Originally published at Forbes Coaches Council, January 2020.
I’ve learned from years of teaching workshops that nearly everyone starts their preparation for a presentation by planning a slide deck, whether that means opening up a new Microsoft PowerPoint, repurposing an old one or two (which often results in a Frankenstein-like creation of mismatched fonts, colors, header placement and even slide numbers) or adapting a colleague’s work. After all, getting your slide deck together first gives you a pleasing sense of structure, a feeling that you’ve organized your thoughts and a reassuring sense that, if nothing else, you’ve got something to show at this presentation.
But what happens when no one uses PowerPoint anymore?
It seems far-fetched. After all, PowerPoint dominates the business world. But some companies are moving away from this mode of presentation. At Amazon, executive presenters provide a multi-page narrative memo before a meeting; LinkedIn executives are encouraged to forgo the slide deck as well. Leaders in the military, physicists and intelligence chiefs have all spoken out about the deadening effects of presenting information through slides. General James Mattis put it bluntly: “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”
And I agree: no one should ever start their preparations by looking at a PowerPoint. That’s a sure route to a stultifying presentation with no clear goal, a muddied message and an audience that’s left asking, “Who cares?” Any communication should begin with assessing the context and audience, setting a goal and crafting a strong message.
But even Jeff Bezos admits that moving to memos doesn’t solve the problem of poor communication — a six-page narrative can also be badly organized, too wordy and poorly thought through. Whether we are writing a memo or putting together a slide deck, we first have to assess the communication opportunity before us and construct a clear, concise message.
If you’ve done your preparation, understood how to connect with your audience and structured a compelling, clear message, do you even need a visual reference? Maybe not. If you use verbal cues (“This is important to know…”), strategic repetition (“I’ll emphasize this again…”), and bullet point your key information (“Three things to remember: First…second…third…”), your audience will be more likely to understand and retain what you are telling them.
And if you need to or want to provide a different sort of document (like a hand-out or a pre-read memo), all the same steps toward creating a successful slide deck apply.
Outline your message. The structure of your document should echo the structure you’ve already come up with for your message. A strong statement to open, with a clear goal. Details should be ordered logically and precisely. Close by reiterating the goal, set a defined timeline and assign action items.
Be concise. Think of your document as providing signposts on a trail. You have to get to each signpost — your key points — but how you get there isn’t as important. Don’t map out every footstep.
Focus on connection. This is the key to persuasive communication. Any kind of document should offer another avenue to demonstrating your awareness of your audience’s concerns and context and forge a bridge between what you want from your audience and what they need.
Proofread. Small mistakes can be distracting or encourage someone to dismiss your message over a typo.
Most important, remember that when your message has a memorable goal, a logical, easy-to-follow structure and well-articulated value for your audience, you don’t need a slide behind you. Even if you are using PowerPoint, that’s important to remember. Persuasive communication can stand on its own, in any venue.
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