Helping Techs Make Better Presentations
Webinar Part 1 {video slides}

Can your technical people talk to your money people?

Here’s the first part of a webinar David Zehren recently presented to the International Institute of Analytics (IIA).

Special challenges await technical presenters who must address their less technically-minded counterparts. In this first part, David outlines the four major challenges technical presenters face and he begins to outline tips for overcoming those challenges.

ZEHREN♦FRIEDMAN offers a hands-on Presentation Skills course designed to help technical presenters make better presentations and communicate more effectively: “HT3M2: Helping Techs Present to Mere Mortals”.

Contact us for more information about how we help techs talk to mere mortals.

Why Bad PowerPoint Visuals Happen and
How to Make Them Better Webinar Part 2 {video slides}

Why Bad PowerPoint Visuals Happen and How to Make Them Better

Here’s the second part of a webinar David Zehren recently presented to the International Institute of Analytics (IIA). The first part is here in case you missed it.

Special challenges await technical presenters who must address their less technically-minded counterparts. In this second part, David highlights a major cause of bad PowerPoint visuals—espeically the kinds of bad visuals that frequently plague more technical presentations face. He also offers a simple technique for avoiding this common cause of bad PowerPoint visuals.

ZEHREN♦FRIEDMAN offers a hands-on Presentation Skills course designed to help technical presenters make better presentations and communicate more effectively: “HT3M2: Helping Techs Present to Mere Mortals”.

Contact us for more information about how we help techs talk to mere mortals.

The Top 4 Challenges Presenters Face

Top 4 Challenges Technical Presenters Face

As we developed our Presentation Skills for Technical Presenters and our Helping Techs Talk to Mere Mortals seminars we identified four challenges that are especially troublesome for technical and analytical presenters, albeit, not unique to them.

This four-part series considers the four biggest challenges facing presenters who make highly technical, detail or data-driven presentations. It’s true that these pitfalls await any unsuspecting presenter regardless of the presentation’s content and focus. But the dry abstraction inherent to more technical presentations adds to the obstacles. Luckily, these obstacles help remind us of opportunities to become even better communicators.

 

Technology has made us lousy listeners.

Top 4 Challenges Technical Presenters Face
This four-part series considers the four biggest challenges facing presenters who make highly technical, detail or data-driven presentations. It’s true that these pitfalls await any unsuspecting presenter regardless of the presentation’s content and focus. But the dry abstraction inherent to more technical presentations adds to the obstacles. Luckily, these obstacles help remind us of opportunities to become even better communicators.
We posted about a challenge each week. Here’s the first one…

Technology has made us lousy listeners.

Top 4 Challenges Technical Presenters Face, Part 1

We've become lousy listeners. Technology—especially smartphones, tablets, etc—puts worlds of distractions in front of us wherever we are. And email, text messaging and social networks all but command our attention at any time and place.

Consider:

  • If we’re both looking at the same slide and I can read it twice as fast as you’re reading it to me, I can blow through that slide, update my Facebook status, reply to an email or two, and Google that whatsit that just came to mind — all before the first bullet on your next slide.

  • If your presentation to me gets too deep into details and data I know I’ve got in a PDF whitepaper on the topic, I might as well start keyword-searching through that — if you’re lucky — else, there’s probably another email or two I can knock out.

  • And so on…

Worst. Listener. Ever. Sure, I’m your worst nightmare for an audience. But don’t dismiss my lousy listening without first considering the possibility that you helped make me that way. At least admit you gave me some pretty good reasons toshare my focus.

More importantly, all of this suggests some things we can do as presenters to avoid the problems of lousy listening. And if our content is filled with technical specifications, detailed data, and analysis — we must do all we can to earn the attention of our audience and to keep it.

Yes, of course, present with passion and energy. Yes, make eye contact when presenting in person. Check in with your audience when presenting online or by phone. But also:

  • Let’s be mindful of the fact that people have always been lousy listeners — and there are now even more compelling distractions. Even worse, sometimes our lousy listening feels justified — or at least not without reason.

    So, it’s as important as ever to hone your message and deliver your presentation to captivate me. But it’s even more important than ever not to justify my lousy listening habits.

