How to create a great presentation you will be proud of?

The art of making presentations is a necessary ability for every good manager. It isn’t taught at school and it’s a pity. If it was, running the business would be far easier. And maybe even some lives could be saved.

It was February 1st, 9.05 a.m. Houston time. Coming back from the mission, the Columbia space shuttle entered the Earth’s atmosphere with speed of 5 miles a second. Unfortunately, as a result of minor damage to thermal cover of the wing the shuttle exploded and all seven members of the crew died.

The independent report made after the accident named the following possible causes: insufficient data analysis, lack of appropriate cooperation of NASA engineers who were controlling the flight from the Earth with the crew, and one page of the report was dedicated to…very complex slide of PowerPoint presentation that was prepared a few days before the accident by the engineers aware of the danger.

As the further investigation showed, the risk connected with entering of the shuttle into the Earth’s atmosphere was shown in the slide in a way that was not precise enough. The recommendation for taking additional photos of the damaged wing of the shuttle disappeared in a welter of announcements, specialized and technical jargon and as a consequence the people in charge of the project were not aware of the actual significance of the danger. The term “PowerPoint death” commonly used by the Americans gained a new meaning.

Contemporary business language

Not every single presentation that is being made has an influence on life or death of other people. However, among 30 million of PowerPoint presentations that are being made in the world during one day, thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of them can have an influence on the world we live in. Al Gore, a would-be president of the USA and an activist for limiting the emission of carbon dioxide uses excellent presentations to encourage people to adopt more ecological attitudes. Steve Jobs who passed away in 2011, in his legendary presentations was showing the vision of the world in which people live in symbiosis with the newest technologies. Few of us create presentations of such reach and power that those of Gore’s or Jobs’ ones, but even in the world of our own businesses there are presentations of a great importance concerning the company’s new sources of funding, gaining a strategic customer or using the market opportunity. In the 21st century the language of presentation is a tool that needs to be perfectly familiarized with in order to exist in any market. How to use this language in the most effective way possible?

Presentation is a journey

Where to start a good presentation from? From the most simple things, namely making two basic assumptions: Who is the presentation targeted at and What is its purpose? Defining these two parameters gives almost automatic answers to the series of additional issues: what form the presentation should have, how long it should be and what it should be about.

Jerry Weissman, American expert in presentations and public appearance compares the presentation to the journey from point A to point  B. In order for this journey to go well, it is necessary to plan it precisely and in details: if you start at point A, what is the point B? Knowing both of these points, you will be able to set down the shortest and the most economical way. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what the purpose of the presentation is – providing the audience with the detailed information or persuading them to something (if so, to what particularly?) – this purpose should constitute a signpost that leads you the right path throughout the entire presentation. Whenever there’s a fear that you’re missing the main point or you feel you’re stuck in one place, a simple reminder of “Where am I heading to?” should set the presentation straight.

The most important is the message

Steve Jobs knew how to make the audience remember exactly what he wanted them to remember. He knew that the audience is able to remember only some fragments out of one-hour presentation. He made those thoughts as clear, brief and simple as possible. Carmine Gallo, American business writer who had analysed Jobs’ presentations in details, labeled his technique “the Twitter-friendly headline” (Source: “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience”). The main message should comprise of less than 140 characters in order to fit a twitter post.

In fact, when you look through the leading thoughts of Jobs’ presentations, you’ll see that they all have less than 140 characters. What is more, their power is strong enough for the newspapers, TV channels, websites and blogs to copy them word by word and place them in their publications in form of ready headlines. For example, after the presentation announcing introduction of the new MacBook Air in the market (presented by Jobs as the thinnest notebook in the world) thousands of websites in their headlines used exactly the same words as Jobs did. It was similar with introduction of iPhone in 2007 and slogan “Apple reinvents the phone”.

