Tuesday, January 24, 2012

PowerPoint Tip: Boring presentations are not the problem

How many times have you heard that the problem with many PowerPoint presentations is that they are boring? This is a common refrain from the media and it used to justify why presentations should not use PowerPoint, or use some other hot presentation tool instead of PowerPoint. I heartily disagree that most business presentations are boring. The problem with most presentations is not that they are boring, it is that they are confusing. In today’s article I want to explain the difference and what we can do about the problem.

A boring presentation is one that has no useful information for the audience and is a complete waste of their time. Does this type of presentation happen? Absolutely. But not very often. My experience is that the presenter does have something valuable to say to this audience. The audience has agreed to hear the presenter because they believe that there will be value in hearing what the presenter has to say. So what goes wrong?

The big problem with too many business presentations is that they are confusing, not boring. The audience doesn’t leave bored, they leave confused. Their time was wasted not by useless information, but by useful information that was presented so poorly that the time spent gave them no value. When executives call me to help their team improve their presentations, it is never because the presentations are boring. It is because the presentations are confusing and not getting the important message across.

Why are so many presentations confusing? I think there are two key reasons. First, the presenter has not thought enough about how to structure their message for this audience. I see presentations that seem to be a random brain dump on the topic. The presenter just dumps everything they know on to the slides in whatever order it tumbles out of their brain. No wonder it seems confusing to the audience. There is no flow or structure to the message and the audience can’t figure it out.

The second key reason so many presentations are confusing is that the presenter feels compelled to include everything they know about the topic. Every background piece of information, every data chart, graph or diagram ever created on the topic, and every bullet list they could think of goes on to slides. This overwhelms the audience and they don’t know what to make of all this information. No wonder they leave confused.

What can presenters do to reduce the chance that they will leave their audience confused? First, spend more time structuring your message. You need to sit down and actually plan what this audience needs to hear. It starts with deciding on the goal, continues with analyzing the audience and finally determining what points need to be included in the presentation. This is such an important topic that I did a one-hour webinar last year on Planning a Successful Presentation.

Second, be brutally honest about what really needs to go in to your presentation and what should be left out. This is a very difficult task because you are dealing with your emotions. You are emotionally invested in all the analysis and work you have done, and to leave it out can hurt. But you must be ruthless in evaluating what information should be included or excluded. For more tips, refer to this newsletter article on what data to include in a presentation.

Confusing presentations are a much bigger issue in business today than boring presentations. You can make your presentations more effective by structuring your message and including only the information the audience really needs to hear. By taking these actions, your audience will leave the presentation informed, not confused.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

PowerPoint Tip: Effective dashboard slides

At the start of the year many organizations are looking back to see how they did last year. They will use many different measures, and they may decide that they want to start tracking certain statistics that will make a difference in improving performance going forward. A common approach is to create one or more dashboard slides that give executives a quick snapshot of how the organization is performing. In this article I want to share some tips on creating effective dashboard slides.

The term dashboard comes from vehicle dashboards that use indicators to show the status of such metrics as amount of fuel remaining, oil temperature, and battery power. An effective dashboard slide gives the viewer a single quick view of the performance of key areas in the organization. By glancing at the slide, the executive can quickly determine what areas need attention. Many dashboard slides contain stoplight indicators, with red indicating an area that needs immediate attention, yellow an area of concern, and green indicating acceptable performance.

The first step in creating an effective dashboard slide is to decide on the correct metrics to use. This is done in conjunction with the executives responsible for that area of operations. When selecting the metrics, make sure that you will be reporting numbers that have context. A single number on its own does not have context since you can’t tell if that number is acceptable or not. By comparing the current value to one in the past or a standard, the viewer will have context. Since many dashboards use the stoplight indicators, get agreement on what constitutes a red, yellow, or green indicator for each metric. If the executives will be making decisions based primarily on these colors, it is critical to get the definitions of each color correct up front.

Once the metrics are well defined, the next step is to decide how to show the metrics. If you decide to use the stoplight indicators, remember that some people may not be able to interpret the colors green or red due to red-green color blindness. Medical research suggests that this condition affects approximately one in ten Caucasian males. If you use the stoplight approach, include the first letter of the color (R, Y, or G) in a contrasting text color so everyone is clear on what the indicator means. Don’t restrict your indicators to just the stoplight colors. Use indicator arrows (up or down) to indicate trends. Use a checkmark or ‘X’ to indicate acceptable or unacceptable situations. A thumbs up or thumbs down symbol can also work. By using a variety of indicators, it makes it more visually interesting for the viewer.

Next, don’t get trapped into thinking that every metric must be reduced to a single indicator. Some metrics are more complex and may need more information to allow an executive to properly interpret the results. You may need to show a simple trend graph along with the goal that is trying to be achieved. In this way, the executive can see that performance is better than last year, is improving each month, but that the goal has not yet been achieved. This is a better interpretation than a simple red circle showing that the goal has not been achieved this year.

Also, work with the executives to determine the order of information that will help them make quick and effective decisions. Usually you will start with a broad overview, and then go deeper into each area so they can interpret the broad indicators properly. There are many ways to break down the overall results. You could dive deep by geographic area if that makes sense, or by product or service grouping if that will be more helpful. Some executives will want to break down the information by first looking at what metrics need attention, regardless of what area they come from. Ask the executives how they want to see it broken down and perhaps give some options with a non-linear approach to building and delivering the presentation.

Dashboard slides can be a valuable part of a regular presentation if you take the time to design them to be an effective visual that gives executives the information they need to make decisions. If you are creating new dashboard slides or reviewing the ones you currently use, keep the above tips in mind.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Apply John Bohannon’s proposal to your organization

Recently, John Bohannon presented a TED talk in Brussels that proposed replacing PowerPoint with dancers. The video has had over 330,000 views in less than two months and the idea has once again started people talking about how to improve presentations. In his presentation, John quotes a calculation from an article I published a few years ago to illustrate how much poor PowerPoint presentations are costing organizations. He compares the enormous amount wasted by poor presentations with the cost of funding arts programs in the US, and suggests that cutting arts programs would not help the national economy nearly as much as capturing the productivity that is wasted creating and sitting through poor presentations. I suggest you consider applying his thought to your own organization, no matter how small or large it is. If you could plan and create presentations more efficiently, and the presentations were so good that they allowed quick decisions and increased profits, your organization would reap clear benefits. If your organization took some of those gains and used them to support local causes in the arts or other areas, our overall economy would benefit. Where do you start improving your presentations? I suggest you start with better planning of what you want to communicate in the presentation. Most poor presentations fail to communicate the important message because the presentation has no clear purpose or structure. Recently I delivered a one hour webinar on how to plan a successful presentation. You can order the webinar recording here and get started this week. If you are skeptical that your organization could really be wasting that much due to poor presentations, you may want to use the formula in this article and be prepared to be surprised at the number you end up with. There is a lot of discussion going on about how to improve the global economy. All of us can do our own part by improving the presentations we create, which will increase productivity and improve results.