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Three vital presentation lessons learned…from a walk in the woods

For close to two decades, I take an almost-daily walk near my office. It helps the creative process to get out and clear my head. My office is located in an old forest. A creek runs through it, creating a sizable gully. I’ve seen deer, coyotes, rabbits, and all sorts of birds on my constitutional.

As one of the more civilized creatures, I walk on the sidewalk that cuts through the forest. No sense muddying my shoes on the way to and from work.

A few weeks ago, something new caught my eye on my daily walk. Someone had crawled down into the depths of the gully to place a red sign on a tree. The bright red spot caught my eye and raised my curiosity.

Sign from the sidewalk
The sign, as seen from the sidewalk

Squinting, I gathered that there were words on the sign. However, the sign was too far down the hill for me to read. An innately curious person, I simply had to know what the sign was trying to communicate. In a typical January, the forest would be filled with drifts of snow, making it near impossible for me to get close to the sign. Even so, the forest floor was filled with slick leaves, so I half slid down the gully to get a closer look. Halfway down, I snapped another photo:

Sign, halfway down the hill, with zoom.
Sign, halfway down the hill, with zoom.

Curses! I still could not read the sign. Determined, I continued to slide down the hill until I got a few feet away from the tree.

No Hunting or Trespassing.
I'm going to be prosecuted.

I felt entrapped. Twenty years, and I never once think to wander down a steep hill to go into the forest. A bright sign inflames my curiosity, and boom. I’m a trespasser.

Vexed, I trudged back up the slippery hill. A Pileated woodpecker gave me a stern lecture, then banged his head on a rotted tree top. The judge banged his gavel. I had been dismissed. Case closed.

What three presentation lessons had I been reminded of from my foray into the forest?

The unexpected will rivet audience attention. Breaking a pattern is a very basic way to grab attention. I was accustomed to seeing only forest: the red sign caught my interest because it was different than what I had expected to see. How can you break a visual or sensory pattern in your next presentation to grab attention and get your audience to take action?

Be careful with negative instructions. If you don’t want your audience to do something, don’t even put the idea into their heads. If I tell you to NOT think about woodpeckers right now, guess what you’re going to do? You’re visualizing woodpeckers right now, aren’t you? Yet, you had no intention of doing so… until I told you NOT to do it.

Take words seriously. If you want me to take your words seriously, how about making your font size huge and clearly visible? What about placing your sign (or your PowerPoint) almost smack in front of me, instead of making me peer down a gully or around a post or from the side or through someone’s head?

I’m pleased to report that the woodpecker let me off with only a warning. I will be doing no serious time or paying a hefty fine for my trespass  — other than scraping what appears to be an unpleasant mix of mud and coyote dung off the bottom of my shoes.

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Professorial PowerPoint Humor

I’ve only been teaching at the college level for a few terms. One of the chief complaints I hear from students about PowerPoint lectures (from other instructors!) is the unbearable boredom when a professor uses the pre-packaged presentations included with the course textbook. These CDs contain mostly bullet-point outlines of the entire book.

Yes, you read that right. Bullet-point outlines of an entire textbook.

Professors read this mess for an hour or two. In front of their classes!


With all we know about learning and cognitive function, you’d think that professors — dedicated to a career of imparting knowledge — might spend a minute or two understanding that this approach doesn’t help students understand course material. You’d think that textbook publishers — also dedicated to the art of imparting knowledge — might actually read a book or ten about brain function.

PowerPoint expert Ellen Finkelstein poses an excellent question in her LinkedIn group, Great Communicators! Effective Presenting & PowerPoint. Ellen asks,

With so much information about good presentation techniques available, why are there so many Death by PowerPoint presentations given every single day?

Great question, Ellen. You can read some of the answers on her LinkedIn Group… and chime in with your own answers, too.

If you’ve ever experienced a bullet-point textbook presentation, you might enjoy this classic video on YouTube that parodies the horror. Wait for the Q&A session near the end — classic.


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What is the most interesting part of your presentation?

Let’s say you’ve been asked to stand & deliver a one-hour presentation to a large business audience. So you craft a presentation. You rehearse.

At this point, it’s time to deploy an old speechwriter’s tip. Ask yourself: “What is the single most interesting part of my presentation?

