Death by Powerpoint is a lively issues these days. In fact, Business Communications Headline News gives us two presentations in as many days with the aim of helping us make better presentations.  Unfortunately, both miss the mark. We’ll look at each from a strategic standpoint to help you understand how they go astray and what you can learn to make your presentations more effective.

Sleepy Audience from Kapterev's Website

Sleepy Audience from Kapterev

You have to hand it to Alexei Kapterev for taking on bad powerpoint presentations and investing the time and effort to give you a solution (you can see his pdf presentation in it’s entirety here). It’s a good start. But his advice is a bit wide of the mark and his execution falls a bit short in particular ways. And understanding those missteps will help you make stronger choices.

Let’s consider Alexei’s central argument. Presentations, he says, are successful when they have Significance, Structure, Simplicity, and Rehearsal. Significance is the core, he tells us. In fact, it’s so much more important than structure that you can use any structure as long as it’s comprehensible and scalable. Alexei also gives us a definition of significance – you have significance if you’re communicating meaning that you’re passionate about.

This conception is backward and it’s just the one that gets companies into trouble when they launch new products. We love our new product, we get our salesforce hyped up on the wondrous capabilities of our new product, and we send them out to meet with customers armed with slide presentations that communicate what our new product can do and how excited we are and they should be.

And it’s not just new product roll-outs. Most companies follow the same process for introducing anything new, even internally - recruitment policies, professional development processes, financial management tools, and on and on.  This is the organizing conceipt of most introductions for new things – “We have a new thing, we’re excited about it, you should be too, let me explain it to you.”

This presentation backbone reliably fails.

There are two reasons. The first is that it focuses our presentation on us and ours, while our audiences, at heart, care about them and theirs. So while we’re presenting, they’re running a constant internal inquisition that begins with the question- why should I care?

The second reason is that audiences are always weighing what we’re offering against what they think they’ll have to pay (even metaphorically) to get it. And when we lead with the features of our product/initiative/process/breakthrough, they sense it as an attempt to load up the “what you get” side of the scales. That provokes them to respond with concerns about the price we’ll try to extract (in money, time, burden, etc.). Even when we lead with the benefits we have to offer, they’ll be questioning whether they really want them, and hence, should be willing to pay for them.

What’s the alternative?

First, take the initial focus off of your offerings and shine the light instead on the problems the audience is having. When you direct your audience’s attention to all the problems they’re having they’ll interpret those problems as costs they are already paying not to have your offer. And they’ll begin to respond by wondering what they could get to solve those problems. That’s your opening to offer benefits and that would help them, and then the features or capabilities that back up your claim to provide the benefits you say you have.

The fundamental structure is not wide open, then, for most of the presentations you’ll give. Ninety percent of the time, you’ll want to give some form of Problem-Agitation-Solution presentation. It’s not surprising that most successful direct response marketing campaigns take this format. There are others you can use, but they are generally special cases and they work when the audience is already highly motivated to get what you have.

Tim’s Takeaway

The admonition to start and end with the audience is not simply hopeful or abstract. It’s a directive you should take seriously. And your structure and content should reflect it. Start your presentation with your audience’s problems, then develop those problems until you’re confident they would be asking for solutions if the format were open to it. Then you deliver benefits, and not until then. And finally, you back your benefits with the features of capabilities you’ve incorporated so your audience can feel assured you can deliver.

There are good reasons to limit bullet points, use images instead of text, and the rest. Presentations built on the aesthetics espoused by people like the folks at PresentationZen are generally more engaging.

Text, though, will serve you if it really serves the audience. And a 45-minute string of the most appealing pictures ever won’t persuade most audiences if the pictures don’t surface problems the audience has, develop those problems into urgency, and offer solutions that the audience now realize they want badly.

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Filed under: Influence and PersuasionLeadershipPresentation Skills

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