The Five Deadly Sins of Presentations
By John Brien
film is set in 1933, at the height of the Depression, in Winnipeg…Beer
baroness Lady Port-Huntly announces a contest to find the ‘saddest music in
the world’ as a way to promote her brew…. The self-styled Beer Queen of the
Prairie invites musicians from around the world to compete for the $25,000
prize… She even has a slogan: ‘If you're sad and like beer, I'm your lady.’”
Jonathan Rosenbaum Review of The Saddest Music in
so you have to be something of a movie buff to know about The Saddest
Music in the World and its director, Guy Maddin. Musicians representing
various countries compete to deliver the “saddest” performance, with the
winner(s) of each round sliding into a giant vat of beer (if only the
contenders in American Idol had it so lucky).
Whereas being the “saddest” is an honor in The Saddest Music,
the saddest presentation in the world (with “sad” used in the more colloquial
sense, i.e., “pathetic”) isn’t a title to which many care to aspire. You
wouldn’t know that, though, from the presentations you see. “Am I mistaken
or did that expert merely jot down some ill-formed ideas and transfer them
makes presenters think they can get away with an anemic effort? Maybe it’s
just arrogance – the “I’m a brilliant orator” syndrome. Your every word is
spellbinding. All it takes to beguile an audience is a procession of bullet
Charlie. You’re not in the same league as Demosthenes, Cato, and Bill
imagine your mother scolding, “Would you put so little oomph into an
interview or a sales call?”) How do those who are gilded-tongue-challenged
breathe life into a comatose presentation? How do you take a seedling of an
idea and nurture it into a ravishing garden, rich and unforgettable?
Simple. Steer clear of the Five Deadly Sins:
Rely on bullet points.
all agreed – in the worst presentations, the presenter simply reads the
bullet points off the screen. The presentation becomes a crutch, a prop to
avoid the audience and, God forbid, ad lib. The presenter? He or she may as
well be a mannequin: wooden, unsure, inept. And the presentation? No
imagination. No desire to draw in the audience.
you consider all the options available to colorfully convey information,
it’s baffling for someone to resort to a clinical, antiseptic report. (My
theory: bullet-point proponents inhabit a survival-of-the-fittest world
where emotional/evocative = weak.) To transcend the rote and robotic, the
the subject from an odd angle
– We’ve all sat through movies where you know what the entire film will be
about after the first five minutes. We sit through the rest to see if our
assumptions are correct (they invariably are). This is the appeal behind
horror movies – that they won’t be predictable. The thrill of the
unforeseen. Startle me. Frighten me. (But never grab my ankle at the end of
Carrie, as someone once did.) Granted, the presentation still has to
be cohesive. If it isn’t – if the association with the topic seems arbitrary
or far-fetched – expect a frenzy of whispers in the audience: “Did I miss
something? What’s the connection?”
Mix it up
– Presentations thrive on variety: a couple slides with bullets, a cartoon,
another bullet slide, a graphic, a bullet slide, a bar chart, etc. Your
goal: keep surprising your audience. Pacing and rhythm are key. It’s easy to
add inexpensive photo images and cartoons; resources are close at hand
(bookmark gettyimages.com and cartoonbank.com) Why settle for a lecture that
makes watching paint dry shine in comparison when, for a few hundred
dollars, you can gussy up your presentation so it struts rather than
slouches. (For those who balk at spending money, who assert “It’s only a
presentation,” I say: “Yeah, and it’s only your reputation. What is that
readable – I
suppose the bullet-ridden presentation succeeds on one count: it allows the
audience to follow along (with the bouncing ball). The only problem in using
graphics is if they’re overly complex or if the text that accompanies them
is too tiny to read. Remember Ray Kroc’s admonition to “Keep It Simple,
Stupid.” Type should be minimal and large enough to decipher from the back
of the room (one exception: bar charts, which may have small labels
identifying the bars but should have a readily readable heading)
spice up presentations, I use a technique I call the “cinematic intro.” This
opening sequence – set on automatic advance – establishes the dilemma and
tone. For example, I kicked off a presentation on outsourcing with the
History of Outsourcing
- 2500 B.C. –
Up to 100,000 non-Egyptians used to build the pyramids [image of pyramids]
- 400 A.D. –
Less than 5% of Rome’s soldiers are Italian [bas relief of Roman soldiers in
- 1664 – The
Dutch East India Company operates fleet of 150 merchant ships and trading
posts around the world [image of galleon at sea]
- 1868 – 2,500
Chinese laborers help build the transcontinental railroad [sepia-toned image
- 2002 –
Forrester Research predicts 3.3 million jobs will move offshore by 2015
[image of rows of Chinese workers in assembly plant]
- The day after
tomorrow… will your workplace look like this? [images of empty offices and
- The day after
tomorrow… What will your business be? What will your objectives be? What
mission critical skills will you need?