Answer honestly. Your response should give you some profound insight.

I like asking this “single most interesting” question. It gives me amazing ideas for re-crafting, editing, or restructuring a speech or presentation. When I ask the question and get a shrug, “nothing”, “everything!” or “I don’t know” — I have my work cut out for me!

exciting interesting presentation

But here are 3 other answers to the “most interesting” question that indicate a speech or presentation is in serious trouble:

  • “Why, the incredible design and nifty animations in my PowerPoint slides, of course!”
  • “The overwhelming amount of facts and statistics that support my main thesis.”
  • “That part in the middle where I share an emotional & dramatic anecdote.”

If your slides, stats, or center are the most interesting or exciting parts of your presentation, uh-oh! You’ve got troubles, my friend! Why?

Good storytelling always trumps fabulous design. You can design the most beautiful slides your audience has ever seen. But in the absence of a good story paired with outstanding delivery, all the audience will be able to remember are pretty pictures + special effects. Remember, design supports the story — not the other way around!

No one likes being slowly clubbed to death with facts. I like facts. And I like statistics. I just don’t like be repeatedly clubbed over the head with them. If you aim to overwhelm your audience, overwhelm them with emotion. In a heightened emotional state, your audience might be more predisposed to accept your logic… or maybe even a fact or two.

Audience attention wanes about every 9 minutes. If the most exciting part of your presentation is in the middle, for heaven’s sake — move it to the beginning. Start strong! Then, craft at least 5 more compelling stories to tell for the duration of your 1 hour presentation. No matter how exciting you are, audience attention wanes about every 9 minutes.

Of course, what you think is the most interesting part of your presentation and what your audience thinks may be two different things entirely! That’s one reason why planning to talk for only 35-40 minutes out of your allotted 60 is generally a swell idea. When you open up the discussion for questions and answers, you’re more likely to find out what’s really most interesting to your audience.

So go on. Ask yourself:

What is the single most interesting part of my presentation?

You’ll be amazed at the insight this simple question will give you!

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PowerPoint Deaths Climb in 2009: But at Slower Rate

Every year, I Google the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” (without quotes).

Exactly one year ago today, this “Death by PowerPoint” inquiry yielded 366,000 search results – over 4 times as many results as 2007.

Today, if you Google “Death by PowerPoint”, you’ll see 980,000 results — only about 2.7 times as much as 2008. The year-to-year death rate appears to be dropping.

The PowerPoint death rate keeps climbing — but at a much slower pace than 2007-2008.

Why do you reckon the rate of death mentions is slowing? With more people participating in social media channels, the opportunity to mention this oft-parroted phrase is increasing. Could it be that the phrase itself is becoming passe?

Yet why are overall mentions still increasing? Almost a million search returns – goodness! What will 2010 yield? And what will finally put an end to the carnage? 🙂

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Two Ways to Let Your Audience Co-Create Presentation Content

Your audience has the technology. They’re carrying smart phones. They have net books or note books.

So why not let them use their snazzy tech tools to co-create presentations? Here are two tech-driven ways to let your audience co-create presentation content.

PollEverywhere. Audience interactivity is a big part of the draw of PollEverywhere. You ask your audience a question; they can answer using Twitter, text messages, or the web. The PollEverywhere online service instantly tabulates audience survey results in chart form in your PowerPoint presentation.

PollEverywhereI used PollEverywhere in class earlier this week — it took me only a few minutes to craft a few cheeky surveys using the service. Downloading the poll as a PowerPoint slide (ppt or pptx) was a smooth, one-click operation. When students took the poll, results weren’t exactly immediate — I estimated a 15-20 second lag time before the graph started moving and changing before our eyes. Not bad at all.

PollEverywhere also allows you to ask open-ended questions as well as create bar or column charts. You may download survey results in CSV format, tweak colors and font sizes, and embed polls in web pages. This tool is very simple to use, yet fun and potentially quite powerful. Free for a small audience of 30 or less, PollEverywhere also provides more robust options with its paid services for use with larger audiences.

Twitter Hashtags. In the 1990’s, I would often moderate candidate forums during election years. To keep these town hall meetings civil, we would pass out index cards and ask the audience to write out their candidate questions. Audience members passed their written questions to volunteers who made sure that the most popular and well-framed questions were brought forward to my lectern.

