How PowerPoint Is Ruining Teaching: Learning Bad Habits Young

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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.

Slate: How PowerPoint is Ruining Higher Ed

Sherlock’s Toughest Case: How To Write An Unforgettable Best Man Speech

sherlockIt turns out Sherlock Holmes is human after all. The proof? Public speaking torments him as much as it does the rest of us.

Holmes has been unmasking murderers, saving the Crown Jewels, and exposing nefarious secret societies since 1887. He’s traveled to the 22nd Century and battled his nemesis Moriarty on the holodeck of the starship Enterprise (well, Data did in a Sherlock Holmes costume). But his biggest challenge? Writing a speech for John Watson’s wedding.

The recent BBC episode The Sign of Three opens with Sherlock calling Detective Inspector Lestrade away from a crime in progress for help with an emergency. Lestrade arrives at Baker Street to find Homes staring at his laptop screen in anguish.

“This is hard,” Sherlock says. “Really hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” Then he holds up a pamphlet he’s been studying called How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. “Do you know any funny stories about John?” he implores Lestrade. “I need anecdotes.”

Sherlock believes he is especially tormented by having to write his speech because of his self-diagnosis as a “high-functioning sociopath” and because he’s not good with people and their emotions. But his experience creating this speech is pretty consistent with what the rest of us go through in a similar situation. We agonize about these important moments because we want to do a good job for the people we love and not embarrass ourselves in front of an audience.

Faced with a challenge that feels insurmountable, Holmes approaches it the same way he would any other case: with research. And apparently How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech is full of good advice because (and I hope this isn’t a spoiler), Sherlock does an outstanding job. He even manages to solve another murder in the process.

Once you take out all the flashbacks and murder-solving distractions, it turns out that his wedding speech is pretty conventional. Of course, every wedding is different and every speaker has to write a talk that suits the specific event, their abilities as a speaker, and their relationships with the couple getting married. But many of the tactics Sherlock adopts would be useful any time you find yourself in the nerve-wracking position of having to prepare a wedding speech.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the text of How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. But, based on Sherlock’s performance, we can make some pretty good guesses about the advice it offers. My own powers of deduction tell me that the pamphlet’s suggestions look something like this:

Control Your Nerves

Public speaking makes almost everyone nervous. Even, it turns out, Sherlock Holmes. For most people the worst symptoms of their fear come right at the beginning, so it can be hard to get started and find a comfortable rhythm. But taking a few deep breaths, trying to speak slowly, and realizing that the worst will soon be over can help make your fear manageable. One of the great things about speaking at a wedding is that chances are pretty good you know a lot of people in the audience, so it should be easy to pick out some friendly faces in the audience and speak to them.

In Sherlock’s case, his nerves seem apparent as he struggles to write the speech and as he fumbles around a bit at the beginning of his performance, opening with “Ladies and gentlemen. Family and friends. And others….” But this turns out to be part of his plan. More on that in a bit….

(For other suggestions on dealing with fear of public speaking you can look here, or elsewhere on this blog).

Acknowledge Tradition

Are you speaking at a wedding with a Catholic mass or one being held on the beach in Santa Cruz? Both have rules and expectations that need to be followed, but those involved in either one would probably be wildly out of place at the other. Being aware of what everyone (especially the bride) expects from a wedding speech is critical. Are there rituals that need to be performed? How are you supposed to be dressed? What kind of humor is appropriate (if humor is appropriate at all)? Getting it right is incredibly important. The wedding speeches that go most horribly awry are usually the ones where the speakers simply don’t understand the context in which they are being given.

Aside from his formal wedding suit, the main gesture Sherlock makes to tradition in his best man’s speech is his attempt to read the “telegrams,” which he points out aren’t really telegrams at all but notes from loved ones who can’t be there.

“Big squishy cuddles. Oodles of love and heaps of good wishes,” he reads before quickly flipping through the note cards and then tossing them aside in discomfort. “Love, love, love. You get the general gist. People are basically just fond,” he finally summarizes. It may not be the most traditional performance, but at least people in the audience can think Holmes has made an effort.