- Beyond the
Horizon – Putting Offshoring in Perspective [title slide]
space of several slides, you’ve shown you’ve done your homework (that
outsourcing isn’t a new phenomenon, despite all the sensationalistic
stories) and you pose the core problem: Will all your work go overseas? How
do you decide what stays and what goes?
Make it relentlessly sober.
Sin goes hand-in-glove with the first one. For some of us, hell is sitting
through an endless conference, one soporific presentation after another.
Where’s the passion? The wit? The humor?
“Passion? Wit? Humor?” you gasp. “Blasphemy!” No. Marketing. You can subject
your audience to the equivalent of a mind-numbing Latin lesson. Or you can
have them exclaim, “Wow, a presentation can be entertaining? I’ll have to
postpone my nap till I’m back at the hotel.”
presentations all tend to look and sound the same? Presenters feel there’s
only one way to make the proper – objective, measured, staid – impression.
They feel a driving need to emulate a dispassionate newscaster (after all,
that’s the definition of “professional,” right?). They believe that to use
humor would be to lose credibility. That anything less than a poker-face
would undercut the seriousness of the subject.
who said the subject was so serious?
this: find a risk-taker in your company (this will be one of the smartest
people in the firm, an individual you’d want to ally yourself with anyway).
At one company where I worked, this happened to be an attorney who, on the
face of it, might seem to be the last person to champion a “wild and crazy”
presentation (how often do jovial and innovative come to mind
when you think of the legal profession?). This consultant, though, had been
through enough interchangeable presentations, and had such an appreciation
of marketing, that he longed for something different.
result: a presentation titled – “Death by Documents” – that got IRS agents
laughing (though, admittedly, that could be one of the signs of the
not saying you have to be a stand-up comic or orchestrate a manic, dazzling
lightshow (“Step right up. See graphics that shrink and swell, words that
scroll and spin.”). I’m not pushing “All flash, no substance.” I’m not
advocating a one-note approach at either end of the spectrum. As Roger Ebert
observed in a recent review: “action does not equal interest. Objects
endlessly in motion are as repetitive as objects forever at rest.”
Believe me: your audience will remember the presentation imbued with a
singular, human voice. Instead of a “Fugue in Four Parts,” many presenters
compose “A Precis for Sleep-walkers.” Try a spry cantata. It’ll get your
audience on their feet.
Showcase the self-evident.
many presentations – like too many books, articles, etc. – state the
obvious. In most cases, you’re standing before an audience of seasoned
professionals. Do you think they carved out time from their busy schedules
to listen to trite observations?
don’t know about you, but I want to watch someone who’s vivacious,
wide-read, bursting with ideas. Out of respect for your attendees, have
something fresh and insightful to say. (I’ve seen presentations in which
people basically summarize findings from a book. Heck, in a fraction of the
time I could’ve gleaned as much from the book jacket.)
Discuss the topic in a broader context. Link it to other disciplines. In
Metaphorically Selling, Anne Miller refers to “observers and
connectors.” Miller describes them as “curious beings who notice and
register everything around them all the time. They can see similarities in
ostensibly dissimilar things. They can connect seemingly unrelated ideas and
concepts to new situations.”
the authority, the thought leader. Put some thought into it. Craft a
presentation as unique as you are.
Use clashing graphics.
visually schizophrenic presentation, a mish-mash of styles, can prove
grating to your audience. (They could end up paying more attention to the
clashing graphics clash than the compelling content.) Maintain a single
style throughout – if you’re using black-and-white photos, stick with
black-and-white; if you’re using retro images, stick with retro. And, for
heaven’s sake, never use clip art.
Forget to proofread it.
the work you put into a presentation can be thrown out the window if there
are errors in formatting, grammar, or punctuation. It goes without saying:
get someone competent to proofread the thing. The most frequent offenders
are inconsistent use of capitalization, commas, and periods (typos are
seeing millions of print and TV ads, your audience is attuned to every
nuance. They will register the slightest misstep. And your credibility will
crumble like a house of cards.
how does all this tie into The Saddest Music in the World? In many
ways, Guy Maddin makes silent movies with a skewed vision. In many ways,
this is what a good presentation is. Devilish. Diverse. Distinctive.
presentation is a lot like directing a movie. The beauty is that you don’t
need a 30-person crew to do it. What you do need is daring,
creativity, and intelligence.
Presentations have been straitjacketed for so long, many companies can’t
conceive of anything outside the norm. Take comfort: presentations are an
area of boundless opportunity. The audience is in the palm of your hand. Get
their adrenaline pumping. This is an amusement park ride, a carnival
funhouse. Make them shriek. Make them wonder “What’s lurking around the next
get me wrong: presentations have a very serious side. With every
presentation, you’re in competition – competing for business. Unlike The
Saddest Music in the World, you don’t have a single judge but a roomful
The Saddest Music in the World reaches its conclusion, a
conniving impresario bribes the one-legged Lady Port-Huntly with a glass
prosthesis. An artificial leg brimming with brewski.
presentation you’re working on isn’t a walk in the park. It’s your glass leg