Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review of a great book: The Visual Slide Revolution by Dave Paradi

I enjoy reading Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint Blog. So far he has a series of 48 videos of PowerPoint Slide Makeovers. Just recently I finally got around to reading his first book, The Visual Slide Revolution which is subtitled Transforming Overloaded Text Slides into Persuasive Presentations.

This is a great book! Before I read it I had bought both Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen, and Nancy Duarte’s Slide:ology. Both those very pretty books are by designers who discuss their Design Philosophies. Dave’s book is not as pretty or as long as either, but it is as useful. He is not a designer, rather he’s is a professional speaker with an MBA (and before that a Bachelors degree in Chemical Engineering). Dave is more concerned with tactics than grand strategy, and what is effective rather than what is pretty.

In Chapter 2 he states that:

“A visual slide is not the absence of text – it is the presence of a visual that encourages a conversation with the audience.”

Then Dave describes a five-step method for producing effective visual slides, where KWICK is an acronym for:

Key point
Words that suggest the visual
In context
Crystal clear
Keep focus

In chapter 3, Key point, Dave says that once you find the key point of a slide you need to write a headline to describe it. A headline is not a title. A title is a few words that might hint at the topic but doesn’t describe the meaning. A headline is a 6 to 10 word sentence (that will fit on two lines) and clearly states the key point for the audience. He gives 14 tips on how to write clear headlines. After I read his advice I went back and looked at some of my presentations. Too often I had title rather than headlines, because I blindly followed that less than useful PowerPoint template which says both to:

“Click to add title” and “Click to add subtitle”

In Chapter 5, In context, he provides specific advice on choosing effective visuals for presenting different types of information. Some of these are shown in the following table:

When judged by content rather than its appearance, this is a great book. It’s only 151 pages long, and just has 73 black-and-white visuals. Harvey Schachter of the Toronto Globe and Mail also gave it a glowing review, and then put it on his Top Ten List of business books for 2008 at #9.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Will banning PowerPoint improve conference presentations? If not, then what will?

Banning PowerPoint probably will not improve things, since the tool isn’t really the problem. Last Friday Dave Paradi blogged about how the Embedded World conference plans to ban the use of PowerPoint anyhow. On Sunday Jon Thomas blogged that PowerPoint is NOT the Problem with Presentations Today. By the way, back in 2006 Dave also mentioned another conference that had banned PowerPoint.

Bad PowerPoint presentations certainly are a pain in the rear end. However, we can learn about how to produce effective presentations from the folks who know rear ends inside out – the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (ASCRS).

James Church and Joyce Balliet, compared the quality of podium presentations at the ASCRS conferences in 1993 and 2003. These were seven-minute scientific presentations to an audience of ~1000. They studied 38 presentations from 1993 and 40 from 2003. 1993 was before computerized graphics, and in 2003 they were common.

You can read the abstract of their August 2005 paper: The Quality of Podium Presentations at the American Society Of Colon And Rectal Surgeons: Does A Decade Make a Difference? They scored each presentation for quality based on four common errors in technique (and running over time). One bad-quality point was awarded for each of the following flaws, which were added to give a quality score:

1) Presenting too fast for a slide to be comprehended
2) Reading the exact words of the slide
3) Using fonts that were too small to read
4) Orally presenting data different than the slide
5) Taking more than 7.9 minutes to finish

The mean quality score improved significantly, from 2.2 in 1993 to 0.8 in 2003, so introducing computer graphics like PowerPoint helped. This clear improvement both in quality and consistency is shown better via a plot of the percent of presentations with bad quality points versus the number of bad quality points:

The following table shows how those 5 individual bad quality points changed between the 1993 and 2003 conferences. Four of them improved significantly; presenting data different than what was on the slide did not.

Statistics on how the presentations were given are shown in the following table. Note that none of them changed significantly between 1993 and 2003.

