Slide-making software has made it too easy to create presentations that underwhelm. There are more effective ways to make a point, says Ian Sanders.

Ever since slide-making software hit desktops in the 1990s, executives have struggled against sleep-inducing presentations with their garish colours, misaligned or illegible text pasted over images, and endless bullet points crammed onto a single slide. But one doesn’t need to go the lengths of Bill Gates, who at a TED talk on malaria released a jar of mosquitos into the room, to transform even the dullest corporate presentations. Instead, executives might try the following:

Get your audience working with you. Peter Welch, director of the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg, starts his presentations with a puzzle. ‘When the audience sees the graphic, it grabs their attention. It’s a much better opening than a slide entitled ‘budgetary frameworks and procurement decisions’ that might send everyone to sleep,’ he says. ‘If you get the timing right the audience solves the puzzle just as you get there.’ Involving the audience at the outset keeps everyone on their toes in anticipation of more challenges later on. Chris Barez-Brown, a motivational speaker and founder of Upping Your Elvis, asks his audience to construct and launch paper aeroplanes as a means to illustrate creative improvement.

Don’t rely on the software. PowerPoint and Keynote may be easy to use, but their default settings won’t inspire. Too often, little thought is given to layout or design from an audience perspective, with excessive text that is read out verbatim. So don’t always use the default format of a heading and round bullet points. Consider building your presentation around powerful images, using abstract photographs to illustrate concepts. If you are imparting complex information, include it in a separate hand-out that the audience can digest later. Caroline Goyder, author of ‘Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority’, believes that the fewer the slides, the clearer the message. ‘The cardinal sin is to think slides are your memory prompt. They are there to illuminate ideas for the audience. Keep them as simple as possible.’

Take your audience on a journey. Nancy Duarte says that a presentation should take the audience on a journey by creating dramatic tension between the status quo and a new vision. In her book ‘Resonate’ Ms Duarte examines former Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ presentation at the 2007 iPhone launch. Jobs built anticipation by asking his audience to think about three revolutionary products: the iPod, the phone and a breakthrough internet device. He asked them to imagine how things might be if these weren’t three separate products, but one. Then he revealed the brand new iPhone. Ms Duarte writes: ‘Jobs ends his presentation having enthusiastically moved his audience from what it is to what could be,’ inspiring a standing ovation.

Respond to the situation. Remember, you’re not always presenting in isolation. Tanya Boardman, co-founder of Catena Space, a UK technology and space-sector consultancy, recounts being allocated just five minutes at the end of the second day of the UK Space Conference. To stand out, she decided ‘to tell a lively story, with a touch of humour to wake people and take a step away from screens full of data.’ She was shortlisted as one of four finalists. It can be useful to know not only what your competition will say but also how they will present.

Prepare thoroughly. Although this applies to any speech, be sure not to ignore the presentational aspects. Caroline Goyder, author of Gravitas, advises executives to start with a blank sheet of paper and coloured pens. ‘Don’t plan on PowerPoint. Take the time to work out your angle on the information and find a compelling frame around it.’ Once you have a structure make time to rehearse. Ms Goyder advises you to practice at home, or ask a team member to watch you run through it at the office.

Ian Sanders is a creative consultant and storyteller. He’s the author of four books on work and business.

This article was written for FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance.
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