Are Your Slides a Sleep-Aid?

We’ve all been in these meetings. The presenter shows up with a deck loaded with bullet points. Maybe the font is too small to read. Maybe it’s just after lunch. Maybe the room is warm. Put all of these factors together and you find yourself fighting to keep your eyelids open.

As a training professional, I never want this to happen to someone using one of my slide decks. But what can you do?

In my quest to find the answer, I interviewed two professionals here in Atlanta that always have amazing PowerPoint slides. Their advice to me is below.

I met Michael Schwartz when he was facilitating a sold-out ASTD Meeting in Lawrenceville, GA. I was impressed with the number of registrants given the remote location. Once I saw Michael’s presentation I understand the draw.

Interview with Michael Schwartz of Business Power:

Question: Why are you so passionate about improving PowerPoint presentations?

Answer:  PowerPoint is like any other tool. If it’s used poorly the results are abysmal. If it is used well with some thought and sophistication it is a dynamic way to communicate, sell, teach and persuade. It can be a compelling storytelling device and I’m driven to help my clients realize the power of their stories.

Before and After Sample from Michael Schwartz

Question:  What are some of the most common mistakes you see in PowerPoint presentations?

Answer: From the audience point of view there are usually three things:

1. Too much text on the slides

2. Text on the slides is too small

3. The presenter reads the slides to the audience

Before and After Sample from Michael Schwartz

Question: What about the actual content of the presentation?

Answer: Most often the presentations I work with are not well-organized and don’t communicate a story clearly or memorably. Every presenter has a story to tell, whether it’s training, selling, informing or motivating. But too often the audience is subjected to just one long string of headlines and bullet points. A critical part of my process with a client is what I call ‘story sculpting.’ We devote a lot of time shaping and framing their story before we ever touch PowerPoint. The design comes only after we have zeroed in on their best, most compelling story.

Question: When do you think a presenter should consider involving a presentation designer?

Answer: I’ve found that my clients usually reach out to me when:

1. They have a high stakes presentation to make.

2. They realize their poorly designed PowerPoint presentation is not as professional as they are.

3. They want high-quality presentations to help grow their business through speaking engagements, workshops, seminars or webinars.

Question: Why are you so adamant about connecting the quality of PowerPoint presentations with Web seminars?

Answer: Since the majority of Web seminars are based on PowerPoint slides, it’s clear to me that if the presentation content is poor then the results will be disappointing. On the other hand, if your PowerPoint show is sophisticated, engaging and impactful then your chances for success are much greater. Unfortunately, what we often see is a presenter just uploading a poorly designed PowerPoint presentation into the webinar platform and reading the slides to the audience. If you think that’s a miserable experience in a conference room, it’s a thousand times worse in a webinar environment.

Before and After Sample from Michael Schwartz

Next, I interviewed one of my consultants, Lora Davis. She is a huge fan of Presentation Zen. Her visual PowerPoints never fail to please my clients.

Here is my interview with Lora:

Question: How did you find the book?

Answer: I ran across a discussion thread that mentioned the book. I popped out to watch a video on TED about it and knew this was something my team would love. At the time, I was the Director of Curriculum at ADP for the National and International Sales Organizations. My team was incredibly innovative and we were always looking for new, creative ideas that would captivate our audience and enhance the learning process. The Presentation Zen book did just that.

Question: How did the book help you in enhancing the learning process?

Answer: Our team had been pushing each other to create strong scripts that engaged the audience. We had been working on developing eLearning that grabbed the learner’s attention right out of the gate and quickly provided the “WIFFM” – What’s In It For Me. We redesigned the basic eLearning slide that stated the lesson objectives. We were striving to reach the learner on emotional and personal levels. So, the Presentation Zen book was the next step in this creative journey we were on. Since we had already been focusing on writing engaging scripts, the next step was to add compelling visuals that helped tell the story.

Question: So, what is so different about the visuals presented in Presentation Zen?

Answer: The book is about visuals. However, it begins with a compelling script and the ability to tell a story. Garr Reynolds demonstrates how PowerPoint has ruined how we create presentations. He takes us back to the basics – what we did before we had this tool called PowerPoint. If you think about how most presentations and many eLearnings are developed, they start with a standard PowerPoint template. The author then starts filling in the bullets and maybe grabbing a cartoon or graphic for the lower right hand side of the screen. We’ve basically confined our creativity to this tool.

Garr steps though a solid format for first writing your script and story, then he introduces new concepts for the design of the slides. Since my team had already been exploring and developing new scripts, this book proved to be a great catalyst of change for us.

Question: So how different were your learning programs as a result of this book?

Answer: Well, it wasn’t all a result of this book. But, this book, another called Slideology, and the creative energy of my team resulted in some very different programs. These concepts impacted not only our eLearning programs, but all our presentations. For example, we often worked with the executives for team meetings and we would “Zen” their presentations. At first, this was a bit of a learning curve for them – they liked having the bullets on the slides to present from. However, once they “saw” the slides and the reaction from the audience, they were lined up to be Zenned!

Garr also mentions to never provide your slides as a handout. So, we would create a handout with all the notes, perhaps a graphic or diagram if needed. The response from the audience regarding this resource was incredible. They could simply listen to the presentation, all the notes were provided. Revolutionary!

