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Avoiding the Hook

On occasion, I am honored to present a three-hour course on decision science as part of a regular seminar for senior feds who are in important jobs. I once heard a comedian remark that absolutely nothing is worth doing for more than two hours, but while the gentleman obviously is not a football fan – in general I have to agree. I always approach these speaking engagements with some trepidation, knowing how little I enjoy sitting through multi-hour training sessions or other Festivals of Talking Heads. One of the compelling things about the Ignite series is the fact that speakers have to be off the stage in five minutes. TED talks are worthwhile partly because their speakers take up no more than twenty minutes of your time.

Plenty has been written about PowerPoint etiquette, how some styles actually prohibit retention. This comes about when you put a lot of text on a slide, and then compound the injury by reading the text to your audience. This almost guarantees low retention, as the brains in your audience do not know whether to focus on reading or listening. More often than not, they tune out.

Relying on the good work from Garr Reynolds (“Presentation Zen”) and Nancy Duarte (“Slide:ology”), as well as other research on how brains behave, I try to follow a few rules when I can. One is to surprise the audience every ten minutes or so – although I can’t promise I always succeed at this one. The other is to use eye-catching photos and very little text. My presentation at this seminar consists, for the most part, of embedded videos (it’s always nice to give your audience a break from you) and slides that are mainly a photo with a pithy phrase. I don’t even read the phrase on each one, preferring to tell a story or anecdote that demonstrates the point of the slide – or sometimes offering the dry theory with a pointed reference. “Emotion plays a central role in decision-making, when we ask an expert to relate the decision logic they used in a specific situation, they lie. They don’t mean to, they can’t help it because so much of their personal decision process is unknown to them.”

What drives me to write this on a rainy football Sunday?

Well, I wanted to share with you the result of an experiment I ran this past week. Mindful of the retention theory, I chose to demonstrate it in practice. Since I didn’t think of it until the morning of the presentation, I went without a net. At the end of the three-hour presentation, I showed photos from the course without any text. One at a time, five in all. “Tell me what you learned while this slide was up.”

During the breaks, a few students asked if there was a reason for the strange approach to PowerPoint (I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was Keynote). I had set this up perfectly, and the disappointment would be crushing. I dreaded silence, blank looks.

The class knew every slide. By the third one, they were answering in unison. This wasn’t just the eager students at the front of the class; every one of the 20 or so in the audience could speak to the message given on slides they had seen once, briefly, and then not again for over two hours.

I had a conversation last week with someone on Facebook who argued for the ‘standardized’ project brief format. We all know this one. The position was that every project used a standard brief format, the information was on the slides, and the briefing team did not spend excessive time creating unique content. I sympathize with this approach, but cannot escape the fact that my little experiment demonstrated the theory. If you think the ‘creative’ approach to slide-ware is not worth your time, so be it. But if you are briefing people with some interest in having them retain your information, I dare you to repeat my experiment. Be careful if you do, however. Now that I’ve seen this work in person, it’s going to be hard to go back to boring my listeners.


Photo from Rob Lee’s collection on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roblee/374517948/

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Susan Thomas

I share your views about PowerPoint. People who are not experienced presenters or trainers use PowerPoint as a crutch. I recently attended a meeting where a presenter had more than 70 slides and each one had too much information. The audience zoned out but I am not sure the presenter realized it.