The design guys and I are working on a food packaging project at the moment. It’s quite a fiddly task. There’s a Dan Brown novel’s worth of legal mandatories to fit on each box, much of it warnings about the two greatest threats to Western civilisation: nuts and crustaceans.
DANGER THIS FOOD MAY HAVE BEEN PREPARED USING EQUIPMENT THAT MAY HAVE COME INTO CONTACT WITH NUTS OR CRUSTACEANS, OR POSSIBLY OPERATED BY A PERSON WHO ONCE SHOOK HANDS WITH SOMEONE WHO ONCE ATE A NUT OR CRUSTACEAN, AND IN FACT IT IS POSSIBLE TO DIE A SLOW AND PAINFUL DEATH FROM JUST THINKING ABOUT NUTS OR CRUSTACEANS, THAT’S HOW DANGEROUS THEY ARE ACCORDING TO OUR LEGAL DEPARTMENT.
So there’s a lot of fine-print type going over the top of photos, which creates production dramas too tedious to relate here, but it has some relevance for creating presentation graphics.
A nice photo makes a more compelling background for your screen show than a cheesy graphic template. But adding words over the top can present all sorts of hassles. Here’s a quick guide to the words-on-pictures thing that you can do within PowerPoint, rather than having to use Photoshop, Illustrator or other fancy gear.
For demonstration purposes, here’s a picture of the handsome lads of Scene Change Tasmania, in their natural habitat of Constitution Dock (which, by the way, is ALIVE with dangerous crustaceans).
Like most shots, it’s a mixture of dark and light bits, so the black type disappears into the dark suit. Let’s try white type.
That’s a lot better, but it still gets a bit lost on the lighter concrete background. So we’ll add a subtle shadow to the text in the slide below. Adding the shadow actually reduces the perceived weight of the font, so I’ve switched it to Bold as well:
That’s much clearer. It’s a black shadow with a 75% transparency. It works best if your version of PowerPoint has an adjustable shadow facility. Some of the earlier versions had a single, very ugly setting with a gray, massively offset shadow which will do your photo no justice.
If adding a shadow still isn’t making it clear, try the ‘glow’ feature (Format/Font/Text Glow and Soft Edges). This is a black 8 point glow on 32 point type, at 75% transparency:
Almost all video titles use a glow, because of the legibility hassles with a moving background with changing levels of contract. It’s pretty foolproof for still images. But if you’re dealing with a super-contrasty background, consider putting a transparent background in your text box.
Drag the borders of your text box to the left and right margins of the picture, and centre your text. Now adjust the ‘Fill’ on your text box from ‘No Fill’ to black. Now adjust the transparency until the text is legible, without blocking out the picture too much. On this shot, I’ve set the transparency at 75%:
It’s quite a nice, elegant effect. Depending on the shot, and your personal taste, you could use black text on a white box, also set to 75% transparency, like this:
While the transparencies look great on screen, beware if you’re planning to print the pages. Some printers give you a messy, crosshatched effect. Test your printer well in advance of the deadline.
And after all those shots, you’re probably feeling a strong, subliminal attraction to Scene Change Tasmania. If you are, you should know the contact details for our beaut new office, a stone’s throw from where this photo was taken:
Westpac has rightly taken a lot of stick for its animated presentation on why they’ve raised mortgage rates beyond everyone else.
The overall idea is a good one - explain to confused customers what’s been happening with the money supply over the last year. And the simplicity of its animated figures might have worked well with a better thought-out message, even though the people have been taken directly off the doors of ladies’ and gents’ public bathrooms.
Between concept and delivery, the presentation ran way off the rails and ended up as something a 10-year-old would find incredibly patronising.
Lessons for presenters from this ongoing PR trauma:
Choose Your Analogies Carefully
If you’re talking about a high-commitment product like a 25 year mortgage, it’s wrong to compare it to something as trivial as a snack, even if the comparison works in terms of pure logic. It makes your audience feel that you’re too big and out of touch to understand their pain.