  • Be sure your presentation makes good use of “now” and “later” piles. Most of the research, details, and comprehensive analysis leading up to and fueling your presentation is very important, no doubt. But how much of it is crucial to present right here, right now? It can be very helpful to really pare down to the now nut. Then save the rest of that rich, detailed information in your later pile.

    Put it in a follow-up document, make it available for your audience to comb through later if they’d like, put it in an appendix in your slide deck — or in the “Notes” section. I don’t doubt that it’s all good, but I suspect it’s not all needed now.

Next time we’ll consider the second key challenge technical presenters face: too often, technical presenters use bad visuals that can make a presentation worse than no visuals at all.

ZEHREN♦FRIEDMAN can help your data denizens and science sleuths be more effective communicators with a presentation skills seminar designed specifically for technical presenters: Helping Techs Talk to Mere Mortals is a two-day, highly experiential, hands-on seminar for six to ten people.

Contact ZEHREN♦FRIEDMAN for more information. Or read more about other Presentation Skills courses.

Great Visuals Are Like a Presentation’s Fifth Beatle

So, you already know that visuals are dangerous and that technical presenters often use visuals that make their presentations worse. But let’s face it, most of us are going to use visuals in our presentations. And that’s a good thing. In fact, if the visuals are great, it’s a great thing.

We probably didn’t need a scientific study for us to know that people remember a picture with words better than either alone, but it’s nice to have confirmation.

If bad visuals are like a third wheel on a date, great visuals are kind of like the proverbial “fifth Beatle”. I sometimes think of a presentation as a kind of performance that features: (1) a presenter; (2) the content/subject matter; (3) the setting/context; and (4) an audience. Since visuals can be dangerous and some great presentations don’t use any, I sometimes lump them in as part of “the content/subject matter”. But great visuals make presentations better, so they do deserve more official mention. Enter, the fifth Beatle: (5) the visuals.

Who knows how far the Beatles would’ve gone without, eg, George Martin or Brian Epstein. Perhaps, we would never have even noticed the Fab Four—never have heard the music they made—without the efforts, energy and polish of that fifth factor. So, too, effective visuals can make the all the difference.

So, what are great visuals and how do we get more of them into our presentations?

I think of a great visual as: an image that makes a maximum amount of relevant impact on a viewer using a minimum quantity of irrelevant content.

The whole point of a visual is to grab a viewer’s attention. As presenters, we don’t want the attention to go away from us for long. Yet, if sharing the attention of our audience means our point is made more memorable, our presentation more powerful, or our audience returns to us more receptive and attentive than before, then it’s worth sharing the stage with a visual.

We must be sure to get the most benefit from our visual and minimize the risk of losing our audience. So, it’s essential that the visual is highly relevant — not just to the presentation topic generally, but to the point we’re making in that very moment. And, of course, if the visual takes our audience more than an instant to capture and process, the risk of losing them, at least in that moment, increases exponentially. A visual that highlights, underscores, or otherwise enhances our point is easier to capture and process; relevance is a start. Eliminating irrelevant content as much as possible helps even more.

This is why I like the billboard test so much. If your audience can capture and comprehend your slide within the kind of brief time and glancing view a billboard typically gets, it passes the test.

Visuals that pass the billboard test simultaneously avoid many PowerPoint pitfalls and sins while displaying many of the essential features great visuals often share. For example, excessive words or convoluted montages of images fall out right away. Contrast between the text and the background—readability—gets well-deserved focus. The priority (or lack thereof) of the words and images becomes clearer. Low resolution images that are too fuzzy and out of focus to see sharply and process quickly are seen for the detriment they are. High resolution clip art images that display their cuteness as crisp and sharp as their irrelevance don’t hold up for long under the billboard test.

The billboards we drive by or walk by are wonderful daily reminders of how much a simple visual can convey very quickly and clearly—even to an audience whose attention is actively elsewhere. They are a terrific source of inspiration and guidance for our presentation visuals. When our visuals hold up to the standards of an average billboard, we know we’ve avoided many of the problems that frequently plague presentation visuals and we’ve employed some of the best of the best practices as well.