What was the root cause behind the improvement in presentation quality? It certainly was not due to adopting Guy Kawaski’s rule of using just 10 slides. Both conferences used an average of 16.

They discussed a possible explanation at the end of the article. Back in 1996 ASCRS changed the rules for their podium presentations. They required that presenters submit a manuscript for their magazine, Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, before they were allowed to speak. Writing the manuscript forced the speaker to carefully consider the topic before presenting.

Any conference can improve by following a similar strategy. All it takes is some backbone by the organizers. When you make it clear that a presentation must say something useful and new, then you will get better quality. If you instead permit presenters to waste audience time, then some of them will with recycled marketing junk.

Friday, March 19, 2010

World Storytelling Day

Tomorrow is the March equinox. It also is the annual World Storytelling Day, which began in Sweden and even has its own official pentagram logo. Every year there is a theme. This year it is light and shadow. There is an interesting magazine article about Victor I. Stoicha, and a whole book called A Brief History of the Shadow.

Robert Fulghum’s wonderful book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten contains the following passage in its opening section, To the Reader From the Author:

“Finally I should tell you that I have an official Storyteller’s License. A friend made it up and taped it to the wall over my desk. This license gives me permission to use my imagination in rearranging my experience to improve a story, so long as it serves some notion of Truth. It also contains the Storyteller’s Creed:

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.

That myth is more potent than history.

That dreams are more powerful than facts.

That hope always triumphs over experience.

That laughter is the only cure for grief.

And I believe that love is stronger than death.”

Of course, the What's Your Story? blog had a post about Stories for World Storytelling Day.

Just be yourself (act naturally)?

Yet another half-truth about speaking is the common advice to just act naturally. In an often referenced article on How To Conquer Public Speaking Fear Morton C. Orman says to:

“Just go out there, armed with a little knowledge and a few key points, and be yourself.”

Well, which self would you like to see: best or worst, relaxed or scared, et cetera? Laura Bergells discussed how this advice can be confusing in a post titled Just who do you think you are? which she referred to on March 12th in another post asking Be Yourself? Why not be someone else?. Hopefully you will show your best side, once you figure out what it is.

Who we are changes over time as well. In his song Pacing the Cage Bruce Cockburn remarked that:

“I’ve proven who I am so many times
The magnetic strip’s worn thin

And each time I was someone else

And everyone was taken in”

Say the phrase “act naturally” and some baby boomers will recall a popular song with that title. There is a version by the Beatles, which has the lead sung by Ringo Starr.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is it all about the audience?

One of the more common half-truths regarding public speaking is that it’s not about you, it’s about your audience. Mary Darling used it for the title of an article posted on a Psychology Today blog on March 5: How to Give a Presentation, Part 1: It's not about you. She said that:

“….The bottom line is: It's not about you - it's about your audience.”

Similarly, in a blog post on February 25 Lisa Braithwaite said that:

“….It's ALWAYS about the audience. It's not about you.”

Last April in a CIO magazine article on how to Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking Maryfran Johnson also said that:

“…your focus needs to be in one place only—on your audience. It's not about you. It's all about them.”

Is this the whole truth?, Well, not exactly (as some Hertz car rental ads used to say). Without the presenter there would be no presentation, and the audience would not be sitting there listening. However, the statement is intended to wake the speaker from narcissism and the commonly held opposite viewpoint that it’s all about me. For a hilarious illustration, see this Savage Chickens cartoon about cell phone users.

A speech is a two-way communication. There is a transmitter (mostly the speaker), and receivers (mostly members of the audience). Information is being transferred, like the painting shown below, with some of the contents of a bucket being poured into a vase or jar. If things go well there is a focus on the audience, and the vase doesn’t get overfilled.

Audience-centered speaking is not a new idea. In his 1936 book on How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie said to:

"Talk in terms of the other person's interests."

