Thursday, September 1, 2011

Death by PowerGorilla

C… O… C… L… S… I… O… N…

The typewriter sound as each letter flew onto the screen gave me a satisfied grin. Nothing like great sound effects to go with some killer slide animation. It had taken me the better part of a week, but I was done with the quarterly report. It was my first report and I was determined to make it memorable.

I hit save and sat back to wait for status bar to creep towards complete.

"You misspelled 'conclusion."

"What?" I spun around so fast I nearly spilled my coffee.

Hogarth was perched in on the window sill soaking in the late afternoon sunlight. He pointed a half-eaten fichus branch at my computer, "you misspelled 'conclusion.' Easy to do when you put spaces between each letter."

I turned back to my computer and groaned in realization. He was right. To make a better visual impact I'd put each letter in their own text box and had them spaced across the screen. I was missing the U. "Okay," I said, "thanks for the catch. Soon as this is done saving I'll fix it."

"Done saving?" Hogarth's voice showed a level of genuine confusion I wasn't used to in his voice.

I nodded. "Yeah, should be another twenty seconds."

"How big is your file?" He asked. By now it was starting to dawn on me that he was really confused and I tried not to smile at that. For once I was in the position of knowledge over him. This was great.

"About seventy slides, but the file itself is around twenty-five megabytes."

A fine spray of chewed fichus leaves showered across my back, with no small amount of spray coming over my shoulder to coat my screen. "HEY!" I yelped. Turning about in my chair I looked at Hogarth. He had somehow managed to fall off his perch and was on his hands and knees wiping plant matter from his lips. "What the heck was that for?"

Picking himself up, he recovered the, mostly-eaten branch and looked at me. "I'm sorry did you just say twenty-five megabytes?"

I nodded, "yeah, animations take up a lot of memory."

"Any seventy slides? Don't you only have twenty minutes to present?"

I nodded again, not seeing where he was going.

Hogarth did some math on his fingers. "Let's see, that's an average of 3.5 slides per minute or one slide approximately every 17 seconds."

I shrugged, "Yeah, that does seem like a lot, but the project is miserable shape and we have a lot to cover."

"And you think if you bludgeon the execs over the head with a twenty-five meg file they'll be too senseless to ask question?"

"Huh?" I replied.

Hogarth sighed. "Slides are there to make a point, not to bludgeon your audience into a stupor."


Hogarth looked heavenward with a "why me" look. Returning to look at me he said, "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."

"What?" I stared at Hogarth as if he'd grown and second head. "What kind of poppycock water cooler wisdom advice is that? That's got to be from some arm chair TV shrink, right?"

"Albert Einstein" 


Sometimes it can be so very easy to make your point. And sometimes it can be so very, very hard. Unfortunately it seems that, all to often, the way we try and explain something is to throw more words at it. I'm certainly guilty of this one. Why try to explain something in ten words when one hundred will do?

Because by the time I get to thirty words, my listener is asleep, tuned out, moved on or made up their answer.

Man spent centuries practicing the art of communication. Great orators could empower a speech with nothing but their words and body language. When you think of famous speeches names like Kennedy, Caesar,  Churchill. These great speakers used their words and their gestures to communicate everything they needed to say.

Visual aids of course factored into even famous speeches and the advertising industry grew up around iconic images that conveyed an incredible amount of words, in single images. The crying Indian, the Marlboro Man, the hungry child, the oh so appetizing looking TV Dinner. But these were individual images. They were there to support the words being spoken, to anchor our minds to those words. They were not there to be the message.

Then suddenly it was as if man had forgotten the power of speech. The universe handed us  PowerPoint and we said, "this is good." We started putting everything into these mighty slide decks. Why show one table, when we could show twenty? Why memorize anything when we could put all the text on the slide. Heck, why even bother to present, just send the slides to your audience and ask for questions by email. And so came to pass the terms "eye chart" and "death by PowerPoint."

Did you know that Sweden has a political party right now who's sole platform is the desire to outlaw the use of PowerPoint in government?

PowerPoint is a visual aid. An aid, as in "to help or give assistance." Assistance, not to be the subject, but to assist the subject.

Manager Tools has a great podcast on slides for business presentations. They recommend no more than one slide for every five minutes of presentation time. Like many experts they recommend no more than five bullet points.  Don't use animation. They also stress that the slides are to support the conclusion not to present information. You don't show a graph of population data to let the viewer decipher. You show the specific result that supports your point.

These are great tips for a business slide deck and good starting guidance for a speaker deck. Speaker decks are more focused on backing up the physical speech and the rules are not as strict, you can even get away with some animations. Within reason. I recall Manager Tools describing a truly awful sales presentation. The woman had every single letter flying in, one at a time. And to make it worse, she had her computer piped into the auditorium speakers and every letter made a typewriter sound.

When I think of greater speaker decks, I really like one I saw recently by Bernie Maloney on building Rabid Rapport. It's  48 slides, which breaks the MT rules on one every 5 minutes, but the entire deck is focused on backing up the words Bernie spoke. Honestly I think the best speaker decks are the ones that make nearly no sense if you just look at the slide decks. Bernie's does a great job of that.

I'm currently working on an hour long speech for the PMI Silicon Valley annual Symposium. For a 9000 word speech, I have a slide deck with less than 550 words. Many of these are repeat words and only two pages exceed twenty-five words and only one exceeds 50 words. The animation consists entirely of replacing one image with another or with adding another, large image to an existing slide.

You can make your point with out bludgeoning your audience to death with your slides.

Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP