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Easy-to-use packages such as PowerPoint make it far too easy to bury the key points of a talk under a barrage of slides and graphics. Paul Gander seeks a balance between the message and the medium

It is not only in sci-fi thrillers that technology takes over and tyrannises the very people that it should be serving. A great many business presentations follow the same plot line – but, the tyranny is usually unintended, and is usually less than gripping for the audience.

What experts refer to as “Death by PowerPoint” involves delegates being lined up in front of volley after volley of 25 bullet-point slides. A particularly tortuous variant sees the presenter reading out the text of each slide word for word.

Whether or not technology is to blame, the principal mistake many speakers make is to lose sight of their key message. This loss of focus may arise simply from poor preparation and structure, but in these instances the technology can easily become an end in itself, and further exacerbate the problem.

Presenters have to keep in mind what their audience need to take away from the event. Will they remember the speaker and the key messages, or will they simply have been dazzled and overawed by a barrage of visual gimmicks?

Settings, audiences, time-slots and focuses vary from event to event, and the speaker’s approach should adapt accordingly in terms of pace, interaction, terms of reference and use of humour – as should the balance between hi-tech and low-tech delivery.

For example, if a company such as Sony is launching a technical product, the audience is likely to have certain expectations, and the product in question may be best demonstrated using computer-based visuals. It may well be that another presentation involves graphics rather than a predominantly textual content, in which case slides will again clearly be the best vehicle.

But event organisers warn that even where packages such as PowerPoint are suitable, they can still be overused, even by the best speaker. And their misuse, that sees them eclipse rather than support the presenter, is just as common a trap to fall into as overuse.

As its name suggests, management training company Speak First specialises in the use of the spoken word, whether for presentations, meetings or interviews. According to Clare Willis, a trainer with the company, the availability of computer-generated visuals can be a boon to presenters. But it also means that the medium can bury the message – and the messenger.

“There is nothing wrong with technology,” says Willis, “but people do tend to be unimaginative in their use of it. Or presenters go to the opposite extreme, and the whole thing becomes so whizz-bangy that the audience goes away impressed, but not particularly clear what it was all about.”

However good the accompanying technology, any speaker must create a personal rapport with the audience insists Willis. This contact is a two-way process: an experienced presenter will want to assess the audience before opening proceedings, while simultaneously allowing them to get a feel for the person under the spotlight.

There is a clear peer-pressure element in the use of technology. “We have done work with clients who told us, ‘If we don’t use PowerPoint, people won’t take us seriously’,” says Willis. This pressure seems to be especially strongly felt by more junior members of a management team. If this is actually the case, she says, that’s fine, but the planning will still require careful judgement about how the package could best be used.

As Speak First’s managing director Cristina Stuart explains, people “buy” other people, not their visuals or equipment. Visibly anxious presenters who lavish more attention on the screen than on their interaction with their audience are not going to sell anything to anybody successfully. “The empathy and enthusiasm that people respond to comes from the individual, not from any gadgetry they may have to hand,” says Stuart.

Confidence tricks

The confidence that gets people to the top can often convince managers that they have all the presentation skills they need. But basic training will wean a speaker away from over-reliance on technology, and demonstrate the benefits of varying pace and focus. Even breaking an endless succession of slides with snatches of video or animation is better than losing the audience altogether.

It is not only the urge to compete in presentational pyrotechnics which can lead to a misuse of technical support. Time pressures can be held responsible for many common shortcomings in presentations. And the ease with which a PC-based presentation can be put together both in the office, or at home, has helped to further shorten leadtimes.

“The way we used to work in production companies was to sit down with the speaker well before the event, go over the main points together and only then organise support,” says Peter Witts, a partner at Peewitt Productions. “Now people don’t have the time, and the first thing they tend to do is to come up with the slides.”

One of the problems with the current predominance of computer slides, according to Speak First’s Willis, is that they are expected to serve a threefold function: as a prompt, as a visual aid during the presentation and as a handout afterwards. Often, the same material is posted on the Internet for the benefit of those who could not attend. Presenters can avoid falling into this trap, she says, by using parts of the package which allow supplementary text to be added to the much sharper messages shown in the slide.

“People are more concerned about changing the slides they show than the words they are going to speak,” says Witts.

But the fact that a series of professional-looking visuals can be generated so effortlessly does not mean that the verbal presentation that cements them together should be less thought-out or rehearsed.

Time pressures

The same is true for bigger budget events, says Witts, where other technical focuses such as video-based support may be used. Presenters are likely to be surrounded by even greater batteries of electronic wizardry, but still have as little time to prepare. Recently, Peewitt was given just ten days to find a venue for an event, including a live satellite link between two locations. The presentation, staged for Abbey Life, involved an audience of 1,500.

Speakers will have varying degrees of control over how much they can change the basic presentation format. There are likely to be more constraints on a presentation at someone else’s conference than there would be at an internal sales event. But in any case, there may be more options available than might appear at first glance, even where the venue is restrictive and support equipment limited.

One constraint which companies like to impose on themselves is the passing around of set presentations to team members, as if these were as interchangeable as the laptops they are keyed into. “The speaker must be confident about the content and the language used within it,” says Witts. “The speaker must own the speech.”

Lack of ownership can be instantly detected by the audience. But as managing director of Evolution Event Management Robert Bell points out, whether this can be overcome depends, once again, on the time available. When handed a pre-scripted presentation by the marketing department, says Bell, the speaker has to find the time to go through it, amending and rehearsing the language until it becomes comfortable.

Trainers recommend that important presentations should go, quite simply, to the best presenter in the management team. But riding roughshod over sensitive issues of rank may not be an option, even where the individual in question is uncomfortable being the focus of attention.

In this case, options include giving the speaker some company on the podium. In an internal launch of a new customer focus that Evolution planned for BT, the presentation took the form of an interview. For added audience appeal, the general manager was quizzed by an actor playing a janitor among three other roles.

A feature of this BT presentation, and one that can be incorporated in different ways into most situations, was interaction with the audience. As long as the presenter is happy with the unpredictability this introduces, this type of audience involvement can both help to vary the pace and take the spotlight away from centre stage.

Communication

This brings us back to the importance of direct communication between presenter and audience. Technology can provide seamless, authoritative support for all sorts of presentation. But that’s how it should remain – as support. The success of a presentation can never be measured by the impact and professional gloss of slides or video – personality has that role. And while self-projection can be learned, it’s never plug and play.

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