Don’t Underestimate the Intelligence of Your Audience
The whole tone of the speaker and the script suggests someone talking to children. Your audience might know less about the subject than you do, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Beware of using a tone that suggests you’re talking to simpletons, or they’ll turn against you fast.
A bit of editing would have helped, too: “Once upon a time, there were big lush fields of banana crops.”
Understand People’s Preconceptions of You
People will hold certain beliefs about you and your company before you open your mouth. You need to know what those beliefs are, because that context affects your whole message. If you’re from a family-oriented company like McDonalds, you have to present in a style that matches their family values. If you know you’re starting with negative preconceptions, you can pleasantly surprise them as ‘the bank executive who was unexpectedly warm and human’ or ‘the IT department head who was amazingly open to suggestions from other departments’.
Given the general public perception of banks, perhaps ‘Being popular is not our focus’ wasn’t the best choice of words.
Get Someone Else To Check Your Material
When you’re immersed in your own subject, you can assume that everyone else feels the same way. And material that makes perfect sense to you might not work for everyone else. So show your script and visuals to an outsider and see if there’s anything in there that makes them scratch their head.
Like “We all understand this story, right? A+B=C.”
Well, no, we don’t.
Understand How Fast Material Can Spread
Once Westpac realised the folly of its banana-themed message, they pulled the video from public view. But the horse had bolted, and it’s easy to view on a wide range of sites. In the digital world, once you’ve released anything, it’s out of your control. So be more careful next time.
Ever wondered why some quotes live on for decades?
The great ones use clear, vivid words. Words everyone can understand and relate to.
Just because you’re in management doesn’t mean you can’t aspire to greatness in what you say. Every jargon word you add dulls your message and acts as a barrier to understanding.
Just one can be enough to kill a sentence stone dead.
Let’s take 10 immortal lines and add a single phrase from the MBA phrasebook. You be the judge.
1. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant positive outcome for mankind.” Neil Armstrong
2. “Beware the Ides of Q3 going forward.” William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
3. “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can action for you - ask what you can action for your country” John F. Kennedy
4. “I may be drunk, Madam, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be attractiveness-challenged.” Winston Churchill
5. “I have a vision and value statement… that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” Martin Luther King
6. “In this country, first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the persons.” Al Pacino, Scarface
7. “Government: of the stakeholders, by the stakeholders, for the stakeholders, shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln
8. “You engagin’ with me? You engagin’ with me? Well, who the hell else are you engagin’ with?” Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver
9. “Imagination is more important than key learnings.” Albert Einstein
10.“You’re rightsized!” Donald Trump
“You want a robust dialogue? YOU CAN’T HANDLE A ROBUST DIALOGUE!”
No offence, but of all the people who read this blog, you are the most dim-witted, banjo-pickin’, web-fingered, snaggle-toothed, snuff-munching inbred that ever managed to read a computer screen. Hey, no offence!
What is it that makes people come out with lines like these in meetings and presentations? As if the magic preface ‘no offence’ gives them total diplomatic immunity to trample all over your ideas without anyone finding it rude or obstructive.
As if, as the great communicator and NASCAR hero Ricky Bobby noted in Talladega Nights, it’s enshrined in the Geneva Convention.
Here are the Top 5 Most Soul-Destroying Lines a presenter will hear in a meeting:
1. With all due respect…
2. No offence, but…
3. Here’s my two cents worth.
4. To be totally frank…
5. If I can just be devil’s advocate…
People who use these lines don’t care about making progress or improving people’s lives. They just like to use their nasty little veto powers to give themselves the satisfaction of stopping other people from getting the glory.
Number 5, in my experience, always comes from someone whose preference is do nothing, rather than something.
How to deal with them? It’s tricky, and depends on the vibe from the other people in the room. If you think people are on your side, then use your open questioning skills on your Devil’s Advocate. Ask them diplomatically for their own advice on how to solve the issue at hand.
Almost always, they will not have an alternative idea. Give them plenty of time to run with their line of negativity. Gently bring the topic back to whether the others in the room want to make some progress or just delay any decisions until the next meeting or the one after that.
Peer pressure always works better than a direct confrontation.
