Trillions of dollars of lost productivity. This pandemic has led to immeasurable harm to our industry and our economy. We will never know exactly how much this pandemic will shave off of our nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) because of its impact across multiple industries. This pandemic has led to a massive amount of lost productivity and lethargy—literal sleepiness! What am I referring to? I am not referring to the pandemic that you may think. I am referring to the pandemic of what I call “PPT” or “Presenter Preferential Treatment.”
Now, what do I mean by presenter preferential treatment? In short, this is the presenter’s mindset of putting his/her own needs and convenience over that of those that are listening to the presentation. This can lead to a heavy reliance on pre-canned slides/material, rigidity, and an ineffective presentation. More on this in a bit.
For years I have been discussing this “pandemic.” Of course that terminology, which I have used for about a decade, is strong terminology. After all, what I am referring to is not a literal pandemic. However, I do passionately believe that the impact on one’s business over the long run can be equivalent to that business experiencing a disease. If your business relies on how effectively you communicate a message, and if your message is falling flat, I do not think it is too harsh to use the analogy of your business experiencing a serious illness.
Conversing Versus Presenting
In an environment (COVID-19) where many financial professionals that are reading this are now forced to “present” in a fashion that they are not used to—via video conference for example—I felt it was appropriate to discuss this topic. On many occasions over the years I have been told by financial professionals things like “I am not good in front of an audience, but in one-on-one settings I am fabulous.” Another way of saying that may be, “I am good with conversations, but I am not good at presenting.” If you are one of those folks, you may find value in this column.
There is something about conference calls and video calls (Zoom, Webinar, WebEx, etc.) that add an extra layer of formality to what would otherwise be a “conversation.” This means that for the folks that are maybe more comfortable with just a conversation, well you are now finding yourselves having to conduct your meetings in more of a “presentation” format. This column is designed to address that.
By the way, paradoxically, the best presentations are those that are conversational in nature. More on that in another column. My points below still hold true even if you are “conversing.”
To be clear, I have spoken about this PPT topic for years, and have also written about it, because I have observed many speakers in our highly technical and analytical industry that exhibit “room for improvement” in their talks. Lately, it has just become more important to address this issue with the new communication styles that COVID-19 has forced us to adopt.
By the way, this PPT issue is not just in the insurance/finance industry, it is everywhere! I have several friends that are executives in other industries and many times they complain about witnessing what I am referring to here. So, when I cite lost GDP as a result of this “pandemic,” I am not using hyperbole.
Technology Murdered the Communicator
Let me explain in more detail what Presenter Preferential Treatment is through the lens of a history lesson.
I believe that 50+ years ago the proportion of great communicators/presenters was higher than what it is today, largely because of the PPT that we have today. The reason has to do with technology!
Because there are certain information processing traits that all humans have in our DNA that will never go away with time, there are certain components that great presentations have that will never go away with time. A couple of examples would be storytelling, the power of humor, the power of presenter voice inflection, etc. And lastly, our tendencies to be visual learners! This leads me to the notion of “chalk at talk,” as Max Atkinson discusses in his book Lend Me Your Ears. That is, the power of explaining something while drawing visual diagrams simultaneously. Most of us are visual learners and by the presenter drawing visuals while simultaneously narrating his/her drawing, that can add great power to the presentation. Therefore, some of the best presentations you will experience will be with merely a flipchart or whiteboard. I have been laughed at a lot for my primitive whiteboard presentations, but there is science to why I do what I do!
Once upon a time the problem with “chalk and talk” was large audiences. If you were 100 feet back in the back of the room you could not read the whiteboard. Thankfully, this was addressed in the 1960s with the invention of the overhead projector. The overhead projector was great because it prolonged the life of “chalk and talk!”
For the really young folks reading this, the overhead projector allowed you to write with an erasable marker on acetate pages (transparencies), and as you wrote it would project that drawing on the same projector screens that we use today. Overhead projectors used light bulbs and shadows, like how I play finger shadow games with my kids on the wall. Back in the 60s and 70s this technology was great because it would allow professors or any other professional who was presenting to large audiences to draw pictorial items that were visually much larger than what that presenter could do with a chalkboard. Notice: I said, “pictorial items,” not words! Thus, if professionals were explaining something that could be easily drawn as a picture, it was displayed on as big a screen as you could buy.
