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.
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).
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.
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.