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Slides Don’t Kill Presentations

August 19, 2009
at 12:00 pm PST

There has been a consistent thread of conversation lately about presentations, use of slides and how to work with guests on TV. My personal objective on TechWiseTV is for us to keep pushing the envelope on creativity so that we can ideally reshape the current notions of corporate video. Cisco, as a company, has been using video as a communications medium for quite some time but I am also seeing where we have developed many bad habits. I don’t think these are intentional actually…I think they are reflective of multiple realities. One awesome thing for a ‘communicator’ working at Cisco has been its early adoption of high quality video capture. We have been blessed with multiple high quality studios in San Jose (other locations outside the US as well), that will provide any person within Cisco have access to good lighting, sound, quality video capture, live streaming both internally and externally and fantastic people to help you simplify the process. Our studios continue to do a very good job of providing an easy to use platform for ‘telling your story.’ In the interest of time and fast moving objectives these resources are designed to easily accommodate the one crutch we have all grown to over-depend on however: PowerPoint Slides. The path of least resistance has become for us to try and replicate the way in which we present but to now put it on video. The result is a lot of boring video. The standard corporate look of two video windows -- one for the person reading their script to camera (much more on that subject later) and the other window for slides…lots of text and hopefully some helpful visuals. Sound familiar? This makes sense for reasons of efficiency but given a bit more time and understanding, the exact same tools can be used in a much more interesting fashion that will benefit the audience. I want to talk about this issue with slides however first. I have been accused of being ‘anti-slide’ lately when it comes to using them on TechWiseTV but that is not true and it hurts. I don’t hate slides.PLEASE UNDERSTANDI am not anti-slide. I am anti-boring. I love slides when used properly but I can’t tell you how many times I hear (all of us saying), ‘Send me that Presentation.’ Think about that for a moment. How do you ‘send’ a presentation? If you are still lost, let me give you an example:I love the whiteboard. Cisco Engineers taught me this as a salesperson in the field. I started at Cisco 10 years ago and I was in awe of the engineer who would simply engage the customer with questions and then as a confirmation tool that he was understanding their network/situation correctly, he or she would draw it out as they discussed it and ask great confirmation questions like, ‘did I get this right?.’ Then, after ‘seeking first to understand,’ the engineer would begin educating, layering options and solutions only after having gained agreement that everyone was looking at the proper visual representation of the situation. Inspired by this as a salesperson who was smart enough to shut up and let my engineer lead these conversations, I longed for the ability to work with my audience in that fashion. I am not an engineer but I felt like I could probably get more done if I communicated much of what I needed via interactive whiteboard discussion rather than pre-formatted slides. I can’t tell you how many times I heard an engineer tell a salesperson ‘put the pen down.’ ‘Step away from the whiteboard.’ ‘Nobody wants to get hurt.’ All of this actually very good and well intentioned advice. Many of us in sales can be dangerous. I was focused on our security technologies at the time however and I had worked up a whiteboard style model for telling our end to end security story that my audience was consistently telling me ‘made sense.’ I LOVED the flexibility of going to any meeting armed with nothing but a pen and maybe a napkin..and I felt powerful. I could tell a story to crowds large and small with a confidence and flexibility never before experienced. Sorry this sounds like a confessional…any engineers reading this are going ‘duh?” But here is where I learned something big..but it messed me up when I first heard it and it kinda popped my bubble: “Can you send me your Presentation?” What? What do you mean? So glad to hear that this is being well received..but how do I send it to you? I can present it to you…how does that sound? I began pursuing this question because it spoke to issues of scalability and communication. I could see the benefit of being able to accomplish this seemingly simple request…lets get this message in front of more people. Robb can’t present it everytime…who has that kind of time? Now many of these scalability challenges are exactly what we are chartered to tackle on TechWiseTV but this experience is what has taught me a really important distinction that many are missing when it comes to our typical slide-based way of communicating:SLIDES DON’T KILL PRESENTATIONS. PEOPLE KILL PRESENTATIONS.Slides should be reserved for Presenting. We (collectively) have slid (pun!) into a really bad habit of creating slides that are designed to be ‘read.’ In other words, step one for communicating something these days is to create a slide deck. And because you need this slide deck to be comprehensive, you load it up so that it can stand on its own. In reality, a slide deck should almost NEVER be able to stand on its own. It should be like a car without a driver. Beautiful car…but without a driver, it just sits there. If you want something to read…use a word processor. In the interest of time howoever…I do understand how people want to create ONE thing. They don’t want to write long hand (it takes a ton of time) and so they slather on the bullet points. (this is also a horrible practice from a brainstorming perspective due to the linear nature this forces you into…the slides should be created last in a creative process and only if needed). This reality can be a either a challenge or an opportunity. I work with a lot of very smart people that have some very good stories to tell. It is my job on Cisco’s TechWiseTV to help our guests get their message out the most impactful way possible. As a starting point for many people, I do find it helpful to ‘read’ their presentations as part of my preparation for jointly crafting their message into our TV based medium. And this is where I think it is very helpful to clarify what I would characterize as an important truth to keep in mind:RESPECT THE MEDIUMOur use of the TV medium and many of the story-telling tools we continue to refine on TechWIseTV mean that we can ideally do a lot of creative things. Just about every guest we work with is very well versed on the slide creation process and is overjoyed when they begin to digest the fact that slides are but ‘one’ tool in the bag. This is a video based medium and as such we need to take advantage of things like interactivity, movement, the ability to not show you static screen shots of a software interface but incorporate the hardware, the actual interaction with all of it, the ability to see things in context from multiple locations and angles, to whiteboard and annotate, to use animation and graphics that to illustrate things in more concise manner. I could go on and on. As I work to get people to loosen the death grip on their wordy presentations, I here a few rebuttals over and over:1. Slides are needed to get the content right. (Response: you better know your material…if you need much in the way of prompting…maybe you are not the right ‘expert.’). In fairness however, I do understand the need to get facts right, to properly represent material that is new or changing rapidly…no problem. But don’t confuse slides with NOTES. If you need a reminder or really want to hit your points cleanly…then use notes. There are multiple ways in TV land of using notes…one of which is simple note cards placed visually in front of you. There is ZERO disrespect in my mind for someone who looks down once in a while to consult their notes. Now, don’t start reading them to me…2. I need to put my script/slides in the tele-prompter. Three years of TechWiseTV and the other shows we get to work on have given me opportunity to work with ‘real’ TV people. Jonas Tichenor and Valerie St. John have been the professional hosts for TWTV over the years but we get to work with others too. I developed an unexpected respect for their skills when I began trying to use the prompter effectively. How hard could it be? Very. If you put everything in the prompter…you better be good at writing it with the intent to ‘speak it, not read it’. There is a huge difference. It is also very hard to come off and on tele-prompter smoothy and not come across shifty. We have multiple people to interact with, you want guests to feel comfortable and you want energy to be high. These are amazingly difficult skills to pull off without lots of practice. There are multiple ways to overcome these issues when working in with our guests…but I will get into them further on a future post. 3. The audience wants me to use slides so that they can download them after the presentation. I agree that all of us like to download a good slide deck that we just watched. But this is mainly because we are well trained to expect slides that are probably full of rich reading material. Lets not confuse objectives here however: what the audience wants are the details, the URLS for more info, the stuff that is hard to capture in notes or simply needs to be reconfirmed. Access to the visuals used in a presentation, etc. These are what I would call the ‘show notes.’ And yes, they should be used….but these are not slides! Much of the content may have started life as a slide but by this point the proper tool to use would not be the slide deck more than likely. I know I am singing to the choir on much of this. But I am amazed at how often this comes up. We live in an increasingly visual world and as the ability to do video based presentations increases please don’t hesitate to challenge yourself Think first about your objective. What is it that you want to communicate? What action does your audience need to take as a result of their interaction with you? If you are accustomed to ‘thinking’ with PowerPoint…no problem. I get that. But take that extra step to challenge yourself to pare it back and hone your focus properly for the medium and the objective. I would love your feedback. Pro or Con. There is a lot more to learn here and I am open to re-direction and new ideas. I have a lot more horror stories to share here and I would love to hear yours. What changes have you gone through in this regard? What have you found helpful for working with people to improve their presentation skills and tools? Robb

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3 Comments.


  1. Jimmy Ray Purser

    Slides suck! Fight the good fight Bro!

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  2. Robb Boyd

    Good points. One of the things I ended up developing was a comfort level with taking my core whiteboard message and doing a ton of builds all within one powerpoint slide. It was still way too linear but I could use it better with Webex and I would use links to hidden loops of slide detail behind this main architecture drawing so that detail could be pursed in a somewhat non-linear fashion. Not as flexible but better for some situations…and now I could send that kind of thing to Tina!

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  3. Robb Boyd

    Ron,I love Dan’s book. I have been through it twice and I am very intrigued by how he boils down the brainstorming process and the relatively few diagram types you can use to guide a group. I will check out these links too – thanks for sharing. If you don’t follow him already, check out Garr at http://www.presentationzen.com/. Presentation Zen is a great book along with Slideology.

       0 likes