Well, things started to go sideways in the 1970s and 1980s with the proliferation of printer technology that would allow you to preprint the acetate sheets. Now you had professionals/instructors that could very easily print a million sheets for one presentation. Furthermore, many times those sheets had way too much information on them. This meant that once all of those busy pre-printed sheets were thrown up during a presentation in rapid succession, audiences either experienced “death by a million transparencies” or they would read ahead to the other “preprinted content” on each respective sheet. Thus, the power of the instructor’s words was greatly diminished. Or the audience would experience sensory overload and just check out. Nap time!
Well, it evolved from there when, on May 22, 1990, Microsoft released an easier way for presenters to put their audiences to sleep—Microsoft PowerPoint! And that is when the pandemic of PPT spread like wildfire to where it is today. To be clear, I use PowerPoint a lot, just in the right way—to demonstrate points, not sentences!
As a result of the wonderful technological tools that we now have available, when used incorrectly you have the pandemic of PPT. That is, presenters relying on technology to make their jobs easier instead of going through the work of giving the audiences what they want. Afterall, isn’t it just “easier” and less stressful to just put together a beautiful PowerPoint presentation in your own time and have the presentation do the work of communicating the message for you? You would save time by not preparing your words, not learning the flow of your presentation, and not practicing your “chalk and talk” diagrams, right? Well, although easier, the PPT method is wrong. This tendency of presenters choosing his/her own comfort over the audience’s is what has made powerful communicators a rare commodity nowadays.
A Few Tips
To end this column I have some very quick tips, which at this point are likely obvious after reading the last 1,200 words. These tips you might find useful whether you are applying them to your newfound Zoom presentations or your “in person” presentations that you will someday be back to conducting.
- If it is what the audience wants, you must choose their needs over yours! Audiences do not want a gazillion PowerPoint slides, although having the PowerPoint deck do one’s job is “easier” for presenters. In a people business, people desire to connect with people, not a slideshow. Because of this desire, there is no way that even the most powerful PowerPoint deck could ever offset shortcomings in the presenter’s word and concept delivery. Going to the gym is painful for me, but I do it anyway! Think of this the same way.
- Get good with “Chalk and Talk.” As I tell the financial professionals that I have coached over the years, if you can speak to an audience for a couple of hours and keep them engaged while explaining complicated concepts (which our industry is full of) with just a whiteboard, you have hit the major leagues. I am not suggesting that you not use PowerPoint slides, I am just suggesting that I believe for many presentation settings (like Zoom Meetings), a whiteboard is more powerful if done correctly!
- If using PowerPoints, less is better! Although I love my whiteboard, I do use PowerPoints often. Paradoxically, you are competing for the audience’s attention when you use PowerPoint slides. Therefore, I believe if you are going to use PowerPoint slides there should be no more than one slide for every two minutes of speaking you do. Thus, if I am going to speak for an hour, you will rarely see me have more than 30 slides. I will likely have no more than 10 slides. And, those slides have very few words and are more “pictorial” in nature to add to my presentation versus competing with my presentation.
- Unshackle yourself from technology! A side effect of the PPT Pandemic is that you are dependent on technology because that has always made your job “easier.” What would happen if you were at a major conference with 1,000 prospects and somebody came up to you and said “Hey, one of our speakers with a two-hour slot just got sick and cannot present. The presentation is in 30 minutes and we have no time to upload PowerPoint slides. Can you fill in?” What would you say? Do you have the stories, explanations, etc. to accept the offer or have you been a victim of the pandemic for too long?
- Half Caff and Voice Inflection. In one of my prior companies I went through PR training where they trained me on navigating interviews with the media. One great thing I learned was the notion of “half caff.” That is, our body language and voice inflection get “dulled” by the camera as well as being in the limelight. So, it is suggested that you offset that by slightly “caffeinating” or exaggerating your voice inflection and body language. Clearly, if you look “dull” because of the camera’s impact, you will be tuned out by the audience.
“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”
—George Bernard Shaw