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.
And because it’s always good for a joke.
As I talk about how jargon, technical terms, and obscure acronyms that are intended to save time actually lead to confusion and waste it, I can always depend on someone in the audience to raise their hand to ask what a TLA is.
“Oh, sorry,” I say. “It’s a three letter acronym for Three Letter Acronym.” Cue the laughter.
I recently came across a blog post from Adobe’s General Counsel, Mike Dillon, who says that the overuse of acronyms in his workplace is out of control:
At Adobe we take it to an entirely new level. Acronym usage is so rampant here that an internal market has developed with employees trading lists of company acronyms like they are some sort of corporate Rosetta Stone.
As an example, I recently attended a meeting where we reviewed the performance of a number of our businesses. During one ten minute period, I jotted down the following acronyms that were used during a presentation: “VIP”, “ARR”, “CLP”,” TLP”, “GTM”, “CCM”, “SMB”, “ETLA”, “POSA”, “STE”, “CS6”, “CC”, “EOL”, “STL”,” DPS”, “COGS”, “OEM”, “ROW”, “MD&P”, “CAGR” and “CCE”. One of the presenters even achieved the linguistic equivalent of running the four-minute mile by using an impressive seven acronyms in a single sentence!
But he realizes after the meeting that he’s been so busy trying to figure out the speakers’ acronyms that he hasn’t really heard their presentations:
And for presenters, that’s a real problem. You put countless hours developing a presentation so that you can inform or influence your audience. That work is wasted if your audience doesn’t understand your message.
So, here’s a novel idea. How about considering the audience you are addressing? Are you certain that everyone in the room understands the acronyms you are using? If not, use the full words or phrase at the beginning of your presentation before you begin using the acronym.
Your future audiences will thank you and your presentations will be far more effective.
Of course he’s right. As presenters, writers, and everyday communicators of information, it’s critical that we are as clear as possible. If there’s any possible doubt that your audience might not understand an acronym or a technical term, make sure to spell it out for them. Saving a few syllables isn’t worth it if there’s a chance that your audience is going to mistake the ASTD (American Society for Training and Development) for an STD.
But audiences also need to take some responsibility here. If you find yourself in meetings that rely on a lot of jargon and acronyms that could be confusing, ask people to clarify what they’re talking about. Speaking up to admit that you don’t understand can be difficult, but working together to eliminate the mysterious letter stew used within your organization can help make the whole team more efficient.
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.”
You’ve probably heard the phrase “death by PowerPoint,” but didn’t take it literally. No one has ever died because of PowerPoint, right? Think again. It may have happened–but probably not the way you imagined.
A post from Joseph B. White on wallstreetjournal.com asks whether General Motors’ corporate culture of over-reliance on PowerPoint presentations is responsible for their current recalls, safety scandal and, ultimately, the deaths of customers. As White explains, slideshows are a pervasive part of GM’s communications:
References to PowerPoint and “slide decks” show up throughout former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas’s brutal, 315-page dissection of how GM executives failed to act on evidence of deadly defects in its cars. There’s a good reason. Lengthy slide presentations have been a substitute for meaningful communication at GM since before Microsoft’s ubiquitous PowerPoint software was invented.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, company executives would lull outside directors with slide shows about their strategies to boost sales and stop growing losses in the U.S. operations – until the directors woke up as the company veered toward collapse in 1992, ousted the top management and promoted a new team committed to…changing the corporate culture.
One of the problems with relying on PowerPoint to convey critical facts or ideas that are uncertain is that the people who write these presentations often create so many slides with so many bullets that it’s hard to tell what’s important. Viewers who need to understand what’s going on would usually be better off with a written report that analyzes and distills the issues at stake instead of a barrage of bullets that are, ultimately, forgettable:
In one example of the numbing barrage of slides that obscured important information about safety risks, the Valukas report says that in March 2009, as GM was sliding toward its government-led bankruptcy, former GM CEO Rick Wagoner “may have viewed” a 72-slide presentation that mentioned, in a “back-up slide,” a change in the design to the Chevrolet Cobalt’s key that replaced a slot for attaching key rings to a small hole.
Now, of course, it’s clear those complaints were a vital clue to a grave issue. If the switch turned off just before a crash, there would be no power to the airbags, and no power assist for steering and brakes. GM now connects 13 deaths to the defect; lawyers for victims say the number is much higher.
In any case, Mr. Valukas’s report states that Mr. Wagoner doesn’t recall reviewing “any part of the slide deck.”
It’s just too easy to stop paying attention when you’re presented with such a huge amount of information (72 slides worth) that doesn’t highlight what’s really critical (like fatalities caused by something as seemingly innocuous and easy to fix as the design of a hole in a key). Why, you have to wonder, were references to deadly accidents relegated to backup slides and kept out of those shown to executives? No one at GM seems to know:
An engineer who’d been investigating the problem presented PowerPoint slides – but apparently didn’t discuss “backup” slides that made reference to five deaths and some serious injuries.
The report details confusion among the engineers and executives over what was in the slides, which slides were presented and which were not.
