Saturday, July 5, 2008

Presentation Design Dealing With The Prohibitor General

Writen by J. Douglas Jefferys

As part of the presentation skills training services our company provides, we ask participants to send copies of recent PowerPoint files they have created for our review and editing. Hence, we see literally thousands of slides each year. Very few do an acceptable job of aiding Knowledge Transfer.

In fact, in the 10 years we have been in business, we have seen a slow and steady degradation in the quality of on-screen visuals from all industries. No sector seems to be immune. As PowerPoint has grown to dominate the boardroom, ballroom, and even the classroom, its overall contribution to the persuasive arts has been continually diminished by its increasing misapplication.

Now before you start thinking that this is just one more rant against another evil product from Microsoft, hear this: Our firm not only believes that PowerPoint is a wonderful piece of software, we claim that, overall, it can serve the purposes of true knowledge transfer better than any other visual presentation tool available. And we don't blame the poor souls who create most of the incomprehensi we see – most businesspeople are simply issued a laptop and a copy of PowerPoint and ordered to go forth and multiply the company's revenues, with little or no thought to training them how best do so.

The real culprits here are found not in the field, but rather back in the main office, from whence, being at least once removed from the actually application of their misdeeds, THEY can comfortably issue edicts of what one shall and shall not do with the design and construction of presentation slides. If you've ever been subject to edicts handed down from the Department of Presentation Regulations, you know what we mean.

So when we see a slew of equally bad slides from different people in the same organization, we're fairly certain that the company has a slew of workers in a Presentation Regulations Department working feverishly to hamstring any attempt by an employee to make their slides understandable, much less compelling.

Our first such encounter with THEM was while training a large consumer products company in Pittsburgh, where class participants presented us with slides that for the most part looked like full-page Excel spreadsheets copied and condensed to (barely) fit within the projectable borders. Can you imagine how much fun it is to try to read 8 pt. Arial font that's been compressed lengthwise by, say, 20 percent?

Halfway into explaining why its best to not go much below 20 pt. type when projecting images at the current maximum resolution of 96 dpi, one student raised her hand to explain that they had to use very small type to get all the information they were expected to deliver in the maximum of 8 slides THEY allowed. In other words, Regulations had ordered a limit to the number of slides – not the number of minutes (a perfectly acceptable limit) one had to present.

When we redo a client's presentation to conform to the rules of comprehension, we often take 10 slides and turn them into, say, 24 – all for the purpose of being able to deliver the presentation less ambiguously, in less time. With properly designed visuals, there is usually an inverse relationship between the number of slides and the time it takes to deliver. Know this: keeping your presentations short is almost always a good thing. Few people ever complain that the presenter simply didn't drone on long enough.

After numerous inquires by both letter and phone, we discovered that the 8-slide maximum was part of a larger policy that, among other constraints, limited middle-managers to the number of slides they could present based on their company grade level. So managers in the 50-65 level could deliver 8 slides, 70-85's were allowed 12, 90's and above could have as many as 20. No mention of the harshness of the penalties for any transgression, but evidently nobody was willing to go head-to-head with the company's Prohibitor General. Amazingly, a few letters later we learned that the source of most of these dictates had actually left the company four years prior, but her successor was unwilling to mess with corporate policy.

And that, it seems, is how many of these immensely damaging protocols come from – people long removed from accountability, who together form that great entity THEY, by whom all things are denied.

Only after we were given the opportunity to present one of the redone presentations to an open-minded senior VP was the policy changed – but not without his using up some of his political capital to make it happen. (He has since left the company, too.)

Although we also believe that for purposes of branding, or, say, when an executive needs to get similar information on different topics from different direct reports, having consistency in presentation design throughout the company can be a good thing. Our argument is with those who command consistency over quality – and quality in presentation design is all about one thing: do the slides add to the process of knowledge transfer? For the most part we see slides that work diligently against knowledge transfer because they must first conform to protocols that only THEY can dream up. And to change policy, you first need to achieve the impossible: finding THEM.

As consultants we often work as agents of change within organizations, and sometimes that means stirring things up here and there. We believe that in large organizations its often more productive to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, so we urge participants in our classes to stand up to THEM, and create slides that persuade rather than simply conform. As often as not, THEY never discover the difference until its too late and the culture's already changed!

J. Douglas Jefferys is a principal at, a national consulting firm specializing in training businesses of all sizes to communicate for maximum efficiency. On-site classes, public seminars, and high-impact videos

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