Making your (power) point

Experts are split over the value of tools like PowerPoint when making presentations, but whatever benefits they offer, it is still down to the speaker to get the message across. By Richenda Wilson

Anew disease emerged in the West towards the end of the 20th century. While rarely fatal, it had the ability to corrupt information, stifle learning and kill imagination. Its name was Death by PowerPoint.

This is the view of Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of statistics, graphic design and political economy at Yale University. He believes presentation software reduces the analytical quality of presentations, weakens verbal and spatial reasoning, and corrupts statistical analysis.

“Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t,” he wrote in Wired magazine in November 2003. “Instead… it induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.”

Punishing the Audience
He argued that presentation software may be convenient for the speaker but is punishing to both content and audience.

“Presentations largely stand or fall on the quality, relevance, and integrity of the content,” he added. “The PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates and trivialises content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play – very loud, very slow and very simple.”

Conference industry consultant Tony Carey couldn’t agree more. During a debate at the global meetings and incentive exhibition EIBTM in Barcelona last November he stated: “We are bewitched by PowerPoint. You are considered an inadequate presenter if you don’t support yourself with PowerPoint and other distractions. Wrong! The most effective, motivating, rewarding, inspiring presentations are when people interact directly – not via ersatz images.”

Holding the opposing view at that Barcelona debate was conferences expert Corbin Ball. He said: “When used properly, technology can help bring people together more effectively. It can enhance the learning environment and broaden the scope of meetings and events.”

He argued that PowerPoint assists in conveying complex thoughts and can increase the retention of information.

“The phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ rings very true. Studies show that sight is the most used human sense,” he said.

He cited research by Doug Malouf, which found that 75% of all environmental stimuli is received visually, compared with 11% through hearing, 7% through touch, 4% taste and 3% smell.

He added: “According to a recent University of California at Los Angeles study, 55% of what an audience learns comes directly from the visual messages seen during a presentation – compared with 38% from audio messages.

“Visuals increase the retention of messages. A Wharton Research Center study has shown that the retention rate of verbal-only presentations is approximately 7%. However, when you combine visual messages with verbal communication, you increase the retention rate to nearly 50%.”

But to be this effective the visuals have to be right – and all too often they aren’t used well.

Production companies sometimes get carried away with creativity over practicality, argues Nigel Cooper, divisional managing director for travel and events at P&MM and chairman of industry body Eventia. But he believes PowerPoint can be “extraordinarily powerful” when used well.

“You should use bullet points to reinforce the spoken message, not to explain the detail,” he says. “Each point should have no more than five words and there should be no more than four points on the screen at any time. The speaker should talk for about two or three minutes around each slide, so for a 15-minute presentation, you need about five slides.”

Cooper has further advice: “If the audience is reading, then they are not listening, so while you are projecting, shut up.”

Technological Confusion
Cooper adds that presentations using moving images are even harder to get right: “Flash is difficult to use in a conference setting, as it isn’t flexible.”

The introductory video is also a vexed area, he says, adding that presenters have to define their objectives first and work out the purpose of the film. There is a danger that a glitzy, exciting video may detract from the performance of the speaker, he says.

Many experts argue that using a conference as a means of conveying information is a wasted opportunity. Information and learning can be off-loaded onto pre-event communications, e-mails and so forth. The event itself can then be used to enhance physical and emotional connections.

“Everything has to relate to real-life experiences,” says Rosemary Stamp, director of strategic consulting group Euro RSCG Riley. “It is far better to give people something to hold – if you are talking about packaged goods, for example – than project a picture on a screen. It shouldn’t be like going to the cinema.”

“Presentations are boring,” asserts Jeremy Starling, managing director of The Eventworks. “All these things designed to make them better are like trying to put an ashtray on a motorbike. We need a different form of communication.”

Explore Information
He believes information should be handed out beforehand, so the event can debate it. It should be about experience and exploration. Attendees should be allowed to wander around a room and absorb things in their own time.

He allows for a maximum of 20 minutes for the introduction, and after that time delegates should be standing up, moving around and getting involved.

“They want to see the leader leading,” he says. “They want to see the main man up there, but it’s got nothing to do with whizzy PowerPoint. The introduction must be very short because you’ll lose the audience after 20 minutes.”

And it does have to be your top guy, says Rob Norledge, managing director of events company Mediamaker. “The higher up the organisation the presenter is, the better the feedback they get, regardless of the message.”

Managing director of integrated agency Communicado, Simon Plumb, says: “There needs to be a careful balance of wit, skill, style and presentational support.

“We develop a creative theme that taps into individual emotions while aligning itself with the client’s objectives. At one conference for United Utilities, the objective was to empower people to take individual responsibility.

A Clear Message
“On arriving at the venue everyone was shown to their seat – a personalised director’s chair, with their name on the back. Delegates not only felt like VIPs but the key message was clear: each member of the team was in control of their destiny, to help drive the business.”

“The event must be compelling, emotive and experiential to connect with the audience and change attitudes,” says Jeremy Garbett, managing director of Jack Morton Worldwide. He says a good script and strong content is a good start.

A presenter who believes in their ability is also essential, says Steve McDermott, founder of presentation coaching company The Confident Club.

He says mental preparation is as important as physical rehearsal, and people shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes, as audiences like presenters who are human.

The most important part of a presentation is the end, so be careful not to burn out before you get there.

Personal stories are an effective way of building rapport with your audience. Giving real life examples of where your presentation material has worked or has been deployed will better help your audience relate to it. Get your personality across.

And finally – use the right technology and use it wisely.

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