No Presenter? No Presentation

When reading blogs on the subject, or by simply talking to people and asking them what they think, there is often some confusion as to what actually constitutes a presentation.

But let's be absolutely clear: for a presentation to exist, the presenter is the only essential element. Everything else is secondary.

Closeup of microphone with blurred audience in the background
In other words, if there is no presenter, there can be no presentation.

To put this into perspective, let's suppose your senior management team has assembled to attend a presentation that will be delivered by an outside consultant. When the presentation begins, the projector suddenly breaks down. PowerPoint is unavailable.

Could the presenter still deliver the presentation? Of course.

In fact, according to three research studies that measure audience retention when slides are used versus simply talking to the audience without the use of slides to convey the same information — one from Purdue University, one from the University of Barcelona and one from the University of Munich — the audience will understand and retain up to 30 per cent more information from the presentation if the projector does break down than if the slides are actually delivered.

(Hint for future presentation effectiveness: Turn off the projector to deliver your next presentation and you’ll achieve 30 per cent greater audience retention.)

Now, imagine another scenario. The presenter is on a flight that has been delayed and he or she can no longer deliver the presentation in person. Instead, the slides are sent via email. Would the presentation still exist? Would the senior management team assemble in the boardroom to go over the slides and discuss the information? No, probably not.

If slides are sent in advance that can be understood without the presenter, a horizontal written document has been circulated. A presentation has not been delivered.

Let's be clear. A movie is not a presentation. A slideware file is not a presentation. A presentation deck is not a presentation, no matter how often some people use the words 'presentation' and 'PowerPoint' interchangeably.

And that brings us to the original assertion.

If there is no presenter, there can be no presentation.

Period.

How Steve Jobs Did "It"

It is common knowledge that Steve Jobs set an extremely high standard for the presentations he delivered. But how did he do it? How was he able to give presentations that not only provided valuable information, but also potentially allowed people to apply that information and teach it to others?

The YouTube video below is a clear demonstration of how and why Steve Jobs was so successful. And there are lessons here from which every presenter — and indeed every leader — can learn.

First, Mr. Jobs matched the needs of his audience with his business objectives. In this example, he clearly defines the future direction of Apple computers for developers, and how that direction will influence the ways in which developers can support Apple's hardware with meaningful products.

Second, he carefully structures the conversation. It would be easy to imagine him having this same conversation with three people sitting around a boardroom table, or with 3000 software developers in an auditorium. He pauses between ideas to allow the audience to absorb what is being said. By delivering his ideas conversationally, he is able to convey his message and personality effectively.

Third, he minimizes the visual aids he uses. While one could make the case that one or two of the visuals did not add value (were the binoculars really necessary?), most did not distract from what was being said, and indeed directly supported his objectives. Rather than bombarding the audience with words on a screen, he minimizes the number of words and carefully selects a few images that help the audience follow his ideas.

By using these strategies, Steve Jobs presented a completely new direction to developers in a way that enhanced understanding. By simply paying attention, developers could go back to their office and effectively explain his vision to their colleagues.

And that is the true test of presentation success. If you’d like to test the power of this approach, watch the YouTube video now, and see if you can explain his vision to a colleague tomorrow morning over coffee in relaxed conversation.

Then try that with the “average” presentation you attend this week and compare the results.

Even More Bad New for Slideware Users

Bored audience
A study conducted at the University of Munich has confirmed the results of two previous studies I’ve written about—a study from Purdue and another from the University of Barcelona.

And the news is truly bad for the 30 to 40 million slide-driven presentations, lectures, workshops, seminars, and training programs delivered worldwide each day.

If slides are your crutch, it’s bad news for you, too.

There is now absolutely no question that your audience misses large portions of what you say when you show your slides and talk at the same time.

The Munich study confirmed that “the retention of oral information was significantly lower in the condition with regular slides than in the condition without slides.”

Of course, if you believe that what the presenter says isn’t important, perhaps it makes no difference. But there is a critical question to ask of those who believe the presenter isn’t absolutely essential to every effective presentation: If what the presenter says isn’t important, why is she or he taking up our time in the first place?

In another objection to the research, some might ask: “If the audience loses a large portion of what’s said, isn’t there an offsetting gain by showing the slides?”

According to the researchers, the answer is no.

munich sample slides.002
“It is remarkable, however, that this ‘suppressive’ effect of regular slides,” they said, “could not be demonstrated to be the downside of a trade-off in favour of the retention of information on slides.”

