Presentations on Presentations: Levels of Engagement

February 14, 2012

Given the strong belief that a fear of public speaking is the greatest fear most people have, it’s probably no surprise that we’re surrounded by presentations on presentations. Or that we can’t seem to be around our training-teaching-learning colleagues without finding ourselves engaged in conversations on the topic.

Looking at upcoming events for members of American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) chapters recently, even I was surprised to see how many, without formally coordinating their efforts, had scheduled keynote addresses on presentation skills and how to engage learners. (I’ll be attending one with ASTD Mount Diablo colleagues later this month, and just missed one at the ASTD South Florida Chapter earlier this month.)

Diving into a live online discussion with colleagues on Maurice Coleman’s latest T is for Training podcast late last week brought the topic to center stage again as we spent most of our time together talking about the challenges of writing training materials for other trainers. And during the discussion, a colleague mentioned a newly-posted and completely fascinating TED talk, by Nancy Duarte, on the structure of highly effective speeches (Steve Job’s introduction of the iPhone, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech).

All of this comes right at a time when I had the great good fortune to spend a couple of hours with Jerry Weissman, one of the most highly respected presentation coaches in the corporate world, and author of several books including Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story.

You have to be good if you’re going to sell more than 100,000 copies of a book about how to be a better presenter. Jerry Weissman is good. And he gets to the heart of great presentation skills by reminding us, throughout this wonderfully engaging book, of the importance of story if we want to hold the attention of audiences at a time when attention spans are as ephemeral as yesterday’s tweets.

Whether we’re new to the art of presentation or are experienced presenter-trainer-teachers benefitting from the useful reminders Weissman provides, he carries us through the presentation cycle with lots of guidance, including warnings of how we can go wrong: not offering clear points, not offering a clear benefit to our audiences (what’s in it for them, not us), not creating a clear flow of thought and information in our work, offering more details than an audience can absorb, or creating presentations that last too long.

He also offers the structure that telling a good story provides: taking listeners from where they are (Point A) to where they need to be (Point B) in ways that focus on them rather than on us. He provides a concise survey of structures we can incorporate into presentations to make them flow and reminds us of the importance of “verbalization”—rehearsing our work out loud “just as you will on the day of your actual presentation” (p. 164) numerous times so that the story that is at the heart of all we do will flow naturally from us to those who are depending on us to make that all-important journey from Point A to Point B. Furthermore, he models the very skills he is trying to develop by incorporating presentation stories throughout his book in an effort to help us understand the process viscerally as well as intellectually.

It’s often the lines that seem to be most casually tossed off that take us most deeply to the heart of presentation professionalism. Writing about his attendance at investment banking conferences, he tells us that he is there “because they let me observe many presentations in one place, in a short time.” And if someone of his experience and reputation is attending presentations to pick up tips, it makes us ask ourselves why we aren’t equally engaged in seeing what others are doing if we’re at all serious about continually honing our own skills.

There’s no mistaking the seriousness with which Weissman expects and encourages us to approach the art of presentation: “…every presentation is a mission-critical event” (p. 168). With that as our guiding light, we should all be on our way to successful and engaging experiences for those we serve.

We have plenty of great role models out there, including Cliff Atkinson and his Beyond Bullet Points, and Garr Reynolds and his PresentationZen. And we’re all aware of the syndrome known as “Death by PowerPoint”—those dreadfully painful moments when someone fills a slide with incredibly dense blocks of illegible type—and then insists on reading every word of the text as if that somehow is going to engage us in the topic rather than make us wish we were dead.

With so many resources available, we need to remind ourselves that help is on the way. In fact, it’s all around us. If only we’re willing to grab it and run with it.


Garr Reynolds and the Zen of Engaging Presentations

July 19, 2011

In a world committed to effective training-teaching-learning, publication of Garr Reynolds’ beautifully produced and engagingly written book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery three years ago would have resulted in the disappearance of “death by PowerPoint.”

The world seems to have other ideas. We still suffer through poorly designed PowerPoint presentations, where far too much text is crammed onto slides that are then read to painfully bored and tuned-out learners. Which is a shame since so much of what Reynolds suggests and displays throughout his book and on his ongoing Presentation Zen website makes so much sense and is so easy to incorporate into our work.

PowerPoint…is not a method,” he reminds us early in the book; “it is a tool that can be used effectively with appropriate design methods or ineffectively with inappropriate methods” (p. 12).

And as we all know from those ineffectively designed slides delivered in inappropriate ways, we still have a long way to go before we overcome our kneejerk horror at the thought of sitting through even one more PowerPoint presentation that is less than completely engaging and inspiring.

Where Reynolds is most effective is in having produced a book that practices what he preaches: it’s clearly written, engagingly incorporates clean design and strong visual imagery to produce a cohesive work on the art of presentation, and cleverly wraps in upon itself by offering suggestions that are on display throughout the book for readers astute enough to watch for them.