A few years ago, Apple Computer and Apple Corps got it together and released the Beatles on iTunes. Iconic images of the Beatles plastered billboards announcing the breakthrough. I always thought the fifth Beatle was George Martin. Paul says it was Brian Epstein. But it really doesn’t matter for our purposes. Besides, I’d have to figure out what part of a presentation gets to be John, Paul, George, or Ringo too. We’ll leave that for later. The point here is that the Beatles were quite talented as a group of four musicians (despite Decca and put on a good show. But it’s the fifth Beatle that made them what we know as “The Beatles”. George Martin’s savvy production and arrangements took some really good songs and made them legendary. Brian Epstein helped the Beatles gain the polish, brand, and, most importantly, look without which they might never have captured our attention in the first place.

If you’ve been following this thread of posts, we first talked about the fact that bad visuals can make a presentation worse and then looked at why visuals can be dangerous. This post concedes that presentations with great visuals are often the best — and suggests that the billboard test helps make sure our visuals are great. But great visuals don’t exist in a vacuum and many bad visuals got that way for a reason that is almost as innocent as it is understandable: the same set of visuals is asked to serve two very different audiences for two very different purposes. So, the last post in this series looks at what that reason is and suggests some simple ways to take a sad slide and make it better.

Visuals for a Live Presentation Don’t Stand Alone

Okay, visuals are perilousbad visuals hurt presentations, and great visuals can make a great presentation much better. So, why do bad visuals happen so often? No doubt, some presenters just don’t know any better — there are cures for that. And some presenters are perennially unprepared: The worst visuals often accompany the least prepared presenters. Presenters who don’t find time to prepare aren’t likely to make time to develop good visuals either. Worse yet, unprepared presenters are more likely to have visual “cue cards.” It’s bad enough to read to an audience. But when the audience sees what the presenter’s reading to them, it’s even more painful.

There’s another big—perhaps, more understandable—reason why presenters generally, and tech presenters specifically, create bad visuals: the same visuals must often serve two very different audiences. Many presentations are first given to alive audience with the helpful guidance of a real-time presenter. Often those same presentations—or at least the slides—are sent out and left to stand alone without the presenter’s personalized explanations.

Most visuals that are clean, clear and concise enough to best serve a live presentation don’t contain enough connective content and depth to make sense as a standalone piece. In fact, those dreadful “cue card” slides almost start to make sense in the context of a slide presentation that must go forth into the world without a handler, I mean, presenter.

Very similar symptoms and results occur with highly detailed presentations where the visuals (often charts, graphs or diagrams) are over-packed, every nuance labeled or color-coded to anticipate the full panoply of questions, objections and interests an audience might present. Here, the visual might appear live or as a standalone. In both cases, it’s expected to serve all conceivable audience members in one fell swoop—rather than to present the presenter’s point as clearly and simply as possible.

Earlier, I extolled the virtues of the billboard test, specifically because it forces us to cut out all the extra stuff. It lets us know our audience can scan our visuals quickly and just as quickly come back to us. But there is no us when our slide deck gets sent ahead without us. “Just send me your deck, we can talk about it later.” Sound familiar?

We all know how often this happens. So, being smart, proactive, efficient presenters, we prepare our deck with that inevitability in mind. Suddenly, poof! Gone the nice, uncluttered visuals. Gone all care for the billboard test, 6x6 rule, etc. Soon all that really matters is packing the deck with as much data and labeling and commentary as possible to let it stand alone for individual readers. That is to say that the deck is packed well enough to render the presenter optional. In a future post, we’ll have to talk about all the many alarm bells that should go off there. But for now, let’s just look at the damage this does to our presentation visuals.

Visuals designed to help individual readers often make the live presentation downright awful. I don’t know what’s more offensive: to give an audience visuals that replicate all that we’re saying or expecting them not to notice that they don’t need us to read to them. And yet, in many cases all the informational content itself is good—important even. Presumably, it’s the very reason the presenter creates the presentation and accompanying visuals in the first place. With “cue card” slides, we fault the redundancy problems between the slide and what the presenter says because it’s unhelpfully duplicative. That is not because of the substance of what’s actually communicated.

So, too, with overly detailed charts or diagrams. It’s not that there isn’t some relevance, importance or intrigue to all of that intricate detail. It’s just that only some small subset of it can be communicated simply and clearly at any given moment — especially where the presenter is a technician and the audience is comprised of mere mortals.

Fortunately, there are some fairly easy things we can do to avoid these problems without ignoring the double-lives most of our presentations must often live.

