What the Spartan Sprint taught me about presenting

August 15, 2012

Laura after the Spartan SprintOn August 11, I participated in the Spartan Sprint, an obstacle course of a little more than three miles that test the limits of one’s endurance. The Sprint is the entry-level race, and if you survive that you can graduate to the Super Spartan, attempt the Spartan Beast, or really indulge your masochistic side in the charmingly named Death Race. But I digress.

The reason I entered is because at a community event in May one of my friends asked me if I wanted to join his team. At that point, I had become a real couch potato. I’d let my gym membership lapse and I had come up with all kinds of excuses about why I didn’t have any time to exercise. But something about the challenge sparked my interest, so after a moment’s hesitation I agreed.

Interestingly enough, I was able to draw some parallels between preparing for the Spartan Sprint and preparing to give a presentation. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Preparation is key. One of my teammates didn’t do much training at all. Needless to say, he was gasping the entire way. My training consisted primarily of jogging about ten miles a week with nothing done to increase my upper-body strength. So while I was great at the running part of the race, I failed on the obstacles that relied on supporting my own weight, such as the monkey bars and shinnying up a rope. As a presenter, if you haven’t practiced until you can deliver your presentation flawlessly, if you don’t get to the venue first to set up and be ready when the first attendees arrive, or if you don’t tailor your presentation to your audience, chances are you’ll flop.
  • If you need help, ask. At one point in the race I got separated from my group and was confronted with a six-foot wall. Although I could just touch the top by jumping, I couldn’t pull myself up. But on a couple of occasions, another racer laced his fingers together and gave me some much-needed boosts. To bring this back to presenting, I recently spoke with Marcus Sheridan, The Sales Lion, and asked his advice about how to respond to a client’s request to record my Cheating Death by PowerPoint presentation. I also posted the question on the LinkedIn group “Public Speaking Network.” I got a lot of great recommendations from everyone I asked, and they were all happy to help.
  • Expect the unexpected, and always have a Plan B. I knew there were many obstacles in the race, but these were all hidden from view of the start and finish lines. The race planners anticipated that not every racer would successfully complete every obstacle, so the penalty for failure or not trying at all was 30 burpees per failure/avoidance. If you’re presenting and the power goes out, would you still be able to perform even without your PowerPoint deck? If somebody asks you a question you can’t answer, what do you say? Get your Plan B together.
  • Dive in. I barely had to think about it when I was invited to participate. At the time I knew there’d be a lot of hard work to prepare for the race and that I’d have to radically change my routine to make it happen. But I jumped into the unknown and came out of it a better person. Same as you when you’re presenting. Don’t show any hesitation or signs that you are nervous about getting started. If you know your topic, it will come naturally if you take the first step and just start talking.

Take a chance, explore the unknown, and ask for help when you need it. Sometimes the limits to your abilities are just in your head, and when the rubber meets the road, you’ll find that you really shine.

Egocentric PowerPoints fail the “WIIFM?” test

June 11, 2012

What's in it for me?The other day, a friend of mine wanted my advice on pricing the redesign of her client’s pitch deck, the initial presentation shown to a prospect to get hired. When I opened the presentation, my jaw literally dropped because it was an 11-page résumé in 16-point type sandwiched between a title slide and a closing slide. And the closing slide didn’t even have any contact information.

My friend’s client seems to believe something similar to the Field of Dreams maxim: “If you build it, they will come.” In his case it was “If I tell people how great my company is, they will hire us.” But this is a terrible approach.

When you focus entirely on your own qualifications, education, and achievements you’re not necessarily demonstrating your worth. Instead, you’re bombarding your audience with data about how great you are while ignoring issues they may be facing. The focus has to be on the audience and address the big question that’s on everyone’s mind: “What’s in it for me?”

