Don’t Ban PowerPoint: Learn to Create Thoughtful Presentations Instead

Ban PowerPointThere are few things so irredeemably bad that they are banned outright, no exceptions. You would think that torture should be, but our own government has found a workaround for that by redefining the word when it’s convenient. Killing endangered animals seems like an obvious candidate for a ban, but every few months I see stories about someone defending their right to pay to “hunt” elephants, rhinos or giraffes. We can’t even stop Adam Sandler from making movies. But should we ban PowerPoint?

A Washington Post piece by Katrin Park (self-consciously illustrated with PowerPoint slides) argues that PowerPoint should simply be banned. While I agree with most of her points about how the seemingly inescapable software is misused (and many of her examples are eerily similar to posts I’ve previously written), a ban isn’t the answer. Lots of tools can lead you to a bad result if you don’t know how to use them. Chainsaws. Nail guns. Ladders. That doesn’t mean we should just get rid of them.

Park points to TED talks as examples of presentations that have moved away from slides (which she calls “presentations”) to storytelling, but many TED talks are accompanied by slides. The difference is that the speakers have learned (or been coached) not to let their slides take the focus away from themselves. And, sure, there are other great products to help you create visual aids for your presentations, like Prezi, but they won’t make your presentations better if you don’t put in the effort. It’s just as easy to make an awful presentation with Prezi as it is with PowerPoint. Actually, Prezi is the only presentation software I’ve know to make people physically ill. Some presenters get so excited about its ability to swoop and spin around the screen that they literally make their audiences nauseous.

So what should you do?

First, don’t ban PowerPoint. Simply eliminating a tool, one with which many people are comfortable and that has been useful to them for a long time, doesn’t make sense. Besides, a lot of these “bans” just don’t work. As Park points out, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates found that PowerPoint was so ingrained in the culture of the Pentagon that even he couldn’t root it out.

But maybe it’s time to take a break.

A PowerPoint hiatus could be a great idea at your organization to help bring out creative responses to the problem of presenting and teach people that they don’t need to approach every presentation the same way. Try eliminating PowerPoint during one meeting, at your office for a week, or at your next company retreat to see what happens. But make sure that everyone knows what you expect from them and provide examples of other presentation software or formats that they might try. Otherwise they may have a serious panic attack. Remember, the only way many people know how to give a presentation is with slides.

So try other presentation software. Or try doing without slides and use storytelling, a whiteboard, or a demonstration instead. But don’t blame PowerPoint itself for lazy, un-engaging, and ineffective presentations. Those are the speaker’s fault, not the software’s.

If you’re looking for ideas on how to create better presentations, this blog is a good place to start.

Katrin Park: PowerPoint Should Be Banned

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Presentation Tips: Dealing With Fear Of Public Speaking

Stage fright and fear of public speaking aren’t exactly the same thing, but they are so closely  related that suggestions for coping with one are often helpful for dealing with the other. This short and entertaining TED Talk by Joe Kowan is great because it shows the specific tactics he uses to lessen his fear of being on stage: things like writing a song about his fear (which he performs here) and planning for the fact that his nerves will make his singing voice higher than usual.

While Kowan’s strategies may not apply directly to your own fear of public speaking (few of us get the chance to write songs for our presentations), I like the model he provides for coming up with a personal plan to deal with anxiety. Almost everyone experiences fear of public speaking to some degree, and few presenters completely overcome it. (In this sense I think the title of the talk is slightly misleading–I don’t think Kowan has “beat” his fear, he’s just found some ways to cope).

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m always a little nervous about speaking to an audience. So I’ve adopted several strategies of my own to help lessen my anxiety. Here are a few of the tactics I use:

Being Prepared: I don’t want worries that my talk isn’t finished, that my computer won’t work, or that I’m not going to get there on time to make my nerves any worse than they already are. So I make sure that I’m never writing a presentation at the last minute, I double-check my computer to make sure I have all the files and AV connectors I need, and I plan so I have enough time to arrive early. If you’re not great at managing these kinds of details, a checklist can be very helpful.

Getting Comfortable: One side benefit of arriving early is that you can use the time to familiarize yourself with the room and get comfortable. One of the most terrifying moments for most speakers is when they suddenly have to stand up, walk over to the lectern, and start talking. But arriving early gives you a chance to make sure everything is ready, to chat with people as they come in, and start to feel like the room is yours instead of an alien environment. If you’ve already been talking to people as the room fills you can often just ease into your presentation in a conversational way and avoid that feeling of having the curtain going up, leaving you alone on the stage.

