of how you can use presentation software to create beautiful and engaging visual aids for your presentations. This illustration of the landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity created using Prezi is slick enough that it wouldn’t look out of place on a major newscast, and it does a terrific job of explaining the spacecraft’s descent without requiring any real scientific expertise. Think how easy it would be for a high school teacher (or even a student) to use this presentation to lead a classroom discussion.

But what I like best about this presentation is that it’s created with tools that are readily available to anyone. You don’t have to be a programmer, animator or graphic designer to create a Prezi like this. All you need is a free Prezi account, a little time spent getting to know the software, and some free images that are easily accessible on the internet. While some of the more impressive Prezis that you’ll find online incorporate tricks like Flash animations and video clips, there’s none of that here. The impact of this presentation is created solely with tools built-in to Prezi: zooming, fade-in animations and 3-D backgrounds.

Imagine how you could use a Prezi like this to describe a process that you’re involved with at work. Think about how easy it would be for your audience to follow what you’re talking about step-by-step. Then go create one!

(Click the arrow in the viewer at the top of the page to start the Prezi. If you’re viewing this in an email, click on the link below to view the Prezi in your browser)

Mars Rover Prezi

Previously: Prezi’s Experts Program