Personalize Your Speech

When you’ve been asked to give a wedding speech, it should be because you have a close relationship with the bride, the groom, or both. At least one (and hopefully both) of them feel you have personal insight into them and their relationship. If that’s not the case and you find yourself asked to speak at the wedding of someone you don’t know very well, find an excuse to be out of town that day. Quick! Move overseas if you have to.

Every presentation needs an objective, and the objective of any wedding speech is to say something that will please the new couple and that they will remember for years to come. Even more specifically, your goal should always be to say something that makes the bride happy. In the end, she’s really the only one who matters.The danger here is in falling into the trap of talking about yourself too much, or focusing on just the bride or groom. Remember, the whole point of the wedding is bringing them together. You need to show some insight into them as a couple, something that you’ve personally observed.

Here’s where the Watson wedding gets really interesting. After Sherlock has made an effort with the traditional “telegrams,” he starts to personalize his speech. But he goes about it in an unexpected and circuitous way. Instead of talking about what great people John and Mary are and how happy they are going to be, Holmes plays to the audience’s expectations of him. It suddenly looks like he’s bombing the speech as he insults the bridesmaids, the vicar, and says this about the institution of marriage itself:

All emotions–in particular, love–stand opposed to the pure, cold reason I hold above all things. A wedding is, in my considered opinion, nothing short of a celebration of all that is false and specious and irrational and sentimental in this ailing morally compromised world.

Then he follows up with a barb at Watson:

If I burden myself with a little helpmate during my adventures, this is not out of sentiment of caprice. It is that he has many fine qualities of his own that he has overlooked in his obsession with me. Indeed, any reputation I have for mental acuity and sharpness comes, in truth, from the extraordinary contrast John so selflessly provides.

But not even Holmes is insensitive enough to say this at the wedding of a friend and mean it. He’s just playing on the audience’s expectations of him in order to create a genuinely memorable and dramatic speech and….

Do Something Unexpected

Of course, you could just stand up to make a speech, say a couple of nice things about the couple and be done. People make these kinds of speeches all the time. But it wouldn’t last very long, and it wouldn’t be very memorable. If you want to make a really great speech, you need to do something unexpected or tell a story that the audience doesn’t know. This is true of any presentation, really. Your talk has to stand out from all the other presentations people have to sit through if you want it to be truly memorable, and the element of surprise is a highly effective way of getting people to pay attention.

(A caution here. This doesn’t mean that you need to aim to create a speech that could go viral on YouTube. Remember that you’re there to celebrate the bride, not steal the spotlight from her).

Sherlock Holmes certainly excels at providing an unexpected twist with his speech. After seeming to trash the institution of marriage and insult much of the audience, he reveals that he’s been playing the role of “Sherlock Holmes the Sociopath” all along and that he completely understands what he needs to do in order to make a great speech.

“The point I’m trying to make,” he says:

is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant, and all-around obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet. I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be the best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend, and certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. John, I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.

Sherlock, it turns out, has played up his own deficiencies in order to contrast them with John’s virtues. You can see the light bulbs come on in the faces of the wedding guests as they start to understand that they’ve been tricked. But it’s not something they’re going to be angry or annoyed about. They actually get a great deal of pleasure from figuring out what’s going on. Sherlock’s not so cold after all.

(Letting an audience figure out something on their own is one of the best ways to make any presentation memorable. People like to feel clever, that they’ve accomplished something, and it makes them feel much more invested in any talk.)

Create An Emotional Connection

The final, mandatory, element of any successful wedding speech is to make an emotional connection between the audience and the happy couple. There are lots of things you could do that would be “unforgettable” but still wouldn’t be good ideas for a wedding. Getting falling-down drunk before your speech. Stripping off your clothes as you talk. Making out with the maid of honor at the head table. These things are all overdone, anyway.

But making a wedding speech memorable in a good way requires you to say something that prompts a positive emotional response from the guests. How you do this will be different in every situation because every wedding and every relationship are unique, but it’s critical that you find appropriate emotional content. Otherwise you’re just saying nice things that no one is likely to remember.