Repeating the main thought is one of the simplest and the most effective methods for making the audience take your point of view. Unfortunately, it’s still isn’t being used enough. There’s a common belief that if something that has been said once, it will definitely be remembered. However, single message is not enough. Issues that are really important should be stressed, reminded of and repeated from three to five times. If it’s less, they can be missed. If it’s more, it may seem as an intrusive persuasion.

While determining the main thought, it’s good to assume that the audience won’t remember everything and sometimes it’s just one thing. What should be that thing? It’s better to decide by yourself and prepare a leitmotiv that will be present throughout the whole presentation.

Surprising demonstration

John Medina, the author of „Brain Rules” which constitutes a groundwork for the discussion on neuromarketing, stresses that human brain is not able to focus on boring things. Every one of us feels it intuitively. You don’t even realize what leads you when you change the TV channel while watching a boring commercial. It’s the same with presentations – while listening to a boring lecture on uninteresting subject, you automatically switch off and start thinking of something else and in extreme cases, you just fall asleep.

Al Gore understands it perfectly. In one of the scenes of  a documentary “An inconvenient truth” Gore presents shocking data concerning increase in carbon dioxide rate in the atmosphere. It’s one of the key scenes in the movie. A significance of the given information required direct and clear way of communicating them. Therefore, Al Gore could have presented it in various forms: he could have shown it in the chart on his laptop, he could have talked about it or elaborated on it using digital records. But he haven’t. He displayed it in a big screen and let the chart grow alongside the timeline. The chart was growing more and more and when it reached the upper edge of the screen it just started rising above it. Reaction of the audience was particularly lively. But Al Gore didn’t stop at that point. He stepped onto an earlier prepared platform resembling a small lift, he pushed the right button and the lift raised him up high. At the height of a few meters above the scene he could precisely point with his finger how high the chart goes. For everybody who was watching the presentation it was so clear-cut that it any further explanation wasn’t needed: the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is extremely high.

This type of demonstrations or “The jaw-dropping moments” as called by Gallo (Source: “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience”) not only make a presentation more interesting, but also more remembered with more powerful message.

Presentations in a corpo-life routine

Now, you’re probably thinking: “I’m not making any presentations on carbon dioxide emission or the newest iPhone. The subjects of my presentations are as follows: budgeting, reporting, new market segmentation, briefly speaking: daily routine of corpo-life. How to make such presentations effective, then?

One of the most respected people who create boardroom presentation (unlike the ballroom presentations, boardroom type is given at small board meetings, working groups meetings, briefings and internals) is Bruce R. Gabrielle. In his book “Speaking PowerPoint” Gabrielle offers a series of advices on how to improve effectiveness of the message created for everyday use in business presentations. He considers a lack of clear hierarchy in importance of the messages one of the biggest and most common presentation mistakes. Most of the presentation created in corporations are overloaded with information – it’s a mistake number one – and what is more, the information is chaotically spread in the slides in a way that makes the recipients confused of where to start reading – it’s a mistake number two.

The first way of dealing with the slide overloaded with information is so called ‘portioning’, namely dividing the text into two or more slides. The next step is designing the slide in order for it to have the foreground and the background. The foreground is the most important contents of the slide; the background comprises of additional and supporting information. Unfortunately, many presentations function without the foreground – all the information fuses in one chaotic background. Without a thesis and the main thought.

A very simple method for pulling the foreground out of the blurred and chaotic background is giving every other slide a title in a form of full but short sentence. Not a phrase, not a verbless sentence, but a full sentence. For example, instead of “Perspectives for sales growth in 2015”, Gabrielle suggests to write “Perspectives for sale growth in 2015 are very promising”.

Although, such a form is longer, it has one particular advantage: in a sentence formulated like that, one can see the thesis of the whole message in the slide. Further information supports, completes and confirms this thesis. The effectiveness of this method can be proven with the research conducted by prof. Michael Alley of Penn State University. Alley divided his students into two groups: in the first one students were learning from slides titled with full sentences and in the second group they were using slides titled with bullet points. As a consequence, the first group’s test results were higher by 15%.