One engineer told Mr. Valukas he did present the slide. Three other executives at the meeting said they didn’t recall fatalities being discussed. Others who attended the meeting said they didn’t learn about the deaths until later.
Alicia Boler-Davis, GM’s senior vice president for quality and a member of the committee, told investigators that “backup slides” to presentations usually aren’t distributed or presented, but that death and injury data “should always be included” in a discussion of a proposed recall.
Ms. Boler-Davis also told investigators “that had she known at the time of the December 17, 2013 EFADC meeting that fatalities were involved, she would have treated the issue with more urgency.”
You would certainly think that fatalities would be included in such a briefing. In his post White wonders:
What if someone had simply stood up, without a visual prop, and said: “People are dying.”
But there’s another cultural problem at GM that also seems to be responsible for allowing this scandal to grow. And evidence for it is also found in one of GM’s ubiquitous PowerPoint presentations. Looking at some of the actual slides that were released as part of a government order, it’s amazingly clear how employees were instructed to understate risks and how that policy could lead to disaster. These slides from a GM recall briefing show how their guidelines for writing internal documents–obviously intended to help protect the company from lawsuits–actually led them to avoid “emotional” words that would have helped highlight the importance of the problems they faced. Ultimately, this strategy increased the threat to GM itself and may have cost more lives.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that over-reliance on PowerPoint has been implicated in failed communications that led to disaster. After the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, professor Edward Tufte conducted a study of NASA communications and filed a Freedom of Information Act request that included slides that had been used in briefings about the final flight. An article from Government Executive by Shane Harris describes how:
Among those he received were three briefings to NASA senior managers by contract engineers with the Boeing Co. about possible damage to Columbia’s wing, caused by impact with foam debris.
Tufte was aghast. The slides were a muddle of banner headings and bullet points. Important findings were buried in subheadings. Information in data tables was squished into tight cells, making it hard to read. The engineers wrote in a mishmash of acronyms and parenthetical notes that didn’t clearly convey that Columbia was in danger.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Tufte recalls. So he posted the slides on the Internet.
The members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board couldn’t believe it either. Their final report cited Tufte’s analysis and excoriated NASA for favoring slides over prosaic explanations.
The investigators singled out one slide that proved pivotal in the failure of NASA executives to grasp Columbia’s jeopardy. It is classically bad PowerPoint, a “festival of bureaucratic hyper-rationalism,” Tufte writes. It contains six levels of hierarchy: A banner title followed by a big bullet point, a dash, a diamond and a little bullet point to denote subpoints, and finally, a set of parentheses.
“It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the Columbia investigators wrote. “The board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of communication at NASA.”
PowerPoint slides aren’t usually a matter of life and death. (In fact, a huge number of presentations don’t seem to have any reason to exist at all). But these examples of catastrophic results have a lot to teach us about how relying too much on PowerPoint can obscure what’s really important.
Instead of using slides as a container for vast amounts of data, in the place of a complex report, or as a script for a speech, try to use them as they were meant to be used–as the visual aids that accompany a presentation instead of the whole thing. Try to keep them simple in order to make the biggest impact.
After all, a slide that says “People are Dying” is pretty clear.
I was happy to see this blackboard welcoming guests to the wedding reception for my friends Sarah and Joey because it illustrates one of the most important rules for any meeting, presentation, or formal gathering. They all need to have an agenda. You don’t want to leave your guests in the dark about what your meeting is about, why they’ve been invited, or when the food trucks are going to start serving dinner. Otherwise people may feel anxious, annoyed, or cranky from their low blood sugar.
That doesn’t mean your agenda has to be a formal document that’s distributed in advance (though that’s often best). Agendas can take many forms, including a few bullet points in a calendar invitation, an overview of goals and topics to be discussed at the opening of a meeting, or a brief outline written on a whiteboard at the front of a conference room. An entirely appropriate agenda might just exist in the head of the meeting planner. But all meetings need to have an agenda in order to keep them on track and make sure they have a legitimate reason for happening. As a general rule, the more important the meeting, the more important it is to have a formal agenda and share it with attendees to make sure that everyone’s goals are being met.
Unfortunately, too many meetings don’t have an agenda at all. Some meeting organizers are just bad planners and think they’ll wing it, while others don’t like the structured formality of a written agenda. But the most frequent excuse I hear–by far–is that writing an agenda and distributing it in advance takes too much time. Of course this idea is terribly short-sighted. Creating a good agenda allows you to use the time you and your co-workers spend in meetings much more efficiently, and should even allow you to cancel the meetings that you really don’t need to have.
Agreeing that every meeting should have an agenda, that it’s shared in advance, and that it’s used to make sure the meeting stays on track is probably the single-most effective thing you can do to improve the productivity of your workplace. Have you ever sat through an entire meeting wondering why you’d been invited? Have you been to a weekly status meeting where no one had anything new to report? Chances are no one had taken the time to write agendas for those meetings. If you find that you or the people you work with are having a hard time coming up with agendas, it might be time to start thinking about whether you should be having those meetings at all. Cancel them instead and use the time you reclaim to actually get some work done.