Here’s how Sherlock creator Steven Moffat, who actually wrote the wedding episode, imagines Holmes’ thought process in planning the speech and the importance it has for him:

I thought what Sherlock would do is he’d sit there and think, ‘Everyone’s gonna think I’m gonna make a right c***-up of this. Everyone thinks I’m going to screw it up. So I’m going to make them think that, and then of course I’m going to say something lovely.’ And I always thought he’d do it well because he’s a genius and he cares about his mate–he wouldn’t let his mate down.

So what does Sherlock actually say? He makes a direct appeal to the bride and talks about how they share their love for John:

Mary, when I say you deserve this man, it is the highest compliment of which I am capable. John, you have endured war, and injury, and tragic loss—so sorry again about that last one. So know this: Today, you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved. In short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that. Now, on to some funny stories about John….

After his initial ruse of being completely insensitive to the feelings of others, the emotional impact Sherlock makes in the end is so strong (and I admit I may have had a tear or two in my eyes) that the audience has to stop him from proceeding with his speech so they can enjoy the sentiment as he tries to rush ahead and tell the funny anecdotes he’s collected.

Make Them Laugh (Optional)

When people start thinking about giving a wedding speech, often the first thing they worry about is being funny. And Sherlock does too. His initial response was to call in Lestrade and beg for funny anecdotes. But, while some of the best wedding speeches certainly make people laugh, humor should be entirely optional. It is sincerity that is required for a great wedding speech.

Remember that a wedding is not an open mic night or your chance to practice a standup routine. The spotlight on this stage should stay fixed on the bride and groom. If you have funny stories to tell, great, as long as they help the guests get to know the bride and groom better. If you have to search hard for funny anecdotes, however, it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t depend on humor. And don’t try to be funny if it doesn’t come naturally to you or you have a hard time remembering a punchline. Much better just to be genuine and tell a good story.

Unfortunately, we may never know what, if any, anecdotes Sherlock came up with since the wedding party doesn’t give him a chance to tell them. I suspect, though, that he may have been trying to generate some during the disastrous two-man bachelor party he tried to orchestrate for Watson.

Solve The Murder (Sherlock Only)

Chances are pretty good that you will not be called on to solve a murder, so there’s really no need to over-prepare for this situation. Probably best to leave the sleuthing to the professionals anyway and spend your time coming up with the right stories for your wedding speech. Now that you know How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech, it should be easy.

Writing That Works: “Rules” You Should Be Breaking

The rules of any language exist for one primary purpose: so we can make sense of what is being said. Despite how it might feel sometimes, they aren’t there just to confuse us. Rules also weren’t invented to give your English teacher or your co-workers an excuse to comb through your writing looking for humiliating mistakes. We have them because if readers and writers don’t agree on what our words and punctuation mean there’s no hope that we’ll be able to communicate clearly. The first priority for any writer (and we’re all writers these days, whether it’s in our job title or not) should be to make it as easy as possible for their readers to understand what they have to say. So it’s critical that we follow some shared guidelines.

But you might be surprised to learn that many of what we think of as the “rules” of written English aren’t real rules at all. And some of them actually get in the way of allowing us to say what we mean. These are the “rules” you should break whenever it helps your writing make sense.

Part of the reason that English can be such a bewildering language, even for native speakers, is that there’s no one authority on how it should be written. Unlike French, which has the Académie Française, there is no governing body to write the laws of English and police its usage. And the fact that English has been widely spoken around the world for hundreds of years means there are distinct versions in the UK, the US, Australia, and India. (Also, some would argue, Texas). Not having an “official” set of rules means that it’s often difficult to understand how the language should work.

There are plenty of places you can get advice about English, but the trick is trying to get these sources to agree. You can consult dictionaries, grammar guides, or journalists’ style books for help, but it’s still possible to come away confused by different opinions. For years The New York Times wrote the plurals of CD and DVD as CD’s and DVD’s, while The Wall Street Journal used CDs and DVDs. How are amateurs like us supposed to figure this out when the country’s two most important newspapers can’t agree? Personally, I prefer CDs because it looks less like a possessive, but I wouldn’t object to either version. (Still, there’s no excuse for CDies, as I’ve seen written in an airport shop).

