Small Business

Rethinking the Presentation


These practical tips can help you improve your presentations and avoid sabotaging your business's chances of success

In 2005 a Texas jury ordered drug giant Merck (MRK) to pay $253 million in damages (BusinessWeek.com, 9/5/08) to the estate of Robert Ernst. Houston trial lawyer Mark Lanier had argued the case for the Ernst family. Lanier used PowerPoint slides designed by presentation design specialist Cliff Atkinson. Atkinson told me that while the Merck lawyers bombarded the jurors with science and data, Lanier told an emotional story using visuals. I saw the slides. They contained few words and no bullet points.

Today's column is not meant to teach you the mechanics of PowerPoint or Keynote but to make you aware of a few ideas I borrowed from Cliff Atkinson and other presentation design gurus, Nancy Duarte (BusinessWeek.com, 4/10/07) and Garr Reynolds. Their practical tips can help you rethink your own presentations and avoid botching your business's chances of success with a boring or confusing presentation.

Create a new normal. In his latest book, Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds writes: "What is 'normal' today is out of sync and off-kilter with how people actually learn and communicate. Research supports the idea that it is indeed more difficult for audiences to process information when it is being presented to them in spoken and written form at the same time." Reynolds recommends an approach to presentation design that is simple, visual, and "ultimately more meaningful." His tips include the following:

Prepare in analog. Most professional designers plan on paper, not by opening their slide software.

Cut the noise. "Noise" refers to elements that distract from the central message of your slide. Minimize the noise by eliminating inappropriate charts, lines, shapes, and symbols.

Avoid bullet points. Use bullet points only in rare circumstances and only after you have considered other options to display the information visually.

Picture superiority. Pictures are more easily remembered than words, yet most PowerPoint decks contain far more words than images. Create presentations that have more in common with a documentary film than an overhead transparency.

One big misconception of presentation design is that you must be a skilled artist to create more interesting presentations. Wrong. I can't draw a stick figure, but I've learned how to transform my own presentations into multimedia experiences. Remember that your presentation doesn't have to be a work of art. By engaging your listeners, you will stand out. By boring them, you're doing a disservice to yourself and your business.

Regardless of how proficient you are at using slide software, you can improve by practicing what Duarte calls "visual absorption." When looking at advertisements, magazines, TV commercials, and well-designed Web pages, ask yourself: "Why is this beautiful to me, and how can I incorporate some of these techniques in my next presentation?" Appreciate beauty to create beauty. Make a connection with your audience by creating slides that are visual, simple, clear, and, above all, different.

Carmine Gallo, a business communications coach and Emmy-Award winning former TV journalist, is the author of Fire Them Up! and 10 Simple Secrets of the World's Greatest Business Communicators. He writes his communications column every week.

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