What you might not always want to do is include an agenda slide in your presentations. An agenda slide can be a great tool to give attendees a quick idea of what they’re going to hear, but many presenters wind up spending so much time explaining their agenda slides that they effectively give their presentation twice, once when they talk about the agenda, then again as they read through their slides. Few things are more boring for an audience. If you can give your entire presentation just by discussing an agenda slide, consider doing it that way. Your audience will appreciate it.
Here’s Bill Murray wandering into a stranger’s bachelor party and giving the rowdy guys the thrill of their lives–no strippers necessary. It’s a short clip, but that’s part of what makes it great. Murray is a real pro, and he shows that you can make a terrific speech in less than a minute. Longer isn’t always more meaningful; sometimes it’s better to say one memorable thing and get out off the stage. This is probably especially true if you’re the star of Stripes and Ghostbusters and you’re surrounded by drunk dudes who clearly worship you.
It’s almost that time again.
Each year commencement season gives us some of the most memorable, funny, and thoughtful speeches that we’ll hear all year. To kick things off, here’s a version of George Saunders’ 2013 speech at Syracuse that has now been turned into an animated video and a book called Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. Obviously the video here isn’t the live performance from the commencement speech, but it provides a great example of economical storytelling.
Saunders is one of our best writers, though he’s often a lot darker than what you see in this video. If you don’t know him from his stories in The New Yorker, check out Tenth of December.
One of the most important strategies for all presenters (especially those who are nervous about public speaking) is to make sure they are an expert on their topic. When you know your subject matter backwards and forwards you’re much less likely to freeze or lose your place in your talk, you’ll be able to answer questions from the audience easily, and you’ll be able to ad lib when unexpected things happen.
But becoming an expert can also help accomplish something that may be more important than just giving you command over facts and information. It can give you confidence. And being confident, it turns out, may be even more important than being right when it comes to persuading people. Studies show that confident people are seen as more competent, more persuasive, and even more attractive than less confident individuals–even when their confidence is totally misplaced. Here’s a quick summary of one experiment from an article in Slate:
In 2009, Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the University of California–Berkeley Haas School of Business, decided to run an experiment on his students. He gave them a “list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew.” But he also stacked the deck with fakes: Made-up figures he called “Queen Shaddock” and “Galileo Lovano,” and a fictitious event called “Murphy’s Last Ride.” Anderson found that the students who ticked off the most fake names showed signs of excessive confidence, if not competence. At the end of the semester, he surveyed the students about one another and found that those who held the most “respect, prominence, and influence” in the classroom were the same ones who claimed they totally knew who “Queen Shaddock” was. Anderson concluded that it’s confidence, not ability, skill, or accomplishment, that ends up swaying other people. “Whether they are good or not,” he said, “is kind of irrelevant.”
I’m not encouraging anyone to be a blowhard or pretend they are an expert on the reign of Queen Shaddock. There are few things more obnoxious than someone who exhibits confidence they clearly haven’t earned, and audiences will quickly turn on a presenter as soon as it becomes clear that their confidence is misplaced. Few people like a fraud once they’ve been exposed.
But there are all kinds of things you can do to boost your confidence without being a phony. Study your material. Rehearse your talk. Get to know the room you’re speaking in and make yourself comfortable. And try to interact with the audience in a natural way so it feels more like a conversation than a big scary performance. All of these strategies will help calm your nerves and make you feel more confident. Perhaps even more importantly, they’ll make you seem more confident to your audience.
What you don’t want to do is undermine yourself by seeming unsure, announcing the things you don’t know, or seeming noncommittal or disinterested in your topic. Remember that you’re there to persuade your audience and that, if you want them to believe in your ideas, you have to believe in them yourself.
Asking yourself whether you can serve as an expert on your topic is also a really great test of whether you should be presenting at all. If you find yourself in over your head, if you don’t have time to prepare, or if you’re just the wrong person for the subject matter, it’s a good idea to ask for help or just politely decline the assignment. I’m speaking from experience here–the worst talks I’ve given have all happened because I was the wrong presenter from the beginning. It’s not always possible to say no, but it can save both you and your audience a lot of pain and wasted time.
Think bad slides are only a problem at the office? Or in the military? Here’s a piece by Rebecca Shuman from Slate that describes the use of PowerPoint in the classroom as the “scourge” of higher education–written entirely in the form of a slide deck. But the problems she points out aren’t unique to schools; all of them would be painfully familiar to anyone who sits through business presentations.
Unfortunately, the cycle of bad slides and worse presentation habits has become self-reinforcing. People in the workplace rely too much on PowerPoint instead of creating truly engaging presentations. Teachers and students adopt the technology and all of the bad habits they see modeled in business. Newly minted graduates find jobs and bring their presentation “skills” with them, perpetuating the Circle of Lifeless Presentations.
Luckily for Schuman, she has one advantage most people don’t; she can ban PowerPoint from her classroom. Few of us hold that kind of sway over our conference rooms. So what can you do? Try to show your students, employees, and co-workers that there’s a better, less bullet-riddled way to conduct presentations. Start a more virtuous cycle.