Escaping the techno trap

Technology such as PowerPoint has revolutionised business presentations, but observers warn that it is not a substitute for good subject matter and a strong stage presence, says Tracey Middleton

Technology has revolutionised the way that we live, work, shop and spend our leisure time, yet it appears to have made surprisingly little impact on the way that we conduct our business presentations, meetings and pitches.

A quick look at the latest business presentation gadgets shows that we could expect to see an increasing use of video, images, sound and slides in multimedia presentations. Brian Michael, managing director of specialist corporate communication company TwentyFirstCentury Communications says: “A new dynamic can be created with the latest technologies, such as interactive meetings and brainstorming, using live casting so that more people can be involved, and real-time Q&A using tools such as e-mail and chat rooms.”

However, it seems that few companies are taking advantage of latest IT tools. Lee Velta, director of faculty and instruction at Communispond, part of global conference company IIR, suggests that the more traditional flipcharts, overhead projectors and podium presentations are still in use today, with an increasing use of laptop projections.

A multitude of media

Philip Ross, chief executive of futures consultancy Cordless Group, which analyses the impact of new technology on businesses, agrees that most companies have not taken aboard the options that latest IT tools offer. He says: “Few companies are geared up for true multimedia presentations. We’ve gone from using overhead projectors to PowerPoint on laptops, which is a kind of glorified overhead projector, with the occasional clip art presentation.”

Consultant Martin Ledigo agrees. “Most companies tend to use PowerPoint presentations or the equivalent. A few people still like to use overhead transparencies as the technology is more reliable, although there is an increasing use of digital whiteboards, which are great fun,” he says.

The mere mention of using technology in presentations provokes a strong reaction. On one hand, there are those who wonder why businesses have yet to follow the model of retail environments, where visuals, sounds, and layout are all employed to attract and hold our attention, or to shape our mood or behaviour. On the other hand, there are those who believe that if a message is important, it shouldn’t be drowned in technology, and that the use of technology can be the last resort of the untalented. Opposing views such as these are often expressed by the same person.

Taking the stand for technology, Ross says: “The kind of companies that are at the cutting edge of presentation technology are, perhaps unsurprisingly, technology companies and management consultancies, especially in the US. The audience of a presentation isn’t simply led into a bland room with a projector. Instead, presentations work with the physical space itself in a way that underpins or represents the company culture or brand. For instance, at IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers, clients get to presentation rooms by passing through a space controlled by technicians who project data, sound and images to create a full experience. It’s part of the wider trend to ‘edutain’ people.”

It makes sense to use technology to employ strategies that are proven to push all the right persuasive and emotional buttons if you’re going after a multi-million pound contract or exhorting your own troops towards greater productivity.

Brendon Barns, managing director of speaker bureau Speakers for Business, who represents figures renowned for moving audiences with words alone, such as Paddy Ashdown, John Humphrys and Charles Handy, is more cautious. He says: “I think it can work, but you risk looking like a fool if you get it wrong. Technology should be used appropriately and sparingly – otherwise why bother to turn up at all? Why not just send a video?”

On a more pragmatic level there is also the danger of overwhelming the audience and drowning the message. Velta says: “Regrettably, new technology increases the risk of overloading viewers with information.”

Ross also warns: “Many presenters have crowded or confusing slides, and then have to apologise for the illegible slide format. The message can be dwarfed by technology. People can rely on PowerPoint too heavily and forget interpersonal skills. It can be too tempting to get a pack of slides and launch into preprogrammed presentations. It’s still important to remember the art of listening, dialogue and interaction.”

Everyone agrees that, ultimately, technology should be used to support the speaker, and not the other way round. Barns is unequivocal. “Don’t go into a presentation with 50 slides when you’ve only got 20 minutes. You only need two or three key slides that illustrate visually those things that are difficult to illustrate using speech. And don’t just stand and read out your slides,” he says.

Ghost in the machine

Ross also shares this view of controlling the technology, rather than allowing the technology to drive the presentation. He believes there is no substitute for knowing your own presentation. He says: “One of the key tips is to know what’s coming next. Many presenters don’t know their slide show, so they end up looking at the screen and not at the audience.”

It could also be said that too heavy a reliance on technology leaves presenters vulnerable to those inevitable moments where computer failure leaves them exposed on the podium. Velta says: “Techno glitches that force the presenter to ad-lib, truly reveal how much preparation they have put in.”

Barns believes that technology is no substitution for talent, and that companies should pay more attention to the quality of the person in front of the group. He says: “Most of us look forward to our own deaths more than speaking in front of a crowded room, but usually people with no presentation skills have to do it simply because there isn’t anyone else. Good speakers have passion, charisma, and a magical quality that unfortunately you just can’t teach. You can learn to be a better presenter, but it’s crucial to learn from someone who actually gets up and speaks themselves.”

It’s also worth thinking through the nature, purpose and structure of the meeting itself before selecting the appropriate technology. Ross says: “PowerPoint is a very defined medium. Using it often involves dimming the lights, which may not be conducive to building relationships. Some types of meeting are better served by using a mix of technology. For instance, you might start with PowerPoint, but then move over to mood boards that convey concepts and ideas.”

Velta adds: “Presenters need to understand which technology to use, why and how. Is this meeting suited to technology? How can expanding technological-based presentations help your company in other tangential ways?”

Ledigo says: “Be aware of the impact of using any technology, however hi-tech. Using professional slides in PowerPoint will create a different environment than using a standard flipchart, which again would create a different environment from having people huddle round some flipcharts scattered on the floor.”

Apart from the more polished or theatrical elements that technology allows us to incorporate into presentations, and the possibility of remote participation (which is good news for large or global companies), it seems that the real promise of technology for most companies is that equipment is simply becoming more reliable, faster and smaller. Ross says: “Increasingly, we’ll be performing presentations with Personal Digital Assistants, such as Palm Pilots, rather than lugging laptops around.”

However, Ledigo points out that new technology does not necessarily mean better technology. He says: “I would like to see the return of some ‘older’ technologies, using real objects – photographs, wall charts, cartoons, professionally drawn graphics – that help make presentations memorable.”

Adding value

Michael adds: “To get it right you have to adopt a truly holistic approach and put the brand centre stage. Investing in technology is not enough. To add long-term value, corporations need to recognise the power of digital technology in relation to their brands. They need to create business communications immersed in brand values.”

It does seem, however, that before global companies can truly embrace the potential for remote participation via virtual presentations, e-mail and chat rooms, key technological glitches will need to be ironed out. As Velta points out, global presentations can encounter “various technological incompatibilities, such as modem compatibility, bandwidth and so on.”

All the experts agree, however, that technology will never be a substitution for charisma, and that the skills of the presenter will remain the dominant factor governing how effectively messages are delivered.

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