Keep It Simple

Posted by Frank McGee on April 30, 2009

It’s hard enough sitting through a chart-dense PowerPoint presentation on the state of an industry or how to streamline operations at a client.  So why do we continue to make presentations so unnecessarily cluttered and complicated?

You could pass out cans of Red Bull as I have when I was making a presentation after lunch (who knew it came in regular and diet versions?).  That might keep people in your audience awake but it won’t necessarily get them to pay attention to you.

But even if people are paying attention – in fact, especially if they’re paying attention – every one of them is multitasking.

Your audience – sitting still, hanging on your every word – is actually pretty busy.  Parsing it out, here’s what they’re doing as you speak:

  • Listening to you
  • Reading your slides
  • Taking notes
  • Deciding whether or not what you’re saying has an impact on them

That’s quite of bit of work for your audience, so naturally we make it harder for them.  Not only do presenters often cram each slide chock-full of ideas and information, many of them suddenly consider themselves to be graphic specialists and they develop layouts that would make Jackson Pollack look like a minimalist.  By the time the audience can figure out where to look, the presenter has moved on to the next slide.

The drive to put everything possible on each slide isn’t entirely irrational.  Presenters usually have a limited amount of time to get a great deal of information across that knowledge gulf to the audience.  So on one level it’s understandable that if there is any white space on a slide, we fill it.  Ironically, instead of informing an audience this approach can go a long way towards confusing it.

So here are five basic but critical points to keep in mind as you develop your next presentation:

  1. What is your governing thought? Also known as the “so what?”  This is a deceptively simple question that you must ask of every slide (as well as your presentation as a whole) to focus your message.  You should be able to state it in one sentence in the heading.
  2. Support the governing thought. If the content below the heading supports the governing thought, great.  If it doesn’t support the governing thought, it doesn’t belong on the slide.  When in doubt, leave it out.
  3. Keep it simple but not simplistic. Say what you need to say but don’t clutter up the message by using more than you need to make your point.
  4. One idea at a time. It takes just as much time to present five ideas on one slide as it does to present five slides with separate ideas.  For your audience, presenting one idea at a time makes it more likely that each one more will be understood, remembered and incorporated.
  5. White space is your friend. It can be easy on the eyes but also help to direct your audience’s attention to what is important.  Have a graphic specialist help you, if possible.

Let’s not forget that the audience could also be doing other things entirely unrelated to your presentation.  They might be checking e-mail, revising their itineraries, wondering how they’re going to network with the group, whatever.  You may not like it – it may be rude – but there it is.

This just makes it more of an imperative to simplify.  Remember, the audience is busy.  Save the Red Bull for that next all-nighter.

Contributed by: Frank McGee
Business writer, trainer, coach

Posted in: Communications Tags: , ,

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