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PowerPointless

Published online by Presentations Magazine, Spring, 2001

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."

- Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

We presenters live in an astonishing time – an audio-visual golden age is upon us. A presenter can stand in a boardroom or on a stage with nothing but a remote control in hand and summon digitally computed light, 256 million colors, total surround-sound, motion-graphics, laser-pointers, 3-D animation, broadband video, the entire internet and, of course, his or her own mundane humanity. The tendency in presentations lately has been to pull out all the technological stops and let Power Point carry the ball. Mundane Humanity has receded further and further into the dark background.

I once saw a two-hour presentation by a brilliant, successful and innovative businessman who was on a speaking tour of the country to recruit new followers and to inspire the disciples he already had. His staff had booked a large, echoing, high-ceilinged ballroom, installed his own sound system, set up a huge screen and projector for his state-of-the-art laptop. Three hundred eager people showed up to hear their leader speak. The chandeliers dimmed, the screen bloomed into vivid color, and a shadowy figure stood off to the left of the screen flipping buttons on the remote in his hand. When he spoke, he could produce only a rapid-fire mumble in a low drone which the sound system amplified without clarifying.

We in the audience cupped our ears toward him and strained to understand. We squinted, hoping to read his lips in the dark, to see some gesture that might impart meaning. No use. The dazzling slides slid relentlessly across the screen. “I’ve had people try to teach me presentation skills,” those nearest heard the speaker say. “But they just didn’t work for me. This is how I talk. Take it or leave it.” At intermission, only about half his audience could take it. The rest left – including some of his most ardent followers. This man is a near genius, a prolific writer, able to articulate the most subtle distinctions. He was unable to articulate English. He failed to distinguish between a vivid visual show and genuine communication.

Communication is something that happens between people. The presenter has a message for the audience. The visual tools are there for the sake of clarity, to augment our task as presenters, not to take the job off our hands. We must not hide behind our technology. Isaac Stern, the great violinist, once said: “We do not use the music to play the violin, we use the violin to play the music.”

It’s easy to see how presenters could get carried away with computer-projected visuals. We’re an anxious lot in a risky trade and to find a major-league device that will completely overwhelm the audience’s attention, letting us lurk and control and manipulate without exposing ourselves to scrutiny and possible ridicule – well, that’s damned attractive. Why, with power like that, we could be the Wizards of Oz.

Sooner or later though, some little dog is going to locate us behind the green curtain and we’ll have to rely on Mundane Humanity once more. We can avert that embarrassment by re-asserting our primacy over our tools. As Kubrick taught us in “2001" (auspicious date, that) human beings must outrank computers.

Here are three suggestions on taking the lead in our own presentations.

 

  • 1) Use the slides as sparingly as possible. Most visual aids do a fine job of helping the audience visualize some concept that is difficult or impossible to grasp without a picture, graph, map or chart of some sort. Do not ask them to do analysis, create empathy, ask for feedback, ad lib or build any sort of relationship. That’s people work.

     

    2) Build in gaps with a neutral slide where you can step forward and speak directly to your audience. Get into the light yourself, make eye contact, smile! Restore the human dimension to your presentation with a personal story, a question, an appropriate anecdote, a bit of humor.

    3) Don’t forget your first and most effective audio-visual tool – yourself! Your face, voice, hands and body are infinitely more expressive than anything technology will ever come up with. Learn to use them well and watch your evaluations soar.

 

The new technologies are dazzling indeed; they can add great value to your presentation. But they’re only tools. Audiences will always be made up of people. The most effective audio-visual element I can imagine is a confident, well-dressed, well-spoken, well-rehearsed person — mentally, physically, vocally and emotionally committed to the presentation, in complete command of all the tools.