Monday, 9 March 2015

Stop Killing The Audience ! 10 presentational Do's and Don'ts

I started my professional career as a back room boy painstakingly printing out colour acetate sheets (for now defunct OHP, Over Head Projector if you are a Generation Y)  using Harvard Graphics software (stuff you would call an 'ap' these days I guess) on a funny and very expensive printer that seemed to draw beautiful lines in blue, red  and green using little paint pots controlled by a tripod mechanical arm.  Perhaps capable of spewing out three or may be four slides an hour, effectively two by the time you had spotted errors and thrown away the badly printed ones, this was a painstaking endeavour.  These days of course nearly everyone has access to PowerPoint, with its amazing array of templates and drop ins that appear to idiot proof information visualisation.  

I've just come out of the pool after a modest work out that affords me considerable thinking time and the idea of a post on presentation skills on the topic of avoiding 'Death by PowerPoint' came into my head.   I guess brought on by the (taken very much in my stride) presentation hiccup I did last week to Sian and her colleagues on the new MBA design. It was all set up and planned for PowerPoint - but didn't happen because the room we ended up in didn't have a computer.  So I had to revert to the old fashioned method of standing up and talking, an approach that I have been engaging with actively over the last year.   Those in the know call it 'flipped classroom' - essentially  you skip the lecture by inviting students to read the theory before hand & spend contact time discussing the content and looking to use the ideas, powered by the ever-so-old fashioned engine of conversation.  

During the end of term and end of year period I observe many different student groups present.  One recently saw not only some jolly positive feedback, that was well earned, but also some more to the quick feedback that reminded me of the 'gold standard' and perhaps the value in reminding presenters of good practice using a pithy bullet point check list. 

Now, without further ado, I will offer up my 'Avoid Death by PowerPoint: 10 Do's and Dont's' 

In good positive thinking mode, Do's first;

Do practise your presentation.  I used to turn up my talk radio station very loud and see if I could concentrate whilst over talking the radio.  It helped build volume, focus, and identify any tricky ideas that I couldn't explain.   It would also highlight words I struggled to say confidently and reminded me about breathing.  Around one in five presentations has a major technical hitch, a missing memory stick, a crashed laptop or failure to connect to the screen projector.  An absolute must is to take the stage, do a volume/reverberation check and get the feeling for the space (even if it is eerily empty).  

Do use pictures.  They paint a thousand words.  They can intrigue and stimulate the audience.  They can remind you of a key point or story that you need to tell, but do not have to be literal. 

Do plan your message.  A consultant in Sweden, Jon Haag, shared a neat model I like.  He recommended three simple elements in a pitch (1) Title.  (2) Problem. (3) Solution.  I have seen quite a few clever people lose impact by failing to adhere to this approach.  

Do keep to time.  Always agree what the time available is and what the agenda for the meeting is going to cover.  Experience suggests that short, focussed communications are more effective.  Having an audience eager to invite you back for more detail or further discussions is the aim.  Thus target shorter and sweeter presentations, allow Q&A time to cover points of specific interest (as defined by the audience, not you !).  We have seen someone lose a job offer by failing to heed messages to stop over running.  

Do ask for feedback. You don't always ace it, and you will not hear the behind your back utterances and muttering when you have performed poorly.  Whilst online surveys are now beyond frequency asking for soundings from participants on what they felt of the presentation, what were the key points, where there things that didn't come across or work so well is a great strategy.  Right after the session, in person - you can read a lot into body language & what is not said.  One of my colleagues even follows social media (Twitter) after his lectures to get a feel for what students felt.  Brave.

And a few Dont's;

Don't use black text on a dark background, ever.  It works on a bright flatscreen, but when projected in a larger room you can't see the black.  Remember, black is the lack of light & is very reliant on an appropriate contrast being achieved.  Light on dark is best and try it for visibility from the back of the room you are  using.

Don't read (or write) slides word-for-word.  The audience scans the text quickly, pulls out the interesting content & tunes out to  your voice as  you drone on about stuff they are no longer interested in.  In the new world everyone is comfortable working from Google glass heads up displays, multiple monitors in their work stations and one or two (iPhone and iPad) hand held screens.

Don't use too many words.   Received thinking suggests 16 words (yes, SIXTEEN) per slide is optimal and no more than three font variations (where bold, size and italic are each variations).   Remember, visual aids are just that, assistance for the speaker to put across an effective, powerful message or help tell a joined up story.

Don't forget to look at all your audience.  Concentrate on key stakeholders, look for cues in their body language - are they bored ?  short of time ? struggling to hear ?  If you can't meet the audience eye-to-eye - go for the forehead or mouth, since you won't be kissing them and are a few metres away, they won't notice the difference.  Gaze aversion is very natural (it shows you are thinking) but try to work your attention around the room (S-L-O-W-L-Y) to connect with each individual.  

Don't use too may flashy bits.  Whilst it is tempting to introduce sound effects and use amusing animations, these are now universally understood and available.  Legendary French singer Edith Piaf (roll your R's around the refrain "Rien de Rien") used to adopt a single gesture for each of her songs and this seems a good maxim, less is better.  A slick embedded video that auto plays can be very effective.  A self timed slide run enables the speaker to concentrate on putting across the message and be the centre of the performance, good.  But too much fizz and bang can be distracting.  Software like Prezi can bring exciting multi-media feelings to slide transitions, but inhibits back tracking and requires more complex linking that may get in the way of a content heavy message.