The truth is, the “rules” most of us learned in school aren’t nearly as firm as we were told. Many of them are simply ideas transplanted from Latin and other languages by people who wanted to impose a little order on the chaos of English. Some, like not splitting an infinitive, should be treated as conventions rather than hard and fast rules. We only need to be bound by them as long as they help make our writing clearer.

As a former English teacher myself, I’d like to empower you to jettison any grammar and punctuation rules that actually get in the way of clear and efficient writing. You’ll find some of the most commonly abused rules below, and I’ll add more in future posts.

Never end a sentence with a preposition:

Whether or not Winston Churchill ever actually responded to an editor who had “corrected” his writing, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put,” the line provides an excellent illustration of how ridiculous it can be to blindly follow the rules.

What would be the “correct” version of a question like “What did you sit on?” Don’t try to tell me that I should ask “On what did you sit?” because no human I’ve ever met would say that. The only reason I can imagine creating a sentence like that is if you are writing dialogue for a robot or the aristocrats on Downton Abbey.

Which leads us to my own first rule of grammar: if following the “rules” makes your words sound awkward or alien, please break the rules.

Don’t use “I”

At some point during our educations, many of us were told we should avoid using “I” and “me” in business and formal writing. I think the idea was supposed to be that referring to yourself is narcissistic and undermines a sense of objectivity. But what usually happens when you avoid mentioning yourself is that you wind up twisting sentences into unmanageable shapes to avoid pronouns. Besides, writing from your own perspective draws in readers by creating a more personal sense that you’re addressing them directly. So go ahead and use “I.” Just don’t make yourself the subject of every single sentence. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Sentences must include a verb

Really? Why?

The vast majority of sentences should have a verb, but they don’t always need one. One-word questions, for example, are often useful for breaking up the rhythm of sentences or drawing attention to important ideas. As always, make sure that you have a good reason for breaking the rules. And that what you mean is clear from the context of your other sentences.

Never use passive voice

Some editors will unsheathe their red pens to mark up every single sentence that uses the passive voice. Which is a shame, because sometimes the passive is helpful or even necessary. Why would I tell you anything other than “My car was stolen,” if I didn’t know who took it? “Someone stole my car,” isn’t any better.

But the real power of the passive voice comes into play when you want to conceal who is responsible for an action. Try using this sentence structure if you find yourself in an awkward situation.

  • The baby’s haircut was mangled
  • The entire pie was eaten
  • Her collection of Justin Bieber CDs was destroyed

You can’t start a sentence with and, but, or because

And what will happen if I do? Because I do it all the time.

Stringing sentences together with one of these connecting words can be a very effective way to keep your ideas flowing smoothly and lend them immediacy. Just be careful that they make sense in context. If you use “but,” what you say next has to be opposed to what you said in the previous sentence in some way.

Spell out numbers less than 100

I’ve talked to several people who were indoctrinated in high school journalism classes to write out every number up to 100 instead of using numerals. This has never made sense to me, especially for newspapers, because it’s much easier for our eyes to look for numerals when scanning for important information than it is to read the names of numbers. Besides, using numerals helps you avoid all those messy hyphens in numbers like “thirty-four.”

You really only need to spell out single-digit numbers (one through nine). Even then, using numerals is hardly a major offense. I just feel as though a single number like “7” looks naked and lonely sitting by itself. “Seven” looks much happier.

However you deal with numbers, just make sure you’re consistent with your choices.

Always use “a” before a word that starts with a consonant and “an” before a word that begins with a vowel

I get annoyed every time I hear a TV news reader describe something as “an historic event” (especially when they’re talking about something ridiculous like a new record for the most Doritos Locos tacos consumed in one sitting). I always want to send them an email explaining that it’s the way you pronounce the word that matters, not the way it’s spelled. You only use “an” in front of a vowel sound. So here in San Francisco, which is often referred to as SF, we’d say “Dungeness crab is an SF (ess-eff) tradition for the holidays.”

