In the five years since the publication of the first edition of Presenting to Win, I am proud to say that it has made a significant impact upon readers, selling more than 100,000 copies in 12 languages. By the same token, I am surprised to say that it has not had as great an impact upon the presentation trade. Despite the many gratifying emails, letters, and telephone calls from around the globe praising the book, and despite the continuing stream of clients that take the Power Presentations program upon which the book is based, I've discovered that most presenters, after reading the book or taking the program, nonetheless default to a practice counter to the main theory in its pages.
Simply put, that theory is stated in the subtitle: The Art of Telling Your Story. True to its promise, the book offers techniques about that classic art, but it does so for only two-thirds of its total pages. The other third is about graphic design in presentations, yet that aspect is not even mentioned on the cover. The imbalance is intentional.
The reason for this emphasis on the story, which includes sharp audience focus, clear structural flow, strong narrative linkages, persuasive added value, and even specific positive verbiage, is that the story is much more important than the graphics. No audience will react affirmatively to a presentation based on graphics alone. No decisions are made, no products sold, no partnerships forged, no projects approved, and no ships of state are launched based on a slide show. Witness the powerful speeches that move hearts and minds: State of the Union addresses, inaugurals, nominations, eulogies, sermons, commencements, keynotes, and even locker room pep talks. None of them uses slides.
Therefore, what presenters say and how they say it are of far greater importance than what they show. That is why the lion's share of this book is devoted to helping you tell your story, and why I have even written about the delivery of your story … your body language, your eye contact, and your voice … in a distinctly separate new book: The Power Presenter: Technique, Style, and Strategy from America's Top Speaking Coach.
Does this mean that I am recommending that you abandon all slides ye who enter the podium area? Not at all. Microsoft PowerPoint has become the medium of choice from grade school rooms to corporate boardrooms, and far be it from me to advise a sea change as radical as complete rejection. Graphics play several valuable roles: as illustration of key information, as reinforcement of messages, and as prompts for the presenter, so please leverage this powerful tool.
All I ask … no, urge … you to do is to use PowerPoint properly, by applying the repertory of techniques provided in the other third of this book. The most essential of which is the overarching principle of relegating your graphics to a supporting role, making you, the presenter, the primary focus.
This seemingly simple plea for a shift of emphasis unfortunately has found very few converts. Presentations are still universally defined by and equated with the slides. This is standard operating procedure with every type of presentation, from IPO road shows to private financing, from product launches to industry conferences, from board meetings to sales pitches, and in every sector of business, from information technology to life sciences, from finance to manufacturing, from pharmaceuticals to real estate, and from media to consumer products. In my 20 years as a coach, I have worked in each of these situations, and have seen this focus on the slides repeated ad nauseam.
Why, then, this misguided imbalance? A brief peek back into history will explain.
Presentations originated as a form of communication back in the dark ages in the middle of the 20th century, when small peer groups within companies gathered around a flip chart perched on a rickety easel to exchange ideas. In that setting, the flip chart became the center of attention as a large surface that all the participants could see and share; but it also served to document the ideas that could later be copied and distributed to others who did not attend the session. The flip chart was such a distinct improvement over the impermanence of a blackboard (and its later cousin, the whiteboard) that it quickly became the display medium of choice in business. In its earliest incarnation then, the sheets of the flip chart served two purposes: as a display during the meeting and as a record that could be duplicated and disseminated after the meeting. This duality can be described as the Presentation-as-Document Syndrome.
This first step in the young life of presentations landed squarely on the wrong foot. By combining the two functions, it formalized an essentially imprudent assumption: that both functions served both purposes when, in fact, they served neither; neither fish nor fowl. A display is not a document. A display is for show (during the presentation), and a document is for tell (after the presentation).
This original sin then proceeded to morph and mutate into its current state of worst practices, driven by successive generations of technological advances.
In the 1960s the medium of choice in the presentation trade had only evolved as far as the primitive overhead projector. That clunky machine, used to display transparent Mylar sheets, known as "foils," stepped up from its humble origins in bowling alleys to take its place front and center in the conference rooms, board suites, and hotel meeting facilities of corporate America.
At root, however, the overhead projector was still just another manifestation of the Presentation-as-Document Syndrome. The document function of the foils became the connection to and the salvation of dispersed participants. Anyone who could not attend the live meeting took up what was to become the hue and Cry of business: "Send me a copy of your foils."
In the 1980s, the medium of choice advanced to 35mm slides, and the display took on a more professional look. Nevertheless, this new medium was still hampered by the duality factor, which by then had added new aspects to the document function, now implemented by paper prints of the slides. Documents were no longer merely handouts or "leave-behinds." Their usage widened to include "send-aheads," (before the presentation) speaker notes (crib sheets), validating evidence (exceedingly detailed data), or a manual (of biblical proportions) for consistency of messaging across the company's scattered legions.
Having taken on the status of a business mantra, "Send me a copy of your foils" simply shifted to "Send me a copy of your slides." (Except in some companies, such as Intel Corporation, where even today, although all presentations are done on computers, the employees persist in calling their slides "foils.") Presenters, forced to straddle the functionality fence, generated slides that doubled as documents, heavily weighted toward text and numeric charts. The net effect was a glut of dense eye charts that assaulted the audience's sensory intake. Visual aids became visual hindrances.
In the late 1980s, the PC overtook the carousel projector as the medium of choice for the display function, and the floppy diskette became the medium of distribution for the document function. By this time, however, the term "slides" had stuck. Before or after the meeting, it was still "Send me a copy of your slides." The medium had evolved, but the message stayed the same.
In 1990, Microsoft entered the arena with its release of the Windows version of PowerPoint, an aptly named software application that enabled presenters to make their business points with new and powerful graphics capabilities. Still, despite the continuing evolution of distribution technology from diskettes to CDs to Internet transmission, the business mantra persisted: "Send me a copy of your slides." Pressured by the exigencies of business, beleaguered presenters continued to oblige the request by using the same presentation for both display and distribution, both show and tell.
In the meantime, PowerPoint succeeded wildly. Within three years of its launch, it became the market leader, a position it enjoys to this day. Each succeeding generation added more and more features and functions, in the process expanding its installed base around the globe, and beyond business into the not-for-profit world, the government, the military, and even into schools.
Throughout it all, the vestigial legacy of the flip chart endured. The Presentation-as-Document Syndrome continued, and still continues to perpetuate its fowl/fish (pun intended) effect on victimized audiences, where neither version serves its intended purpose, and each version is severely compromised by the dual functionality.
If you need a document, create a document and use word processing software. If you need a presentation, create a presentation and use presentation software. Microsoft Office provides Word for documents and PowerPoint for presentations. While both products are bundled in the same suite, they are distinctly separate entities, and never the twain shall meet. Use the right tool for the right job.
Follow the correctly balanced role model you see on all television news broadcasts. The newscasters tell the story, while the professional graphics that flit by over their shoulders are simply headlines.
You are the storyteller, not your slides.