In marketing we speak of “client pains” — problems the client has — and how to solve them. The best marketing addresses these pains directly (“Are you tired of paying too much for cable?” “Been in an accident?” “You could save over $475 on car insurance!”). It can be even more effective if you’re able to reveal pains the client didn’t know he had which could cause problems later on. By providing solutions to these pains, the savvy marketer positions himself as the only logical choice for the client.  Addressing and solving client pains is client-centric, not egocentric, which is what great marketing should be. What’s in it for me? You could save money, increase efficiency, live longer, be happier, lower your risk, etc. etc. etc.

To be fair, the client approached my friend because he recognized that his deck was unattractive. And as everybody knows, admitting you have a problem is the first step to overcoming it. But redesigning this deck would’ve been like putting lipstick on a pig because it was entirely presenter-focused.

What can help for this type of presentation when you’re trying to get someone to hire you based on your credentials?

  • Client testimonials: Ask satisfied clients to described how you helped them to save money, finish a task in record time, avoid red tape, etc. Would they rehire you? If so, quote them on it!
  • Highlight benefits of certifications: If you’re certified or trained in a particular specialty, how does that save your client money? Ensure the success of the project? Prevent rework?
  • Photos of completed projects: A picture speaks a thousand words.
  • Success stories: You don’t need full-blown case studies, just some anecdotes about how you helped your clients to solve their problems.
  • Relevant companies you’ve worked with: Focus on companies you’ve worked with that are similar to your audience’s.

Remember, the presentation is always about the audience, not about the presenter. Always focusing on the “What’s in it for me?” question will help you stay on track to create presentations that really mean something to your audience.

Your turn

Have you ever been to an egocentric presentation? What was it like? Have you ever delivered one?

Good presentations start with good scripts

May 31, 2012

ScreenplayA gentleman once asked me to provide a quote on redoing a PowerPoint presentation. He provided a link to the presentation, which included a voiceover narration.  I had to explain to him that he’d be unhappy with the results if I just did the cosmetic fixes he’d asked for. Sure, the presentation would’ve looked better, but it wouldn’t have made it a better presentation. Redesigning the presentation in its current state would’ve done nothing to address the basic problem: the visuals didn’t match the script.

The script is what you as the presenter are going to say when you’re up in front of the audience, or what your narration will be on a mobile presentation. Some people create PowerPoint presentations first then write the script to match the visuals. This is absolutely the opposite approach you should take. Think about how all movies start with a script. It would be absurd to shoot a movie without one. Just as it’s absurd to create a PowerPoint presentation before you write your script.

The script is what drives the PowerPoint visuals. It tells you what words, if any, to use on each slide and suggests images that would help to convey your message. It can also suggest the use of animation to emphasize or illustrate key points.

PowerPoint presentations should enhance good storytelling. And you don’t get good storytelling without a good script. So here’s a simple graphic to remind you of the correct four-step sequence you should follow when creating your next PowerPoint presentation:

PowerPoint process

Your turn

Do you write your script before you design your PowerPoint presentations? If so, how well has that worked for you?

Six reasons you should pay for PowerPoint design

March 12, 2012
A very ugly PowerPoint slideI make a lot of prospecting calls to tell people about my presentation design services and to ask for their business, so I hear many variations on “We don’t want any,” such as, “We already have a template,” “We do all of our PowerPoint in house,” and “My admin takes care of that.” Maybe you are thinking along the same lines as you read this. But sometimes it can be beneficial to look for a presentation design specialist outside one’s organization. Here are six good reasons why:

1. Your time is valuable.

Do you change the oil in your car? I don’t. Sure, I might save a few bucks doing it myself, but it’s much more convenient for me to bring the car to the shop. They perform this service all day every day and have developed work processes to speed things along quickly. Even a simple job like this might take me two hours, including finding all the proper tools, doing the actual work, and locating a place that will take the used oil.

If you don’t use PowerPoint all day every day, there are probably a few things that hold you up, that take a while to figure out. The thing is, every minute that you spend working with technology you’re not thoroughly familiar with is a minute you’re not making money for your company. You hire specialists for other business areas, why not presentation design?