The only instance in which it is ever okay to say “an historical” is if you don’t pronounce the “h.” So if you have a cockney accent, go crazy saying “an ‘istorical” all you want. But never “an historical.”

What other grammar rules seem made to be broken?

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

Great Presentations: Steve Jobs Introduces The First Mac

In honor of its 30th anniversary, here is Steve Jobs presenting Apple’s Macintosh computer for the first time. Many, many things have changed over the intervening years, but one fact has remained constant: wearing a bow tie is always a risky wardrobe choice.

Jerry Seinfeld On Hecklers: Kill Them With Kindness

Most presenters won’t ever have to deal with a real heckler, the truly obnoxious jerk who feels entitled to interrupt and openly question your material or your value as a human being. (I suspect this is partly due to the fact that most presentations, unlike comedy clubs, don’t require a two drink minimum.) But that doesn’t mean that you won’t have to deal with disruptive audience members. You will. Give enough presentations (or just sit in the audience) and you’ll start to recognize certain types:

  • The fidgeter
  • The person who is too important to stop typing on their phone
  • The pair who thinks you can’t hear them whispering to each other
  • The eye-roller

These are just a few of the people who can throw a presenter off track and make it difficult for the rest of the audience to focus on the topic at hand. Deciding what to do when someone is disrupting your presentation is never easy because you always run the risk of making the situation worse by addressing it. But I think there’s something we can all learn from Jerry Seinfeld’s strategy for dealing with hecklers at his shows. He described his philosophy in a recent Q&A on Reddit:

Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist. When people would say something nasty, I would immediately become very sympathetic to them and try to help them with their problem and try to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be very understanding with their anger.

Challenging a heckler usually only makes the situation worse, puts them in control of the situation, and turns what was a distraction into the main event. But Seinfeld’s “heckler therapy” is aimed at ending the disruption by solving whatever is bothering them. If anything, this strategy should be even more effective in a regular presentation than it would be at a comedy show because the difficult people at presentations aren’t as openly antagonistic.

So if someone is fidgeting a lot, ask them if everything is okay. If they keep typing away on their phone, ask them if they have something they need to deal with. If they’re whispering in the back of the room, ask them if they have something they want to add to what you’ve said. The trick here is to make sure that you sound sincere. Chances are that your disruptors will say that everything is fine and stop causing trouble so they don’t attract any more attention to themselves.

What you don’t want to do is sound sarcastic or defensive. In another post about dealing with hecklers I talked about how important it is for presenters to remember that, in the vast majority of these situations, the audience is on their side and has very little patience with troublemakers. But that can all change very quickly if they think you’re being cruel and trying to embarrass someone.

Take Seinfeld’s advice and try to help them instead.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Reddit Q&A

Comedians’ Advice For Dealing With Hecklers

Presentation Tips: Don’t Rely Solely On A Script

Samsung has been very successful at emulating Apple’s iPhones and iPads. What they haven’t been able to copy nearly as well are Apple’s slick and effective product presentations. In fact, Samsung’s efforts have frequently been seen as strange, awkward, even sexist. But they’ve seldom gone as spectacularly wrong as when Samsung included director Michael Bay in the rollout of new televisions at CES this week.

After getting confused about which part of the script he was reading from the teleprompter, Bay fumbled around and was unable to recover. Trying to help, his co-presenter gave him an opportunity to ad lib by asking, “Tell us what you think,” but Bay was so dependent on the prepared script that he was totally lost. “I’m sorry,” he said as he walked off stage.

Here’s how he later described what happened:

Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing.

Unfortunately, the temptation to script live events ruins far too many presentations. Scripts get lost, notes get shuffled, unexpected events interrupt a speaker’s train of thought and they can’t get back on track. While I encourage everyone to write out their presentations as an exercise in working through their thoughts, it’s almost always a bad idea to depend on a script in order to deliver your talk. There are just too many things that can go wrong, and very few of us are good at memorizing or reading a speech in a way that will actually engage an audience.

