Local Government Magazine

How to Avoid the Kiss of Death

PowerPoint can be the worst possible tool in the hands of some council presenters. Michael Brown shows how to turn it from slave master to servant and re-engage your audiences.

If any organisation needs to engage with its community it’s a council. Yet, in the past 20 years, the standard of council presentations has plummeted. Blame the current abysmal use of that brilliant tool PowerPoint and other spinoffs. Wall-to-wall PowerPoint kills persuasion, strait-jackets discussion, destroys subtlety and dodges real briefings and reports. It disconnects us. It turns us into hypnotised chickens.

Worse – when a sceptical or anxious audience sees a presenter hiding behind PowerPoint, they become angry. “He / she is afraid to front up. The council throws facts at me and ignores how I feel.”

This communication impasse evolved because countless nervous presenters have used PowerPoint to avoid the spotlight. In fact, many now believe PowerPoint is the presentation. It has become the master and we the slaves.

The solution is simple but radical. We must bust PowerPoint down to servant – seen only when it adds immediate, genuinely-visual value to the specific point being made.

  1. Find the courage to stand in front of your audience. Yes, with nothing on the screen most of the time. That’s the hardest part. Accept that people sell ideas better than PowerPoint. And accept that your slides will not be a complete, self-contained presentation – though a handout version might.
  2. Prepare speech notes. Liberation from PowerPoint slavery means a return to speech notes – which can include slide numbers.
  3. Lose word-filled and bullet-filled slides. Screened words just don’t impact. If you really must show words, reduce them to headlines so you can at least add value with your commentary. For some audiences – particularly at conferences – you might make two versions of PowerPoint: a full handout version and a much-reduced screen one. Or, instead of a handout, make an all-detail written article available on the net. A survey by my company found that the worst audience teeth-grinders are presenters who let the screen tell them what to say next, then read out full sentences word-for-word. It’s a way of dodging engagement and it implies, “you’re so thick you can’t read this”.
  4. Make a sleep slide as your number one slide. It’s a black slide. It’s the slide you show when you’re not showing a slide. On the wall screen it looks as if nothing is happening. But do put a small identifying mark on it – that’s a signal to you that the PowerPoint is still working. For conferences (when you have no flexibility with structure) you could insert sleep slides at fixed points throughout. When you show the sleep slide, make sure you move back directly in front of the audience. If you don’t, you’re signalling that your presentation is about PowerPoint.
  5. Jump directly to or from any slide. It could hardly be easier. Press the number of the slide you want, then enter. You’re there in an instant – forward or backwards. For the sleep slide it’s 1 enter. It’s particularly useful for fully engaging small audiences, with flexibility about what you show and when. We’ve all endured the opposite. Slide 33 is on screen, someone wants slide 3, and the presenter hammers us back through every slide – a visual battering that deserves a charge of assault.
  6. Stand correctly and end visual ambiguity. Your feet should bisect the angle between the screen and the centre of the audience. As you rotate one way or the other, the twist in your body signals, “look at the screen”. (It works even behind a lectern when your feet are hidden.) The classic mistake is to point your feet to the audience, signalling “look at me” when there’s a slide on the screen. That’s visual ambiguity, mixed signals, responsible for many glazed eyes.
  7. Introduce yourself without the title slide showing. I have asked hundreds of people to compare two introductions – with and without a title slide showing. Only one person preferred the first way – he was deaf. If you must have a title slide (perhaps for conferences), show it in silence for a few seconds, then put the screen to sleep (1 enter) and introduce yourself and your topic.

Amazon and LinkedIn banned PowerPoint from meetings. The late Steve Jobs of Apple banned it. The US Joint Forces Commander General Mattis banned it, saying, “PowerPoint makes us stupid”.

Banning is too extreme for such a useful tool but radical change is coming as audiences grow more resistant to the current visual abuse. You, your council and your community have nothing to lose and everything to gain by ending slavery to visual aids.

Michael Brown is a senior trainer and consultant at Skillset New Zealand and the author of Speaking Easy: engage your audiences with confidence and personal authority.

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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