Sunday, October 31, 2010

How NOT to Make a Presentation: Using a Mnemonic As The Foundation Can Render a Presentation Hollow!

Last week, while I was in Dehra Dun, an Indian city located in the Himalayan foothills, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of my high school, The Doon School, I listened to a one-hour presentation on leadership by a Dr. Sanjiv Chopra of Harvard Medical School. What a disappointment! The only positive comment I can make about that presentation is the speaker’s delivery: a strong voice with excellent enunciation. But the content? An overwhelming, rapid-fire barrage of slides that lasted more then twice the allotted time and created severe listener indigestion.

I believe my analysis of why the presentation was completely ineffective, and why it did not leave any long-term impact on the numerous members of the audience I have spoken to since, will give you specific ideas on how to make your next presentation really worthwhile for the listener, especially if it's going to be on some abstract issue such as leadership.

So, where did the speaker go wrong? First, he made the common mistake of bundling his content into a mnemonic—in this case the word “L E A D E R S H I P” itself. Thus, he had L stand for “listening” as a key skill, E for “empathy,” A for attitude, and so on. Invariably, when speakers try to fit a complex subject into a mnemonic, they end up oversimplifying the matter and leaving the audience with a distorted takeaway. Let me elaborate.

Take for instance “communication” and “vision”—unquestionably two of the most important ingredients of leadership. Because the letters C and V do not appear in the word LEADERSHIP, what does a speaker do, if he is trying to force fit everything into the letters L E A D…..? Either he will crudely and feebly tie these two qualities to other letters in the mnemonic or just make a passing reference to them. Result: the audience does not get a sharp, crystalline view of what it takes to be a strong and highly successful leader. And when the mnemonic happens to be a relatively long word, as is the 10-character “LEADERSHIP,” it will invariably end up exaggerating some minor qualities or aspects.

The second big mistake Dr. Chopra made was that for each quality represented by one of the characters in the word LEADERSHIP, he had a fusillade of slides, with each such slide featuring a comment by or about a famous leader. Thus, the presentation turned into an onslaught of several dozen such slides, producing severe overload and listener indigestion. At the end of the long, insufferable peroration, all that was left in our minds was a blur.

Since “leadership” is a particularly sexy subject for a presentation, thanks to its universal appeal, my next post offers an approach for making a cogent and indelible presentation on that topic.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Making a PowerPoint Presentation Highly Effective

I recently gathered that it is standard practice in major oil companies and engineering firms located here in Houston, and presumably everywhere else, for presenters to simply read from their slides. In other words, instead of displaying short, highly abbreviated bullet points, presentation slides are very busy, packed with complete sentences. Not a good idea at all! Here is why:

(i) As soon as a slide appears on the screen, the audience is tempted to start reading way ahead of the speaker. Result: the presenter loses control of the audience.

(ii) In the process of reading full sentences from a slide, the presenter’s delivery becomes boring, devoid of any vocal variety and relative emphasis. Result: the presentation lacks “freshness” and “spontaneity” – necessary ingredients for highly effective public speaking, especially when it comes to projecting conviction and enthusiasm, and being persuasive.

(iii) Even if a presenter were to somehow employ vocal variety, hand and facial gestures, and other elements of “animation” while reading straight from the slides, such animation would be ineffective because, as mentioned in (i) above, many in the audience would be reading material in advance of its utterance by the speaker.

Bottom line: it is imperative that each bullet point contain, at the most, just a few key words, with the speaker doing the necessary elaboration orally. Also, rather than a slide being displayed in its fullness from the get-go, each successive bullet should get displayed (such as by “flying in from the bottom”) only after the previous one has been discussed. This will prevent the audience from taking flight and it will ensure that everyone’s mind is in lockstep with that of the presenter.

In my next post on this subject, I will give specific examples of abbreviated bullet points by discussing some of the slides I presented at the Project Management Institute Global Congress 2010—North America held earlier this week in National Harbor, Md.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Building a Strong Vocabulary: New Edition of “Words of the Month”

The latest edition of “Words of the Month,” my free vocabulary enhancement feature, has been online since last weekend. Among the featured words, all of which lie within the conversational vocabulary of America’s most articulate:

1. incubus – to describe something that oppresses or burdens like a nightmare; a cause of anguished uncertainty or fear of failure.
comment: In these days of high unemployment, mounting credit card debt is a big incubus for millions of American families. And for our law enforcement agencies, an all new incubus is the threat posed by homegrown terrorists such as the “Time Square bomber.”

2. panache – a vivid word for spirited self-confidence and a dashing style.
comment: A great synonym for flamboyance and verve. Among the many singers and actors who exude (or exuded) panache: Katy Perry and Sean Connery (especially when he played James Bond).

3. fulminate – a strong word to describe the action of somebody who is shouting or hurling a loud verbal attack or condemnation.
comment: One of the ways that today’s media is different from that of, say, 25 years ago, is the advent of the Internet. Another is the prevalence of fulminating talk show hosts on radio and TV. Of course, there are plenty of fulminations when leading Democrats and Republicans attack each other on the floor of the House or the U.S. Senate.

4. incredulity – to describe the state of mind of someone who is unwilling or reluctant to believe--somebody who is skeptical.
comment: With Christmas just about two months away, this author recommends the 1947 classic film “Miracle on 34th Street” to all those who are incredulous of Santa Claus.

5. ephemeral – a term for something that lasts a noticeably short time.
comment: The nature of today’s economic news is strikingly ephemeral. Thus, one day the latest “housing starts” number is positive and the stock market soars. Two days later, retail sales look unpromising and the market plunges. Later that week, the “new jobs” numbers look robust and the Dow Jones perks up again.