Thursday, January 1, 2009

How to use PowerPoint in 2009

Olivia Mitchell of the Speaking About Presenting blog sent me this provocative post by Laura Bergells on the Maniactive blog: It notes the backlash against bullet-filled PowerPoint slides, which led to simple art-filled slides. Neither approach works for audiences, Bergells notes, proposing there is (or should be) another backlash against the simplified slide. In fact, she calls the use of simple art and pictures--designed to evoke emotional responses--"propaganda." Sounds like everyone agrees that, if you must use them, they should have the pop and fizz of a good champagne. But what does that mean PowerPoint slides should look like in 2009? Mitchell asks.

I'm no advocate of slides, which tend to serve as projected cue cards even the audience can follow. I'd much prefer to see speakers build their skills to engage audiences with language, gestures, movement and even physical props, rather than as passive narrators of PowerPoint. Bergells notes:
When it comes to experiencing a PowerPoint presentation, there's only so much your brain can process. You can either listen to a presenter speak, or you can try to read what you seen on the screen. If you try to do both at the same time, you absorb less. And you become irritated with the presenter.
At the same time, she points out, audiences are becoming more skeptical and want more information--in part, because they're used to getting it from social media:
Social media has also made "talking back" popular. People are becoming accustomed to criticizing presentation techniques and content on Twitter backchannels. They're creating and commenting on blogs, and voting on Digg or StumbleUpon. Today's audience isn't quietly and politely absorbing canned corporate and political propaganda: they're getting accustomed to talking back and creating their own content.

So where does that leave us? I say if you must use PowerPoint, in 2009, use it to further the discussion with your audience. I've started using social media techniques in my own speaking by opening with audience questions, recording their questions on video and posting them on my blogs. That's not just for the sake of a trendy technology, but to engage the audience--and it works, allowing not just for involvement but to lead to the more thoughtful, difficult and intellectually challenging conversations audiences want. In that scenario, speakers in 2009 could use PowerPoint to:

  • Ask questions of the audience: Instead of loading your slides with bullets or pictures, try posing relevant--and thorny--questions about your issue. Use the slide to guide, even encourage discussion.
  • Play advance feedback back to the audience: If your conference organizers ask the audience to submit advance questions, get them ahead of time and share them on a slide or series of slides--no better way to let the audience know you've heard their feedback, and a great guide to a discussion.
  • Add to the slide in real time: Ask the audience to call out points and amend your slide on the fly, so their input is reflected. Or start a list on the slide and turn to the audience to add to the points you've made.

That seems to me to solve the problem of what to watch: Audience members, seeing their issues and questions on the slides, can fully engage with both slides and speaker. Then, once you've put the audience front and center, you can put up slides with some answers: data, ideas, examples.

once upon a time: the eloquent calendar

You may be mulling the passage of time or the significance of the date on this New Year's Day, so it's the perfect time to consider how special dates and times can add eloquence to your next speech. In some measure, eloquence transports the listener from her seat to greater, grander thoughts and places--and moving your listeners through space and time can be one of the most effective ways to make a strong impression. Here are some ways eloquent speakers can turn the calendar and the clock into tools that take your listeners someplace memorable:

  • Define the larger issues that result in your being here today: I recently had the chance to see the White House's copy of the Gettysburg Address--in Lincoln's own handwriting--in this special exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. This entire short speech endures today in large part because of its sense of time: It encapsulates the past in describing what the founders did, notes the significance of the day on which "we are met on a great battlefield of that war," and looks to the future in which government "of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth." (The exhibit link includes access to an electronic file of the short speech for you to study.) Lincoln drew a verbal timeline that lets any listener understand how their presence on that day fit into the nation's history and its future.

  • Make the date resonate: If your role as a speaker occurs on a special anniversary, find out what else happened in that year to add historic context to your audience's celebration. Is it the 50th anniversary of a local professional chapter? Then find out what else happened in that profession 50 years ago. Is a special person's service being honored at a retirement or awards ceremony? Describe the technology that was in use when she began her career, or how many women graduated from her college department at the start of her career versus how many today. Pulling those present back into the past helps them place the anniversary--and its significance--in history.

  • Go 'beyond the moment:' Use the occasion to ask big questions and demand big answers from your audience--even if your rhetorical questions go unanswered for the moment. Sometimes posing the questions for the audience is the most moving: In effect, you're giving voice to what they're wondering, allowing all points of view to come forward. Push listeners past the anniversary, hour or day in question and inspire them to make it worthy of reflection at a future point. For inspiration, look at this interview with the contemporary poet Elizabeth Alexander, who's been chosen to create an "occasional poem" for the inauguration of Barack Obama January 20th. She notes she hopes to "to create something that has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment."

How will you make the time and date ring out with eloquence in your next speech? (Photo of Elizabeth Alexander by caribbeanfreephoto on Flickr.)