Powerpoint presentations matter

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My readers know that I am passionate about analytics.  I enjoy the window they can create on reality, and how they frame and solve most business problems if you will let them.

I started this blog with the intention of using it to educate on the uses of analytics, teach simple techniques that people can use in their business, and explore the best ways to learn some higher level analytical techniques and programs.

In researching these topics I came to realize that there are more ways than ever to learn about analytics, many of which are quite good.  I will continue to curate those and add commentary here and there, but I started looking for other ways I can help.

I recently found an area where I can add lots of value; presenting the results of analysis.  I have looked around at the guidance on presentations and it is shockingly bad or inappropriate for most uses.

Everyone hates Powerpoint

“Everyone hates Powerpoint,” is the least controversial statement I will ever write.  For many people in the business world Powerpoint is as painful as it is ubiquitous.  The unfortunate thing for them is that Powerpoint is also the de facto method of business communication.

I would argue that one of the main reasons Powerpoint is so hated is that almost everyone sucks at it.  For the typical business person, I’d put the odds at >= 95% that your slide decks are awful.

I’m bad at Powerpoint, so what?

You will miss what your biggest chance to get your point across.  How’s that for a so what?

Imagine you have an upcoming meeting with a senior executive to discuss opportunities the company should pursue.  A couple of days before the meeting you get an email from her assistant asking you to, “send over your slides.”  You head to the meeting and the executive has your slides in front of her.  Maybe she has read them and has notes, or maybe she has not.  But while you are talking she spends half her time looking down and half looking at you.  When she asks questions they are not about the ramifications of your analysis, but what the graphs and terms mean.  What do you think are the chances she will take action if that happens?

You can also imagine a meeting with a key client where you are trying to get them to sign up for your company’s new programs.  How much good is a meeting where your client spends most of the time trying to understand what your slides say instead of listening to your pitch?  What about when your client contact cannot remember the finer points of your value proposition when talking to his boss; are your slides going to help him?  What is the point of doing an analysis if you cannot get anyone to take action based on its results?

Many, if not most, sales proposals are written as powerpoint presentations (or at least contain a powerpoint component).  If there was ever a time when you wanted to be 100% clear on your value proposition, this is it.  And yet, lots of them do not.

In my job I get slides from people trying to sell one thing or another to my company.  In at least 80% of them I cannot tell from a simple read why they are better than whatever vendor we currently use.  In around half of them, I am unable to tell what it is they actually do.  How many of those do you think I reply to or forward on to other executives?

(If you replied zero: winner, winner, chicken dinner!)

I’ll be fine, I found this presentation training online

You will fail miserably with the training currently online.  There is lots of material out there from very smart people and it is great advice in some limited scenarios.  For example, check out this quick guide from Seth Godin.  Seth Godin is amazing.  His advice is fantastic for people who are like him and pitching big ideas in keynote or large audience presentations.

But here’s the thing; you are not Seth Godin

You are not a visionary giving a TED talk, viewed millions of times, and able to change the way people see the world.  You are not paid $50,000+ to give an inspiring keynote speech to a conference.  You are Liz from business development trying to sell outsourcing services to a mid-sized firm.  You are Rajesh from analytics and strategy trying to get executives at your firm to shift the marketing budget towards digital and mobile channels.  You are Tim from HR trying to convince leadership that profit sharing would decrease the attrition plaguing your IT department.

You need to focus on creating the presentations that work for your needs.

Aside from you not being Seth Godin, there are other differences.  You can determine how to craft your presentation by asking: what is the purpose of the presentation, who is the audience receiving the information, and what is the method of communication?

Pick the right type of Powerpoint for your needs  

The #1 reason Powerpoint guides and training materials suck is ignoring the fact that there are three different types of Powerpoint uses:

Keynote presentation – The overwhelming majority of existing Powerpoint training focuses on this type of presentation.  Unfortunately it is by far the least used method in the real world.  When you build a slide deck that is designed to be given as a keynote presentation, but is used in a small group or sent in an email, it is either painful or ineffective (and sometimes both).  Writing and delivering a good keynote speech is also really hard.  There is a reason they command so much money and there are so few of them.

