After my last post on The Technical Speakers Crutch, I have a couple more follow up videos I wanted to add to have them in the archives. Two more great examples of bad powerpoint from YouTube are below…
The first few years I spent as a frequent technical speaker, I desperately clung to a crutch every single time I stood up in front of the room to speak. I feared that without my crutch I would not only be crippled and unable to stand, but deaf and mute as well. I could not imagine speaking in front of a group without my crutch, and lived in fear of losing it. I have seen many other technical speakers who use the exact same crutch, and are paralyzed by that exact same fear. The marketing name for the crutch is Microsoft PowerPoint.
PowerPoint is not designed to be a crutch for speakers, it just happened that way. It is so easy to use PowerPoint as a way to design your talk, remember your points, and as a hand out to the audience afterwards. Fortunately, my manager at the time (George V, great guy) thought I could be saved and arranged for me to take a training class. The first time I went to a Presentation Skills class by Michelle Murphy, she opened my eyes to the possibility that it is "possible to walk and talk in front of a group of people without slides". A few people in the room audibly gasped in horror when Michelle said this. I have to admit, I cringed at the thought. I pictured myself stuttering and stammering my way through a talk, constantly looking back for my crutch and not finding it there. I imagined it would I would think my crutch was still there behind me to help me stand, the way an amputee often imagines the lost limb is still there.
Michelle told us we should not use Powerpoint as the last step in a preparation process, not the first. She insisted that if you do not know your topic well enough to speak without slides, you had "no business being in front of the room". She told us you should not "pack everything you know into the side deck" (another way of saying you have fight the curse of knowledge). Finally, she said you should "NEVER use the slides as a handout!" I think a few people in the class wanted to leave at that point. A few looked ready to just quit their jobs and try to find a new career.
I thought I had come a long way as a technical speaker, but I knew I constantly committed all three of these cardinal sins. Any time I had a presentation to give and I had to create the content, the first thing I did was open up PowerPoint to build a slide deck. Once in front of the room, I never read the slides, but I did look to them constantly for guidance. And I always built the slide content with the idea that I had to include every point in great detail so the audience could use it for later reference. I had never considered writing a seperate handout just for the audience.
The conventional wisdom as I understood it at that time was that slides were always used as the handout, and any slide deck that was NOT loaded with detail was not useful. Everyone used the slides as a reference point, and pointed to them constantly. Michelle went so far at one point to say "the screen is poison". It was very difficult to imagine presenting without ever referring to the the slides.
Michelle started me down a very long road that day. If I had not been in her audience that day, I would likely still be leaning on that same crutch every single time I stood up in front of the room. Thankfully, Michelle started me on the way to recovery.
The real problem for most technical speakers is they don’t realize they have a crutch. They cannot imagine speaking in any other way. The crutch feels like a vital limb, and they cannot imagine speaking without it. The evidence of this is every where. I found some examples that prove this point.
The first thing I would like to point to is a site I found after another point Michelle made in her class. "Would Churchill been nearly as inspirational during the battle of London with slides? Can you imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. with his back turned to the crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial reading his bullet points? Would we remember the Gettysburg address if it was slideware?"
Apparently Michelle was not the only one who asked that last question. Peter Norvig wondered about Lincoln and slideware as well. He took his musings one step further -
Back in my hotel room I imagined what Abe Lincoln might have done if he had used PowerPoint rather than the power of oratory at Gettysburg. (I chose the Gettysburg speech because it was shorter than, say, the Martin Luther King "I have a dream" speech, and because I had an idea for turning "four score and seven years" into a gratuitous graph.) A Google search easily found the text of the Gettysburg address, and several articles echoing my frustration, including USA Today writer Kevin Maney’s PowerPoint obsession takes off, which notes that PowerPoint was banned at Sun, and includes the Lincoln idea: "Put another way, imagine if Abe Lincoln had PowerPoint for the Gettysburg Address. ‘OK, this slide shows our nation four score and seven years ago.’" But as far as I could tell, nobody had actually written and published a Gettysburg PowerPoint presentation. (Note: a reader pointed out that John S. Rigden had an article in the March 1990 issue of Physics Today entitled "The Lost Art of Oratory: Damn the Overhead Projector" that also used the Gettysburg Address concept. David Wittenberg and Susan Hessler were nice enough to send me copies.) I started up PowerPoint and let the "Autocontent Wizard" help me create a new presentation. I selected the "Company Meeting (Online)" template, and figured from there I’d be creative in adding bad design wherever possible. I was surprised that the Autocontent Wizard had anticipated my desires so well that I had to make very few changes. Four of the slide titles were taken directly from the template; I only had to delete a few I didn’t need, and add "Not on the Agenda" after "Agenda".
Good morning. Just a second while I get this connection to work. Do I press this button here? Function-F7? No, that’s not right. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll have to reboot. Hold on a minute. Um, my name is Abe Lincoln and I’m your president. While we’re waiting, I want to thank Judge David Wills, chairman of the committee supervising the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery. It’s great to be here, Dave, and you and the committee are doing a great job. Gee, sometimes this new technology does have glitches, but we couldn’t live without it, could we? Oh – is it ready? OK, here we go:
This is not meant to imply you should not use Powerpoint, of course. But you shouldn’t use it as a crutch.
