Muddle Through On Your Own

I am a little unsettled by the math. A widely quoted statistic claims 30,000,000 PowerPoint presentations are delivered every day.* The hard-to-get-down-the-gullet stat doesn’t indicate whether that is just in the United States or if it includes everywhere else on the planet, including Paris, Mumbai, and in dirt villages in Papua, New Guinea. For the number to be that high, I would think it might also need to include locations beyond our own solar system, where language and syntax differ, but bullets are still considered the way to go. I also hope that “every day” does not include Saturday and Sunday, which would sadly mean that American families are now replacing family discussions around the kitchen table with executive summaries and break-out groups.

Thirty million presentations. And note, that’s presentations, not number of people viewing them. Since we seldom create PowerPoint for our eyes only, each presentation encumbers two, three, or maybe ten often-unwilling participants, all in various states of consciousness. So if I am calculating correctly, sometime during the day, upwards of a third-of-a-billion people are sitting in a darkened room looking at bullets or heavily annotated bar graphs. That would mean two out of three Americans, including infants and the elderly, are perhaps watching a presentation as you read this.

I do not want to place too much value in a number that is so stupifyingly high that it is just too hard for me to comprehend. Rather, I am more interested in the consequences of that number. It means that we are delegating a disproportionate responsibility for communication to slides—maybe ten trillion a month—and we think that the way we are using them is actually make our messages clearer and more persuasive.

We believe that if we can turn it into a bullet or a graphic, that those we wish to influence will enthusiastically accept and understand it. We think that more we can include, the better prepared and really, really smart our audience will think we are.

We have let a badly flawed technology dictate—and often limit— how we communicate, rather than subjugate that technology the way we want to, in order for us to tell our story better. We use software such as PowerPoint to help us make slides, not to help us make our point.

Think about it. Most people use PowerPoint with very little training, and most training naively focuses on the mechanics of wrangling templates and making bullets twinkle, and not the more mature task of how to structure compelling content and create engaging visuals that clarify that trigger attention and retention. Most presenters create weighty text documents, because that is what PowerPoint encourages them to do. They do not know how to differentiate between slide and handout, so neither does its job well.

Most tragically, presenters forget what they are doing is telling a story.

If I were a betting kinda-guy, I would also wager that the next presenter I set eyes on is also spending unnecessary time and money on development, and would probably increase quality and streamline development this very day, if they were only given a handful of key practices,

If I were that betting guy, I would also predict that improving their presentations would get their audiences to nod “yes” a little more quickly.

If your presentations are not as effective as you know they can be, blame some of it on PowerPoint. In the past twenty years, we have learned a lot about how the brain processes and stores information and how decisions are made. A lot has changed in two decades, but the basic approach and architecture of PowerPoint has not. It grew out of a text-based technology and aside from the addition of schmancy effects and production add-ons, it is the essentially the same tool as was when it was released: a way to create documents for the screen.

But blame yourself a little if you haven’t done anything about it. Opportunities to increase effectiveness and cutting costs are, just maybe, being squandered.

But by looking at presentations a little differently, by applying some research and best practices, you can turn this selfsame technology into a persuasive tool and turn yourself into a more persuasive presenter, to inform, inspire, and move an audience to action.

About 300,000,000 people, here and in New Guinea, are counting on you.

* That statistics is many years old. I shiver to think what the updated number is, and pity the poor person who has to peer in conference doors and count.

© Copyright 2014. Chuck Goldstone. All Rights Reserved

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