In the February 1938 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, the Denver writer and novelist Marian Castle lamented that:

“….I am tired of the Gimme school of oratory. I beg that every speaker who is about to take from his hearers their only irreplaceable possession - time – be required first to spend five minutes in silent meditation examining his motives to see whether his speech is being given for the good of his hearers, or only for the good of his own soul.”

The Wikimania audience photo is by Joi Ito.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Why less is more – or even less

On March 7th Bob Malloney posted an article titled Public Speaking - Why Less Is More. He began by lamenting that most business presentations he heard suffered from information overload. They could have been improved by presenting less information. Cut your presentation down until it is simple and powerful, with just a few main points.

The aphorism of minimalism that “less is more” is commonly associated with the German-American architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who lived from 1886 to 1969.

Stephen D. Boyd also said it about speech writing for public speaking with a few more words:

“…follow the proverb, ‘Less is better than more.’ Never use three words when you can say it in two.”

Similarly, the chief engineer of Douglas Aircraft, Ed Heinemann, said to:

“Simplicate, and add lightness.”

Heinemann was particularly famous as the designer of the agile, little, delta-winged A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft. If you saw the movie Top Gun, then you saw the instructors in their Skyhawks merrily harassing the bigger, faster F-14 Tomcats. (For 13 seasons the Navy’s aerobatic team, the Blue Angels, flew Skyhawks).

Minimalism in all kinds of design involves an optimum, so “less is more” is a half-truth. It really calls for cutting out the fat while leaving the meat. You cannot keep cutting and expect that a design with zero content would be infinitely effective. Instead it probably would be completely ineffective. So, really less is more – until it is less.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Half-truths and public speaking

Don’t you hate hearing half-truths? I do! It doesn’t matter whether you think the glass is half-full or half-empty. Either way you are getting an incomplete story. In the next couple of posts I’m going to look at these two half-truths:

“Less is more!” and “It’s all about the audience!”

Stay tuned for more.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Storytelling Know-How

Most public speakers can learn about gestures, vocal variety, and body language by watching storytellers. I just saw a recent DVD video by Rick Sowash about Storytelling Know-How for Teachers, Preachers, and Speech-ifiers. The Boise Public Library has a copy. He observes that most of us need to add more expression, to quit talking like we are on the telephone. You can download the accompanying discussion guide here.

Mr. Sowash is an Ohio character, mostly a composer and book author. In a newspaper interview he said:

"I've been a radio broadcaster, theater manager, innkeeper and a county commissioner in Richland County, Mansfield. I think I'm the only composer of classical music elected to public office in America."

You can view him presenting to a school audience from his Heroes of Ohio program here.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Joy of Getting to the PowerPoint

We had a trifecta this week at our Capitol Club Toastmasters meeting - all three speakers used PowerPoint and they all used it effectively.

PowerPoint has a plethora of defaults and options. For his first presentation a newcomer may start with some ineffective defaults. For the second presentation he might add options like clip art, or using all the possible slide transitions. The result could be almost completely ineffective. Eventually he will settle down and deliver a clear presentation with his own personal style.

Back on June 16, 2008 I mentioned Don McMillan’s hilarious 4-minute comedy video on Life after Death by PowerPoint. He updated it last year to a 10-minute video called Life After Death by PowerPoint 2010. Don claims that PowerPoint caused the mortgage meltdown. He discusses SAOD (Severe Acronym Overload Disorder), which I have called DIA for Drowning in Acronyms. At 7:02 he shows a line graph of # of line graphs. (Stay tuned, because that curve shape will show up again in one of my posts). Also, at 9:10 Don refers to those almost useless 3D pie charts as cake charts.

There is an excellent recent white paper by Ellen Finkelstein called From Death by PowerPoint to Life by PowerPoint that you can download for free here.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Missing the (Power)Point

In his Manner of Speaking blog on February 25th, John Zimmer discussed Power Point Math: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. His post illustrates how to miss the point - how NOT to discuss large numbers in a presentation.