Write it as an image

As long as in the world of the ballroom presentations (or performance presentations, there’s a space for individuals like Steve Jobs or Al Gore and facts can be overshadowed by the outstanding show, in the world of corporate analysis, there are only cold calculations and hard data. Charts, statistics, constructive conclusions – all of these elements are necessary in this type of presentations. As opposed to performance presentations, corporate presentations are usually filled with more text and this issue is a subject of heated discussions among managers. The question whether it’s good to place more or less text in the presentation is hard to settle. In theory, the less text, the better. The recipient isn’t overwhelmed with letters to decipher (yes, to decipher as unlike images, the written text is some sort of cipher for our brain), however, often it’s hard to get rid of the whole text and replace it with one brief sentence. It’s acknowledged by everyone who has ever created a presentation on specialized matters. Some issues require broader elaboration and it’s impossible to skip them and use a cut-off instead. The best solution in case of such dilemmas is your common sense.

Every respected expert in this field highlights the necessity of using attractive graphics in presentations – either in a form of photographs or in form of illustrations and in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century no one needs to be persuaded to do so. For some time we have been living in the pictorial culture and any attempt of moving away from the visual messages is determined to fail.

As early as in the 70s of the 20th century, Allan Paivio of University of Ontario proved that the words mean nothing at all until they are connected with particular pictures. Either you want it or not, when reading a novel you visualize the action in your mind, create a scenography, dress your character in an appropriate costume and design the whole presented world using your imagination. Obviously, it requires focusing and putting particular effort into this activity. The presentation that uses many pictures makes it easier for the recipients to process the messages and understand them quicker.

The ways of enhancing presentations with visual tools are constantly evolving. Clipart pictures (small pictures inserted into slides) which used to be popular a few years ago today are considered old-fashioned and everyone who at least from time to time deals with business presentations is aware of that. Yet still very few people is able to effectively use pictures while creating a presentation. A couple of tips on this matter are shown in the below table.

Fireworks vs. minimalism

While Clipart has gone out of date, PowerPoint animations, namely the glitzy transitions between slides as well as rhythmical animations of bullet points and pictures unfortunately are still being used. Unfortunately because various researches have proven that they lead to significant decrease in effectiveness of the presentation. In 2009, professors Stephen Mahar, Ulku Yaylacicegi and Thomas Janicki showed two presentations to two groups of students. One group was watching a presentation with sophisticated animations and the other one without them. Tests conducted later on showed that the average result of students who were watching the presentation filled with animations amounted to 71% and the average result of the students who were watching presentation without any animations was 81% (Source: Bruce R. Gabrielle “Speaking PowerPoint”).

Conclusion: sometimes less is more. Particularly interesting is a question, whether presentation created in more and more popular Prezi program which enables a user to obtain complex animations is really effective. According to Garr Reynolds, one of the best experts on presentations in the world, simplicity and minimalism is a leading trend  in modern design and is indicated for creating presentations. Reynolds compares a good presentation to a zen garden: everything there is drowning in all-encompassing harmony. It’s harmony full of peace and clarity and in such space it’s the most easiest for the beauty to be born. However we understand it.

A lot of learning ahead of us

Today, a good manager is no longer a person who has excellent skills in managing Excel, Blackberry and PowerPoint. It’s a person who has high communication skills. Presentations, whether they are made in a ballroom or boardroom form, are a part of business communication. The fact whether we use it in an effective way or not is not evidenced in aesthetic of the slides or knowledge of PowerPoint or Prezi tricks. It is shown mainly in a way of using available tools. It depends on what we want to use them for: persuading someone to take our point of view, inspiring, selling the product or educating in the best possible way. If it is about that field, we’re constantly in the process of learning – psychologists and neurobiologists are discovering more and more new schemes of human thinking and cognitive processes. One thing is sure: as far as creating effective presentations is concerned, the science hasn’t had its last word on the matter yet.