5 Golden Rules To Cure Meeting Overload

July 25, 2016

As a specialist in presentations, I often find myself confronted by training participants who ask me how best to present in a project status meeting, or an information-sharing meeting, or some other kind of meeting.

They are initially surprised by my simple, blunt answer: “Don’t.”

Never pollute a meeting with an unnecessary presentation. A meeting is a great opportunity for discussion, interaction and decision-making. A presentation is an ineffective way of taking up valuable discussion time, or just lengthening a meeting and making it more boring than it should be.

Slide1

Why is a presentation ineffective in a meeting situation? It’s very simple. We forget most of what we hear very quickly. This makes an oral presentation an extremely bad way of transmitting information from one brain to another. No matter that most presentations suck – even a TED-quality presentation is a very inefficient way of transmitting information.

Presentations are fantastic ways of transforming people, not informing them. If you want to change their beliefs, feelings or actions, by all means present. But if you want people to take in and remember new information, a far more effective way is to give them three things: a document to read; quiet time to read it; and coffee.

Here, therefore, are my five golden rules for meetings, and any company that follows these will most certainly cure their meeting overload problem, and free up time for real work.

1. Information is read, not presented

Amazon and LinkedIn are two of the world’s fastest-growing, most successful modern companies. One key point they have in common is that they do not allow presentations in meetings. (Neither did Steve Jobs.)

Instead, meetings begin with reading time. The meeting organiser has prepared and printed a real document – not a set of bullet-points, but a real standalone document with full paragraphs – and the meeting begins with at least ten minutes of silent reading time so that every participant is quite literally on the same page.

Slide Bezos Meetings Quote.035

Of course, you can share the document in advance, but there’s always someone who doesn’t read it, so you need to leave them enough time in the meeting to read it. Everyone else can read it for a second time, and it’s worth doing.

This document contains all the context, background, details and ideas the participants need to know, as well as the meeting objective and the discussion points and decisions they aim to take. By reading it – ideally with a coffee – they will remember far more, and in far less time, than they would have if somebody had presented it to them orally. Then they can ask questions, discuss, and reach agreement in far less time than typical meetings take.

Forcing meeting organisers to prepare such documents – instead of their bullet-ridden slide decks – makes them think carefully about the meeting objective, and their subject. It also means that they only organise meetings they really need.

Lastly, this document is also very helpful for people who couldn’t make it or weren’t required to attend; and it makes writing up the meeting minutes so much faster.

Which brings me to point number 2:

2. Every meeting is minuted

If you’re going to take people’s valuable time, you need to have something to show for it. The initial document is a very helpful summary of the background. The meeting minutes should be annexed to this document, explaining the key points of the discussion, which decisions were taken, and which actions were agreed upon.

Providing the initial document and the meeting minutes to those who may need to be informed (even without participating) allows you to implement point 3:

3. No unnecessary participants

By always providing details of what happened in meetings, you can invite fewer people: busy managers will know that they will not miss out by not attending meetings, so it will no longer be necessary to invite people just so they stay informed about the topic.

The efficiency of any meeting is more or less inversely proportional to the number of participants: any more than six people, and productivity dives off a cliff. For some topics, two is a very good number; for others, three or four can be great. Five or six can sometimes work, but there is usually someone who participates very little in such a group.

Slide Lots of meeting participants

Therefore it is vital to invite only those people who absolutely need to be there. Anyone else interested in the topic can elect to receive the brief and the minutes.

This frees up a lot of people, meaning on average everyone spends less of their day stuck in meetings. It also makes meetings more efficient, since conclusions can be reached faster with fewer participants. And this enables you to enact point 4:

4. Meetings last 25 minutes by default

In most companies, the default meeting duration is one hour. That’s how our calendars work, and nobody seems to challenge this idea. Yet it has two major problems.

The first is that an hour is a very long time to be sat in a meeting room, unable to get on with your real work, and many subjects don’t actually need that long.

The second is that if you have a 10.00-11.00 meeting in one room, and an 11.00-12.00 meeting on another floor or in another building, then you are almost certainly going to be late for the second meeting. If your day is full of meetings, you will create a domino effect. If people are routinely late for meetings, then people without prior meetings will also arrive late to avoid wasting time, and this thoroughly annoys those people who respectfully arrive on time.

Therefore I strongly recommend setting the default meeting duration to 25 minutes – including the ten minutes or so of quiet reading time at the start. Fifteen minutes can often be quite enough to make decisions when you already have all the background information, and when there aren’t ten or more people around the table.

Thus, if your meeting is from 10.00 to 10.25, and you have another meeting planned at 10.30, you still have five minutes to get to the next meeting, even with a short stop on the way if you have an important appointment with the smoking room, coffee machine or rest-room.

