a presentation revelation

When it comes to communication, simplicity is best.  Even if the message is complicated, the means of delivering it need to be clear and concise.  I came to PAS as a project coordinator in July of 2008 after completing a master’s on how we process language and communication.  (I’ve also done a BA in planning in the USA, but that’s another story.)  After attending several of our events I was completely baffled by the UK planning process and very surprised by the quality of some of the presentations being given by professionals across the planning sector.  This blog entry is my attempt to convince you that complex graphs and cluttered words on PowerPoint slides won’t help your audience understand your message.  Now this might sound obvious, but it hasn’t stopped planning professionals from cramming text and tables directly from core strategy documents (with size 10 font) on to a slide.  Case in point:

slide with table

Example of a table crammed onto a slide

It’s a fact of human cognition that we cannot process verbal and oral stimuli at the same time.  We cannot read slides and comprehend their message, while simultaneously listening to and understanding a speaker.  Try taking notes on top of that and your level or comprehension will drop even more.  Of course we can switch back and forth between listening and reading very quickly, but we can’t do everything at once.  PowerPoint is a great piece of software if you use it as a way to display visual aids.  It should not be used as a place to display the speaker’s words in bullet points or to show lengthy text from other documents.  If a lot of supporting text is necessary, the speaker should create a document as an additional resource that the audience can read later.  

Another fact of human cognition is that we have very limited attention spans.  Our minds will quickly start to wander during a presentation.  Have you ever started writing your ‘to do list’ during a colleague’s presentation?  Or thought about what you’ll cook for dinner that evening?  The speaker can use all sorts of tricks to call us back to the subject, but many planners aren’t presentation professionals.  They are too caught up in getting through the content to pay any attention to the audience’s reaction.  Visuals that support your content, maintain interest and help people understand your meaning are much better than endless bullet points.   Consider this:

A typical boring slide with bullet points that don't add anything to the speaker's words

Slide A: a typical boring slide with bullet points that don't add anything to the speaker's words

the same content as slide A with a slightly different format

Slide B: the same content as slide A with a slightly different format

Now you don’t have to take my word on all of this.  Maybe you prefer slide A to slide B.  There are plenty of books and websites that said it first (see below) and maybe they can convince you where I’ve failed.  I would encourage anyone reading this blog to think about the advantages of delivering a presentation that is both easy to understand and well supported with strong visuals.  I’ve put together information from a variety of resources to help you create just such a presentation.  At PAS, we are now using these ‘guidelines’ as a standard for all presentations at our events.  We aim to improve our presentations and to encourage our suppliers to do the same.  Equality and diversity considerations are included and should be followed because the relevant recommendations will make your presentation more accessible for everybody in your audience.  I hope that these guidelines will help speakers engage their audience and create the best environment for knowledge sharing.  Ultimately this will result in improvements for people and places, which is why we are here in the first place.

Resources and further information:

PAS Presentation Guidelines

‘Death by PowerPoint (and how to fight it)’  by Alexei Kapterev

Presentation Zen ‘Craig Reynolds’ blog on issues related to professional presentation design’

10 reasons why Presentations are going to make it big in 2009: blogs

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