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?

LinkedIn & Amazon Eliminate Slide-Driven Presentations

Two of the business world’s top CEOs—Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn—have eliminated slide-driven presentations from their meetings.

Jeff Bezos says banning powerpoint saves time
During an interview with Charlie Rose, Amazon.com’s CEO talked about why he would take such a seemingly radical step, which not only includes eliminating projected presentations but printed decks as well.

“All of our meetings are structured around six-page memos,” Bezos says, pointing out that this also eliminates bullet points. “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.”

Bezos believes that slides make it easy for the presenter but difficult for the audience. As a result, his meetings may start with up to 30 minutes of silence while everyone reads the documents.

The result of separating the written word from the spoken word? “It saves a lot of time,” he points out.

In a blog post, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner points out that “at LinkedIn, we have essentially eliminated the presentation.” Information is sent 24 hours in advance, giving people an opportunity to review it. However, not everyone can find the time, so five to 10 minutes is set aside at the start of the meeting to give everyone time to review the written document.

"Once folks have completed the reading, it’s time to open it up for discussion,” Weiner writes. “There is no presentation.”

Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn talks about eliminating PowerPoint
The benefit? “You may be pleasantly surprised to see a meeting that had been scheduled for an hour is actually over after 20-30 minutes.”

Are these leaders are on the right track? Absolutely. Cognitive science tells us that humans cannot read and listen at the same time. In fact, trying to do both is absolutely the least effective option and a virtual waste of time—terrible news for the “average” slide-driven presentation delivered in boardrooms, meeting rooms, training rooms and conference halls.

Organizations that wish to regain lost productivity, and to communicate most effectively to make the best decisions, should learn to separate the written word from the spoken word. There is a time to read and a time to discuss. For best results, those times should never, ever be the same time.

Let’s hope more leaders have the courage to follow suit.

Physicists Ban Slides. Can Others Can Learn From Their Experiment?

According to a recent article in Symmetry magazine, a group of physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider project at Fermilab has banned the use of slides at biweekly meetings in favour of whiteboards.

Ban on PowerPoint enhances communication
The move came as a direct result of the project’s leadership seeking ways to enhance engagement from the audience who, until that time, was like every other audience trying to follow a series of slides.

The result of the ban? The physicists say the move has led to more “interaction and curiosity,” made it easier for the group to discuss the project’s “ongoing work and future goals,” and enhanced the connection between speaker and audience to improve decision-making.

Are there lessons here that can apply to others?

Absolutely:

  • As I’ve written before, Amazon and LinkedIn have banned slide-driven presentations at their meetings, resulting in enhanced productivity and improved decision-making.
  • I have long believed that boards of directors should ban slideware presentations at their meetings to achieve the same results: save time and enhance the overall quality of decisions made.
  • Most conference organizers I know would like to enhance engagement. It’s a bold move, but banning slides (not just PowerPoint, but Keynote, Prezi, SlideRocket, Haiku Deck and others) would force speakers to use a variety of tools that lead to greater engagement.
  • A recent Gallup survey indicated that only 30 per cent of employees are engaged. Fewer than one in three! Care to make a wager on how most of those employees receive information from their leaders? What has an organization got to lose by banning slides at internal meetings?
  • Planning a sales meeting? Why not ban slides? The sales force undoubtedly has knowledge to contribute. Like the physicists, if the sales force was more engaged, wouldn’t the group benefit from the collective experience of others?
The list goes on.

It takes courage to implement a ban. But it appears that those organizations who do are gaining significant benefits as a result.

The Enemy is PowerPoint

Those words form the headline of a Wall Street Journal article from a few years ago that focused on the amount of time and effort put into developing PowerPoint slides for the war in the Middle East, and how that time is relatively poorly expended.

If you have a picture of value to show me, one that is truly worth 1,000 words, show it.
It’s a fascinating read. But behind the scenes are some excellent insights into improving presentations that come right from the top (the commanders themselves) and provide glimpses into the needs of senior executives from which everyone can learn and benefit.

The generals quoted in the article are all critical of PowerPoint, but each deals with the inevitability of PowerPoint in his own way. In their own way, each is implementing aspects of
The Audience Manifesto.

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reviews printed-out PowerPoint slides at his morning staff meeting, although he insists on getting them the night before so he can read ahead and cut back the briefing time.”

In other words, I can read faster than you can talk. Send me the reading. I’ll do it. Then you’ll answer my questions when we get together. And, by the way, don’t bring additional slides to the briefing.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that sitting through some PowerPoint briefings is “just agony,” nonetheless likes the program for the display of maps and statistics showing trends.

If you have a picture of value to show me — one that is truly worth 1,000 words — show it. Otherwise, bring two pieces of paper (instead of 20) and/or learn to use the “B” key on your keyboard (and blank the screen) when the picture’s no longer necessary.

General Mattis, despite his dim view of the program, said a third of his briefings are by PowerPoint.

In other words, there are may brave people in the armed forces. Everyone knows the Boss hates PowerPoint, but a third of those serving under him have the courage to ignore his wishes and use it.

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?

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.

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.