Even very successful (and extremely wealthy) technical speakers are not aware of the crutch to which they cling – including Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.
Photo from Long Zheng from a Steve Ballmer presentation.
"Death by PowerPoint" is a fantastic presentation on SlideShare.net that highlights the problem -
At the risk of falling victim to the "Curse of Knowledge" in this blog post, there is one more short YouTube video I would like to add. The theme of the video is a 12 Step program to recover from Bad PowerPoint (presented by Dick Carlson at Ignite Seattle) -
Once I learned to avoid using PowerPoint as a crutch, I found myself invigorated and empowered as a speaker. That allowed the crutch to transform from a device that was essential to merely walk and talk to tool that helped me reach out and touch the audience.
The next speaker in this series is another from TED, Hans Rosling. This is an absolutely amazing speech about STATISTICS. Yes, statistics, amazingly enough. Hans opens up with a great story about his students, chimpanzees and preconceived notions about data. Then he laucnhes into his presentation using the amazing GapMinder software . Watch this amazing speech below (about 20 minutes long) below -
Hans made a return to TED in 2007.
Hans is again in rare form (grandma statistics is classic).
Rosling employs GapMinder to display his statistics. This is a wonderful software tool for displaying data, but the real magic of this presentation lies in the techniques demonstrated by Rosling. These techniques are easy to do, but I’ve rarely (if ever) seen them all demonstrated so well in a single talk. The techniques are:
Data and information are not boring. The key is to select the appropriate (and accurate) data to support your message. But it also matters how you bring the data alive, giving it context and meaning. One of the masters of displaying data in live talks is Swedish doctor and researcher, Hans Rosling. (You may remember Hans Rosling’s 2006 TED talk which I posted here last year with some others.)
Hans wows the 2007 TED crowd
In this video below from TED 2007, the Zen master of statistics makes a simple point in a very visual and memorable way: "The seemingly impossible is possible. We can have a good world." Hans showed with stats what is possible in the world, then he closes with a big, unexpected, and memorable finish (I actually had a hard time watching the ending, but it was effective).
Near the end he pauses and says: "But I have to get serious. And how do you get serious? You make a PowerPoint — you make bullets!" (audience laughs) The summary slide (which worked because he built it as he talked) was his "Homage to the Office package" he said.
Hans’ demonstration at the end to prove his point that the "seemingly impossible is possible" is a fasntstic experitential metaphor and an incredibly memorable closing.
Rosling proves again that a presentation filled with numbers, statistics and data can be dynamic, engaging and very memorable when you use metaphor, vivid visuals, and relate the data to real life ("grandma statistics"). I highly recommend watching both of these talks when you have a chance.
A few friends have asked me why I would add to my workload (which includes a corporate blog) by posting my own personal blog about public speaking. One obvious reason for me is that forcing myself to review my own process and method for speaking in the front of the room helps me continue to improve. While I have learned a great deal about speaking over the last eight years, I still learn something new every day. Each time I get up in front of the room I get valuable feedback that will help me the next time.
But that is not my only motivation. Back in May of 2000, I was sitting in a hotel lounge in Marietta, Georgia at about 7 pm after long day that included three separate presentations to customers and resellers in the Atlanta area. I was frustrated that I still did not feel comfortable with speaking in front of the room, and wondering if I ever would. My manager George V called me on my cell to try to keep my spirits up, but it was very difficult to see a future where I was comfortable speaking in front of a group of people. I sat at a small table drinking a beer and wondered to myself how I was going to solve this problem. As I was sitting there staring off into space, someone tapped me on the shoulder. Startled, I looked up to see a older man in his late forties with salt and pepper hair, a gray goatee, and a white shirt with a dark blue tie.
"Pardon me." he said. "Have you seen a tall older gentleman in a white suit walk by here? I am supposed to meet him here and I am a bit early."
"No, I haven’t seen him." I replied.
"Well, at least I have a few minutes to relax." he responded.
I nodded and smiled as he turned and head to the bar. I heard him order two Miller Lites, then turn and head directly for my table.
"Do you mind if I join you?" he asked.
I was surprised he was so forward, but I said yes.
"You look like you could use some company, and I have a few minutes to wait." He asked me about my work, and I told him I was a newly hired System Engineer for a software company. He told me his name was Ed. We exchanged some small talk, and he told me he was an SE himself back in the early eighties. He told me that hardest part for him was learning to become a better speaker.
"I am having a bit of trouble myself." I admitted.
"My manager back then gave me two pieces advice that I have never forgotten. First, the audience decides the meaning. Second, keep doing what works, change what doesn’t. If the meaning the audience gets is not what you intended, try something else.That’s it. I was constantly frustrated because I often felt like I was speaking in tongues. No one seemed to understand what our software did our why they would want it. I felt like I couldn’t get through to anyone. "
"Wow." I said. "I feel that same way almost every time. It is so frustrating." I replied.