In other words, if you use what the researchers called “regular” slides in your presentation (like the one to the right), your audience is going to miss large portions of what you say, no matter how well you say it or how hard they struggle to absorb it.

Logically, this would apply even more to charts and graphs, which require more reading and more concentration to decipher than the regular slide shown here.

And there is no question that what you lose by asking your audience to read and listen at the same time is not regained in any way by showing your slides.

Regular Slides vs Concise Slides
munich sample slides.001
The researchers also tested the retention and understanding of presentations using what they called concise slides.

The regular slide format contained a total of 12 slides: a title slide; a structural slide; and 10 additional slides. No slide in this series contained more than eight lines (excluding the heading) or six bullet points.

Conversely, concise slides used six slides to explain the same information: a title slide, a structural slide; and four additional slides. The researchers also used “black” slides between the regular slides. No slide in this series contained more than seven lines (excluding the heading) or five bullet points.

While their research confirmed that the “retention of oral information is higher with concise slides or without slides than with regular slides,” they could not state that the overall retention of concise slides was any better than not using slides at all.

The Bottom Line
In
5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint’, the third step is: “Minimize visual aids.” I am 100 per cent confident that the research from Purdue, Barcelona and Munich supports the logic of that suggestion.

There are three things to keep in mind when minimizing visual aids, two of which were dealt with directly in the research.

First, to enhance your success, you must absolutely minimize the information on slides if you cannot overcome your PowerPoint addiction and eliminate them altogether (or only use one or two where needed). If your slides look like the regular slide shown here, turn off the projector, use your slides as notes (visible to you, but not to the audience), and talk to your audience.

Second, you must absolutely minimize the number of slides you use. As the researchers demonstrated, by cutting the number of content slides by 60 per cent, and by using blank slides between content slides, retention of information increased.

There is a simple test to determine this. If someone can read your slides and understand your presentation, you have too many slides and too much on each slide.

Third, don’t be afraid to use other visual aids. Whiteboards, flip charts, blackboards and pieces of paper are not only excellent visual aids, they are not slides. Each one is a different tool; each one has a different purpose.

Finally, don’t be afraid to turn off the projector and talk to your audience. If you believe that what you say is important, the research is clear:

Simply talking to your audience, while minimizing your visual aids, is absolutely the best way to be heard, understood and remembered.

More Bad News for Slideware Users

Bored man in audience holds his head in his hands while the rest of the audience sleeps on the tables
A study from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain confirms the conclusions of a study from Purdue University I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

Like the Purdue study, the Barcelona results are bad news for the 40 million people each day who deliver “standard” slideware presentations.

Their slides are getting in the way of the communication process, leading to lower understanding and retention by the audience.

However, the study indicates that presenters can achieve better outcomes by turning off the projector, talking to their audience, and using a chalkboard, whiteboard or flip chart when needed.

205 Students in Four Classes
Researchers conducted their study with a base of 205 students registered in a course entitled the Psychology of Education during the 2010-2011 academic year—a compulsory course for those working toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

The course was divided into four groups and led by two professors. Each professor taught one course in the morning and one in the afternoon. For this test, each professor used slides for one class and a blackboard for the other.

The two professors worked together to develop a 19-slide presentation for the class in which slides would be shown. The number of lines in each slide did not exceed 13. The number of words per slide varied between 42 and 93.

This is actually a “light” treatment of the use of slides by industry standards (
as this page of conference handouts clearly demonstrates).

The professors prepared a 10-question multiple-choice test to evaluate the knowledge acquired by students during the class. The test was administered immediately after the presentation. The questions and their correct answers were based on information taught during the class.

During the first 40 minutes of class time, the professor delivered the presentation (lecture). The remaining time was devoted to allowing students to complete the quiz.

Results Are Significant
There is no question that slides impeded the communication process. The students who weren’t exposed to slides scored higher on the quiz than those who were.

The average score for those who didn't see slides was 8.21. The average score for those who were exposed who did see the slides was 6.73.

In other words, eliminating slides enabled students to score 22 per cent higher on the quiz.

“The evaluations of contents presented without PowerPoint yielded better results (more correct answers and consequently fewer mistakes) than when the same contents were presented using the PowerPoint methodology,” the researchers concluded. “If we take the class taught without PowerPoint as a reference, the effect of this technology used according to the procedure described is to lower learning by 18%, which can be considered a significant effect (or defect).”

Verifying Step Three: Minimize Visual Aids
The researchers are verifying step three of the 5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint’: Minimize visual aids.

