Posts Tagged ‘communication’

Don’t make these presentation mistakes

October 20, 2011

One of my clients routinely gives public education presentations on the organization’s role and responsibilities. Recently, I was asked to assist with creating new presentations for its various audiences. The client sent me a few PowerPoint slide decks as background info. He prefaced the email attachment with the line, “These presentations are really bad.” Well, yes, the slide decks were pretty bad, but what I found interesting was that this client seemed to regard the slide deck as the presentation itself. I think this is pretty common and it’s mistake number one.

Your slide deck is NOT your presentation

Microsoft’s PowerPoint came on the business scene in the 1990s and people were blown away with this technology. It wasn’t long before giving a presentation without using PowerPoint seemed somehow less than professional. It was the start of a journey that led to endless slides filled with bullet points. Sometimes these bullet points zipped across the screen and included sound effects. Why? Well, because the software allowed the presenter to do this, that’s why.

What got lost in all the bells and whistles is that PowerPoint was created to be an aid to presenters, not to replace them. PowerPoint quickly became a crutch. It became the presenter’s notes displayed up on the screen and it made for excruciatingly tedious presentations.

Tip: If you gave your PowerPoint slides to someone who hasn’t seen your presentation and they can figure out exactly what it’s about, start again. Your slides are not an aid, they are a distraction.

Having visuals does not replace good structure

When you embark on creating a presentation, do not even open PowerPoint on your computer. Any visuals you apply to your presentation should come last. Start with answering these questions instead:

  1. Who is your audience?
  2. Why should your audience care about your topic?
  3. What are the three or four key messages you need to deliver?
From here you can begin to piece together the content of your presentation. It should have a clear beginning (intro of yourself and what you will be speaking about) middle (key messages explained and illustrated with examples and stories) and an end (a summary of the content to tie things up for the audience possibly along with a call to action).

Slides are for reinforcing your comments only

Slides can be enormously helpful, but they should not be necessary for giving your presentation. If your technology fails (it happens), you should still be able to deliver an effective presentation. You, the presenter, are the crucial element of the presentation, not your slides.

Slides should be visual, not words on a screen. Some presenters completely swear off the presence of any words on a presentation slide. While I wouldn’t go that far, I do feel strongly about the absence of bullet points. Just don’t do it. Instead, choose images to reinforce what you are saying. If you’re talking about a location for example, use a map to illustrate where it is. Use images as a metaphor to drive a point home. For example, in a past blog post about crisis communications I used the image of a cat’s paw hovering over a garter snake. That’s a powerful image to reinforce the idea of a crisis in the audience member’s mind.

Graphs and charts are fine but they are not the only way to convey numbers. Don’t use too many and make sure they are easy to understand at a glance.

Watch presentations by the late Steve Jobs to get an idea of how expert presenters use images to reinforce a message. Carmine Gallo has a nice way of summing up Jobs’ skills in this video.  In a vintage post, I also made reference to a still brilliant presentation by Dick Hardt. It’s a great example of how slides can keep a presentation moving and the audience visually engaged.

Don’t just wing it

It’s very important to rehearse your presentation. Repeatedly. Even the most confident presenter needs to practice and make sure things run smoothly. Grab a co-worker, roommate and/or significant other and have them watch you run through it to make sure you’re getting your key messages across. Have them be brutally honest and adjust accordingly.

Your turn – What presentation mistakes do you see people make and what’s your solution for avoiding them?

*photo courtesy of Fixedgear on Flickr
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Do you use email responsibly?

August 2, 2011

Email recently turned 40 years old. Hard to believe it’s been that long and even harder to believe that given its longevity, it’s one of the communication tools that is so often misused. Many of us feel so overwhelmed by our email in-boxes that we incessantly check our computers and mobile devices day and night trying to keep up.

A number of blogs and books have sprung up to help people manage email and to use it effectively. The blog, NetMatters, offers numerous tips and missives on the proper use of email and even urges people to take an “email etiquette pledge.” Danah Boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft, has gained attention for her promotion of the email sabbatical and provides details on how to take one when you go on vacation.

Even though I’ve noticed that teens and young adults appear to dismiss email as a form of communication in favour of SMS and chat, in the workplace, email still rules. Now that this communication tool has firmly reached middle age, maybe we can finally learn to manage it.

When I look at my own in-box and how I use email, I recognize areas that need reform. Here’s my personal list of resolutions and tips:

1. Not always responding – I try to be good about this, but sometimes I catch myself responding to an email even if I’ve just been copied on it and it’s a matter that does not require my input. There’s no need to contribute to the sender’s overloaded in-box with a response that simply says, “Thanks for the info.”