The Notes Pane, ie, Pain

Ironically, PowerPoint, the software most of us still use to create presentation visuals, has included one solution to the problem that dates back almost to its inception (ie, back when it was “Presenter” and only ran on a Mac): the Notes pane. The whole reason for a Notes pane is to have a place for all that fulsome, non-visual information. The stuff that’s important enough to note but not necessarily display on any given slide. Ostensibly, the Notes pane is the perfect place for all the connective content and narrative to go so that it’s tied to the slide, but not imposing itself on the visual.

Unfortunately, the Notes pane is a pain to use. True, there are lots of articles that explain how to get just about any content you want into the Notes pane. There are just as many on how to print handouts that display the visual together with the notes on a page. Cliff Atkinson’s “Beyond Bullet Points” did as good a job as any advocating for this type of a workflow. But all that explaining and how-to-ing shows just how unhelpful and underdeveloped the Notes functionality remains. Over the years, Microsoft has given us helper doodadsribbon thingys and automatic formatting whatsits that have probably kept the balance of pain and progress (though not the bloat) in stasis. But the Notes pane, that seemingly perfect place for all that important content and information stuff, hasn’t received much love and attention.

A Note to Future Users + An Appendix

David Zehren suggests that presenters include a slide with a note to future users at the beginning of the deck and add an appendix of slides at the end. The note to future users explains that the deck contains a deck of slides intended for live presentation by a presenter that is followed by an appendix of slides with more detailed information. The slides in the deck then refer (by slide number) to the corresponding slide(s) in the appendix; slides in the appendix refer back as well.

This approach provides a place where more detailed information of any kind (more text, more diagrams, etc) can go within the same deck of slides. The less detailed slides refer directly to/from the more detailed slides. This is useful and user-friendly for individual readers viewing the standalone deck. It also provides an easy way for a live presenter to take an audience on a deeper dive when necessary without weighing down the intended focus when it’s not needed. Of course, jumping back and forth is easy in a slideshow (ie, just type the slide number and hit “enter”).

Vox Humana

Maybe it’s the musician in me, but I’ve always wondered why the “narration” feature of presentation software is so underutilized. Including a voice (or even video) recording with the presentation seems like the closest possible approximation of including the presenter with the deck. Maybe it’s too close. Before I even knew that people sent slide decks to each other, I recorded slide narrations so I could see what my visual looked like and hear what I was saying while it displayed. I always felt like you can’t really hear what you’re saying while you’re saying it. It also helped me sort out pacing and timing. In the end I always had a relatively self-contained presentation as well. Nearly all computers come with built-in mic’s (and even front-facing cameras) now. Yet few folks seem to even know about recording narrations for slides; far fewer yet ever play with it. That still surprises me.

A Pound of Prevention

It is incumbent upon presenters of detailed, complicated content of any kind to continually seek ways to simplify and break the information down into more manageable portions. That’s true for live presentations with a presenter present, phone presentations, webinars, and standalone slide decks. Sometimes the problem is not a matter of finding someplace for all that additional detail and content to go. It’s about breaking it down further into simpler parts. Maybe it’s less time spent across more slides, or more time spent on one really clear, well-designed visual rather than lots of half-baked sort-of’s, or taking time to develop a story, anecdote, or analogy that requires no visual at all. The more simplification and clarity we give our content and our visuals, the less stuff we have to shoehorn into a standalone deck or onto a poor, defenseless visual, or into the hearts and minds of our audience.

Phew. This small series of posts first talked about the second challenge tech presenters face: bad visuals can make a presentation worse. That led to a look at why visuals can be dangerous even though presentations with great visuals are often the best. Finally, this post focused on one understandable reason good visuals often go bad: the same set of visuals is asked to serve two very different audiences for two very different purposes.

Up next week is the third challenge tech presenters face: reporting data when they really should tell the data’s story and persuade.

Read more:

Top 4 Challenges Tech Presenters Face:

Part 1: Technology Has Made Us Lousy Listeners

Part 2: Technical Presenters Use Visuals that Make Their Presentations Worse

  1. “Presenters Beware: Visuals Are Dangerous”
  2. Great Visuals Are a Presentation’s Fifth Beatle”
  3. “Visuals for Live Presentations Don’t Stand Alone”