Presentation Disasters: Don’t Lose Sight of Your Goals

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.

Molly Wood: Samsung GS4 Launch

Samsung GS4 Launch Presentation

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).

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

Presentation Visual Aids: Some Fonts Are More Believable Than Others

It’s been a while since I’ve written much about designing visual aids. I’m more of a writer than a designer, but I’m completely intrigued by the impact that visual tweaks can have on the success of your presentation.

Fonts are especially interesting because they’re something most of us don’t even think about–the vast majority of people simply accept the defaults in Word, PowerPoint, Keynote, or whatever program they’re using. But fonts can have unexpected influence on how your presentations are received. In an earlier post I pointed out a study that surprisingly seemed to show that readers retained more information when it was presented to them in a font that was difficult to read.

Now there’s another experiment (I love these things, can you tell?) that suggests certain fonts are seen as more credible than others. Documentarian and generally interesting guy Errol Morris created a sneaky survey to see if changing the typeface of an article altered how believable it was to readers. And it turned out that it did.

After polling approximately 45,000 unsuspecting readers on nytimes.com, Morris discovered that subjects were more likely to believe a statement when it was written in Baskerville than when it was written in Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Trebuchet, or Comic Sans. Baskerville: truth’s favorite typeface?

It’s probably no surprise that Comic Sans wasn’t taken as seriously as some of the other fonts, but who knew that Baskerville conveyed such authority?

The lesson here isn’t that you should only use Baskerville from now on. But you should put some thought into all of the design choices you make and the impact they might have on your audience. It’s not just the words you use that matter–fonts, colors and images all make a difference as well.

http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670556/are-some-fonts-more-believable-than-others

How to Give a Great Keynote

You don’t have to be giving a keynote presentation or even be a professional speaker to benefit from the advice in this great post. My only quibble? Not being nervous about a big presentation isn’t just douchey, it’s a clear sign that you’re a sociopath.

http://thenextweb.com/lifehacks/2012/05/13/how-to-give-a-great-keynote/

Steps in writing presentations: Developing Visual Aids and Practicing

We’ve covered a lot of other steps in writing a presentation already. It’s only after you’ve worked on (or at least given some thought to) each of them that you should consider creating what many people mistakenly think of as their “presentations.”

Developing Visual Aids

After you’ve created a script for yourself you’re finally at the point where you can start developing slides and other materials that will act as the visual aids for your talk. You might have come up with some ideas for visuals during your brainstorming sessions or as you developed your ideas, but this is the point where we suggest you might actually fire up PowerPoint for the first time.

That certainly doesn’t mean that you have to use slides, however. Defaulting to slides that look just like those you see in every other presentation is probably the least effective thing you can do. Consider whether you can do away with slides and rely on other kinds of exhibits, a demo, or props. Can you make your interactions with your audience the focus of your whole presentation?

If you do use slides, think about how you can minimize your reliance on them. Whatever you wind up doing, make sure that your visual aids serve a purpose that supports your objective; don’t include them just because they’re expected.

Practice

Finally it’s time to rehearse your talk. Any presentation that requires you to stand up in front of an audience deserves at least a little bit of practice to make sure that you’re ready for the real thing. But that doesn’t mean that you need to commit a huge amount of time to rehearsing. You can approach it on several different levels of scale, everything from simply running through your main ideas in your head to recording a full dress rehearsal in a room with a live audience.

Not every presentation requires a lot of practice, but you don’t want to find yourself struggling in front of your “real” audience as you try to recall your own presentation. I can almost guarantee that any presentation you’ve found memorable and engaging, no matter how spontaneous it looked, involved a fair amount of rehearsal.

Steps in writing presentations: Editing your ideas

You don’t want to be critical of your ideas while you’re brainstorming for a presentation, but at some point you’re going to have to figure out what belongs, what doesn’t, and where it goes. We call this the editing phase, and it can be painful; few of us like ripping out our ideas. Most people are terrible at editing themselves and resist it as much as they can. The general failure to edit is why we see so many slides full of junk.

But the editing process can also be liberating. Start by grouping your ideas to figure out what goes together and what doesn’t really belong at all. Narrowing down your ideas gives you a stronger focus and a much better argument in the long run. It’s important to remember that sheer volume of material and information isn’t likely to persuade an audience. They’re much more likely to remember a carefully constructed talk that presents a few important details.

We also use the editing stage in order to figure out how much we’re realistically going to be able to cover in the time we’ve been given. Early in our planning stages we often have lists of exercises and visual aids that never make it into the final product, but that’s OK. What you want to have in the end is the best of your ideas that you can accomplish with the time and resources available.

Presenters who can ruthlessly edit themselves often look like geniuses because they are so spot-on. Audiences only see the good stuff.

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