If presenters need a visual to explain a concept, they should use a visual (and, as the
Purdue study indicated, there is no added value to developing a slide versus simply drawing a diagram with a whiteboard or flip chart). Once it’s no longer needed, remove the visual from view and talk to your audience.

But if presenters feel compelled to always have something in front of the audience, they are negatively impacting their ability to communicate effectively.

For those who believe that communication, understanding and retention are important to their personal and/or professional business success, there is a lot to be gained from the Barcelona study.

Bad News for Slideware Users

PowerPoint causes students to fall asleep during presentations
Researchers at Purdue University have some bad news for the 40 million people worldwide who deliver “standard” slide-driven presentations each and every day.

When slides are used, the researchers concluded, the audience retains nearly 30 per cent less than if presenters eliminate PowerPoint and simply talk to their audience.

In other words,
by simply turning off your projector and using your slides as notes, you can significantly enhance your communication effectiveness.

Two Styles of Lectures
The researchers conducted their study as part of a course entitled “Human Factors in Engineering” that was delivered to students from four majors—engineering, humanities, management and technology. The course was attended by both undergraduate and graduate students and was taught three times a week for 16 weeks.

There were two separate streams of classes for the course, which was based on the textbook Human Factors in Simple and Complex Systems.

For two lectures, two distinctly different delivery styles were used—one that showed slides during the lecture and one that did not.

Researchers then used a 20-question quiz to test students’ ability to recall information in four categories: oral information presented during lectures, graphic information presented during lectures, alphanumeric information from the lectures, and information presented orally with visual support.

The Negative Affect of Slides
The researchers’ first hypothesis was that PowerPoint would have a negative effect on what was said during the lecture—that it would be more difficult for the audience to listen to the presenter while slides are shown.

And there is no question this is true. Students who didn't see slides during the lecture scored 29 per cent higher on the quiz in recalling oral information, and achieved higher overall scores with the recall of all information. “The presence of PowerPoint negatively affected the recall of auditory information,” the researchers concluded, adding that “graphic scores reveal there was no notable gain when using PowerPoint to display graphic information.

“The same could be said for alphanumeric information. There was no notable gain for using PowerPoint vs. the chalkboard.”

Ever spent hours putting a slide together? According to this research, that effort was virtually a complete waste of time.

But the news gets even worse for habitual users of all slideware programs. In addition to testing lectures with and without slides, the researchers also tested those people who didn’t attend class at all during the two lectures in which the comparison was made. Unbelievably, those who didn’t attend either lecture “heard” more than those who attended the slide-driven lecture.

“The negative affect that PowerPoint has on the retention of auditory information is similar to not attending class and hearing the information at all,” the researchers wrote in their conclusions.

In other words, if you use slides, your audience is better off reading your slides and skipping the meeting, webinar, training session or conference at which those slides were presented. They’ll understand and retain more.

Fortunately, if understanding and retention are important to your business success, you can enhance both with one simple action:

Turn off the projector, or close the deck,
and simply talk to your audience.

Shauna Overcomes Her Slide Addiction

I had a fascinating experience last fall that underscored everything I’ve believed about how using slides kills interactivity and audience engagement—and that by simply shutting off the projector you can reverse those negative outcomes.

Smiling presenter addresses man raisin his hand
I was the scheduled keynote speaker at an evening forum for aspiring professional engineers sponsored by a chapter of Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO). After my hour, a speaker from PEO headquarters was scheduled to spend about 40 minutes talking about the steps required to achieve the professional engineering (P.Eng.) designation.

The title of my presentation was: Cognitive Science + Common Sense = Effective Presentations. Once I showed a short video during the first part of my presentation—to demonstrate that humans cannot read and listen at the same time—I shut the projector off.

During the lull between my presentation and the next one, the speaker (we’ll call her Shauna) started up the projector, attached her laptop, and began loading her presentation.

Watching this on-screen, one of the participants commented: “Wow, look at all the slides! Didn’t you hear anything Eric said during the past hour?”

He said it quietly and politely, but his point was well made. Shauna looked a little lost, so I walked over and quietly said to her: “If you need your slides as notes, use them. But shut the projector off.”

She did shut it off and, shortly after she started her presentation, an interesting thing happened. The group began asking questions. And they didn’t just ask questions, they fired them at her.

“I’ve just changed jobs,” one person said. “What information do I need from my previous employer? Is there anything different I need from my current employer?”

“I’ve just been laid off,” another said. “How will that affect my path to becoming licensed? Can I get an extension if I need it?”