If 25 minutes just isn’t enough – and while it’s a good default, some meetings do need longer – then you can have meetings lasting 55 minutes. Always leave five minutes before the top or bottom of the hour so people can get to their next meeting on time. And always ensure that anyone requesting your time justifies why they need more than 25 minutes: this ensures they only request longer when it’s really necessary.

If your company always sticks to the default 25-minute duration, with the option of 55 minutes, then you will be able to enforce rule 5:

5. Meetings start and finish on time

In some countries, this may sound obvious: it’s a simple matter of respect that participants arrive on time and that the meeting organiser ensures they leave on time.

I live in France. It’s not obvious here. In fact, last week when I suggested this to a French client as a golden rule of meetings, I was bluntly reminded with a mix of shock and amusement: “But this is France!”

Yet this same client – and everyone else in the meeting – readily accepted that they find it very annoying and disrespectful for people to turn up late without an apology, and that it would be so much better if everyone was punctual.

The trouble with punctuality is that it is either a virtuous circle, or a vicious circle. If people are almost always on time, the exception stands out, and not in a good way. Latecomers feel bad, and will do their best not to be late again.

On the other hand, if lateness is tolerated, it becomes frequent, and even those who would prefer meetings to start on time may turn up late because they know for sure that there’s no point being on time. Thus a lack of punctuality becomes a vicious circle. If allowed to perpetuate, it becomes France. (And France is certainly not the least punctual place on the planet.)

Change needs to start at the top, so if senior managers make a point of always being on time, and calling people out for being late – and if you follow Rule 4, making it possible for people to be punctual – then you can build a culture where meetings regularly start on time.

Of course, they also have to finish on time, otherwise people will be late for their next meeting. Therefore the meeting organiser needs to take responsibility for timekeeping, and ensure that the meeting is summarised, decisions and actions are noted, and participants are free to leave, on time or ideally a little before.

Bonus Rule: No unnecessary meetings

It should go without saying – but I’ll say it anyway, because it isn’t that obvious in many companies – that you should only arrange meetings when you actually want people to participate and when you need something from them. Far too many meetings are just for information-sharing, and if you ask the organiser for his or her objective, it is simply: “So that people are informed about XYZ.” And naturally, they aim to present that information orally, perhaps with lots of bullet-points, giving participants hardly any chance of remembering X, let alone Y or Z.

As Garr Reynolds wrote, if the only reason for your presentation is to share information, you should distribute a handout and cancel the presentation.

Likewise, if the only reason for your meeting is to share information, cancel it, write the document, and share it. The reason people don’t do this any more is because nobody has any time to read such documents – because they spend so much of their time in meetings.

If you can cure their meeting overload, then you are giving them the gift of time, and they will have time to read such documents. Use a task manager to give them the task of reading your document so they get reminded of it; or find a spare ten minutes in their calendar and invite them to a meeting where they don’t have to go anywhere – they just have time blocked to read your document. This makes it far more likely they will read it than just sending them an email.

If you need a discussion, and to take decisions, and to establish an action plan, then a meeting can be useful. If not, it’s a huge waste of everyone’s time.

So let’s summarise these few golden rules of meetings:

  1. Information is read, not presented
  2. Every meeting is minuted
  3. No unnecessary participants
  4. Meetings last 25 minutes by default
  5. Meetings start and finish on time

And the bonus rule:

  • No unnecessary meetings

These simple rules are based on my long experience in major corporations, as well as the best practices of some of the world’s most dynamic organisations. I have absolutely no doubt that if you adopt these rules, your people will attend fewer meetings; the ones they do attend will not last as long, and will be more efficient; and that will boost your people’s productivity and pleasure at work. Maybe then your organisation will become as agile as Amazon or LinkedIn – but that’s up to you. 

Try it, and please tell me how it works for you.


Presentation 2.0 – The New Art of Business Presenting

December 3, 2012

Presentation 2.0 Logo v1Most presentations suck. Ask most people to close their eyes and imagine themselves in the audience for a presentation, and they will break into a cold sweat. Presentation should rhyme with communication, inspiration and fascination – but all too often, it simply rhymes with boredom.

This means two important things for presenters. Firstly, if an audience is bored, they’re not interested, they’re not listening, and they’re not going to do what you want them to do. Secondly, if most presentations suck so badly, those presenters who make an effort can rise above the crowd, communicate better, and spread their ideas effectively.

So upgrade to Presentation 2.0, and make your presentations interesting, effective, and memorable. Here’s how – four disciplines which others ignore or suck at: preparation, storytelling, visual design, and delivery.

1. Preparation

Any great edifice needs a strong foundation. For a presentation, that foundation is the preparation. This is where you analyze your audience and their needs, set clear and concrete objectives, and choose a few key messages to help you achieve those objectives.

The audience might remember how you make them feel, they may remember some of what they see, but they will certainly forget most of what you say. They might recall three things. Don’t leave it to chance and hope they remember the right things – choose the three key messages you want them to remember.

Slide Fail to Prepare.027

2. Storytelling

Storytelling is the art of structuring your presentation to communicate messages effectively and interestingly; and using narrative techniques and devices to make them memorable.

When Steve Jobs pulled a Macbook Air out of an envelope, that was storytelling. It was a technique designed to communicate a key message – “The world’s thinnest notebook” – and make it stick.

I once sold a print services contract to a major Brazilian customer, but first I had to convince them they had a problem. So I demonstrated that each year, their printed pages laid end-to-end would stretch from the source of the Amazon all the way to the Atlantic (mouths gaped open) – and then back again (jaws hit floor). That’s storytelling.

If you think hard enough, you can find a way to make anything interesting and memorable.

3. Visual Design

Ever suffered “Death By PowerPoint”? Most businesspeople face it every day, so they dread the moment when someone asks to switch on the projector.

Most slides obstruct communication. They assume the audience can read and listen simultaneously, that bullet points are memorable, and that the audience doesn’t mind the presenter using slides as speaker notes. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

But it doesn’t need to be that way. A deck of slides can assist communication and make your key messages memorable. It’s just a question of good design.

A typical useless slideument

4. Delivery

A great presenter can make anything fascinating. It’s about voice, speed, gestures, comfort, eye contact, movement, humor, charisma, and above all, preparation and rehearsal.

You can learn this. We’re not born orators. As Emerson said, “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.”

Slide Emerson Bad Speakers.003

Working hard at each of these four disciplines will make your presentations interesting, effective, and memorable. It’ll help you stand out from the crowd. If your audience sees four boring and forgettable 1.0 presentations, and one effective and memorable Presentation 2.0, it’s clear which presenter has the advantage. Make sure it’s you.

This article was first published in SOLD Magazine, the leading worldwide monthly for sales professionals, as part of Phil’s regular Presentation 2.0 column.


When Does Communication Become Manipulation?

June 29, 2012

 

One of my executive students at HEC Paris asked me this week at what point communication becomes manipulation. After all, many of the rhetorical devices and storytelling techniques used in speechwriting and presentation design are similar to those used by a hypnotist, advertiser or salesperson.

This assumes there is a continuum, with communication at one end, and manipulation at the other end – and the more devices of influence you use, the more you move towards the ‘manipulation’ end of the scale.

I disagree. Purely and simply, all communication is an attempt to influence the audience, and if you’re going to do that, you might as well do so effectively. For me, the choice of how few or how many tools of influence you use is only part of the picture, and that scale is not between communication and manipulation, but between ineffective and effective communication.

An entrepreneur pitching an investor is aiming to influence that investor. Is that manipulation? The entrepreneur is doing everything possible to make an investor part with some cash, while at the beginning of the pitch the investor’s wallet is firmly closed.

A salesperson is always aiming to influence customers’ thoughts. Not only do they make you want their product or service where previously you perhaps didn’t want it (or didn’t realise you wanted it), but they also make you want their exact offering, and not those of your competitors. Is that manipulation? Or is it only manipulation if it is done well?

Let’s bring in a dictionary definition of manipulation. Dictionary.com defines ‘manipulate’ as:

to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner: to manipulate people’s feelings.

My Chambers English Dictionary defines ‘manipulate’ as:

to turn to one’s own purpose or advantage

So the key factor is not the number of influence techniques used, but the intention of the speaker. Influencing the audience for your own selfish interests is considered manipulation, and has a negative connotation.

Political speeches are mostly about manipulation. Politicians try to influence voters, journalists and often each other, usually for their own selfish desires. (Sadly, selfless politicians like Vaclav Havel are the exception, not the rule.)

Advertising is all about manipulation, of course. Advertisers use every technique in the book to influence our thoughts, almost always for their own interests.

However, not everyone has selfish intentions. Take parents, for example.

Once, when I was a boy, I was flicking elastic bands around, and my father asked me to stop. He told me that once he had seen someone flick an elastic band which took someone’s eye out, i.e. it was very dangerous and I shouldn’t do it. The story was far stronger than just saying “stop doing that, son” – it certainly stopped me from flicking elastic bands, and I still remember the story over 30 years later. My father was using a storytelling technique to influence me – but for my benefit, so I would avoid a dangerous activity.

Now I am a father, and I use stories all the time to influence my children – for their benefit. This is far from new. Humans have been using stories for millennia to transfer knowledge and influence younger generations into avoiding the mistakes of their ancestors. The fable about the boy who cried ‘wolf’ is far more effective than just telling kids not to lie.

So while you can indeed have a continuum between ineffective and effective communication, there is another which is equally important: between altruism at one end of the scale – communicating purely for the audience’s benefit – and selfishness at the other end.

We can’t all be altruistic all the time. But we can at least aim for the middle of the scale: mutual interest.

Let’s take a look at what this means, in the Communication Influence Matrix above. In the bottom-left, you have ineffective and selfish communication – which is what poor salespeople dish out to long-suffering buyers. In the top-left, you have ineffective but altruistic communication, an example of which would be most teaching, which is for the benefit of the audience but far too often fails to be effective due to poor use of influencing techniques.

Then, in the bottom-right, you have effective and selfish communication – which could be good advertisements, or a powerful political speech for example. In the middle on the right, you have effective communication for mutual interest, which is what good salespeople will aim for. A good salesperson sincerely believes her customer will benefit from buying her product or service, and focuses on those benefits, while communicating effectively – and without forgetting her own company’s interests. Think of any Steve Jobs product launch.

And in the top-right, you have effective altruistic communication, and while I could have put public-service advertisements there, I’m proud to put my dad and his stories in that corner. One day, I hope my own children will put me there too.

Takeaways for presenters

As a presenter, work out how you can help your audience. If you are a salesperson, make your presentation not about your product or service, but about your customer’s problem and how it can be solved. You may succeed in making them want to buy your latest widget, but it will be in their interest to do so.

If you are an entrepreneur, talk about why your start-up offers a great opportunity for the investor. You’re not just going to them asking for money: you are offering them the chance to make a large pile of cash. You’re trying to influence them, of course, but in their interest as well as yours.

The trick is simply to ensure that their interests coincide with yours. If the customer is happy to solve their problem, that’s good for you because they’re using your widget to do so. If the investor is happy to invest because it’s a great opportunity, that’s also good for you because it means you have the cash to expand your company.

The audience’s own interest is the magical ingredient of any presentation. If you can always clearly act in the audience’s interest, you will never be accused of manipulation, no matter how many influence techniques you use. And if you can find a way to meet their needs while also meeting yours, then everybody wins.


Handle With CARE: 4 Keys To Convince Any Audience

May 29, 2012

I was exchanging recently with fellow presentation specialist Alex Rister, who was asking me how I go about convincing people to change. I had just given a Presentation 2.0 talk to a group of management consultants, who are usually among the worst offenders when it comes to Death by PowerPoint, and not only did they get it – they even asked me back for another session on storytelling.

Pleasantly surprised, Alex asked me for the magic keys to convince an audience to change. After some thought, this is my answer.

There are four keys to convince any audience to start, stop or continue doing something. They are all necessary. Together, they make the acronym CARE: Credibility, Action, Reason, and Empathy.

Credibility

If you have no credibility in your audience’s eyes, your message will (at best) go in one ear, and out the other.

Imagine you pass a shaggy smelly tramp in the street, who is shouting “The world will end tomorrow!” Do you pay much attention? No, because he has no credibility to deliver that message. Now imagine the US President making a televised address saying exactly the same thing. Now do you pay attention? The difference is not the message: it is the credibility of the person delivering it.

Imagine you are pregnant, and a friendly lady gazes at your tummy and exclaims “Ah, it must be a boy!” Do you believe her? Now imagine a gynecologist who, after performing an ultrasound scan, announces “Ah, it must be a boy!” Do you believe her? The difference: credibility. And not only does the gynecologist know what she is talking about: she also performed a credible check to draw her conclusion. She has evidence.

Credibility, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. My Parisian consultants gave me credibility to talk about business communication because I have many years of management and sales experience, I’ve successfully sold major contracts up to $100M, and I teach at the world’s number one business school just down the road, quite apart from running one of Europe’s leading presentation firms.

All that was important in their eyes. Perhaps an audience in Latin America might never have heard of HEC Paris, so that wouldn’t lend me any credibility with them. Perhaps my business-to-business sales management experience wouldn’t be worth a lot when talking to a children’s charity. Perhaps my Executive MBA would actually count against me when speaking to some groups. So I don’t automatically have credibility with all audiences for all kinds of messages. But with this audience, my experience resonated with them, and they therefore listened seriously to what I had to say.

Sadly, if you are an intern with little or no experience, and you give exactly the same talk with the same slides to the same audience, you will probably fall at the first hurdle because of your lack of credibility. It doesn’t matter whether you are right. Nobody believed Ignaz Semmelweis when he suggested surgeons should wash their hands between patients in order to save lives, but he was right. Nobody believed Barry Marshall when he suggested stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, partly because the idea was ridiculous but particularly because he was just a simple unknown researcher in Western Australia of all places. He was right, but nobody listened.

The conclusion is simple. Without credibility, your audience will not accept your request to act. Speak about subjects where you are credible, and ensure that you establish credibility in your audience’s eyes right at the start of your talk. And if the message is important but you have little hope of being taken seriously, find somebody else whom the audience will listen to and believe.

Action

Now that you have credibility, you need to ask the audience to act. This could be to stop doing something, start doing something, continue doing something, or do something differently.

First, you need to be clear in your own mind about what action you want them to take. Complete this sentence:

“After my presentation, my audience will…”

Do you want them to buy something? Use a different piece of software? Try a different sales approach? Be careful about strange men offering to drive them home? Recycle their kitchen waste? Give to charity? Choose brands which are ecologically responsible? Reflect on how social media can drive sales? There has to be something. Find it and make this the foundation of your talk. (If you find nothing at all, cancel the presentation because it will be a waste of everyone’s time.)

Next, you need to make it clear what action you want the audience to take. Your talk should not be a cryptic crossword. Don’t leave them guessing what you expect them to do. Ask them clearly. If you want them to invest $200k in your start-up, say so. If you leave them to guess, they might guess wrong, or they might not bother guessing at all.

So you need a clear action which you are asking your audience to take afterwards, you need to spell it out clearly – and of course, you need to have credibility to ask them to take that action.

Reason

The next key is a Reason. No matter how much credibility you have, your audience will not do what you ask them to do unless they actually want to do so. The reason might be more stick than carrot – “If you don’t meet your sales quota this quarter, you’re fired!” may not be an effective motivation tool (cf Drive by Dan Pink), but it does at least give people a reason to want to sell more – but carrots usually work better, and social psychology is even more powerful. For example, the best way to get people to recycle more is to explain to them that their neighbours are recycling more than they are. (Thanks to the fantastic Olivier Oullier for this example – more of him on the blog soon.)

Whatever your reason, it will clearly need to resonate with the audience. Think carefully about what will work best for them. When selling print services, the usual pitch was an annual hard cost saving which would appeal to the CFO and usually to the CIO. One company’s CIO had a carbon reduction target. We showed him how he could save money AND save CO2 by optimizing his print environment. That was a much more powerful reason than cost savings alone, although it was specific to that CIO’s own context. What will work with your audience?

So you not only need to ask them to take an action: you also have to give them a reason for wanting to do so. A request for action without a strong reason leads to no action at all.

Empathy

The final part of CARE, then, is Empathy. In order to find an action which the audience will benefit from taking, a reason they will accept, and the necessary elements to convince them that you are a credible person to deliver this message, you first have to put yourself in their shoes, and get inside their heads.

What are their needs? Their desires? Their fears? Their concerns? Their problems? Their aspirations? Their objectives? How will they react to your request to act? What would make them listen to someone asking them to do it?

Think what reasons they might have to resist taking your desired action. There is always one huge one: doing nothing (or changing nothing) is always the easiest option, so beware of the principle of least effort. There may be many other reasons as well. Don’t dismiss or reject them, even if they are plain wrong. As we saw earlier, being right doesn’t actually help you to generate action. Right or wrong, your audience is emotionally attached to their reasons to resist, and if you tell them they are wrong, they will cling on to them even more strongly.

So for each reason for resistance, you need to show that you understand that reason, and that you respect it. (Never skip that step.) Then find a way to add new information which gets them to think that perhaps they didn’t have the whole picture before. And get them to realize that in fact their reason for resistance isn’t so valid after all. It has to be their realization, not your affirmation.

Here’s an example, again from my print services experience. Selling for HP meant trying to convince customers that they would be better off with a ‘balanced deployment’ of distributed printers with some multi-function print-copy-scan devices, whereas the many copier-vendor competitors were pushing a more centralized approach, getting rid of the distributed printers and keeping only a few of these big multi-function devices (e.g. one per floor). In terms of pure hard cost-per-page, the centralized approach was usually cheaper.

So when selling ‘balanced deployment’ to an IT or facilities manager who believed that a centralized approach was the cheapest, it usually didn’t help to claim that they were wrong. It was much more effective to give them ideas like this:

“It’s true that if you reduce your devices to the bare minimum, of course it will be cheaper in terms of hard cost. The cheapest of all would be to put one big multi-function device in the building reception, and have everyone walk to it and queue up. Is that what you were thinking of? No? Of course not – in fact we’ve seen plenty of situations where companies have consolidated too much, and it has a number of bad results. First, people waste more time walking to devices, and then queueing up. Meetings get delayed because just as someone wants to print a few one-page handouts before going into the meeting room, someone else starts making 250 copies of a training manual. People near the copier complain because there are always people queueing, chatting and complaining. And when it breaks down – let’s face it, all devices break down sometimes – the impact is huge because the nearest alternative device is on another floor or even in another building. That means huge waste and loss of productivity. But that’s not all. Then, managers get fed up, and decide to buy printers on their own budgets for their teams’ convenience. One company in Switzerland ended up with just as many printers as they had before the consolidation, but the IT department had much less control, less standardization, more printer drivers to manage, and – worst of all – it ended up costing more than before. So you see, in theory it’s quite right that the centralized approach looks cheaper, but in practice, it doesn’t usually work out that way.”

Convincing through empathy means not telling people they are wrong. It means stepping into their shoes, understanding their reasons and showing respect for them, and then metaphorically putting your arm around their shoulder and guiding them gently towards your desired action.

CARE

So that’s how to handle your audience with CARE. Establish your credibility in their eyes; ask them clearly to take an action; give them a reason to take the action; and use empathy to understand how best to influence your audience, and to take them respectfully towards your desired outcome. If you CARE for your audience, they’ll CARE for your message. And that’s something you should certainly CARE about.


An Amazingly Easy Way To Pull Media Out Of PowerPoint And Keynote

April 24, 2012

It’s now two years since Ideas on Stage was born, and in that time I’ve learned a remarkable amount about presenting and communicating, much of it from my amazing business partner Pierre Morsa.

Although I don’t usually talk much about applications, here is a small but potentially useful tip which Pierre just shared on his extremely popular (French) blog, and which I felt deserved to be shared with an English-speaking audience.

Here it is: PowerPoint and Keynote files (.PPTX and .KEY) are essentially just ZIP archives with a different file extension.

So if you want to find an easy way to pull photos, videos and sounds out of a PowerPoint or Keynote file, follow this simple tip:

  1. Make a copy of your original file (this way, you don’t risk harming your original).
  2. On your copy, replace the .PPTX or .KEY extension with .ZIP instead (do this in Windows Explorer or Finder – on a Mac you may need to open the Get Info window and then change the extension in there).
  3. Then you can open the ZIP archive and you will find all the images, movies etc. which were embedded in the slide deck.

As Pierre stated, it’s a very simple tip, but it could be a real time-saver – and it’s certainly a little trick that might impress your colleagues…


The Power Of The Pause

April 3, 2012

A good friend recently asked me why a pause is so important when speaking. His style is usually quite fast and dynamic, and he felt that leaving pauses might disrupt the flow and make his talk seem disjointed.

My first encounter with the power of the pause was when studying the plays of Harold Pinter at high school. Pinter was a master of the dramatic pause. A pause on stage is where the characters are not speaking, but they are perhaps doing something, and certainly thinking, and that adds to the drama. A pause adds importance to what precedes it and to what follows it.

I first realised the power of the pause in a presentation when I was at a private equity seminar in 2008. There were a number of presentations from private equity firms and professors, most of them with predictably ugly slides, and often they were just reading a written speech (most of which was written on the slides anyway).

But then came the closing keynote. It was by Didier Pineau-Valencienne, of whom I had never heard, but I later learned he is a famous French business leader, and honorary chairman of Schneider Electric.

He didn’t use slides. He didn’t read a speech. He looked at us. He made strong eye-contact. And he spoke slowly, carefully, deliberately, and powerfully. He left pauses regularly so we could reflect on what his words meant for us. Every sentence was well-crafted, yet simple rather than impressively complex. From the way he spoke, it was clear he was a leader. You could have heard a pin drop between his words.

You can think of a pause like a coffee-break. Coffee stimulates our attentiveness, and makes us more influenceable, and the break allows us to catch our breath between work periods. A pause can have a similar effect on you and your audience. Here are three reasons why you should speak slowly, carefully and powerfully, and leave pauses at appropriate times.

1. It gives the audience time to reflect.

This is the single biggest reason to pause from time to time. We don’t remember things because we hear them, or because we understand them. We remember them because they mean something to us, and because we remember how we feel about them. But for a message to have personal meaning and generate an emotion, we need not only to hear and understand it: we also need to think about it, to think about what it means for us, and to work out how it fits with the rest what we think we know about life, the universe and everything.

Personal reflection is the glue that makes a message stick. It is as powerful as any story.

The trouble is that most speeches and presentations bombard the audience with sentence after sentence, without giving them the time to perform this personal reflection. Leaving strategic pauses after important points gives the audience time to reflect, and gives your message a chance to stick.

Think of it like painting a wall. You apply the first coat of paint, and then you wait for it to dry before applying the second coat. You wouldn’t apply the second coat while the first is still wet. You give it a chance to dry. Do that with your messages too. Give them a chance to stick by letting your audience think about what your messages mean to them.

(And try to make your messages more interesting than watching paint dry…)

2. It gives you time to reflect.

A pause between sentences is not only good for your audience: it is also good for you. It gives you a chance to catch your breath, to relax, and to prepare the next sentence. You are therefore physically ready to deliver the next sentence, and you know what you are going to say, so it will come out smoothly. It also gives you time to gauge the audience’s reaction to your talk.

Last week I gave a short talk to young students at a business school about slide design, and during one pause, I noticed the silence in the room. I have never known students to be so quiet (and no, they weren’t asleep). They were paying far more attention than most students in most classes. It was a good sign. The pause enabled me to notice it.

I’m not suggesting you should pause at the end of every sentence. Pause to give effect to your point, and that point may have required two or three sentences to make, so pause at the end to let people think, and you can take advantage of that time to catch your breath, check how your audience is reacting, and prepare your next point.

Always remember, by the way, that a pause will always seem far longer to the speaker than it does to the audience. So don’t worry if the pause seems long to you: your audience won’t think so.

3. It makes you look like a leader.

Many speakers are nervous, nervy, over-excited, worried about how they will be perceived, worried that they might be interrupted, worried that they might run over time, and desperate to get it over with and get off stage as quickly as possible. All these points contrive to make them speak far too quickly. Unless you are a racing commentator, speaking quickly will make people perceive you as a loser.

Remember the four aims of presentation: to be heard, understood, respected and remembered.

If you rattle through everything at lightning speed as if you had a plane to catch or an urgent appointment with the nearest rest-room, your audience might not hear all your words, they might not properly understand, they won’t credit you with enough credibility to care what you are saying, and they won’t remember it anyway because they have no time to think about what it means to them.

Leaders, on the other hand, are confident. Leaders know that people will listen to them, and not interrupt them. Leaders are calm and collected. In short, leaders speak slowly and in a controlled way, and when they leave a pause, they are saying to the audience: “I am confident that nobody will use this pause to interrupt me.” And because they exude this confidence and this sense of leadership, generally nobody does.

Therefore when you use pauses, it makes you look confident and powerful. It makes you look like you are in control. It makes you look like a leader. It makes you look like someone worth listening to. And if the audience thinks you are worth listening to, then speaking slowly with pauses should enable you to achieve all four of the aims of presentation: to be heard, understood, respected and remembered.

Let’s finish with a few examples. Here are three fine speakers: Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Steve Jobs, and former French President Jaques Chirac. As you watch these (you probably only need the first minute of each to get the idea), try to imagine how those speakers would have appeared had they spoken extremely quickly. Would they have had the same effect?

MLK

In the first part of Dr King’s famous Lincoln Memorial speech, he spoke at approximately 92 words per minute. That is extremely slow compared to most speakers, and slower than I would recommend in most professional situations. But it worked for him. Could you imagine him speaking much faster? When your words have as much power as Dr King’s, don’t dilute that power by rushing through them.

Steve Jobs

Jobs was a master of the pause, and of speaking slowly. In the first 90 seconds of this example (the original iPhone introduction), Jobs spoke at 94 words per minute – and that’s not including the time he waited while the audience applauded.

Note how he even paused at the beginning. Of course it wasn’t the start of his complete presentation, but it was the start of this section. The long pause would have left the audience wondering what was to come, and it allowed Jobs to collect his thoughts, catch his breath, and prepare for perhaps his biggest ever launch. Again, his words all had such power which would have been lost if he had hurried through them.

Lastly, remember that slow should not mean boring and monotonous. Nobody would accuse Dr King or Steve Jobs of sounding boring. On the contrary, when you slow down and use pauses well, you can give your words far more power and emphasis. Watch how Jobs did this.

Jacques Chirac

In this televised address to mark the end of his presidency, Jacques Chirac spoke purposefully and meaningfully. You may not speak French so this may not mean much to you, but just watch the first 30 seconds and listen to the sound of his voice. He spoke at 120 words per minute in this section, which is right in the range of 110-140 words per minute which I recommend to most speakers. It’s faster than both Jobs and Dr King, but still quite slow compared to most speakers who are above 150 words per minute (why not time yourself?).

(I can’t embed this one sadly since WordPress doesn’t seem to support embedding DailyMotion clips.)

Jacques Chirac – Adieu

So slow down, and leave pauses. You will have more credibility. Your messages will have a better chance of sticking. And your audience will certainly be grateful.


5 Reasons Why Black Is The New White

March 23, 2012

Earlier this week, I was with a group of senior executives at a multinational corporation, looking at some slides I had produced for them. The HR VP had never worked with Ideas on Stage before, so our 2.0 visual style was entirely new to him.

The slides were entirely compatible with this company’s corporate identity, except that the slide background was black instead of their usual white.

The HR VP’s reaction was very positive: “I’d never thought of using a black background before. It looks so much better.”

Indeed it does. Very much better. Apple uses dark backgrounds (dark does not need to mean pure black) and that’s as good an argument as any. Here are five other reasons why you should stop using white backgrounds, and use a dark background wherever possible.