Today’s audience may warm to a similar approach that is more transparent than using index cards. Why not ask a modern audience to Tweet their questions with a special Twitter hashtag for panel discussions? This lets a tech-savvy audience easily see the most popular and well-framed questions, while preventing boors from hijacking the Q&A portion of the program with tiresome or poorly-framed questions. Services like Tweetchat and Twitterfall let the panel and audience easily visualize the scope of questions surrounding the topic at a larger meeting, forum, or conference.

How else have you used technology to encourage audience interaction in your presentations? What works well? What doesn’t?

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How do you EARN attention when presenting?

“No computers or handhelds during my presentation,” barks a presenter. “I don’t know whether you’re playing games or paying attention. For the next hour, all eyes up here, on me!”

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ana Marta 7

I ignore this insane outburst, of course. I’m an adult. So is the rest of the audience. I take notes on my notebook PC. If the guy has something pithy to say, I might even rock it out on Twitter, give him credit, and spread his idea further.

After his presentation, the fellow rebuked me for failing to follow his pre-presentation command. I was being rude by typing as he talked, he insisted.

On the contrary, I protested. I was there to learn from him, not to pacify his ego by staring adoringly at him while he ignored the needs of his audience.

In fact, I told him I glanced up from my computer numerous times. I looked at his PowerPoint slides, but the text was too small for me to read, so I looked at him. His body language — back to the audience as he read the text from the slides — didn’t hold my visual interest, so my eyes went back to my computer screen. Because he was long-winded, he didn’t give me any short concepts to Tweet, so his ideas didn’t spread beyond the room.

I have an obligation to be a good audience member. It means that my mobile phone is silenced, so that I don’t annoy others. It means that I give back energy to the presenter — I laugh if something’s funny, applaud if I am moved, nod quietly with agreement, raise my hand to ask questions, make eye contact at times, or participate in activities or discussions when I am asked courteously. Otherwise, I remain silent and take notes.

As a presenter, I note that my audience is often texting or typing while I talk. They might indeed be playing games or doing something non-work related. They also might be taking notes, learning, and sharing ideas.

It’s not about me and my needs, it’s about the audience. A modern audience uses modern tools. As a presenter, I need to learn to adapt my style to fit their needs. Why should the audience have to pacify my selfish needs for their attention? Why should I force my audience to stop using tools that let them learn and share information?

As a presenter, I need to EARN attention. If I’m interesting, the audience is more likely to be interested. They might express their interest in a different way: years back, they might have nodded and jotted down a note. Today, they might nod and type.

Get used to it. Don’t churlishly tell your audience to PAY attention. Instead, be so phenomenally entertaining or interesting that they can’t help but GIVE you their attention!

How do you EARN attention when presenting to a modern, tech-savvy audience?

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Crowdsourcing Presentation Content with Twitter

What’s Crowdsourcing? According to Wikipedia, crowdsourcing is outsourcing a task to a large group of people in an open call. For example, when I was asked to present on the topic of social media & reputation management to an audience of college students earlier this month, I turned to the community at Twitter as an exercise in presentation content crowdsourcing.

Using the medium to help create the message, I posed my situation and asked a question:

Within hours, I received a dozen or so intriguing replies. It struck me that many of the replies looked — and read — like fortune cookies. So I felt whimsically inspired to use a prophetic design treatment for some of the Twittered replies. Ergo,


In some cases, I worked the Tweet into the overall landscape of the Twittered prophecy.

Give credit where it’s due. When I showed each of the crowdsource quotations, I gave verbal credit to the contributor, stating their name, city, and occupation. The Tweet itself shows each of their Twitter ” handles=”” or=”” thanks=””>LisaBraithwaite @JGaler @AnitaCochran) . The audience discussed the twittered advice. Each slide served as a backdrop for an interactive discussion.

Why Crowdsource Content?
Frankly, at the time I turned to Twitter for content ideas because it sounded like fun — and because it would be very easy to do. I’m also acutely interested in what professionals who participate in social media circles might have to say on the subject — and how they’d say it. Additionally, I thought that the students in my audience would also be interested in this very relevant perspective and voice, as well.

