Bite the Bullet: Improving Your Presentation Strategies

Implementing a few sound strategies can make an IT manager's presentation process more predictable and painless, keep the audience's attention and help ensure approval for project goals.

If anyone needs to convey complex information to get the approval of peers or higher ups, it's CIOs and the managers who report to them. Yet, before a presentation, what do you do? If you're like a lot of us, you're likely to throw everything you know onto a set of slides, hoping the random set of bullet points will result in project approval or funding. After all, you don't have the time to learn all the ins and outs of your presentation software (Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple's Keynote).

Implementing a few sound strategies, however, can make the presentation process more predictable and painless, and help to ensure success. We've prepared a short tour to help you construct a presentation that communicates your message to the tired people in that darkened room, in a way that will keep them awake and listening. We even include a sample PowerPoint template to make the process easier.

1) Plan and Structure Your Presentation

A friend of mine does hundreds of PowerPoint presentations. She begs those she's presenting for to allow her sufficient time to craft a storyline and to prepare to speak in front of their audience—a process also known as rehearsal. When she exhorted her boss to do the same, he said, "Do you know what airplanes are for?" She shook her head. "They're for creating my PowerPoint slides," he replied.

This is a sad state of affairs. Quite a bit is at stake in your presentation, or you wouldn't take the time to give it and your audience wouldn't invest the time to show up for it. You have something important to say. The results may mean funding, career advancement, a bonus or a pink slip. So at a minimum, lay out a structure that approximates a three-act story of some kind. It can give you a road map and can make things a lot easier for both you and your listeners. In Microsoft PowerPoint, the Outline View can help you achieve this.

Even though I'll recommend visuals in a moment, you should use words to lay out your structure. Or, if you're more comfortable in Word, use Word's Outline view to construct a minimalist story structure such as the following:

  • What is the current problem? What are the potential consequences of inaction or the wrong action?
  • Your recommendations for solving the problem
    • What you've already tried
    • What others have suggested (and why it won't work)
    • What you recommend
  • The process that will be involved in the solution
    • Part 1
    • Part 2
    • Part 3
  • A call to action
    • Immediate steps to be taken
    • Contingencies and follow-up
    • Sign off; get authorization

Put these items into an outline and expand them. If you use Outline view in Word, you can click File/Send to PowerPoint, and your slides will be created automatically; your main points become slide titles and the sub-points are bullets.

You can also use the PowerPoint AutoContent Wizard to get ideas and structure for almost any type of presentation. Click File/New in PowerPoint 2003 to see a menu of many types of presentations with content ready to be revised. PowerPoint 2007 has a new set of templates under Microsoft Office Online/Presentations. You can get a good basic structure with the template called "Presentation for Strategy Recommendation." We modified that template to create the one that accompanies this article.

Need an all-purpose PowerPoint template to walk you through the creation of a strategy-based presentation? This one should get you started.
2) Identify the Pain

A colleague, Jim Endicott, is one of the best speaker coaches I know. He stresses how much is at stake in any presentation and wonders why anyone would do a slapdash job.

Never begin your presentation with flying logos or meaningless basic information about yourself, says Endicott. Nor should you start out by explaining how wonderful you, your company or your department is. The presentation is not really about you; it's about your audience. You can include credentials in your solution if you feel it's necessary, but first you need to get their attention, and nothing does it quite like understanding their needs.

The most important aspect of this entire exercise is the audience. What is important to them? Endicott suggests that you find the emotional element to grab your audience's attention. For example, you're losing money on low productivity because of poor tech support. The consequences: The situation will deteriorate until complaints reach management and the hammer comes down. The solution: We need to implement a training strategy as follows...

You will know that you have successfully identified the pain in a few short minutes, when you have the audience's undivided attention.

3) Use Visual Metaphors or Stories

The main symptom of Death by PowerPoint is a procession of endless bullets that are boring and stultifying. PowerPoint and its cousins, such as Apple's Keynote, have plenty of templates and features to enable visuals. To make your point, use creative and powerful images that show relationships in a meaningful way. The key word here is "meaningful," not random clip art to fill out the page.

To really get dramatic, videotape someone explaining how dire the problem is. Or, show photographs that prove your point, such as how outmoded or cramped a departmental area is.

Another alternative is to press the "B" on your keyboard to temporarily blank the PowerPoint screen, which puts all of the attention on you. With undivided attention, tell a meaningful story about the issue, dramatizing the critical need to adopt your plan or idea. Then press "B" again, and use your slides to continue making your case.

Another colleague, Cliff Atkinson, who wrote Beyond Bullet Points, suggests taking most of your bullets off the slides entirely. Instead, put them into your Notes. You can use the notes for your own preparation, but by leaving just images on the slides you can deliver a polished talk that has a lot more impact; you won't be reading the bullets (guaranteed Death by PowerPoint) and neither will the audience (who can become distracted).

If you need accountability for your ideas, use handouts of your notes (in Word or PDF), but leave the visuals as your main material for the actual presentation, says Atkinson.

