We've all sat through our fair share of dull presentations. And although few of us would ever contemplate presenting without the comforting support of some slides to help us make our points, these supposed 'visual aids' can often add to the tedium of a poor presentation experience.
We hope and pray that the experience of watching a presenter read bullet points verbatim from a slide is a mercifully rare experience. We share your frustration if you're used to hearing phrases like 'I know you can't read this slide, but...'. But much as squinting at yet another terrible PowerPoint slide might represent the nadir of many a day, these 'Death by PowerPoint' ordeals do have something to tell us about the art of storytelling and engaging an audience.
With that in mind, we present what is often cited as the worst PowerPoint slide in history. This is a slide so bad it made it onto the front page of the New York Times, purely on account of how terrible it is. For context, this was a slide presented to the incoming NATO commander in Afghanistan in 2009. At that time the political, logistical and military situation in the country was hugely complex, and the new commander needed to be brought up to speed with a highly nuanced landscape quickly. Enter 'the slide', and infographic designed to capture all of the complex and intertwined moving parts of the Afghan status quo in one image:
All make sense now?! As the new NATO commander, US military General Stanley McChrystal, commented upon seeing the slide, "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war".
Our first thought on seeing this slide was to wonder how many hours of work must have gone into producing something so useless. And yet this is merely an extreme example of an all too common mistake. When we are preparing a presentation, we know the topic and the points we want to make pretty well. So we add more and more detail to the slides - a key image to communicate the main point, then a bullet point or two to emphasise the key takeaway. Maybe a graph for evidence of what we're saying, or a snappy quote. It can be easy to forget that not only are our audience seeing all this for the first time and for just a matter of seconds, we're also asking them to read and understand it all WHILST SIMULTANEOUSLY LISTENING TO WHAT WE ARE SAYING. This is a point so fundamental, it's brought us out in a fit of shouty capital letters.
Put simply, if your slides require any more than a fleeting glance to interpret and understand, your audience are going to have to stop listening to you to process them. As a rule, you don't want them to stop listening to you! And if you find that you're compensating by explaining the slide, then all your slides are doing is making your job harder.
Slides like this are not just useless, they're kryptonite. By taking our attention and brain power away from what the presenter is saying, we lose focus on the message being conveyed. And once people start to tune out of what you're saying to try to understand a complex slide, there's a chance they don't tune back in again, or their mind wanders to their next meeting, or their next coffee, or a million other things competing for their attention at any one time.
We appreciate that there's a totally different reason that slides end up being text heavy and dull. It's often because they're designed more as a comfort blanket for the presenter who doesn't want to forget to say anything important than for the audience's experience. If this is the case, there are better alternatives. Having your notes on screen or cue cards while the presentation is more stripped back gives the best of both worlds. And ultimately, keeping your notes to yourself gives you more licence to go off script, respond to questions and even change tack when the situation requires it.
4and20Million's Compelling Storytelling training is a half-day course on how to create compelling narratives and great presentations. It's invaluable if your role involves sales, sharing information or communicating with audiences (or briefing NATO commanders). If you'd like to know more, please get in touch.