If you’re giving a talk, it’s your job to know the material well enough that you can speak with a few notes or an outline to remind you where you’re going. And you need to be willing to improvise a little when things don’t go as planned. For example, if you’re the director of Transformers and you’re asked what you think of the giant TV you’re standing next to, say something like: “That TV is huge! Explosions, robots, and exploding robots will look great on that thing!”

Michael Bay at CES

Michael Bay Responds to his CES Meltdown

The Other Prism Scandal: Ugly Slides

prism-slide-1

The scandal surrounding the NSA’s surveillance program broke while I was on vacation last week, and it’s pretty shocking. I mean, have you seen these slides? The colors used by their designer(s) are awful, the way they’ve placed objects on the background makes them look confused and cluttered, and they’ve made some really bad choices with fonts and typography. Worst of all, some of their illustrations just don’t make sense.

When I first saw these slides they reminded me of the exercises I used to lead students through when I started teaching PowerPoint in 1997. In order to train people on all of PowerPoint’s features we’d have them draw random shapes, fill them with colors and text, create charts and animation. We’d use every tool in the toolkit whether we needed it or not. Looking at the images of these NSA slides, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they had been created so that each element flew in accompanied by a zooming car sound.

But we probably shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of these slides. Most of the millions of PowerPoint presentations cranked out every day are ugly and poorly planned. I think the difference is that we assume that the government, and especially our spy agencies, have the resources they need to do a better job. If they can squeeze all those cool gadgets into James Bond’s Aston Martin, can’t they hire a designer who knows they should never use yellow and green as a color scheme?

The great thing about other peoples’ mistakes is that we can learn from them. Understandably, most presenters don’t want to share examples of their bad presentations, so it can be difficult to find useful examples to critique. But now that we have these wonderful, ugly, formerly top secret slides available, let’s see what they can teach us. (For bigger versions, click on each slide).

Why not start with the title slide? White can be a fine background choice (it’s certainly better than bright colors or distracting textures), but you have to limit the other colors you use on a white background. Light colors are very hard to read when you project slides against white, so the yellow, light blue, and even the red “Top Secret” stamp will likely wash out. So the slides’ overall design is questionable from the very beginning. The audience might not even be able to see some of the most important information.

Then there are the company logos splashed across the top. Why do they need to be included on every slide? Why not just give them their own slide listing the participants? Flinging them across the screen like this looks messy and makes everything hard to read–especially since the logos themselves are in so many different colors and fonts. The effect is a kind of logo soup. Bad design choices aside, I’m curious if they even have permission to use the logos of these companies. I highly doubt it, but someone must have figured that it didn’t matter if all of this was top secret.

And a couple of other things from this one slide:

  • More logos: The “Special Source Operations” logo is unattractive enough, but the “PRISM” logo is ridiculous. Why does every program and initiative need a logo these days? And couldn’t they find one that doesn’t look like a misshapen reject for a Batman (the 60’s TV version) villain?
  • Why does this presentation need two different titles (indicated by the “or”)?
  • Why is the second title (“The SIGAD Used Most in NSA Reporting”) in italics? Why does it sound vaguely like an advertisement for sugar-free gum?

Spionage PrismHere’s our second slide, and it’s as bad as the first one. The first thing I’d like to point out is that it really should be two slides–one about when each company joined the program, and another about its costs. There’s just no imaginable reason to include both here. Every slide in your presentations should represent just one main idea. Your goal should be to make your ideas as clear as possible, not to cram information on the screen. PowerPoint slides are pretty much a limitless resource, so go ahead and create as many as you need.

Other things to notice:

  • The effect of having all those logos and a title at the top of the screen is really noticeable here. Combined, they take up a third of the slide and leave little room for what really matters.
  • The colors. There used to be a house in my neighborhood that was painted these colors, and everyone called it the lemon-lime house. It’s a tasteless color combo anywhere, but it’s also bound to be very difficult to read whether this slide is projected or printed. And that pinkish “Program Cost” bubble? Ugh.
  • The chart. What’s called for here is a timeline. So why do the yellow bubbles and green background rise as time goes on? What does that have to do with time? And why are there two separate green objects behind the yellow bubbles? Did they need to bend the line so it wouldn’t crash into the ugly PRISM logo (which it almost does anyway)?