Question: Did you find it difficult for some of your team to move to this new design format?

Answer: Everyone has their strengths and we leveraged and partnered for success. We used Gallup’s StrengthsFinder on our team and actively aligned talents to projects. Everyone was aware of each other’s strengths and knew when to reach out for assistance or brainstorming. Some folks were stronger in their writing abilities, some stronger in graphic abilities, and some stronger with the technology. This team understood that about each other and partnered where necessary to raise their game and deliver a solid program.

Question: What advice can you give people looking to leverage this concept in their program design?

Answer: Focus first on the script and telling the story. I have a great video on my website of Simon Sinek stepping through the concept of his book, “Start with Why.” Everyone starts with “The What” and “The How” when they communicate and may or may not get to the why. We are busy people, this is a busy world. How well are you communicating the why of your program and gaining the learner’s buy in? How creative are you in communicating this message and telling a story they can connect with and believe in?

The script is the hard part, but this is where we as designers can be incredibly creative if we  just take the time and step out of our box. To create a program that not only engages the audience, but ultimately results in the performance objectives desired, you have to understand your audience and write a script that “talks” to them. Once you’ve done that, the visuals are the icing on the cake.

If you watch the video of Simon stepping through his message on “Why” – you won’t see any fancy visuals. But his message is so compelling, you listen and you learn. This is what you want to achieve. If your message can stand on its own and captivate your audience just by “telling” it – the visuals you add simply bring additional emotion and understanding.

My Experience:

After these two interviews, I decided to put their advice into action. I bought a Presentation Zen book from a local bookstore and selected a sample slide.

The slide I’ve selected as a sample is pretty standard.  While I think the information on this slide is really interesting (because it’s about me), I can’t imagine that this slide will stick in anyone’s mind.

And then I thought about the “why”. Why would I have an introduction about myself in a presentation? Do I want to connect with the audience on some level. Do I want to establish my credibility? This one would depend on the context of the presentation. (really hard to do in a one-slide example)

So, let’s just try out the techniques in Presentation Zen. The basic message I got from the book is:

  1. Make your ideas sticky by keeping things simple, using examples and stories, looking for the unexpected, and tapping into people’s emotions.
    The slide above does not do any of that!
  2. A presentation is never just about the facts.
  3. Brainstorm your topic away from the computer, chunk the most important bits. Identify the underlying theme and be true to that theme throughout the creation of the presentation.
  4. Make a storyboard of your ideas on post-it notes.
  5. Show restraint at all times and bring everything back to the core message.

So following these ideas:

  1. I need to make this more emotionally appealing and unexpected. I need to add some examples.
  2. Right now this slide is all about facts. But what is the underlying message? My brainstorming came up with: I wear many hats, I’m involved with a lot of different things, I don’t have just one job, I’m busy, I’m creative, I think outside the box, I’m not defined easily, etc….
  3. The third step is a lot like standard instructional design chunking. Since it’s just one slide it’s rather hard to do.
  4. I sat down and drew out some possible ideas on paper. A photo of my child-like drawings is below.
  5. Less is more. Stay with a theme. 
    Bring it back to the core message from #2. I think I’m going to stick with the “creative” theme but any of them would work.

My Hi-Tech Storyboard

My one bullet-point slide is now transformed into five slides shown here: 

As you can see, I used one photo over the entire slide. I stayed with the same font. I introduced each role incorporated into the photo.  ….and, I think I am making a stronger message about what each role is about.

Whether you subscribe to Presentation Zen, Slideology, or some other method, please try to avoid “death by PowerPoint”. 

– Leigh Anne Lankford

Leighanne has over 19 years of experience in the field of workplace learning and instructional design. Leighanne is currently a Relationship Manager for TrainingPros. She is a “serial” entrepreneur and software idea creator. The latest software collaboration project in which she is involved is revuuIT – an online tool for simplifying the process of gathering feedback on PowerPoint files.

9 Responses to “Are Your Slides a Sleep-Aid?”
  1. dbolen says:

    Leigh Anne, thanks for this wonderful post. Also suggest that folks find Steve Jobs and Lawrence Lessig presentations for alternative presentation approaches. You can find samples on Garr Reynolds PresentationZen blog – under Popular Posts.

  2. Ruthanna Birchfield says:

    Hi Leigh Anne – great post! This is one of the best “PZ in a nutshell” posts I’ve read!


  3. Ann H. Shea says:

    What a wonderful visual and clear guide to beefing up Powerpoint (and by extension, now webinars) to wake up the audience. I’m reading How to Be a Presentation God, by Scott Schwertly, and recommend it. The book is as entertaining as it is insightful and powerful. You can get a taste here:

    I hope more people read this and smell the coffee! Will tweet for sure!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Zen? Make your PowerPoints more impactful by following the advice in this blog-post – “Are Your Slides A Sleep-Aid?” Don't Let This Happen To Your […]

  2. […] samples of graphics for LeighAnne Langford to include in her […]

  3. […] For an in-depth look on how to transform slides in this way, see my post – “Are Your Slides a Sleep-Aid?“. […]

  4. […] Are Your Slides a Sleep Aid?  (a blog with interviews of two PowerPoint experts) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: