Stone Cold Phil Davison

September 17, 2010

Astounding. There are many words to describe this speech, but astounding sums it up for me.

Astounding that a candidate from a serious political party would think this is a suitable way to run for a nomination.

Astounding that anybody could communicate quite this badly, making very basic errors.

And astounding in particular that Phil Davison (no relation, honest) claims to have a Masters degree in Communication!

Now this video has run up over a million hits in a week, and I’m not going to repeat what many other presentation coaches have already said so expertly – notably John Zimmer – but I’ll just say a few words about passion.

It’s not about how passionate you are, but how passionate you appear to be, and in what way. A speech without any enthusiasm or passion is as dry and featureless as a desert. However, there’s a difference between showing genuine passion in an acceptable way, and speaking like a wrestler who’s shouting into the mike about how he’s about to beat his opponent to a pulp. Despite the electoral success of Jesse Ventura, politicians are expected to show passion in a more, erm, civilised way.

Compare Phil Davison’s speech with this one by wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin from some years back. They go rather well together.

The tone is very similar, but Austin had obviously prepared a little better, not needing to resort to notes, and his conclusion was very well scripted, using good rhetorical techniques. Perhaps they went to the same communications college?

Phil Davison didn’t get the nomination. And I’m not sure if any communications coaches would even consider trying to turn him into a respectable political speaker. But his style has its place, and perhaps if he learns to do without the notes (and hits the gym) he has a future in the wrestling ring… you heard it here first!


Presentation Pitfalls #8 – Reading instead of connecting

September 6, 2010

The speech was fantastic, one of the best I have heard. It must have taken a long time to craft. It was a masterpiece of motivational and inspirational rhetoric.

The speaker’s voice was deep and powerful, well suited to the stage, and carried well in the large marquee thanks to the excellent sound system. He spoke slowly, carefully and clearly.

There were no visuals, but the speech didn’t need any. At least there were no sub-standard visuals to distract us from the speaker and his message.

Sound good so far? Of course. So what made this one of the most painful speeches I have sat through in recent years? Read the rest of this entry »


Presentation Pitfalls #7: Slide synch (or lack of)

September 1, 2010

“And the winner is…” called the presenter as he carefully opened the ceremonial envelope. The huge room was filled with silent yet eager anticipation.

He then paused, wondering why everyone was suddenly talking, laughing and groaning, then dutifully took the card from the envelope, and read out the winner’s name.

What could have gone wrong? Slide synch, that’s what.

While the speaker was fiddling with his envelope, someone else advanced the slides too quickly, and revealed the winner’s name to all but the speaker before the envelope had even been opened. Doh! Not only did this make the speaker look silly, it made everyone think less of the organization of the event, both for the Powerpoint slip-up and for even using ceremonial envelopes when the winners were already on the slides. Read the rest of this entry »


Presentation Pitfalls #6 – Bent logic

August 20, 2010

As I was strolling around Paris this week, I came across the kind of film poster ad which annoys the hell out of me. It annoyed me so much that I thought I would capture it and share it with you. (I’m sure the film company won’t mind since it’s a little extra publicity, and while I haven’t seen the film, it might be quite good.)

Now, what’s wrong with this? OK, it may not be the best photo of Ludivine Sagnier who usually looks very attractive, but that wasn’t the problem. I can just about live with the mix of fonts and the fairly ugly yellow colour, since at least there’s a theme which is consistently followed. I also don’t mind that there’s no real attempt to sell the film – we have no idea what it’s about, whether it’s had a good review, or why we should go and see it, other than the two lead actresses and the director, none of whom is a big enough draw on their own. (French cinema is well enough subsidised that it doesn’t actually need to sell many tickets.)

No, the problem here is that the two lead actresses are the wrong way round. The actress on the left is Kristin Scott Thomas, and the one on the right is Ludivine Sagnier. I asked a colleague what he thought I hated about this ad, and he didn’t get it because he didn’t know either of the actresses. (In which case neither of them is going to be a good selling-point for the film anyway.) But for cinephiles like me who know the actresses, it just looks plain daft to see two actresses, each with the other’s name above her head.

Does nobody check this first? What do the actresses think of it? It may be fair to suggest that Sagnier’s name should be the first we see (reading of course from the left), since she’s slightly more of a box-office draw nowadays than Scott-Thomas, but in that case, surely the poster should have Sagnier on the left and not on the right?

In any case, it just looks plain wrong to me and doesn’t inspire much confidence in the quality of the film. I should stress that this is far from the first time this has happened. There have been examples in the past where an actor and actress have appeared with each other’s names on their heads, which would look silly even to people who don’t know either of them.

Right, so what has this got to do with presenting? It’s all about avoiding what I call bent logic. If you use slides which don’t appear logical, they won’t be clear to your audience, and they will pollute your message instead of enhancing it. Read the rest of this entry »


The enemy is the ABUSE of PowerPoint

April 27, 2010

Today’s New York Times has a lead article on the US military’s use of PowerPoint, entitled We Have Met The Enemy and He Is PowerPoint. This is the presentation news of the day, retweeted and discussed in various blogs.

Some agree that PowerPoint is the enemy. Others disagree. Even Seth Godin weighs in with “Guns don’t kill people, bullets do” although unlike some other bloggers he correctly points out that the issue is misuse of PowerPoint. I have already explained in this blog how I don’t believe slideware is the problem with bad presentations – it’s the poor use of slideware that causes the problem. In the right hands, PowerPoint and KeyNote can be used to produce fantastic visuals.

Nonetheless, there is an item in the NYT article which I believe is worthy of further comment. Some officers claim to spend a huge portion of their time creating slides, not for keynote presentations, but as records of events. This was similar to my experience in large corporations where I spent a major part of my time creating slides which would never be given in front of an audience because my hierarchy required it.  Hell, we had to create business plans in PowerPoint. I’ve spent far less time with PowerPoint since I became a full-time presentation coach!

Is this how we want our soldiers and officers to be spending their time? Does the Taleban waste valuable time and effort on creating slides? They must be having a good chuckle reading how their enemy wastes its time. The same is true of many corporations.

Scott Adams had this nailed some time ago, as the Dilbert strip below can testify.

Dilbert spends time on PowerPoint

What is the answer? Ban PowerPoint? Sure, let’s throw out the baby with the bathwater, that would be really smart. Why reduce the efficiency of the few presentations that could really benefit from some good slides? While we’re at it, we could ban gas-guzzling 4x4s (SUVs) because too many city-dwellers buy them, with no regard for the farmers who really need four-wheel-drive vehicles.

No, let’s not ban PowerPoint. But that’s no reason to do nothing. Whether you are in the military, or a corporation, or any kind of organization, there are things you can do to reduce PowerPoint abuse:

  1. If you currently require ANYONE to produce slides, ask yourself why. What would happen if they didn’t arrive? Is there a better medium such as a word-processor? You should only require people to produce slides if they are to be delivered in front of a live audience or via webinar/webcast, and if the presentation requires slides to aid explanation or drive a message home.
  2. Look at what your people spend time doing – and what you spend time doing – and ask whether it is directly contributing to your customers, your objectives and your added value. If not, ask whether that added value would diminish if the activity were deprioritized. And if not, deprioritize it. This goes beyond PowerPoint of course.
  3. When someone in your organization needs to make a presentation, do not ask “have you done your slides?” – that is the wrong question! Do not assume that every speech requires slides. When did you last see President Obama using slides? But isn’t he a great communicator? Ask instead (if you must) “have you prepared your presentation?”
  4. Send your people on a course about presentation skills (not a course on how to use PowerPoint). That will help them to learn when to use slides, how to use them well – and when not to use them at all. Frankly, you should follow the course as well, and so should your boss.

In the meantime, corporations and the military alike will continue to abuse PowerPoint, and it shouldn’t come as news to anybody. But blaming PowerPoint for poor slides and misuse is no fairer than blaming a bullet for the poor aim of a rifleman.


Presentation Pitfalls #5 – Hiding behind the lectern

March 29, 2010

Recently I was forced to stand behind a lectern to give a presentation. Sometimes there are good reasons for this: in this instance, we had people calling into the room via phone bridge, and that meant each speaker needed to speak directly into the microphone which was fixed to the lectern.

Whatever the reason, it’s just not natural for me. Giving me a stage and tying me to the lectern is like taking a lion to the savannah and tying him to a tree. Worse, standing behind a lectern builds barriers between you and your audience, and who thought that communication would work better with more barriers?

With a lectern, you then have the problem of what to do with your hands. Do you use them to lean on the lectern – which looks lazy or preacher-like – or do you use them to hold on to the fixed microphone, as I saw recently at a business awards ceremony (I had to try very hard to stifle a laugh)? Neither looks good, but worse, you lose the opportunity to do great things with your hands and arms, which are so important to accentuate your messages. You also look as if you are hiding, which betrays a lack of self-confidence, and if you don’t appear to have confidence in yourself, how do you expect the audience to respect you?

Getting up close with your audience is a great help for eye-contact, for non-verbal communication and for you as the speaker to feel how the audience is reacting, and tune your delivery accordingly. Stand behind a lectern and you will lose all that – and perhaps the audience as well.


Presentation Pitfalls #4 – Banish Bad Slides

March 22, 2010

There have been a few interesting blog posts recently about PowerPoint being the root of all evil when it comes to presentations, with one conference even deciding to ban it altogether.  Jon Thomas at Presentation Advisors makes some good points about how this is solving the wrong problem.

PowerPoint is not the problem, and nor is Keynote (as an Apple fan I won’t fall into the trap of pretending there’s only one slideware application out there).  Blaming the application for the poor slides is like blaming a word-processor for a bad essay. It’s like many other IT-related problems – it’s all down to PEBKAC.

However, these slideware applications are in large part responsible for the plethora of abysmal presentations, and for the costly degeneration of intra-corporate communication.  It’s not their fault.  But they are responsible for it.

That’s a controversial statement from someone who makes a living using these applications.  So let me explain.

Many years ago, at some time after the invention of the printing press and before the invention of slideware apps, people used to communicate with rudimentary tools and visual supports.  They might write on a blackboard with a piece of chalk, or hand out photocopies of some notes or graphs. Then came flipcharts, which made it easier to use colours than with blackboards, and easier to use plenty of drawings.  And then came the revolutionary OHP – the OverHead Projector, which allowed anyone able to write or print on a transparent piece of plastic to have their work projected on a screen behind them.

The OHP was the beginning of trouble.  However, it was still painful enough to produce an OHP slide that you’d only do it for the things you really needed to show. For the rest of the talk, you’d actually speak to people and try to communicate with them.

Then came PowerPoint and Keynote, and everything got a whole lot easier. These applications made it easy to produce simple slides to show on the wall behind you, so you no longer needed an OHP and you could produce as many slides as you wanted without a lot of trouble.  In fact, it was so easy that most people didn’t take much trouble with their slides.

Slowly but surely, the slides became the presentation.  When someone in the corporate world asks you: “Have you prepared your presentation?” they really mean: “Have you created your slides?”  Which is clearly the wrong question to ask.  Well, clearly to me and probably to you – but not for the majority of corporate animals who have never known anything else.

People got so used to not having to spend much time on each slide, and using the slides as speaker notes, that it became the norm to have lots of slides.  It became almost unheard-of to make a corporate presentation without using slides.  A new generation of businesspeople grew up with slide abuse as the norm, and naturally they perpetuated what they had learned as the right way of doing things.

The growth of email as the main form of written communication, replacing a large part of what used to be verbal communication via old technology like the telephone or actually speaking to somebody face-to-face, then created the need to share documents with people in order to share information.  At some point, the first corporate animal got the idea that if he had to make a presentation to some people, and then share something in writing with them afterwards, maybe he could just do the work once.  (Ladies, I use the male pronoun because whoever this dumb person was, it was almost certainly a man.)  So he put everything on his slides so that anyone READING the slides, WITHOUT hearing the talk, would mostly understand.

Thus was born the phenomenon of the slide-as-document, neither a decent document nor a decent set of visual supports.  Maybe it could have been good.  A centaur – half-man, half-horse – was pretty useful with a man’s chest, head and arms and a horse’s body and fast legs.  Sadly, the slide-as-document is as useful as the centaur would have been had it had a man’s body and horse’s head.

Presenters then realised that it required even less preparation if they actually wrote everything on their slides, so this became the norm.  They could just stand there and read the slides, so they didn’t actually need to prepare mentally for the speech. Slides became their crutch – a support for the presenter, not for the benefit of the attendees, as Scott Adams so simply pointed out.

And that is the sad story of how a great advance in technology has taken us backwards.  Think how many presentations are given inside and between companies every day.  Think how much time is spent making and listening to presentations.  Think how much that time costs.  And then think how efficient the communication really is – and how much better it could be if the messages were passed properly and memorably.

Maybe improving the way people communicate is what our companies need to get the most out of their human capital, and pull our economies out of recession by a massive increase in productivity.  It certainly wouldn’t do any harm. What is for sure is that we have to solve the right problem, which is to teach people how to get their messages across effectively, and how to avoid the typical pitfalls of the modern presentation.

We don’t need to ban slideware. We need to banish bad slides.


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