Next Sunday, PowerPoint will celebrate its 26th birthday.
Given that it is nearly a full generation since the first tools came on the market that let us make our own slides, I want to know why we are getting worse at presentations, not better?
Most marketers I know gave up trying to enforce any kind of standards on the Sales Squirrels long ago, and even today, many marketers feel like the PowerPoint department when it’s time for someone to cram six pages worth of text into one slide or when they need help embedding the video. After another season of marketing and business conferences with terrible slides, I’m thinking it’s time marketers put on some pants and grabbed a bit of gumption and did something about the generally deplorable state of business presentations.
Perhaps it’s because PowerPoint has morphed from presentation-making software into all-purpose page design tool, or perhaps we’ve all become used to terrible slides, but I think the decline in presentation quality has nothing to do with the tools themselves. There is no such thing as Death by PowerPoint; there is, however, such a thing as death by cringing boredom.
It’s not like we lack role models. Awesome TED talks and inspiring celebrity commencement speeches are just a click away. Yet every single day tens of thousands of professionals manage to get up in front of a room full of people they are hoping to impress with stuff that looks like this:
Folks, that awesome TED Talk is a presentation too. It’s selling an idea and not a product, but at the end of the day, the goal is just the same – to persuade an audience. So why don’t we apply the same standards to our marketing and sales presentations? Why do we send our executives and SMEs and Sales Squirrels out into the world with crap like this:
We’ve all taken presentation training, but that training focuses on how to present without crying or mumbling. Most presentation courses are actually public speaking courses and spend little to no time on what should be on the slides. That’s okay, it’s not what they are for.
Most PowerPoint or Keynote training is all about figuring out how to use the software to build amusing transitions and embed video, but no time on what constitutes effective speaking materials. Also not really what it’s meant to do.
It is into this abyss that business presentations slip. Good speakers take pretty slides and murder their ideas in public all because nobody really understands what is supposed to be happening. Welcome to the Valley of the Shadow of PowerPoint.
I’d like to start with the inspiring commencement speeches. Take a look at this one by Jim Carrey,
or Tim Minchin
or JK Rowling
What do you notice? That’s right. Not a slide in sight. Yet despite the lack of 12pt white text on a cheery yellow background with a terrible stock photo, these people manage to sway their audiences and succeed in communicating complex ideas.
To me, the perfect business presentation would have no slides. It would be a well-written, relentlessly rehearsed, well-rounded journey through a small number of ideas that all add up to wanting to hand the speaker your money.
That, of course, depends on a perfect audience, which is capable of paying attention, understanding abstract things and making a decision. Thus, I accept the need for visuals but not as a substitute for having something to say, a fully realized way to say it, a prepared speaker and visuals that support rather than compete with the conversation in the room.
Next week, we’ll look at how you can tell your presentation is rubbish.
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