Predictably many in the audience tuned out and then passed away in boredom. Death by elocution-at the hands of speakers who go on and onhas been joined by death by PowerPoint.
Dont get me wrong. When PowerPoint arrived some years ago, it was one of the wonders of the technological world. Suddenly you could create a presentation in minutes. You could conjure up cute little charts, pull in clip art, play with fonts the likes of which you never saw before. And then at the click of a mouse you could have the whole thing jumping around like an MTV veejay.
It was so easy and corporate looking executives came running into its arms. But a strength taken too far can become a weakness. Soon executives stopped thinking beyond PowerPoint. They stopped thinking out-of-the-box. If theyd done their PowerPoint, they felt theyd done their job. As a result, we have presentation after standardised presentation stuffed with statistics but lacking in imagination. And very rarely do we get any sense of the flesh-and-blood person behind the presenter.
When I think of the most memorable presentations I ever saw, I remember a person talking. A dialogue. A human connection. A little imperfection even. Many of the accouterments of corporatespeak are so dry: official memos, mind-numbing statistics, charts, bars. They get to the head but to motivate people you need to target 12 inches belowto the heart. Thats when they really listen and respond.
One way to involve people at the deepest level is through stories. Rewind back to your childhood when, snuggled in bed, you heard storieseyes shining with anticipation, breath held as you waited for the next part. That inner childfull of curiosity and wonderis still alive in the most jaded of executives. A compelling story is one way to hook it.
A recent issue of the Harvard Business Review interviewed Hollywood screenwriting coach Robert McKee who has helped dozens of corporate executives turn their presentations into stories. Each of those presentations managed to hook Wall Street executives into investing in their projects. A big part of a CEOs job is to motivate people to reach their goals, McKee says. If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.
Last year at the Stanford Publishing Course, I heard an outstanding presentation by Mark Whitaker, the editor of Newsweek. He used no slides, no visual aids. Instead he stood on the stage and told a story. His story began one morning when, soon after dropping his son to school, he headed back to work. Climbing up the stairs, he sensed something wrong but couldnt say what it was. He found his staff in shock, some crying. It was the 11th of September 2001.
Whitaker then went on to tell how, in less than 24 hours, Newsweek staffers had to bring about a special issue of the World Trade Centre tragedy: an entire team chasing a deadline while simultaneously coping with their own horror. His story had characters, drama, fear, lossand the excitement of racing against the clock. He spoke for over an hour and not one person in that audience of 200 people stirred.
Storytelling is one way to connect with listeners. Another is through arousing the senses, either directly or by talking about your product in sensory terms. Some years ago, I saw film-director Shekhar Kapur do this exceedingly well while giving a talk on the advantages of digital film-making. He started by bringing onto the stage a dozen humongous tin containers that together contained the reels of one feature film. The containers took up about three quarters of the stage. He then put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a tiny disc, which alone contained a feature film. You could see at once what the digital world promised: how data the size of a building could be squeezed into one tiny disc.
Now you may say this is all very well but the corporate world is different. It deals with statistics and hard data. And the more you stuff into your presentation, the better.
What is data anyway What does it mean What is the difference between a million and a billion and a trillion Beyond a point it means nothing because you cant see those figures in a human context. Witness how legendary information designer Nigel Holmes (former Graphic Director of Time) made those numbers visible. He said: Its the year 0, the beginning of the first millennium and you have a trillion dollars to spend, at the rate of a million dollars a day. At just before three years, youve reached a billion. You keep spending and now you are in the year 2001. You still have 737 years to go, spending a million every day, before you reach the end of your trillion dollar pile.
Suddenly we began to see the numbers. The dry data became something you could hold in your hand.
Holmes suggests keeping a reference file of anything you find interestingphotographs, sculpture, stories, poetry, even music. Keep your imagination open, hold the spirit of wonder and you begin to see all sorts of lovely connections. He concluded his fascinating presentation on the power of simplicity. But how did he show us simplicity By playing two pieces of music. First, a loud techno-heavy piece. And then, a soft melody of a woman singing alone to the sound of the piano: Norah Jones. Suddenly you saw simplicity.
You guys out there who make presentations, please think of us in the audience. Tickle us, tease us, tell us a story, connect with us. Tell us about your start-up not just through hard data. Tell us about the nights spent working, the panic when the money ran out, the special joy when you got the first account and everyone, including the chowkidar, joined in the celebrations.
Tell us about all that. And then bring on the PowerPoint slides if you must.
As soldiers-in-waiting. Not the commander of the whole show.
Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly column on the business of life. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org