"Once I stopped taking my failure to communicate personally and stopped trying the same old methods that didn’t work, I slowly began to get better and better results. Let the audience decide the meaning, pay attention to the response, and try something different if it isn’t the response you want. It is as simple as that." Ed replied.
"I never thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense." We spent a few minutes talking over some specific examples, then the tall older man in the white suit walked up and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Well, it looks like our time is up. Thanks for letting me join you."
"Thank you Ed. I appreciate the advice."
Ed turned and looked me directly at me. "My grandfather always told me the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are both fed from the River Jordan. The Sea of Galilee is full of life and surrounded by villages while the Dead Sea is literally dead and stagnant. The Sea of Galilee is full of life because it has an outflow, while the Dead Sea doesn’t. The key to being vibrant and full of life is having an outflow. Remember that."
"I will." I said. Ed shook my hand and walked away.
I never saw Ed again, but I never forgot the lessons he taught me that day. That day was the beginning of my journey to becoming a more effective speaker. My idea for the post on "The Six Rs to Beat the Curse" is based on Ed’s advice. "The audience decides the meaning" is the basis for "Response", and "keep what works, change what doesn’t" became "Reflect" . All the rest of the Six Rs ultimately flowed from the lessons Ed shared with me that day. I share them now on this blog as my outflow, my key to "being vibrant and full of life" like Ed.
First, have a definite, clear practical idea; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.
If you want your audience to follow you, you must have a clear vision of where you want to go and the path you want to follow. You have to answer one question for yourself and your audience – What’s In It for Me? What is the one most important goal for you, what action do you want to take? What problem is your audience looking to solve, or what goal are they striving to reach?
You must have a firm grasp on the reasons your audience will be motivated to follow you down the path you map out to your ultimate goal. Many technical speakers do not have a clearly defined goal, and never consider the goal of the audience. This story from " The Story Factor by Annette Simmons is a fantastic example of a speaker who understands where he wants to go with the audience and what it will take to get them to follow -
Skip looked into the sea of suspicious stockholders and wondered what might convince them to follow his leadership. He was 35, looked 13 and was third generation rich. He could tell they assumed he would be an unholy disaster as a leader. He decided to tell them a story. "My first job was drawing the electrical engineering plans for a boat building company. The drawings had to be perfect because if the wires were not accurately placed before the fiberglass form was poured, a mistake might cost a million dollars, easy. At 25, I already had two masters’ degrees. I had been on boats all my life and frankly, I found drawing these plans a bit …mindless. One morning I got a call at home from a $6/hour worker asking me "are you sure this is right?" I was incensed. Of course I was sure — "just pour the damn thing." When his supervisor called me an hour later and woke me up again and asked "are you sure this is right?" I had even less patience. "I said I was sure an hour ago and I’m still sure."
"It was the phone call from the president of the company that finally got me out of bed and down to the site. If I had to hold these guys by the hand, so be it. I sought out the worker who had called me first. He sat looking at my plans with his head cocked to one side. With exaggerated patience I began to explain the drawing. But after a few words my voice got weaker and my head started to cock to the side as well. It seems that I had (being left-handed) transposed starboard and port so that the drawing was an exact mirror image of what it should have been. Thank God this $6/hour worker had caught my mistake before it was too late. The next day I found this box on my desk. The crew bought me a remedial pair of tennis shoes for future reference. Just in case I got mixed up again – a red left shoe for port, and a green right one for starboard. These shoes don’t just help me remember port and starboard. They help me remember to listen even when I think I know what’s going on." As he held up the shoebox with one red and one green shoe, there were smiles and smirks. The stockholders relaxed a bit. If this young upstart had already learned this lesson about arrogance, then he might have learned a few things about running companies, too.
Communication can be defined as “the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information”. Exchange is the most important word in that definition. If the audience does not understand your point, you have not successfully communicated. Have you ever heard a speaker who seemed to wander aimlessly through a topic with no clear path or destination? A speaker with no obvious goal in mind confuses himself and the audience. As the Roman Orator Cato once said "Grasp the subject, words will follow."
The most important step to becoming an effective speaker is to ALWAYS have a clearly defined RESULT in mind. After you have created crystal clear RESULT for your presentation, it is much easier to create your opening and closing, choose your main points, and build your content. Your RESULT is what you want your audience to conclude (and act upon) when you are done. When you start at the conclusion, it is a much simpler task to create your opening, main points, and then tie everything back into that conclusion.
A well defined RESULT needs to be specific, attainable, and focused on the audience. “Describe our new product features” is not a specific RESULT for your audience. “Grasp the problems that are driving our new product features, and see how these new features solve those problems while providing a fast return on the upfront investment” is a specific, attainable RESULT for your audience, as opposed to the generalized and speaker focused first example. The second statement articulates exactly what the speaker wants to achieve, and lays out a roadmap for how to achieve that RESULT so the audience gets it. Answer the question "What’s In It For Me?" for yourself and your audience, and you will be on the right path to creating a clear result for everyone.