I also found four other reasons to crowdsource presentation content:

1. Introduce a fresh voice. As a speaker, you express your own point of view and personality. And you’ll use your own pace, pitch, tone, and vernacular. A fresh, new voice can add both visual and auditory interest — while supporting your key points.

2. Introduce fresh ideas. Through crowdsourcing, you may be exposed to new ideas that can enhance the content and tone of your presentation. The Twitter community gave me plenty of content to support my overall thesis — but they also encouraged me to explore a new dynamic that may previously have gone uncovered.

3. Strengthen the audience connection to the content. Presenters often use a pithy quotation from a famous person to help convey a point. But why limit your quotations to famous people? Getting a quote from a respected professional with a unique point of view can be engaging for the audience. Using a quote from a “real” person can make the content more personal.

4. Why not? How hard is it to ask a question to a group of people? The worst that can happen is that no one responds, and you’re out a few seconds of your time! Weigh that against the best that can happen – you gain new insights into your topic that you haven’t realized before. You get smarter. You get to build and strengthen ideas. Your audience benefits from stronger, more personal content. And along the way, you meet interesting people who like to talk about ideas.

What other reasons might you decide to crowdsource a presentation? And what might hold you back from getting ideas from people in the crowd? 🙂

(For another example of crowdsourcing, feel free to respond to this question about college graduation keynote speeches!)

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Three Transparently Phony Ways to Appear Less Confident

Confidence. Somehow, this word became virtuous in the 1980’s. It remained a positive trait — until fairly recently.

Confidence men, we called them in the 1930’s and 40’s. Over time, we shortened this to “Con Men” or “Cons”. Overly charming, smooth. Hucksters. Yech.

Cons transmit that they are absolutely positive in their correctness. Who trusts the overly confident?

Bernie Madoff and his ilk have made us collectively uneasy about confidence again.

Striped bachelor
Creative Commons License photo credit: Matti Mattila

How to appear less confident

If you’re an overly confident speaker, you might have a big problem connecting with a modern, tech-savvy audience. (Especially here in the American Midwest!) In an era of quickly produced, less-than-polished user generated content — your confidence might seem inappropriately over-the-top.

Here are 3 quick and completely insincere ways to tone down any over-confidence you may have as a speaker or presenter.

  1. Toss in filler words. A few, “ums and ahhs” and nervous shuffling can go a long way to instill the idea that you’re thinking about what you’re saying. You’re not glibly reciting a speech. You’re not absolutely convinced that you are unequivocally correct. You’re open to starting conversations and creating a dialog. Your social awkwardness in public speaking indicates that you’re thinking. That you’re concerned. That you care enough to be nervous. Audiences warm to this kind of humility.
  2. Ugly up your PowerPoint slides. Nothing says, “I’m overly image conscious” like professionally designed PowerPoint presentations. When it looks like a presenter spent 80 hours in meetings with a team of designers, writers, and speech coaches to deliver a one-hour presentation — that’s the take-away. That’s what the audience will talk about behind the speaker’s back. The message won’t stick when all people talk about is how pretty the slides were and how Hollywood the storytelling was.
  3. Dress out-of-sync. I watched a multi-millionaire give a presentation to 200+ business people. The audience? In modern business attire. The presenter? In a sad, schlumpfly suit from the 1980’s. The audience LOVED him. Think they merely tolerated his eccentric garb because he was rich? Guess again. I also watched a junior software engineer wearing an unpressed polo shirt and lumpy khakis present to a board wearing business suits. They ADORED his presentation, too.

If you’re an awkward or eccentric speaker, rejoice. This is your time! Embrace your humility! Hug your weirdness!

And if you’re a con artist, your audience will likely see through your naked attempts to “Aw, shucks it up” for them. After all, this is the age of authenticity and transparency — two achingly glorious buzzwords that shine a bright, unflattering spotlight on slick over-confidence and transparently phony faux-humility mannerisms.

Social awkwardness is in!

Nerds, enjoy it while it lasts…

What will the next wave of popularity be?

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The Creepiest PowerPoint Design Trend of 2009


Those were four words on four slides in a 15 minute PowerPoint presentation I witnessed last month. The remaining 700 slides in the presentation each had one word on them, as well.

