CXO

Over PowerPoint? Here are 4 ways to create more interesting business presentations

Slides are often more for the benefit of the speaker than the audience. Here are four tips to move beyond the usual slideshow, especially when presenting an important concept or vision.

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Image: iStock/jacoblund

It's become a ritual of sorts. A speaker walks into a meeting room and before exchanging a single pleasantry begins searching for a projector cable (that invariably requires an adapter that can't be located), furiously messing with their laptop to shouts of "Try Alt-Function-F5! Maybe it's Ctrl-Backslash-F2!" and silently praying that computer, cabling, projector, and screen all work in harmony to blast a slideshow onto the screen. Fast forward a few minutes, and those who haven't taken to staring at their phones are daydreaming of the dozen places they'd rather be while the speaker reads eight-point font in monotone from slide number 184.

It might be comical if the above scenario were not so common, with millions of hours wasted each day either creating or presenting slides that do little to convey a few key points, advance an agenda, or compel an audience to action. The dirty secret of slides is that they're usually to the benefit of the presenter rather than the audience. Creating a slideshow helps the presenter structure his or her thoughts, and they're often used as speaker's notes, regularly evidenced by the presenter who looks over their shoulder and reads bullet points verbatim from their slides. This status quo is unhelpful to both audience and presenter. If you're going to expend the time and energy to call a meeting, here are some suggestions for breaking out of the slideshow slog:

1. Tell a story

As humans, we're naturally wired to enjoy a good story. Until relatively recently in our evolution, storytelling was the primary means for conveying history, sharing current events, and passing critical knowledge between generations, covering everything from morality to farming. Think of some of the worst presentations you've seen, and they were probably delivered as data dumps, with slide after slide of facts and figures.

Try turning off the projector and telling a story about the topic you're delivering, using any favorite children's story as a guide. Your "big bad wolf" might be a well-funded competitor, lurking in the wings while your company struggles to navigate the metaphorical dark forest of the current technology environment. With relatable characters, a challenge to be overcome, and a vision for a happy ending, you'll have an engaged audience rather than fluttering eyelids.

SEE: Overcome the challenges of public speaking: Tips for tech professionals (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

2. Facilitate a discussion

Too many speakers use a small group presentation as a form of one-way communication, missing an opportunity to interact with peers and leaders from different parts of the organization. Rather than spending an hour talking at your audience, write up a single sheet with the key points you need to convey. Rather than sending this summary in an email no one will read, provide printed copies at the beginning of the meeting and give everyone 5-10 minutes to read the summary.

Come prepared with your own list of key topics where you need to build consensus, or gather input from multiple areas and facilitate a discussion. Don't be afraid to ask somewhat provocative questions, framing them so they don't put any single individual on the spot. For example, rather than asking if you'll follow the same old procurement process for a new technology investment, ask "What if we skipped our usual RFP process altogether?"

This technique is most effective with smaller groups from about 4-12 people, and will require that you provide a deft facilitation touch, a skill that can be more uncomfortable than merely talking at the same group for an hour. However, you'll get far more engagement and usually a better result than the usual one-way monolog. Practice this technique with smaller groups of "friendlies" before deploying on a topic that's likely to generate some more consternation.

3. Don't be afraid to draw

Many rely on PowerPoint to augment their talk with visuals; however, the lowly whiteboard can often be even more effective. If you have a chart or diagram that conveys a key point or is likely to generate some discussion, practice drawing it on a whiteboard while taking the audience through what you're drawing. The mere act of picking up the marker and approaching a blank board will generate interest, and the timing, simplicity, and quality of information conveyed is significantly more effective than a complex PowerPoint animation.

You need not be an artist to deploy this technique. Nearly anything can be conveyed through a four-quadrant or line chart, and you'll engage the audience as they suggest changes and additions.

SEE: How to avoid and overcome presentation glitches (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

4. Use props

A good prop can make a presentation engaging. If you're presenting about the risks of aging infrastructure, bring in a small network component and pass it around while talking about the number of services that will be unavailable to your customers if that seemingly insignificant component fails. If you're discussing whether to invest in a streamlined user experience, bring a difficult-to-use product and a simpler version, and ask the audience to use each while telling a story about the time that would be saved across the organization through a good user experience.

These techniques are ultimately designed to generate interest in your presentation and, if nothing else, simply shutting down the projector and closing the laptop can be a powerful indication to the audience that something unusual and interesting is about to happen. While there can be comfort in hiding behind a wall of complex slides, it often alienates the audience rather than further engaging them. When you're presenting an important concept, or trying to convince the crowd to adopt your point of view, an engaged and interested audience is far more fertile ground than one that's tuned out.

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About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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