1. Don’t fatigue your audience

I often surprise my trainees when, after a hundred or more slides with a black background, I then start talking about the use of colour, and show them a mostly empty slide with a white background. Their reaction is always the same – the sudden burst of white light physically disturbs them, causes them to reel away, narrow their eyes, and not enjoy the experience at all. I make them think about why they reacted in this way. And then ask them why they would do this to their audiences all the time.

Whether you are projecting onto a screen or using a large LCD screen, a white background produces an awfully bright light, and although if the background is always white your audience will not need to recoil in self-defence, what will happen is that all that light will tire their eyes and make them unnecessarily fatigued. If you want to tire your audience, by all means bombard them with lots of white light. That’s not the aim of most presentations – but sadly it is the result.

A black background with white text will be far easier on their eyes, and help you to keep them fully awake. This is especially important in dark settings such as a theatre where the audience is mostly in the dark. There, a white background is simply criminal. But even in a well-lit room, white on black works just as well as black on white in terms of contrast – and much better in terms of the audience’s comfort.

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2. Keep them focused on you

We use slides to illustrate our messages – they are not the message themselves. We want people to be able to ‘get’ the slide in 3-5 seconds, and return their focus to the presenter, instead of spending the whole time looking at the wall.

Unfortunately, our eyes are naturally attracted to sources of light. So the more light you put on the screen, the more people will be drawn to look at it even if they already ‘got’ the slide. I sometimes test audiences with a slide with just one word on it, and I find people still looking back at it long after they had first read and understood it. That is worse when the background is white.

Give them less light on the screen, and they will be able to focus more on you and what you are saying.

3. Smile – you’re on camera

If you are being filmed, or if there are photographers capturing your moment on stage, then do the cameramen a favour – make sure the slides are no lighter than you are. Otherwise they will have a tough time with the contrast, because a white background on the slide is a lot – a LOT – brighter than you are, even if you have a spotlight on you.

If you want good-quality photographs and videos of your big presentation, don’t use a white background. Black is far better.

4. Slides without borders

You might want to have a slide which simply features a photo in portrait format (i.e. it is rectangular, but while it fills the screen vertically, there is a big gap on the left and the right). If you use a white background, then what people will see on the wall/screen is a photo with two big bright bars on each side, and their eyes will be drawn to the white bars instead of the photo. If you use a black background, they will just see a photo in the middle of the screen.

Quite simply, if you use a black background (and here I do mean a purely black background, not a gradient like Apple uses most of the time), there will be little or no ‘edge’ to the projected image. People will see your nice clear graph in the middle of the wall, and it will blend into the wall rather than being clearly part of a projected white rectangle. It looks so much better. Try it.

5. Stand out from the crowd

99% of slide presentations suck. Probably 95% of these presentations use slides with white backgrounds. It’s not because of the background that the presentation sucks, or at least that’s not the only reason. But it is a simple fact that the vast majority of slides are horrible, and the vast majority of those horrible slides have white backgrounds.

So when you start up your slides, and the audience sees they are white, they will immediately (and perhaps subconsciously) recall all their previous painful experiences with horrible white slides, and they will expect the worst. They’ll probably assume you will assault them with Comic Sans and cheesy stick-man clip art at any time. And clearly you don’t want to start your presentation by making them expect the worst – your introduction needs to make them want to listen!

If however you start projecting slides with a black background, you immediately set yourself apart from all those previous negative experiences. This is not like every other presentation. It can’t be any worse. It might in fact be better.

And if you care enough about your audience and your communication to use a black background, then you’ll probably make an effort with your story, your slides and your delivery as well, so it almost certainly will be better.

But hold on a minute…

You might be thinking that you have to use a white background because you have to print your slides, and you don’t want to use huge amounts of toner. Indeed my old friends at HP would probably love it if you decided to print out mostly-black slides. But I have two responses to this.

1. You should never, ever, need to print your slides. Why would you do that? Slides are not handouts (if you don’t agree, read this) so you shouldn’t print them to give to your audience. Besides, in this environmentally-conscious age, you should be avoiding unnecessary paper use whenever possible. Your slides are intended to be projected on a big screen or via a webinar – and perhaps to accompany your electronic hand-outs which you distribute (ideally) after your presentation.

Of course, if you are producing a document in PowerPoint – which you may want to print – then by all means use a white background and by all means print it. Just don’t confuse that with the kind of slides you would use for a live presentation.

2. Pure Black & White. If you really, really do need to print your slides for some reason (and every rule has an exception), then you can use the Pure Black & White printing mode in PowerPoint, and it will automatically change the colours for you so that your printout is clear but you use a minimum of toner or ink. (NB: PowerPoint 2010 had an issue with this printing mode, and if you suffer from it, there is a hotfix available here.)

So there you have it. Black is the new white when it comes to slide backgrounds. And this is one change your audience will truly thank you for.


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