John begins by mentioning two statistics about PowerPoint presentations from the eighth slide in a BBC magazine article. These originally were that:

“Businesses globally make an estimated 30 million PowerPoint presentations each day.”


“The average PowerPoint session runs for 250 minutes, from startup to shutdown.”

Then he proceeds to ignore both statistics. (Why would you do that to your audience?) Instead he assumes that there are 1 million presentations given per day, and that the average presentation runs for 1 hour. He adds an additional assumption that:

“…the average PowerPoint presentation involves 15 people (audience, presenter and technicians all included).”

John multiplies, and finds that there are 15 million hours of people’s time each day spent watching PowerPoint presentations. Then he divides that number by 8760 to convert from hours to years, and arrives at a figure of 1712 years. He notes that the Roman Empire didn’t last that long.

My high school chemistry teacher used to emphasize dimensional analysis - that you always need to watch the units attached to numbers that you calculate. If we take the 15 million man-hours per day and divide by 24 (hours in a day), the result is 625,000 men. That’s more like holiday audience for the Pope than the life span of the Roman Empire!

Let’s go back to the two quoted statistics. 250 minutes (or 4.166 hours) actually is the average time spent by a man for preparing a PowerPoint presentation, so when we multiply by 30 million per day we arrive at a larger figure of 125,000,000 man hours per day. What does that really mean?

Let’s put it into a global perspective. According to the US Census bureau, the 2010 world population is about 6,831,000,000 people. Assuming that we put everybody to work for 8 hours per day, there potentially could be 54,648,000,000 man-hours available per day. So, we would only be consuming 0.23% of that global effort in preparing presentations.

Another perspective could compare how preparing PowerPoint stacks up relative to building something truly exceptional. The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza took about 1,150,100,000 man hours (or 131,200 man-years) to build, so just preparing presentations each day takes about a ninth of a Pyramid.

Still another perspective could come from converting man-hours into dollars. Back in 2003 Dave Paradi estimated that 15 million man hours per day really was just the wasted effort due to PowerPoint, or $252 million dollars per day. In a comment on John’s post I referred to Dave’s estimate. Max Atkinson also commented that he had calculated the annual waste in the UK. Shouldn’t we be more interested in the waste rather than the total?

A more complete estimate really should consider the time spent (or wasted) per day both in preparing and in watching presentations.

The Great Pyramid image on Wikimedia Commons is from Nina Aldin Thune.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Is there really a pandemic of public speaking fear?

Now that the swine flu pandemic finally seems to be dying down, I think it is time to talk about another claimed pandemic.

Mark Twain once said something like there are just two types of speakers - those that are nervous and those that are liars. Almost everyone is at least slightly nervous about speaking, but that is fear with a very small f.

However, if you uncritically believe what you read on the web from some public speaking coaches, then FEAR of public speaking is the biggest darned pandemic around! For example, according to Doug Staneart:

“Surveys show that 95% of the population admit to feeling fear of public speaking or stage fright.”

(Presumably the other 5% also are feeling that same fear, but just won’t admit it). Vincent Stevenson said 90%. Patricia Stark said 80%. Marion Claire even said 65% of us would rather die than speak in public!

If there really was that high of a level of significant fear, then by now we should be having several public service announcements, and telethons. There might also be another large celebrity group song including performances by Bono, Jimmy Buffet, Sting, and Barbara Streisand.

Those large figures, like 95%, don’t necessarily refer to a significant fear. In another article Staneart more clearly says that:

“….95% of the population has some type of fear of public speaking.”

Realistically, about 20% of the US population has a fear of public speaking. That’s a fear with a small f. About half that, or 10% has a phobia about public speaking (a FEAR with a very large F), but saying 1 in 5 or 1 in 10 isn’t as dramatic as including nearly everyone. Those much smaller numbers are less likely to get attention for promoting courses or seminars.

There really is not a pandemic. The fear is not contagious. You don’t need to cover your mouth with a handkerchief (or wear a face mask).