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

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Visual Aids: Netanyahu’s Cartoon Bomb

Making sure that the tone of your visual aids match the overall message of your presentations is critical. If you choose fonts or images that look unprofessional or aren’t “serious” enough you risk undermining your entire talk. Comic Sans usually isn’t a great choice of font for business presentations, blurry screenshots taken from the web look like you don’t really care, and using a cartoon bomb to illustrate the threat of a nuclear Iran will undoubtedly provoke a response like this:

Bill Clinton’s 2012 DNC Speech

Here’s a pretty amazing document, a redline showing the difference between Bill Clinton’s prepared speech (which was what he saw on the teleprompters) and what he actually said in the best-reviewed speech of either convention this year. What’s most impressive is how he was able to embellish what was already there while keeping the flow of his argument intact and making the whole thing sound natural.

Despite the disapproval from some corners of the political universe, speeches like these are typically read from teleprompters for a reason–it’s very difficult for most human beings to deliver an extended speech without losing some details or rhetorical flourishes in the language. Of course it’s possible to memorize a speech word for word like an actor might, but the result usually sounds robotic and stilted. But this speech has none of those problems and probably does a better job of engaging the audience than what he had written would have.

Still, I wouldn’t recommend this kind of riffing as a strategy for beginners. Clinton’s ability to take the script in front of him and augment it on the fly shows what a pro he is, and how confident he was that no one would mind his going a little long…

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2012/09/what-bill-clinton-said-vs-what-he-wrote/56562/

Keep Your Presentations Brief: William Henry Harrison’s Deadly Boring Inaugural Address

We are the mediocre presidents.
You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,
There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.
There’s William Henry Harrison,
(Harrison): I died in thirty days!

The Simpsons‘ “Mediocre Presidents” Song

Despite all the complaints about “death by PowerPoint,” I’ve never heard of a murder  definitively pinned on a boring presentation, though I’d probably love that as a Law and Order plot. There is pretty good evidence of a bad presentation killing its presenter, though. A president, even. And he didn’t need slides or any other technology to do himself in.

William Henry Harrison, aka "Old Tippecanoe"

March 4th marks the anniversary of William Henry Harrison’s fatal inaugural address in 1831. Widely regarded as the worst inaugural speech in history, it was also the longest. He spoke outdoors for more than two hours despite the fact that, at 68, he was the oldest president to date (another record he held until Ronald Reagan came along). It was snowing during the ceremony and Harrison wasn’t wearing a hat or coat. Eventually he caught a cold, then pneumonia and died 32 days later (not 30, as The Simpsons tells us), giving him yet another record–shortest time in office of any president.

You have to wonder if there was still an audience when he finished. Let’s hope they at least had the sense to wear coats, or there may have been other casualties. The speech really is boring. You can find it here, but I wouldn’t  recommend it. The first sentence alone is 99 words long and is probably enough for anyone who isn’t looking to harm themselves:

Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our Government and what I believe to be your expectations I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform.

From there he goes on to talk at length about the Romans.

Don’t make the same mistake as Harrison. Just because people are there to hear you doesn’t mean they want to hear you talk for hours. Remember that everyone’s time is valuable (at least to them) and that they may not be as interested in your topic (Romans, for example) as you are. Be brief, say what you need to, and wrap it up. Your audience will appreciate the discipline.

Advice for Dealing with Hecklers

It should probably go without saying that comedians, presidential candidates, and other public speakers probably shouldn’t all use the same strategies for dealing with hecklers or difficult audience members. Their objectives are very different, for one thing. Comedians are trying to entertain while public speakers and politician are hoping to persuade and win votes. Still this article from Slate does have some good advice for speakers, despite the fact that the comedians reviewing the performances of the Republican candidates don’t always seem to understand that politicians’ goals are different from their own. The advice that Rick Santorum “should have thrown the mic down and walked off” seems particularly tone-deaf.

Unless it’s a joke, of course.

But I really like Paul F. Tompkins’ analysis of how Mitt Romney deals with a heckler:

“He handles it like a pro,” says Tompkins. “You don’t cut the heckler off. You let her go. Give ’em enough rope. Use the time she’s babbling to craft your comeback. Then BAM. You unleash your zinger with a smile. They come at you again? Same thing. Keep indulging her until the crowd completely turns on the heckler. Which they will—you’ve been smiling the while time, letting her say her piece, right? The crowd can’t be mad at you—you’re just being polite in a funny way! But just insulting enough that they taste a little blood in their mouths! THIS WOMAN MUST BE SILENCED AND THEY WILL GLADLY DO THAT FOR YOU! GUARDS, SEIZE HER!”

Most public speakers and politicians (Newt Gingrich excepted) probably aren’t focused on “zinging” their audience members. But letting the difficult audience member or heckler keep talking can be a great strategy. It often lets them dig themselves a hole without you having to do anything and, as Tompkins points out, turns the rest of the audience against them.

Dealing with a difficult audience member is never, well, easy. But it helps if you can remember that most of the audience is probably on your side.

Slate: Let me Finish

Eliot Spitzer’s Ideas for Improving the State of the Union Speech

I have to admit, I’m still a little resistant to the idea of taking advice from former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. And President Obama obviously didn’t decide to throw out the speech he’d written in favor of the ten minute version Spitzer created for Slate. The State of the Union is a particularly difficult speech to reform because people have very specific expectations for it; it’s going to be a long list of policy proposals that will never happen (missions to Mars, hydrogen fuel stations on every corner) and it’s going to be upbeat, no matter how grim the real state of the Union.

But Spitzer’s article for Slate contains some great ideas for simplifying and clarifying any talk. Cut the length way down. Limit yourself to a few ideas that people can easily remember. Back up what you have to say with clear visuals like the sample slides he provides (and I’ve attached at the top of this post).

Try these strategies with your next talk and I’ll bet you’ll be pleased with the results. There’s no reason that presentations have to be the length of TV shows or movies. Unless they’re paying to see you, people are almost always happy when you manage to get to the point and cut your meetings short.

Save the State of the Union