2. Good design communicates ideas better than poor design.

I’ve worked with a lot of people who are professionals in their respective careers. They are really good at what they do and they know their stuff, as is evidenced by the wealth of text and data they stuff into their presentations. But slides full of text, bullet points, busy charts, and complicated tables require an audience to spend too much time sorting through information and not enough time paying attention to the presenter. Even the best ideas get lost in the confusion.

Presentation designers can transform boring data into effective infographics, find and use photographs that do a better job of communicating than bullet points, and ensure that your deck looks like the rest of your marketing materials, thereby strengthening your brand.

3. You don’t want a bored audience.

How exciting is a slide full of text? It’s like watching paint dry, right? Loading up slides with text might make it easier to remember what to say, but it’s miserable for the audience. They’re too busy reading slides to listen to the presenter or, worse, they’re seething because they know how to read so they resent this huge waste of their time.

Do you think a roomful of irritated people will want to fund a venture? Buy a product or service? Attend a class? Probably not.

4. Designers have created the other components of your marketing mix.

Logos, websites, catalogs, data sheets, business cards, uniforms, vehicle graphics, brochures…these are all components of a company’s marketing mix. All of these were likely created by professional designers to create a cohesive brand. By using off-the-shelf PowerPoint templates and default colors, you introduce a jarring element that detracts from your brand and can make you look unprofessional.

5. Well-designed presentations make you look better prepared.

Presenters who read off of their slides are viewed as time-wasters who don’t know what they’re talking about. If you were presenting and the power suddenly went out, would you be able to continue? Do you know your presentation so well that you could keep talking? You should.

6. Other companies are doing it.

Smart companies invest in their marketing to create cohesive brands and messaging. Al Gore didn’t design his own slides for An Inconvenient Truth, they were created by a presentation design agency. And I’m guessing that Steve Jobs didn’t create his iconic presentations himself.

Professional presentation design gives you an edge over your competition. A presentation designer can create a stunning deck using the latest techniques of animation, video, and audio enhancement. The designer can also let you know when less is more.

Your turn

Do you create your own PowerPoint presentations or do you hire out? What about your keynote, annual meeting, and conference presentations?

Do you read your PowerPoint slides to the audience? Knock it off!

March 2, 2012

Tweets about boring PowerPointAccording to a recent survey conducted by PowerPoint designer Dave Paradi, the number-one PowerPoint annoyance is when presenters read their slides to the audience. In fact, “reading from the slides” has been one of the top five most annoying PowerPoint habits since he started conducting this survey in 2003! So why do people continue to do it? It’s simple.

Presenters read from their slides because they are unprepared.

Do Broadway stars read from scripts on opening night? Did Steve Jobs have a fistful of index cards at the ready during his legendary Apple keynotes? Of course not. Great presenters know what they’re talking about, know their lines, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!

If you are guilty of reading to your audience from your slides, stop it right now. Though they might not come right out and say it, inwardly they’re seething, counting down the seconds until the end of your presentation, and tweeting snarky comments about #DeathByPowerPoint.

Why you shouldn’t read from your slides

If consistent survey results over the past nine years and nasty anti-PowerPoint posts in Twitter don’t convince you, here are five more reasons you shouldn’t be reading from your deck:

  1. You look unprepared. The only reason to read from a PowerPoint slide is if you don’t already know what’s on it. If you don’t know your subject inside and out, then why are you presenting?
  2. You waste people’s time. If everything you want to communicate is on each and every slide, why are you asking people to give up the time it takes to attend your presentation and listen to you read? Wasting people’s time costs money—estimate the hourly salary of each attendee in your presentation, add it together, then multiply that amount by how long it takes to read your deck to them. Do the world a favor and if you’re gonna stuff all your text into your deck (which you shouldn’t do, by the way), just email it to people. They read the deck on their own time and get your message. Maybe.
  3. You waste your own time. You have a captive audience in the room with you, listening in silence to your every word. Don’t blow this golden opportunity to tell your story, to lead people to the conclusions you want them to reach, to add your perspective and insights, and—most importantly—to engage with your audience.
  4. Your slides look ugly. PowerPoint is a visual medium. When you cram loads of text onto a slide, it just looks bad.
  5. You look stupid. The bottom line is that if all you do is read your slides to the audience, you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Your turn

Have you ever sat through a boring presentation where the presenter reads directly from his slides? If you have read from your own slides to an audience, why did you do it and what was their reaction?