2. Clear subject lines – It makes me crazy when I’m searching for an old email using every keyword I can think of only to find that the original subject line from the sender was “Re”. That is not a subject line. I’ve resolved that when I get an email with an unclear subject line, I respond and insert a proper one. This makes it easier for me to search in future if required and, I hope, sends a subtle message to the sender that a clear subject line is required. Somewhat related is when someone uses an old email message in order to hit “reply” to send an unrelated new message. The person should start a new email thread to make searching for it later easier and to avoid confusion.

3. Vacations – I  need to improve here. When someone is on vacation, I need to stop sending him/her email. This is a tough one because if the person is gone for awhile, I’m afraid that I’ll forget that I need to inform him/her about something upon the person’s return. I think I can solve this by creating a draft email and waiting until the person returns to send it. That way, it’s written and just sitting there waiting for me to click send. I hate it when I return from vacation and have too many emails to deal with, so I need to set the example. Danah Boyd’s solution is a bit drastic but I can see its merits.

4. Visible email addresses on mass emails – I never do this on purpose but it annoys me when others do it. If you’re sending a mass email to multiple addresses, do a blind copy to all the recipients rather than making the addresses visible to everyone. My business email address is public knowledge but the Gmail address I use for personal correspondence is something I want to give out at my discretion. This public group email practice can also lead to the dreaded “reply all” thread that results in email conversations I don’t really need to be part of, which leads me to #5.

5. Reply all – Don’t do it unless everyone in that email address box really needs to be part of the conversation.

How about you? How have you tried to tame your email box? Share your success.

Plain language key to better communication

January 20, 2009

abc2Whether writing company memos, facilitating the monthly staff meeting or composing a media release, using plain language and straightforward writing is a must. Copyblogger, a blog for online writers, makes this case well in a recent post by Sonia Simone.  Simone compares writers who use big and/or complicated words and phrases to the children’s literary character, Fancy Nancy who always aims to make things more “sophisticated” and out of the ordinary than they are (e.g. she reads “tomes” rather than “books”). Simone points out that this quality can be charming in a 7-year-old but is not effective for a communicator. Many business leaders and communicators fall into the Fancy Nancy trap.

It’s tough to sell this idea to some. Doesn’t it sound more intellectual to use the word “utilize” rather than “use”? Doesn’t that insider-business-speak give the impression that we know what we’re talking about (e.g. “We need to leverage our vertical markets as part of industry best practice). Why should we dumb down what we’re trying to say?

Plain language isn’t ‘dumb’ language

It’s actually more difficult to write using simple, clear language than it is to use jargon and “fancy” words. The goal of writing, or speaking, is to deliver a message. Yet business writing often fails to be clear. You may think that corporate-speak is making your speech or writing more inspiring or credible-sounding but it’s actually leaving your message open to interpretation. People may be very unclear about what you’re trying to say but will rarely tell you  for fear they will look stupid. It also has a way of making people tune out because all of the “thinking outside of the box” catch phrases  sound like tired hype.

The path to clear writing

A quick Google search for “plain language” will point you to many resources, but here are some quick tips.

1. Review for clear language after the first draft – Sentence by sentence, check to see if you’ve used the simplest language possible. Exchange flowery, multi-syllable words for straight forward ones. (e.g. use about instead of approximately, most instead of preponderancetone down instead of modulate).

2. Cut down on words per sentence – Readers can get lost in long sentences so break long sentences into two if you can. Also get rid of unnecessary words (e.g. Replace phrases such as, that being said with but or the fact he did not succeed with his failure).

3. Get rid of jargon – Every industry has jargon and it’s very difficult to do away with it entirely. However, if you can use a non-jargon word easily, do it. This is particularly important if you are writing for an outside audience.

4. Avoid hype – If your  product really is “ground breaking” or “cutting edge” you don’t have to tell people that, they will know it by your description. If it’s not really that great, declaring that it is won’t make it so and will just make people roll their eyes.

5. Stop overused phrases – Stay away from trendy catch phrases such as, “world-class”, “shifting paradigms”, “mission critical”.  These types of phrases have become so overused they’ve become meaningless. People tune them out. Describe what you mean and ditch these credibility suckers.

6. Have someone else read it – Get someone you trust will tell the truth to review your document. Have the person circle anything that isn’t clear upon a first read through.

There are oodles of blog posts about the issue of  clear writing and folks seem to love commenting on their pet peeves, banished buzz words etc. If we talk about it enough, maybe one day, everyone will be a plain language writer.

If you have other suggestions for ensuring plain language/clear writing, please leave a comment.