Why is it so hard to produce simple presentations?

Why is it so hard to produce simple presentations?

“This is the way we’ve always done it.”

In the context of presentations, nobody ever says this to me, but time and time again, when I go into companies to give presentation skills coaching, this phrase comes into my mind.

I’ve learnt from experience that state of the art office decoration and the absolutely latest communication gadgetary is no guarantee of state of the art presentations with the absolutely latest communication presentation techniques.

When a good or bad presentation can make or break your career, it is rather worrying that it is bad presentations that tend to dominate in the middle managment corporate arena here in Spain. To get even more dramatic, the Financial Times treated the whole issue very seriously some years ago, when it thundered

“Bad presentation is tantamount to fraud”

When beginning to work with new clients we usually first discuss how they feel about presenting in general, what their presentation skills strengths and weaknesses are, and then move on to an example presentation. I think it would be safe to say that in about eighty per cent of cases, a potentially powerful message is lost and overwhelmed by ‘supporting’ powerpoint slides that quite frankly, would take the whole day to read and absorb properly.

What I love about presentation skills coaching is that it is a ‘whole’ subject, meaning that it contains the ‘wholeness’ of communication – from the mindset, beliefs and skills of the sender of the communication (the presenter) to the mindset, personality and expectations of the receiver (the audience). And with a whole world in between! Which inevitably means that everyone who has to give a presentation has completely different strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths indeed do seem to vary. However, most of my clients seem to have one particular weakness in common – in their presentations there is often too much information on power point slides distracting from the main message. A common corporate myth seems to abound which states that the powerpoints ARE the presentation, and the more information on the slides, the better.

Going back to the example presentation that I ask my clients to give, my immediate feedback often includes statements such as:

  •  “The audience can’t read and listen to you at the same time”
  • “Why are there three charts on the slide when you are only talking about one of them?”
  • “If the audience are reading your presentation from the slides, then why are you there? You are redundant.”

I often observe a small ‘lightbulb’ effect taking place in my clients’ head as the logic of these comments is assimilated. We then begin to work. And in essence, this work consists of turning something complicated into something simple, which consequently leads to that something being a presentation WITH IMPACT.

Well crafted simplicity = impact

Audiences don’t want to have to work hard to follow your presentation, they just want you to get to your point quickly and simply (a bit of passion thrown in will also help). Now if we are talking about simplicity, for those non-natives worried about their level of English, well, that’s good news isn’t it? In business, you really don’t need the type of vocabulary expected of a university lecturer. If your English is good enough to communicate in a normal conversation, it’s certainly good enough to give a good presentation. Believe it – you DO have enough vocabulary to talk about your subject and get your point across, because what we, the audience want, is for you to express yourself clearly and consisely; we are more impressed by clarity and simplicity than verbosity.

Going back to powerpoint slides, let’s face it, all the technology in the world will never hide a poor presentation. And what do we mean by a poor presentation? We mean that the main message of the presentation is not clear because the presenter has not made the effort to strip the presentation down to the correct amount of information (spoken and visual) that allow the main message to be effectively communicated. The audience come away confused. (Mmm, I hope I didn’t confuse the reader with that rather long sentence!)

For many presenters, a particular challenge is creating slides of graphs and charts that don’t fall into the category of a ‘poor presentation’ as defined above.

In their book “That Presentation Sensation”, Martin Conradi and Richard Hall talk about the ‘cold mother test’. And by the way, if your own mother isn’t around, “any passing mother will do”. The idea of the ‘cold mother test’ is that you show a copy of your graph/chart to the mother in question. If she can tell you what the graph means, then well done, you’ve cracked it. If she has to get her glasses then “you’re already in trouble”. If she can’t understand the slide with her glasses on, then you can bet that your prospective presentation audience won’t either. All graphs, charts and numbers need to be simplified and stripped down to the basic point you are trying to commnicate; all other details, supporting or extra should be put into an appendix or eliminated.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” 

 – Leonardo da Vinci

And simplicity is what we yearn for in our overly busy, time starved corporate environment.

So let’s be brave. Let’s resist the temptation to present like everyone else is presenting in our company (unless you are one of the lucky ones where a modern presentation culture has already been installed at work.) Let’s break out of the “This is the way we’ve always done it” mentality and embrace simplicity and clarity. You’ll find greater satisfaction from it. Done well, senior executives will certainly thank you for it, and if we’re talking about making or breaking careers, well, I will leave you to draw your own conclusion…



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