PowerPoint vs. Prezi: Which is better?

January 17, 2012

PowerPoint vs. PreziThroughout history, there have been many great rivalries: Red Sox vs. Yankees, Coke vs. Pepsi, Mac vs. PC. In the battle for the hearts and minds of the presentation community, perhaps there is no greater clash than PowerPoint vs. Prezi.

Up-and-comer Prezi brings its A-game to the fight. It’s nimble and dynamic. You can do lots of cool presentation effects with it. Your presentation lives in The Cloud. You don’t need to buy any software. It isn’t PowerPoint.

Grizzled veteran PowerPoint is putting up quite a fight, though. With its robust animation and multimedia tools, it’s possible to create presentations that look like movies. It has some great drawing and photo manipulation tools. You can output decks as video files or, using a site like Brainshark, create standalone presentations with sound and animation.

Is it possible to create dynamic, kinetic presentations in PowerPoint? Absolutely.

And here are two examples of some killer Prezi shows:

PowerPoint and Prezi do have something in common, though. You have to approach each project with a solid foundation, whether it be an outline, a storyboard, or a script. With all of the whiz-bang effects that each tool offers, it’s easy to focus on the medium rather than the message, which is absolutely the wrong approach. Sometimes Prezi shows move so much I have to shut my eyes to keep from getting motion sick. And if I have to sit through another PowerPoint deck that uses Bounce animation to bring in bullet points…

So, which is better, PowerPoint or Prezi? It’s simple: the better product is the one you’re most comfortable using and which helps you to be a better communicator. If you’re used to PowerPoint and can use it to create strong presentations, then PowerPoint is better. If the bold swoops, zooms and pans that are the hallmark of a Prezi show drive home your message, then Prezi is better.

Keep your eyes on the prize — audience engagement and acceptance of your message. Don’t get carried away with needless special effects and make sure your message is the most important thing that audiences get from your presentations. That’s the knockout punch.

Three steps to becoming a Thought Leader

January 6, 2012

Laura Foley, presentation thought leaderThought leadership is a relatively new term that describes being known for one’s expertise on a certain topic. A thought leader is seen as a visionary, someone with ideas that can improve the way things are done.

Yesterday I officially became a thought leader.

Become a PowerPoint Ninja in 2012 is an article on the Brainshark blog about how to use industry best practices to improve the way you look at PowerPoint and how you can make better use of this amazing tool. I am cited as a presentation thought leader among such experts as Nancy Duarte and M62. I didn’t expect it, but really it’s what I’ve been working towards ever since I restructured my business to focus mainly on PowerPoint design and training. All the blogging, commenting, and contributing to well-known websites has paid off, and now I am known as a presentation thought leader.

Can you do the same thing for yourself? Sure, if you want to work for it. Here’s how I made it happen:

1. Focus!

When I first became a graphic designer, I did all kinds of work: prepress, newspaper layout, corporate identity development, Web designer, icon developer, marketing materials, catalog design, etc. etc. etc. I was one designer among millions. What set me apart from the rest in my own mind were my skills, my strong work ethic, and my ability to deliver on time. But what set me apart from the crowd as far as the marketplace was concerned?

Nothing. To everyone else, I was just another Joe Schmoe graphic designer.

In 2009 I decided to become the best, most sought-after PowerPoint designer in the world. Aim high, right? Concentrating on one thing I’m good at, something that gives me great pleasure to accomplish made it easier to reposition myself as an expert.

