Have you ever improved upon a mediocre speech by turning it into a PowerPoint (that “P” word), or do you know any great speeches that were written in PowerPoint? I seriously doubt it.
In a blog post titled “7 Strategies That Make Speechwriting Easier,” Dr. Michelle Mazur makes some good points — sticking to one main point (Tip #2), deciding upon a single call-to-action for your participants (Tip #4), and giving the audience what they need by knowing who you’re speaking to and tailoring your message accordingly (Tip #3).
But Mazur’s Tip #1 gets immediately to the heart of what is so wrong with so many of today’s speeches and presentations: “Don’t start writing your speech by sitting down at your computer.” More specifically, she recognizes the speaker’s common inclination to “open PowerPoint and start typing away.”
To that, I say “Amen!” PowerPoint is not a writing tool. In fact, far too often, it’s a crutch that gets in the way of clear communication and connection. Don’t believe me? Watch some TED talks or classic speeches — or better yet, listen to them, don’t watch them. Words chosen carefully and deliberately then delivered with impact have immense power to move an audience.
The mistake we see so often in life science marketing presentations is simply defined by the law of the instrument. As Maslow said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In our case, the law might be restated as “Give a scientist (or marketer or salesman or CEO or doctor or professor or almost anyone) the opportunity to make a presentation and be prepared to get hit over the head with a PowerPoint.”
It’s not that PowerPoint is a bad tool (truth be told, I hate it), but Seth Godin says it better than I can: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to champion at a church or a school or a Fortune 100 company, you’re probably going to use PowerPoint…. [However] countless innovations fail because their champions use PowerPoint the way Microsoft wants them to, instead of the right way.”
I agree with Godin’s definition of communication as “the transfer of emotion.” Bullet points and facts and figures can speak volumes, but they won’t engage the whole person — or most importantly, the whole brain of the person.
“When you show up to give a presentation, people want to use both parts of their brain. So they use the right side to judge the way you talk, the way you dress and your body language,” Godin continues. “Often, people come to a conclusion about your presentation by the time you’re on the second slide. After that, it’s often too late for your bullet points to do you much good.”
To get the audience to take action (again, Mazur’s Tip #4), good logic alone is not enough. While sketchy facts or lousy logic can torpedo your communication, in order to sway an audience, you’ve got to use emotion and appeal to emotion. The best science in the world cannot sell itself. It has to be championed, and has to be sold. You’ve got to arouse emotion in your audience. You’ve got to sell them!
So if the point you want to make is about the potential life-saving properties of a new compound, don’t overwhelm the audience with slides riddled with bullets and lots of data. TELL the salient points while you SHOW a slide of a relieved family with a healthy baby. TELL them a story – even a personal one about how the disease affected you, your friend, a family – that appeals to emotion. Use PowerPoint to supplement your story by building brief copy points over a picture of that person or family. Use the slides to reinforce your words or as a counterpoint, but remember that the slides are not the presentation — you and your words are. Use index cards, a teleprompter, the PowerPoint Notes section, or memorize the gist of your words. Just don’t use PowerPoint as closed captioning that you read to your audience.
If you must use PowerPoint, read Godin’s article and stick to his 5 rules:
- No more than six words on a slide. EVER. No presentation is so complex that justifies breaking this rule.
- No cheesy images. Use professional stock photo images.
- No dissolves, spins or other transitions.
- Sound effects can be used a few times per presentation, but never use those that are built into the program. Instead, rip sounds and music from CDs and leverage the Proustian effect this can have. If people start bopping to the Grateful Dead, you’ve kept them from falling asleep and proven that yours is no average presentation.
- No printouts of your slides. They don’t work without you there.
I’ll add a sixth rule: As you’re preparing your next speech or presentation, ask yourself if you really need to use PowerPoint at all! If story-telling or giving moving speeches is a strength of yours, you shouldn’t be using PowerPoint anyway. If, like me, you like an occasional visual aid to drive home a point, practice your whiteboarding and draw something as you wrap up your speech. Or be completely creative, and dance your argument, like John Bohannon. Take a risk and stand out. And don’t be surprised when your audience compliments you on your refreshing and original approach.