Approximately halfway through the book, for example, he suggests the effectiveness of “chunking”—grouping “similar ideas while looking for a unifying theme. The presentation may be organized into three parts, so first I look for the central theme that will be the thread running through the presentation. There is no rule that says your presentation should have three sections or three ‘acts’ from the world of drama. However, three is a good number to aim for because it is a manageable constraint and generally provides a memorable structure.”

It’s at this point that we notice how Reynolds himself has broken his book into three large interwoven sections—preparation, design, and delivery—and we become even more conscious of how well he uses clean, effective photographs and minimal type in or around those photographs to transfer his ideas from his mind to ours. If we see the book at a variation on the sort of presentation he is encouraging us to produce via PowerPoint, we viscerally understand the wisdom and attractiveness of what he is proposing. And we have to ask why more of us aren’t already doing what he suggests.

There’s nothing fancy here—which is, course, one of the book’s biggest strengths. Clarity and simplicity are the overarching themes he encourages us to explore and incorporate into our work. His brief surveys of a variety of other works including the Heath brothers’ Made to Stick, Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, and even Brenda Ueland’s classic book on writing, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit and presentation methodologies including PechaKucha keep us focused not only on the creative aspect of what we need to offer as trainer-teacher-learners, but remind us of the importance of creativity and a user-centric viewpoint if we’re going to be effective in our endeavors.

As he leads us toward his final chapters, he reminds us of the potential power of effective presentations at a very human level when he suggests that presentations are contributions: “I don’t think I have ever given a presentation that was not at some level about making a contribution. Certainly, when you are asked to share your expertise with a group who are on the whole not specialists in your field, you have to think very hard about what is important (for them) and what is not (again, for them). It is easier just to do the same presentation you always do, but it is not about impressing people with the depths of your knowledge. It’s about sharing or teaching something of lasting value” (p. 196).

If we needed any further proof that Reynolds cares as deeply about his audiences as we should care about ours, we find it explicitly in his admonition that “If your content is worth talking about, then bring energy and passion to your delivery. Every situation is different, but there is never an excuse for being dull” (p. 211).

Reading—and rereading—Presentation Zen leaves us with plenty of inspiration. And examples. And encouragement. Perhaps what we most need to do is carry a copy with us whenever we are attending presentations—or offering them ourselves—and simply wave it as an offering to anyone who has not yet moved from death by PowerPoint to life through inspirational—and inspired—presentations.


Training, Story, and PowerPoint (Part 1 of 3)

January 1, 2010

Trainers and other presenters are rediscovering that revolutions sometimes involve little more than returning to the basics. Current discussions about the revolution in how PowerPoint is integrated into presentations, for example, take us back to the importance of good storytelling and narrative. It’s all about engagement at every possible level, where nothing is more engaging than a good story.

PowerPoint certainly is receiving its share of criticism from those who suffer through poorly prepared slideshows where the person in the front of the room does nothing beyond reading words and bullet points from slides to a somnolent audience—which seems about as fair as hating everything in the universe of chocolate based on a single experience of eating a candy bar ten years past its expiration date.

PowerPoint and its ubiquitous use of bullet points has been an effective tool for many of us who need help in organizing material. It is now growing to include a narrative/story-based style through Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points (a heavily revised second edition is available) and support from visual facilitators like John Ward. Trainer-bloggers including Michele Martin in The Bamboo Project Blog and Garr Reynolds in Presentation Zen are among those who have already written lengthy pieces on how trainers-teachers-learners can benefit from a more effective use of PowerPoint, and colleagues including Peter Bromberg are enthusiastically embracing hybrid versions of all that is being proposed.

There’s no real magic here, nor is any of this particularly complex. The largest step is the one taken backwards—far enough to see the larger picture of what makes a presentation cohesive and compelling rather than comprised of little more than single slides which jump from topic to topic without any consistent flow.

None of this needs imply that bullet points are dead. Edmond Otis’s slides for his well received Infopeople webcast, “Setting Boundaries with Library Patrons,” might drive Beyond Bullet Points aficionados absolutely crazy, but one of his viewers actually took the time to compliment him for effectively weaving the slides into his overall presentation. Edmond didn’t need to spend the extra time it would have taken to replace the bullets with strong visuals; the bullets—and Edmond—hit the target dead center and left a lively online audience inspired by a lesson they very much had wanted. No stale pieces of chocolate here!

What all of us as trainers-teachers-learners need remember is that we do not have to race from one technique or current trend to another in an all-or-nothing fashion. Outlines continue to work because they give all of us a helpful structure, and bullet points can be an effective tool. The visual beauty and stickiness of Beyond Bullet Points and “Presentation Zen” do not mean that we need to abandon those helpful bullet points, as Kelli’s presentation shows.

N.B.: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Infoblog.

Next: Cliff Atkinson and the Path Beyond Bullet Points


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