I came up with a catchy phrase for what I do — Cheating Death by PowerPoint — to define my business to myself and others.

2. Ramp up the social media machine

After I refocused my business, it was time to tell the world.

I spend about a half an hour on social media pursuits every day, except on blog and newsletter days, when I might spend an hour or so preparing new articles or issues.

3. Share the wealth

After my repositioning, it was time to prove to the world that I know what I’m talking about and that what I have to say can help people improve the way they communicate with PowerPoint and achieve the results they want. As they say in BNI, “Givers gain,” so I do this by:

I won’t lie to you; it’s a lot of work doing all of this in order to position oneself as a thought leader. But if you’re passionate about what you do and want to help others to be as good at it as you are, then that’s half the battle won already.

Your Turn

Is being seen as a thought leader important to you? If so, what have you done or will you do in 2012 to become one?

Should my logo be on each PowerPoint slide? No.

October 16, 2011

I'm Bob Jones of Bob Jones InvestmentsNow, I know you’re probably thinking along one of these lines:

“We paid a lot of money for that logo, and I want people to see it!”

“I’m reinforcing my company’s brand by showing my logo on each slide.”

“That’s the way our template was designed.”

I would counter that if you start and end strongly during your presentation, with a good title slide that has your logo on it and an ending slide with your logo and contact information, then people aren’t going to suddenly forget that they’re at the XYZ Company presentation during slides 2-48.

Branding has many aspects; logos are just a part of it. A company’s brand identity comes across in the designs they choose, the typography, the style of photographs and/or illustrations, the color palette, the type of messaging they employ (e.g., playful, serious, trustworthy, irreverent), their jingle, uniforms or clothing color, etc. etc. etc. These things come into play in all components of a company’s marketing mix, including the PowerPoint presentations.

Need more convincing? Well, let’s think of the logo-on-every-slide deck as a real-life conversation:

“Hello there, I’m Bob Jones of Bob Jones Investments. Thanks for visiting Bob Jones Investments today! I’m Bob Jones of Bob Jones Investments. How can I help you? I’m Bob Jones of Bob Jones Investments. I specialize in retirement planning. I’m Bob Jones of Bob Jones Investments.”

You see what I’m getting at here? People don’t need a constant reminder of where they are, who you are, why they came there, and what company you’re from.

You need more convincing? Well, how about this: your logo’s taking up a lot of real estate on the slide, room that could otherwise be used to get your message across.

Slides with and without logo in footer

Take a look at the slide on the left. Because the logo is part of the footer and must remain separate from other slide elements, it is taking up about a quarter of the slide! It’s competing visually for our attention with the graph because of the clashing colors and all that white space surrounding it.

In the slide on the right, the logo is gone so the graph can be bigger, placing the emphasis on the data.

So, not insulting the intelligence of your audience and having more room for important information on each slide. Pretty compelling reasons not to put your logo on every single slide, eh?

Your Turn

What do you think? Is it important for you to have your company’s logo on every slide in the deck? Why or why not?

How much text on a slide is too much?

October 6, 2011

Minimalist slide

It’s surprising how many presenters equate loads of text on a slide with effective information transfer. Some people believe that if they include every last scrap of data on the subject they’re presenting that their audience will become as knowledgeable as they are. News flash: it doesn’t work.

People do not attend presentations to read, they do so to learn. And you are the teacher.

In Don’t Make Me Think, required reading for anybody who deals in information design, Steve Krug writes about the attention span of a typical Web user. It’s minimal. People often visit Web sites with a specific purpose in mind: learning more about a product, getting somebody’s contact information, and comparing prices, for example. They don’t want to mine for information, it needs to be readily available and immediately apparent to the most casual observer. So Web designers must make it easy for people to accomplish these tasks. This book explains how it’s done.