There are other excellent resources. At Kathy Villella's site, PowerFrameworks, she posts downloadable animated diagrams that illustrate a multitude of relationships that you can customize with your own captions. (With her permission, several of her diagrams, some of them animated, are included in the template that accompanies this article.) When working with some of the PowerFrameworks, bear in mind that custom-animating them can be a bit tricky and involves grouping the text boxes that overlay the objects. This is best done after revising the text so the template slides that contain these diagrams have not been custom animated.

Graphics masters like Nancy Duarte and Julie Terberg have samples on their websites that can inspire any presenter to come up with a visual to show or dramatize a problem, its solution or just about any situation.

4) Animate to Communicate

Few stage plays begin with all the actors on stage. For the same reason, you shouldn't project a complicated slide or diagram as one complete unit. Besides the actors' egos and their need for an entrance, the fact is that no one can absorb a complex idea all at once. Introducing your important ideas sequentially lets them be absorbed more naturally. You can use the animation features of your presentation program to build your ideas a step at a time. Also, when you show a complex slide, the audience is distracted by trying to figure it out as you discuss it, so give it to them in stages as you talk about each concept.

Just about any slide is better viewed in stages. It's usually not necessary to animate the title, but showing your bullets with a click of your presentation mouse just as you discuss them (not read them!) makes you appear polished and prepared. This is where many occasional presenters draw the line, saying, "I don't have time to learn all of that animation stuff." Well, do you have time to craft a new resume? If you're lucky, you can tell your assistant, "Make this stuff appear one thing at a time." If it's just you, bite the bullet and learn some simple PowerPoint or Keynote skills.

Animation in PowerPoint is straightforward. PowerPoint 2002/XP and PowerPoint 2003 have Animation Schemes; you can instantly apply them to one or more slides by selecting them in Slide Sorter view. Doing so times the entrance of your bullets in seconds. For more complex material, such as photos, charts and diagrams, you need to open Custom Animation. Select each object in your slide and give it a simple entrance effect. Dissolve or Fade are usually the best effects for a novice to choose; whizzing and spinning don't work for many diagrams and also rarely impress audiences.

As you add entrance effects to objects, they are placed in order in the Custom Animation panel. You can reorder the effects by selecting one and using the up and down arrows at the bottom of the panel to reposition it. For charts and PowerPoint native diagrams, you can also click the Effect Options for any specific animation and locate animation specific to the object. On a chart, for example, you can have data appear by series or category. This is very effective, particularly if you rehearse. Knowing what comes next can help you polish your delivery by setting up the next part of a chart or diagram, and avoid being surprised by what suddenly appears on the screen. It's easy to identify speakers who haven't rehearsed; they frequently need to go back to a previous slide because they advanced one click too far.

You can animate any object that you can select, by which I mean you can make an object appear when you are ready to talk about it. For large objects that can't be broken up, such as scanned diagrams or charts, use the Drawing toolbar and AutoShapes to highlight specific areas of the diagram, and animate their appearance.

You can also break up a set of bullets with visuals. Click the little double drop-down arrow under the bullet object in the order list to expand into individual components. This lets you move animated effects in between the individual bullets in the order list, so that you can show, for example, a picture, a bullet, another picture and then the next bullet.

This is a great way to dramatize your story—as Shakespeare discovered when he gave his main characters an entrance.

5) Summarize an Action Plan

You came to the presentation with a specific outcome in mind. Never assume that your intended solution is obvious. To succeed, you need to spell it out with specificity at the conclusion of an effective presentation. In sales, it is called "ask for the order" or "the close."

While your presentation may not technically be a sales presentation, you want to achieve something specific. You need to put it out there at the end. Use your slides to buttress your argument and to spell it out in detail.

If it lends itself to your solution, for example, you can use the PowerPoint target diagram to dramatize your plan of action. Animate the progressive circles that represent the steps of the solution you propose, with the payoff being the bulls-eye.

5) Learn to Close Quickly and from Any Time

How many times have you seen this scenario? A presenter is halfway through a slide deck, when he is signaled by the host that time is running out. Or the audience is restless but still seems receptive—if the speaker can only get to the point.

In a fluster, the presenter rushes through the slides, saying stuff like, "Real quickly, this slide shows..." In reality, all the presenter shows is panic and a lack of preparation.

The simplest solution is to know where your close begins by slide number. For example, let's say in a 60-slide presentation (God help you), you know that slide 54 begins an elegant six-slide conclusion to the key points you set up early on. At any point, you can step over to the laptop, use the keyboard to enter a "5" and "4," click Return, and you begin your elegant close.

If you were going to do a quick close from the sample template, you'd probably go to one of the Solutions slides (4-7) before closing with Slide 8, a call to action.

If you're more sophisticated, you can create a Custom Show of different lengths for different situations or for just a close, and use an Action Setting in PowerPoint to launch it any time. To do so, click on Custom Shows under Slide Show on the main menu, name it (e.g., "Quick Close") and choose the slides to include. The Custom Show is simply a reorganization of slides in the current presentation under a different name; it can come in handy when time is short.

But of course the key to this is the dreaded word rehearsal. When you use the techniques mentioned above, particularly animation and visuals, you need to get your timing down and to know what's coming next. You can use PowerPoint's Rehearse Timings feature to check how much time your show will take, but be careful; this feature can lead to objects going off on their own if you inadvertently save rehearsed timings with your presentation.

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