Thinking of the Audience as Individuals: It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of an audience as a homogeneous group like a mob. If a speaker sees one person in the audience who looks unhappy, they often start to assume that everyone hates them. But it’s important to remember that any audience is made up of individuals with different ideas and experiences. Don’t let one person ruin the whole thing. Also, focusing on someone you know in the audience, someone who seems to be nodding in agreement, or just a friendly face, can go a long way toward calming your nerves and helping you forget about the rest of the crowd.

Staying Hydrated: Nerves often give speakers a dry mouth, so have water handy in case you get thirsty or find yourself with a scratchy throat. Taking a sip of water is also a good way to pause for a moment to collect your thoughts without looking as if you’ve frozen like a deer in headlights. But a couple words of caution. Try to put your glass or bottle out of the way so it’s unlikely to get knocked over. And try to avoid ice in your water: condensation dripping on your outfit can make an embarrassing impression. Finally, try not to look too desperate for a drink.

These are just some of the things that I find work for me. Before your next presentation, take a few minutes to sit down and think about some strategies that might help you minimize (if not “beat”) your fear. Coming up with a few ideas can make your fear seem less overwhelming and more manageable.

Joe Kowan: How I beat stage fright

Presentation Strategies: Start With a Shock

Writer Kelly Corrigan starts her TEDx talk with a couple of jokes and a shocking fact: 33 percent of high school graduates never read another book. Surprising people and making them laugh are both great strategies for engaging audiences whose attention spans are challenged by the idea of reading a book, sitting through a meeting, or even watching a nine-minute video like this one. Once their focus is on her, Corrigan can go on to explain in her charming way why it’s so important that we all read more.

But I’ll let her tell you….

Kelly Corrigan at TEDx Sonoma County

Presentation Skills: Introverts and Extroverts

I really liked the TED version of this presentation because of the way that Susan Cain talked about her own struggles as an introvert with public speaking. That’s not in this condensed version, but some of my other favorite parts are, including the research that shows that audiences find extroverts to be more persuasive and believable than more introverted speakers.

I love this kind of science, but the idea that extroverts are more convincing is understandable even on a common-sense level. Extroverts tend to be much more engaging and more enthusiastic, both of which help an audience pay attention and stay focused on what’s being said. Enthusiasm is particularly powerful because it can be quite contagious and help win people over to a presenter’s point of view. If you think about it, the RSA videos are kind of like the “extroverted” versions of the original talks. They’ve been edited and animated to make them more engaging and entertaining.

As a closet introvert myself, I know that I’m a much more effective public speaker because I make a conscious effort to be more extroverted. I try to bring as much energy as I can to every presentation, I tell my best jokes and stories in an attempt to be entertaining, and I talk to people that I don’t know in a way I’d probably never do if we were random guests at a party.

The difference between being an introvert and at least being able to act like an extrovert is often the difference between success and failure in a presentation. Maybe you’re not a natural extrovert, but a lot of people (including Susan Cain and myself) aren’t, and we’re doing passable jobs at public speaking. Can you manage to be an extrovert for 30 minutes? An hour? Try giving it a shot. If you’re still having a hard time, try co-presenting with someone who is more outgoing than you are. I find that I’m even more successful when I’m paired with someone who is an extrovert (or seems like they are one).

That doesn’t mean that I’m telling you to be fake, to put on a personality that isn’t your own. Audiences react badly when they perceive that someone is acting “phony.” What you want to do instead is be the best, most interesting and energetic version of yourself.

RSA Shorts–The Power of Quiet

Presentation Tips: Change Your Posture To Change Minds

Here’s a fun TED talk that serves to remind us that it’s not just what you say in your presentations that determines how successful you are, but that your posture matters, too. We’ve all heard that our physical appearance shapes how an audience perceives us and that much of our communication is non-verbal. What’s really intriguing about what Amy Cuddy has to say is that making an effort to change our posture can change the way we feel about ourselves as well.

Try giving it 20 minutes to watch the whole thing. The end makes a memorable emotional impact.

TED: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

Using Storytelling to Make Your Presentations Memorable

I’ve mentioned before that storytelling may be the closest thing to a secret weapon when it come to creating a great presentation. Telling your presentation in narrative form gives it a natural structure, makes it more memorable for your audience, and helps you overcome any fear that you might have about not being able to remember your talk.

One example I’ve used is the storytelling techniques that competitors in memory contests employ in order to recall seemingly impossible quantities of information and Joshua Foer’s account in Moonwalking with Einstein of how he used these methods to become a memory champion. Now everything seems to have come full-circle and Foer has a TED talk describing the experience. You should still buy his book, but this is a great introduction.

http://www.ted.com/talks/view/lang/en//id/1443