The same principle is true for PowerPoint. You have to make your message really obvious to your audience. When you cram tons of text onto a slide you are making people work too hard because instead of listening to you they’re reading. The slow readers will be frustrated if you advance the slide too soon and the fast readers will be waiting for you to catch up. Either way, you’re shifting focus away from the main reason people have for being in the room: listening to you.

Here are two popular rules for PowerPoint design to get you started on the concept of Less is More.

  • The Takahashi Method: Invented by Japanese computer programmer Masayoshi Takahashi, this style is characterized by stark white slides with large black text like the slide at the top of this page. There is only room for a few words, so once the audience has read them all of the attention must focus on the presenter. Read Garr Reynold’s blog post, Living large: “Takahashi Method” uses king-sized text as a visual, for more information.
  • The 10/20/30 Rule: Marketing evangelist Guy Kawasaki came up with this formula for making PowerPoint presentations easier for an audience to view. 10: The optimal number of slides in a presentation / 20: The number of minutes your presentation should last / 30: The minimum point size of text on each slide. Read Guy Kawasaki’s blog post, The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint for more details.

These rules are not hard-and-fast and there may be some instances where you need to have more than two words on a slide or ten slides in a presentation. But keep them in mind and always strive for simplicity. Your audience will thank you.

Your Turn

Do you use lots of text on your slides? If so, why? Has either the Takahashi Method or Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 Rule changed the way you create slides?

What is the number-one PowerPoint annoyance?

October 4, 2011

The history of the PBJ

If you think that a core dump and recitation of your entire store of knowledge on a particular subject makes for a captivating PowerPoint presentation, think again. According to a survey conducted by renowned PowerPoint expert Dave Paradi, a whopping 73.8% of the 603 respondents chose “The speaker read the slides to us” as the number-one most annoying thing that can happen at a presentation.

There’s a time and a place for reading things verbatim to an audience. As a matter of fact, I’ll be doing it all the time as a volunteer in my son’s Kindergarten classroom, where my audience will be learning to pair my vocalizations with those squiggly marks on the page. But when you do this to an audience of people who already know how to read, such as college students, seminar attendees, or the prospects you’re trying to win over, you are communicating very well. But you’re probably not sending the messages you think you are.

Here’s what you’re telling your audience by reading off of your slides during your presentation:

  1. I have no idea what I’m talking about. People will be able to tell if you’re doing a cold read off your slides, and they’ll conclude that you not only have no knowledge of your subject but you’re unprepared.
  2. I don’t value your time. In Galaxy Quest, a sci-fi comedy about a TV show much like Star Trek, Computer Officer Tawny Madison’s only job is to repeat what the computer says to the rest of the crew. At one point in the movie she yells that she knows her job is stupid, but it’s the only thing she does on the ship and she’s gonna keep on doing it. Similarly, if you aren’t improving the presentation experience then why are you in front of your audience? Why not save everyone’s time and just email the presentation to everybody? Oh, and by the way, create it in Word so at least you’ll have a little more control over formatting, page flow, and layout.
  3. I don’t have a compelling story. Some of the best presenters don’t use PowerPoint at all. (Yeah, I know: “GASP!”) But if you have a great story and are animated when you tell it, then you sure don’t need to read it to your audience. Memorize the fundamentals and then improvise each time you present, changing little details here and there but basically sticking to the script. Your knowledge and passion for the subject will stay with the audience a lot longer than ten bullet points per slide ever could.
  4. I need to use my deck as the handout. No you don’t. Your presentation is the teaser, the invitation to your audience to learn more. When they need more information, you can direct them to your Web site, send them documentation (professionally designed, of course), or schedule a one-on-one meeting.
  5. No, my boss said I have to use the deck as the handout. What, your boss hasn’t seen a TED talk? Ok, then put all your information into the Speaker Notes and distribute that. Then tell your boss to stop hassling you and let you do your job as a stunning presenter.

So stop reading and start communicating!

Read the interview with Dave Paradi on the Indezine blog to discover the other top four biggest PowerPoint annoyances.


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