Hybrid presentation / documentation – This is the one size fits all use.  Nancy Duarte calls these slideuments[1].  This is the most common use of Powerpoint where the slide deck can be presented to a group but can also be emailed out and still retain most of its value.  This is also the use that makes people hate Powerpoint the most (by far) because it is almost never done correctly.  We called this “death by Powerpoint” in the military.

When done well a slide deck of this type can be slightly tweaked to present to senior executives and convince them of your idea.  It can be slightly tweaked to be sent as a read ahead for an important discussion.  It can be slightly tweaked to be used as training material.

When done poorly it is a lecture where someone reads endless bullet lists from all text slides.

Note: I mentioned that it needs to be slightly tweaked for all of these uses for a very good reason.  Just like clothing, a one size fits all suits rarely fit well right off the rack, but with some skilled tailoring a $400 suit can look like a $4,000 suit (the opposite is just as true).  The same is true for a good slide deck.  You would be amazed at the transformation a couple of tweaks can make.

Document replacement – Powerpoint slides are often made to function as a standalone document.  Project updates and other pre-made templates are examples of this.  These are no one’s favorite slides, but they are not going away anytime soon.

Still don’t get it?

How about a car analogy?  Which would you rather have, a Lamborghini Aventador, a GMC 2500, or a Toyota Prius?  Does your answer change if I tell you that you are a construction foreman who regularly hauls materials from site to site?  What about if you need to commute into a densely packed city with high gas prices and small parking spots?

Those three cars are great at a specific task, but ineffective at others.  It is the same thing with types of presentations.

Yeah, yeah, yeah…the smartest move is to take the Lamborghini, sell it then buy the Prius, the pickup truck, and a Tesla and then pocket the rest.  It’s a thought exercise, gimme a break.   

OK, got it.  Now what do I do?

Stay tuned to The Analytics Dude in the coming weeks as I walk you through how to stop sucking at Powerpoint.  This is a topic that takes a while to master (if that’s even possible), but you can make massive improvements in a relatively short time with some guidance and practice.

Effectively communicating your ideas and spurring others to action is almost always the most important part of a management or sales job.  It is worth the effort to improve your Powerpoint skills because for better or worse, it is how business communication works these days.

When you pick the wrong type of presentation, you might not notice at first just like you might not have immediately noticed that it’s a cat in this picture.  Unfortunately while this cat/raccoon picture is adorable, the wrong type of presentation is painful.

NB: this should in no way be seen as critical of Seth Godin.  His book What to do when it’s your turn, is a masterpiece of simple and effective visuals.

[1] http://www.duarte.com/slidedocs/

4 thoughts on “Powerpoint presentations matter

  1. Excellent article, Eric. I cannot wait to read your thoughts and lessons in the powerpoint series. I think your comments are about ppt users and lagging abilities is spot on. I have seen a few people that are what I would consider “excellent” briefers; but, after reading this blog I had to ask myself, “do I even know what excellent is?” We discussed a little bit about presenting a compelling story in ppt during our last conversation. I think I did a decent job on the last project; however, the slide deck could have been a lot better. The audience liked the out brief which is going to enable the agency to create a new a position plus allocate additional funding for my facility, but I think I could have communicated a lot better.

    Looking forward to learning some new and improved powerpoint skills.


    1. If it got your audience to take the action, then it was a successful briefing. Quality materials are all about improving your odds. If you are able to convince someone 50% of the time with subpar materials, how often will you win with adequate ones, or even excellent ones? It depends on the situation of course, but if you can increase those odds how much is it worth to you? If you start looking on a year, or a couple of years, timeline it adds up quite quickly.

  2. Another great article. However I love power point! Either the power point brief to the 3 star that has to be done an hour ago or, especially thee 72 page presentationl

    1. Haha, glad to hear you like it Bubba. Bubba the PowerPoint Ninja sounds like the best business super hero name of all time! I think you should roll with that for your business…that’s some free (bad) consulting right there.

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