3.1Our third slide has more pink, but less yellow! Again, this should probably be two different slides, one with the text in the box and another with the diagram explaining network traffic. Putting them both on the same slide makes them hard to read. My image here isn’t the best quality, but I think the diagram would be hard to read on all but the biggest projector screens. Maybe I’m just getting old… Also:

  • It looks like “U.S. as World’s Telecommunications Backbone” is italicized here, except for the initial “U”. That’s just sloppy, and the italics don’t really make sense anyway.
  • “Cheapest” and “not the most physically direct” are both bolded and underlined, which is completely unnecessary and just makes it harder to read. If your computer lets you bold your text there’s rarely a reason to also underline it. (Indicating a hyperlink is one).

4.1The fourth slide suffers from problems that should be familiar at this point. Notice again how everything has to be crammed onto the slide. There’s not nearly enough white space and the green arrow intrudes on both text boxes. The easy solution would be to get rid of the list of providers since we already know who they are. Why repeat them here? Also:

  • There’s a note above the purple box that indicates that the information collected “varies by provider”. That makes me wonder how accurate any of this information is anyway, and why they’d wanted to list all of the providers here. Why not just say, “these are the things we typically collect”?
  • This slide has text boxes in entirely different colors than we’ve seen before. Is the designer trying to make each slide novel? Only 5 of the 41 slides in this presentation have been published, but I’m starting to wonder if each one has its own color scheme.

See how much fun we can have analyzing other peoples’ presentations? Just imagine if we had all the rest of the slides from this deck! I thought about taking the next logical step and redesigning the slides myself, but after finding that others had already beat me to it I decided that the world didn’t need my own version of the NSA’s work. But it’s an exercise I wholeheartedly recommend if you’re interested in learning how to improve bad presentations.

Redesigned slides

Presentation Planning: Be Ready For Detours

Detour

Many speakers, whether they realize it or not, plan their presentations like a lawyer’s argument. They start by laying out the background, set out the evidence that supports their position, summarize it for their audience, and suggest remedies and next steps. Building presentations this way makes can be very effective, especially when you have lots of information to deal with or you need to overcome strong objections. It’s an approach that feels logical and familiar to both speakers and to audiences raised on courtroom dramas and CSI procedurals.

Unfortunately, like so many good ideas, this one doesn’t always work out as planned. If you withhold too much from your audience for too long they may feel confused, then resentful, about being there at all. Presentations should not be mysteries, I like to remind people. You’re not Agatha Christie. Get to the point before you lose them.

And sometimes you build a long, beautiful, air-tight argument only to find that no one wants to hear it. I know I’m not the only one who has prepared for an hour-long presentation only to have the executive I’m meeting with announce that they now have only 30 minutes for me. Or 15. Or 5. Sometimes their schedule has changed. Sometimes they’re just the kind of person who always wants the bottom line. Sometimes they’re just rude. It’s hard to plan for the rude people–they’re just too unpredictable. But spending a little time learning about your audience in advance can be a great investment if they turn out to be bottom-liners. Walking into a meeting and being able to say “I know we’re scheduled for an hour, but I’m only going to take 15 minutes of your time today,” can make a great impression.

And if you are a lawyer and you’re giving a presentation as momentous as appearing in front of the Supreme Court, it’s important that you’re so well prepared that you can recover when they cut off your carefully constructed argument and ask you to take a completely different direction.

That’s what happened to both sides at this week’s hearings on California’s Proposition 8. (You can read or listen to them here.) As Paul Clement and Ted Olson each started laying out their arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts cut them off. He didn’t want to hear the background of the case; instead he wanted both sides to address whether the plaintiffs even had standing to appeal. Luckily, both of these lawyers had the skills to recover. Ted Olson was even able to get a good laugh out of it. When Roberts interrupted by saying, “Mr. Olson, I cut off your friend before he could get into the merits,” Olson quipped, “I was trying to avoid that, Your Honor.”

A sense of humor is a good tool in a potentially frustrating situation like this. Flexibility is even better.

Proposition 8 Supreme Court Arguments

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).