Start With the Words

I recently got a call from a woman who sought my help to create a PowerPoint presentation as part of her senior thesis. Her biggest stumbling block was finding images to represent the topic of her presentation, the challenges of teaching English to non-native speakers quickly and effectively at Lackland Air Force Base. “Other people are doing presentations on topics that have lots of graphics that go along with them,” she lamented. “But my subject is language learning. What kind of graphic goes with that?” She was desperate to find the ideal images to go into her presentation because she knew she’d be just one of dozens of presenters that day. Each student would be given ten minutes to present and ten minutes to answer questions, and she believed that the right pictures would make her presentation stand apart from the rest.

I asked her if she’d ever looked at the TED Web site. “It’s required viewing for my class,” she responded. So at least she knew that a great presentation starts out with a great message. I recommended to her that she start by writing her script, and that the ideas for images would come after she had decided on what she wanted to say.

That’s when inspiration hit me. “You don’t happen to speak a foreign language, do you?”

“Yeah,” she answered, “French, Spanish, and Farsi.”

Bingo. I recommended that she start her presentation by telling the audience, in Farsi, that there was some sort of emergency going on nearby and that they had to quickly follow her orders to stay safe, and that she should get more and more agitated as people failed to respond or if they asked her what she was talking about. I told her that she should let the audience wonder what she was saying for a moment or two longer, then she should translate what she’d just said and introduce her main message: In a military setting it is essential that everyone under a chain of command clearly understands orders. A lack of understanding is problematic, and can even be deadly. Since the audience will just have experienced this, they will be eager to learn more.

This woman’s main problem was in trying to make her topic conform to her preconceived notion of what a PowerPoint presentation should look like. But for effective communication, it’s more important first to define the message, then to design a PowerPoint deck that supports it.

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