On it went. Shauna was easily asked more than 50 or 60 questions, which helped audience members shape the licensing information to their particular circumstance, which is when communication actually works.

After the presentation, I asked Shauna if this was more questions than she normally receives. “Definitely,” she replied. “In fact, it’s more questions in one evening than I’ve received in the dozens of times I’ve delivered this presentation combined.”

I also talked to a few aspiring engineers at the end of the evening. They told me they got great value from the presentation. They already knew the path to licensure. The interaction gave them the opportunity to relate that path to their specific circumstances.

And that is when face-to-face communication actually works.

So, if you want to improve your next presentation, why not learn from Shauna’s experience? Shut off the projector and use your slides as your notes.

Create an interactive exchange that has structure for you, but ultimately provides more value to them.

After all, aren’t they the most important people in the room?

Body Language: Gestures Are Essential

When seeking body language advice for presentations and television interviews (or sales calls and job interviews, for that matter), the best place to begin is with the work of psycholinguists.

Pasted Graphic 1
Wikipedia tells us that psycholinguists study "the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, and understand language." It has been a recognized field for about 50 years.

In her book Hearing Gesture: How our hands help us think, psycholinguist Susan Goldin-Meadow points out that no culture has been discovered in which people do not move their hands as they talk. In other words, if you're reading this, there is an extremely high probability that you gesture in conversation -- even if you're not aware of it.

As Dr. Goldin-Meadow discovered, a person speaking does not even have to be sighted to use gestures. In her book, she describes an experiment in which children and teens blind from birth participated in a series of conversational tasks. All of the children used gestures. "The blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group," she writes, "and conveyed the same information using the same range of gesture forms."

Regardless of our culture or language, we all use gestures to help us think and communicate.

Most of us intuitively know that gestures help us communicate. "Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system," Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. "The gestures that speakers produce along with their talk are symbolic acts that convey meaning." This is why we get more out of face-to-face meetings than telephone conversations.

But the evidence also indicates that gestures make it easier to think. "When the act of speaking becomes difficult, speakers seem to respond by increasing their gestures," Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. Her hypothesis is that gesturing reduces demands on a speaker's cognitive resources. Attempting to reduce or eliminate gestures (i.e. being told to reduce your gestures by a psycholinguist conducting an experiment or, potentially, by a presentation or media training consultant trying to get you to convey the "right image") adds to your cognitive burden. It makes it more difficult to think of what you're trying to say at times when, during presentations and interviews, you don't need the added pressure.

In other words, if you want to increase your ability to think on your feet during presentations, or in your seat during television interviews, bring your gestures with you and let them happen naturally.

Or, as Dr. Goldin-Meadow was quoted as saying on page 14 of the November 25, 2003, edition of the
Chicago Sun-Times:

"At the very least, we ought to stop telling people not to move their hands when they talk."

What is a Conversation?

Conversations are two-way, receiver-driven and adhere to the principle of "less is more." Ever been stuck at the party beside the person who talks non-stop? Is that two-way communication? Or is it a one-way transmission of information?

The person you want to talk to at the party is the person who has something interesting to say; someone with interesting and relevant stories to tell. A good conversationalist provides a bit of information, looks for acknowledgement (via a nod or uh-huh), and provides a bit more. This occurs one short idea at a time. Pauses occur frequently. The person talking thinks before talking. The people listening get the opportunity to think about what was just said.

If the listener has a question, the good conversationalist will immediately allow him or her to ask. If the listener has something to contribute to the conversation, based on his or her experience, the good conversationalist allows that contribution and builds upon it.

If a picture needs to be drawn, it will be drawn. Hopefully, the person drawing will not use one of the host's linen napkins, but the picture will be drawn for everyone to see at a rate at which everyone can participate. Six months from that date, everyone involved in the conversation would be able to look at the picture and remember specific elements of what was discussed.

Presentations should be more like conversations
When the picture is no longer necessary, it is removed from view. And the conversation continues.

This conversation will tap into the fact that human beings cannot think and listen at the same time. When the good conversationalist provides food for thought, he or she allows the receiver to think by stopping—by pausing. In that silence, the receiver is given the opportunity to move the idea from working memory to long-term memory, thereby finding a position for it within his or her existing cognitive framework.

The good conversationalist also knows that people won't remember what was said. Instead, they will remember what they thought about what was said. Conversationalists know how to use silence to influence when people think and what they think about, in order to communicate effectively.

I leave this thought with three questions: How many modern presentations resemble the person talking nonstop, versus the conversation?

Why can't all presentations be like conversations? And wouldn't the world be a better place if they were?