About a year ago, I wrote an article for “Presentations” magazine titled “A PowerPoint world without bullets is possible, and beautiful as well” The point of the article was to discuss how you can present ideas graphically, without using bulleted text.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about going beyond “beyond bullets,” to beyond words. Some of the slides I used in that article had only a title and the rest was conveyed with a graphic. Can we go further?
I recently read Cliff Atkinson’s blog entry, “Zen and the Art of PowerPoint,” which suggests this concept using an example of a slide showing nothing but a motorcycle driving across the slide. This got me thinking.
The point is that when you are at the front of a room speaking to an audience (of one or many), you don’t want your PowerPoint presentation to get between you and the audience. Yet that’s exactly what usually happens. In another tip of mine, “3 Components of an Effective Presentation,” I wrote, “Two’s a party; three’s a crowd, they say. If you just read your slides, you’re putting PowerPoint between you and the audience and they’ll resent it.” PowerPoint can become like the third person in a relationship — and no one likes that.
When you give a typical presentation with bulleted text, think about what you’re asking the audience to do. You’re asking them to listen to you, but read the slide at the same time.
A few years ago, Dr. Marcel Just, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, published a study that was widely used to justify laws banning people from using cells phones while driving. This was the first study using magnetic resonance images of brain activity to compare what happens in people’s heads when they try to do two tasks at a time. The study revealed that brain activity does not double. Instead, the brain activity devoted to each task decreases. People performing two tasks simultaneously do neither one as well as they do each one alone. Performance always suffers.
The two tasks used in the study were chosen because they use different parts of the brain. Interestingly, the tasks were the following:
- They listened to complex sentences like “the pyramids were burial places and they are one of the seven wonders of the ancient world,” and had to judge them true or false.
- They were shown pairs of three dimensional figures and asked to rotate them mentally to decide whether they were the same.
Does that sound familiar? In a presentation, you are asking your audience to listen to your (probably complex) sentences and judge whether what you’re saying makes sense. At the same time, you’re asking them to look at a slide, a much more visual task.
Don’t divide your listeners’ minds by making them attend first to you, and the slide, both at the same time, or back and forth constantly. What a headache!
So what do you do, short of giving up all visuals altogether? After all, haven’t visuals been shown to increase understanding and remembrance of the presentation?
It depends on what your presentation is about, what information you need to get across. But I suggest that you think about reducing the load on the PowerPoint side. Use fewer words — many fewer words. Dare I say no words? Perhaps you can simply display a few evocative images that the audience can glance at momentarily to get a basic concept.
If you need to present complex data, use a chart or print up handouts. You can run through the data, but don’t expect them to be paying much attention to you. Let them look at the handouts and just guide the audience through them.
But when you get to your main points, your conclusions, turn the audience to you. Let the PowerPoint presentation fade into the background and be much less word heavy.
For example, after you’ve slogged through the quarterly sales earnings, you want to conclude with one number, the percent increase (hopefully). The goal for the next quarter is another number. Put that on a separate slide. These points don’t need any text. Just a number. Then it’s up to you to inspire them.
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