Building Good PowerPoint – Part 2 (Building Clear Arguments)

 I know you’ve been waiting with bated breath for Part 2 of 3 on PowerPoint, so here goes…

In my last post I laid out my position that PowerPoint is perhaps not ideal, but isn’t quite as awful as many of its critics point out. I don’t intend to pick a straw man to tear down here. I agree that SmartArt and other PPT templates are brutal. Giving them to people who don’t know what they are doing can result in the embarrassing (and worse – unclear and/or deceptive) presentations that Edward Tufte brutalizes in his essay I mentioned last time..

 I don’t think I’m that far from many of them, but having lived in a corporate environment for many years, I guess I am willing to accept certain tools as given. I haven’t seen lots of situations where you get to control the format of your content. So what is the real problem and what can we do to be better? (as Teddy Roosevelt said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”)

As I mentioned last time, it’s my observation that there is a cluster of more foundational problems many authors/presenters struggle with before PowerPoint even becomes an issue. PowerPoint may accentuate the problem, but it doesn’t cause it.

Problem 1 – People don’t know what the heck they are trying to say

When I teach classes or am coaching this subject, my first question is usually “what are you trying to say?” Too often this is followed by either “crickets chirping” (ie: awkward silence) or lots of words that don’t come to a single point.

To build a good (clear, concise and compelling) presentation you have to know what you are trying to say. As Mark Twain quipped “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

You can’t have 11 “main points”. It’s another way of saying you don’t have one. I love this line the Pixar movie The Incredibles that is (almost – humor me) related:

Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.

Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.

Substitute “points” for people and you get the message.

Problem 2 – People don’t know the mechanics of crafting a clear and compelling communication

Even if someone knows more or less what they are trying to say, I see them struggle with understanding the steps to go through to set up and support their point. There is a clear set of steps to go through that will produce better content than the average result I see in industry.

I liken this to advice an art teacher offered dismissing peoples’ complaints that they weren’t good artists. His comment was something to the effect that “not everyone can be an ‘artist’, but everyone can be a ‘drawer’.” My takeaway from this is that we can all get better and at a minimum strive for clarity.

My goal

In my mind, the goal here is to get better and perhaps get very good. At a minimum, however, we want to be “competent”. I assume we all want people to understand what you are trying to say, see your argument/support and be able to respond intelligently to it. Hopefully they’ll agree, but even if they don’t they’ll understand why they don’t.

I am NOT trying to make this a post on true “storytelling” or advanced presentation development. There are shelves in the library on this (some of which I reference later). I’m also not trying to comment on presenting the story. The point here is on the basic construction of the logic/message – and then rendering it in PowerPoint.

I will walk through a simple process, using a Storyline Template I use with my students and clients.

Step 1 – Determine message (What’s my point?”)

It’s as simple as “knowing what you’re trying to say”.

I know this will sound snarky, but really this is just a matter of sitting down and understanding your material and your audience. I ask my consultants to explicitly work through the template above. It’s remarkably simple. Having said that, it’s hard to have the discipline to do it. (Many of us want to lose weight and I know what I need to do. Still, I ate dessert last night and (not) shockingly!… I didn’t lose weight yesterday.)

Aside: It’s so simple (as is my overall message) that a faculty colleague teased me about it several years ago. The discussion went something like:

Colleague: “These are MBAs, this is too simple for them.”

Me:  “How many well constructed and delivered presentations have you seen?”

Colleague: (pausing, thinking) “Maybe it’s worth sharing…”

We still joke about it and he’s become a “true believer” in the power of simplicity.

So how do you do it?

I’m going to take a “base case” that assumes you are making some sort of presentation on content you have worked on extensively, have good knowledge of and that you are trying to persuade. (Note: These are important assumptions, as goals and context will vary extensively.)

You can work “bottom up” (what’s all the information you have, how does it group and what conclusions does that lead to?) or “top down” (what’s your point, how do you support with data). Most people tend to use both methods as they work through their story.

