Thursday, May 22, 2008

Presentation Zen

We've all been there. You're sitting there in a PowerPoint nightmare while the presenter drones endlessly on. If the presenter isn't reading the slides directly, he is pretty close to doing so. You've tried to pay attention, to glean some nugget of useful information, and to prove your fortitude by just hanging on till the end without falling asleep in your chair. It's even worse when you know the speaker is brilliant. You've read their books or articles and couldn't wait to hear them impart their wisdom in person. You take your seat, focus your attention on the podium and spend the next minutes (or heaven help us...hours) wishing you were having your head waxed instead.

I recently found the book Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and also found the author's blog by the same name. His May 20th post had a YouTube video that cracked me up. Check 'em out. The book is great and his blog is always fresh and thought-provoking but the YouTube video speaks directly to the PowerPoint torture I was referring to above.

I use PowerPoint frequently and am constantly on the lookout for ways to improve my presentations both for content and for delivery. I know from personal experience that there isn't anything much worse than sitting through a boring presentation, so I try to be as interactive and dynamic as possible when I'm standing in front of a group.

When I'm in front of a group, it is primarily in a teaching capacity. One of the points Garr makes in his book has to do with allowing pictures to say things for you. This is a struggle for me when so much of the technical content is difficult, if not impossible, to conceptualize with pictures. Plus, people typically want the presentation materials to serve as a reference for after the presentation is over and pictures don't really work well for that. Pictures are certainly more engaging but how can someone who isn't trying to give a presentation to sell something, but to teach and inform, use pictures effectively?

I'm a fan of marketing guru Seth Godin. He wrote a little e-book called "Really Bad PowerPoint (and How to Avoid It)" and did an interview about it. In that interview he speaks to my question about selling vs teaching as follows:

"It seems to me that if you're not wasting your time and mine, you're here to get me to change my mind, to do something different. And that, my friend, is selling. If you're not trying to persuade, why are you here?"

That got me to thinking about what I do in front of a classroom. I am trying to persuade and to get the students to change their minds and/or do something different. I may not be selling them a product (a car, a widget or whatever), but I am selling them knowledge and information they can use to do their jobs more effectively. I've never thought of myself as a salesperson, but in light of Seth's comments, I believe I have to change my thinking. And, that may also mean I need to revisit my PowerPoint slides to find a mix of both pictures and text that works.

Hmmm...I've got some work to do....

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