OK, I’m exaggerating. There couldn’t have been 700 slides in that presentation.

But it seemed like it.

In the presentation I saw, random buzzwords that the speaker used in his narrative kept fading in-an-out of the PowerPoint slides projected behind him. Oh-so-slowly.

After a few minutes, I blinked, shook my head, and looked away. I was getting too mesmerized by the slow word parade.

I was looking for meaning in those words. I was looking for context. There wasn’t any.

After looking off to the right for a few moments, I focused on merely listening to the speaker while I stared at a blank wall. The presenter was telling a story about a problem his customers had, and how his product helped solve it.

It wasn’t a half-bad story, so I turned to look at the speaker.

Then, I saw it.


I grimaced. I had to look away again.

Since this presentation, I’ve seen a few other slow-word-parade style presentations. I suspect presenters create this style as something of a mood board to set the tone for the presentation. It can be easier and cheaper to toss word salad at people than to craft a story and work on polishing the delivery.

Personally, I find this word-mood board style of presentation design distracting and disturbing. It was hard for me to focus on connecting with the speaker or his story. I found myself thinking that he would have been much more effective with absolutely nothing in the background.

I’ve seen this technique a number of times this year. Let’s hope this a trend that will, uh — fade quickly!

What are better ways to set the mood for your presentation?

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Stop! In the Name of Acronyms!

“Stop! Police!”

That’s what I’d yell if I was a police officer chasing a suspect. And apparently, I’d be wrong.

New York City Cops IMG_2912
Creative Commons License photo credit: stevendepolo

A buddy was watching a crime drama a while ago. I came in late. As I settled on the couch, a police officer was chasing a suspect.

“Stop! NYPD!” shouted the policeman. The bad guy kept running.

“What’s NYPD?” I asked my chum.

“This story is set in New York. NYPD is New York Police Department. Everyone knows that.”

“Really?” I asked. “If I was visiting New York, and some nut with a gun was chasing me screaming out alphabet soup. I’d run faster.”

Of course, screaming out the acronym NYPD is ludicrous. If I was in Chicago, would police officers scream, “Stop! CPD!”? And if the Ontario Provincial Police yelled, “Stop! OPP!” — suspects would probably break out in laughter.

It doesn’t take any longer to say “New York” than it does “NY”. Same number of syllables. So it’s not a matter of speaking an acronym for speed. And it’s not a department that’s chasing a bad guy — it’s a solitary officer. Even weirder — why say the name of the city at all? Isn’t that redundant? After all, the suspect probably knows what city he’s in!

I asked my crime-show loving friend all of these questions. He seemed annoyed.

“Because it’s TV. I’m sure they say, “Stop, Police” in real life. Now can we please watch the show?”

I stopped talking, but I kept thinking about it. In real life, people can get a little acronym happy. The police officer became so accustomed to interdepartmental and collegial jargon — he forgot that anyone outside his circle wouldn’t know what the heck he’s yelling about.

It’s not just television show detectives that have acronym issues. As a consultant who gets brought into larger organizations, one of my first tasks is usually to crack the acronym and jargon code that insiders use among each other. This can actually be kind of fun — like a puzzle. Or learning a new tribal language. It also helps keep my wits sharp for when adolescents and young people start talking in Instant Messaging Lingo (IM, for short!) –“OMG! POS – TTYL.”

So when it comes to crafting presentations or communication pieces for an external audience, consider hiring a writer or editor — if for no other reason than to have an outside set of ears and eyes experience the communication piece. You won’t believe the alphabet soup I’ve often encountered in external marketing presentations. It often slips by, unnoticed to ears that have grown tone-deaf to the buzz of interdepartmental acronyms.

It’s really that ubiquitous. Don’t believe me?

For a fun little exercise, open up any one of your recent corporate or organizational PowerPoint presentations. Do an acronym count — it’s quite likely that you’ll find at least one.

And before you think, “Yeah, but everyone knows THAT acronym…” please think about how little work it might take to change it. You can make yourself more clear by actually speaking the words — instead of chanting the letters that represent the words.

This one simple act may keep your suspects — er, prospects — from running away!