Either way, I STRONGLY recommend you put in print what you are trying to say before you get into PowerPoint. People tend to become slide jockeys and miss their point. Forcing yourself to articulate your points in and of itself brings clarity by forcing you to articulate complete thoughts. It also exposes logic gaps.

Step 2 – Analyze audience (or “how should I say it”?)

Understanding who you are talking to is critical in both crafting your content and delivering it. I’ll focus on building it. Key questions include:

  • Who are you trying to convince? Be clear in your own mind, because it will shape your content. For example – asking investors for money is different than training a group on a new process. Different goals, motivations and thought processes.
  • How do they think? Be clear on cognitive style and basic assumptions. This plays into both what you choose to say and how you say it. For example – Large companies have clear styles and expectations around delivery. Professionals from different functions have different concerns and interests based on their training. The controller wants different content and evidence than the marketer etc.  
  • What motivates them? This isn’t about their mental models; this is about “what’s in it for them?” You need to understand the political context into which you are offering your material.

Step 3 – Build outline (storyboard)

Once you have a sense of what you’re trying to say and to whom, you need to flesh out your argument. I am a big believer in doing this in complete sentences. The template I provide shouldn’t have 3 word thought fragments in it.

There’s a great Harvard Business Review article a former professor of mine co-authored and taught from when I was in school. “Strategic Stories: How 3M Is Rewriting Business Planning” emphasizes the power of being specific and laying out complete thoughts. I was fortunate to get this point early and have taken it to heart.

Step 4 – Flesh out storyboard & support with evidence

This effectively means “build out your slides”, but I want to comment on the importance of clear and validated evidence. A great story with no evidence is a waste of time and may yield a really painful meeting as vultures circle.

The evidence you need is completely dependent on your context and story. I see too many people settle for or try to propagate weak or non-existent evidence. It’s my sense that this is typically more driven by lack of experience or laziness more than cynicism. But the end result is the same. Poorly supported proposals.

Let me ask you this: If you don’t have good evidence to support your business plan pitch, then why are you presenting and do you really want to commit to the numbers you’re putting forward???

Good and clear evidence does several things:

  • Builds confidence in your audience. You are more credible and they’ll believe you.
  • Eliminates/reduces wasted time in the presentation. If you anticipate questions and have addressed them you are better controlling the interaction.
  • Makes your material readable. One thing I don’t see people talk enough about is how often the “deck” intended as a presentation becomes a written document. It gets emailed around and you aren’t there to “speak to it”. So it better “speak for itself” and be clear. This doesn’t mean your slides should be insanely text heavy. It just means you need clear take-aways, good charts/data and clear citations/sourcing.

I will delve into this more next time when talking strictly about slide production, but I see people struggle to even understand what their evidence means in some situations.

Step 5 – Test your content and revise

It is critical that you review content with as many stakeholders as much as possible before calling your presentation “done”. There are no “good surprises” in this context. I’m all about eliminating drama.

I have worked with folks who saw this as “stealing thunder” or sapping energy from the pitch. I don’t get it. I suppose there are times when you want to surprise, but not in most business communication. Particularly when making complex arguments that require buy-in, you need to get people on board, integrate their feedback into your content and give everyone time to process in advance. This also makes the meeting more efficient and gives you insight on people’s positions. Think of it as late stage stakeholder management.

Conclusion

This basic logic structure is pretty foundational and not at all original. I always joke that we’re just putting more color commentary around the basic 5 paragraph essay I was drilled on in grade school. The challenge isn’t the concept, it’s actually doing it.

I also think these basic concepts “scale” very effectively. By this I mean they can work on a cocktail napkin outlining something at the bar or for building out basic logic on a very complex story. There are myriad different contexts, but I find these principles apply universally.

Tell me some stories or ask me a question.

Resources

Garr Reynolds – presentationzen & http://www.presentationzen.blogs.com/

Chip & Dan Heath – Made to Stick & http://heathbrothers.com/

Barbara Minto – The Minto Pyramid Principle

Next time I’ll focus on Part 3, building better slides.

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