Let’s continue this week’s theme of presentation images. Anyone who travels a lot will know that airports are filled with ads you don’t see anywhere else, designed to attract business people.
A lot of them seem to be single frames from someone’s PowerPoint show. The headline will say something like:
Your vision. Our mission.
Harnessing the Power of Globality.
Each has the tofu flavour of words that had to be cleared by a dozen committees.
And each is accompanied by a stock shot of stupefying dullness.
Now, we all use stock shots. You can’t hire a photographer for everything, nor take every shot yourself.
And yes, it’s hard to think up images that bring your service to life when your business is an office block full of business people doing business things.
But an interesting stock shot costs the same as a dull, clichéd one. And the interesting one generates a much greater return, because people will actually look at it and think. And if they do that, they might remember the point you’re making.
In cold, ROI terms, that’s a much better investment than something nobody notices because they’ve seen the same thing thousands of times before.
Here’s the a Top 10 stock shot cliché list to avoid next time you’re putting together that credentials presentation.
1. THE HANDSHAKE
The oldest stock shot image in the book. But what is it actually meant to achieve? Is it like business pornography, where if you show a business man pictures of an agreement being reached, he might get excited and get an urge to… you know… reach an agreement with you?
2. THE OVER-THE-SHOULDER LAPTOP POINT
In which an executive works on a laptop, while someone leans over their shoulder and points at the screen. For some reason models doing corporate work love pointing. Ask them to act natural, and they’ll just start pointing at things, which looks goofy at the best of times. And when their eyes don’t follow the hand, as we see here, they look like a store window dummy.
3. THE SUITED HURDLER
I once went to a lecture by a guy who ran a ‘Humorversity’, who claimed to have a ‘process’ that could teach anyone to be funny because humor was nothing more than ‘putting a familiar object in an unfamiliar context’. His first example: “Cartoon of a guy in a tuxedo playing a piano - not funny. Guy in a tuxedo playing a piano in a jungle clearing - now that’s funny.”
And I guess, by that yardstick, so is this photo.
This is a close relative of the Suited Executive Climbing a Mountain shot.
4. OMG! PROBLEMS!
All business marketers believe that if a customer were to use their competitors, the customer will have problems. Big Problems. And what do you do when you have Big Problems? You clutch your forehead like this.
Well, obviously not in real life, but if you search on ‘Worried Businessmen’ in iStockphoto, 93% of the thousand or so images feature men doing a forehead clutch like they’d just been shot with a pygmy poison dart. I once went through an insurance industry magazine with a client and we found six separate forehead clutch ads.
This visual interest factor in this shot, though, is slightly redeemed by using a guy with a rampant porno moustache, instead of the usual clean cut Senior Ken Doll actor.
Intelligence. Experience. Strategy. Knowing your competitor’s weaknesses. These are the qualities of the master chess player, and the successful business person, a parallel that was first drawn in the year 1473 and has rather lost its impact in recent centuries.
The aforementioned insurance magazine search turned up four chess shots in the one issue.
6. GROWTH SAPLING
Growth is good. Shareholders want earnings growth, we all want to grow our personal wealth. So quickly! What’s the first thing you can think of that also grows?
These shots always have kind, patient, nurturing farmer-style hands protecting the fragile baby tree, rather than the pink, cufflinked hands that will clip 10% off your tree for themselves each year regardless of whether it grows or not.
7. PERSPECTIVE OFFICE BLOCKS
The cost of creating a stock shot depends on how many models appeared in it, how remote the location was, and if it needed expensive props. That’s why stock libraries appeared, to share the cost around. Office block shots, however… you could actually take this shot by accidentally bumping your phone with your elbow at a city cafe.
That’s why you shouldn’t encourage these photographers by buying them.
Plus obviously they’re even duller than the other nine shots here.
8. STAND OUT IN THE CROWD
We’re not just like every other firm, hell no! This style of shot often features a bowl of goldfish, with one of them Photoshopped blue. Or a white jigsaw puzzle with one colored piece.
The bland over-use of this concept creates a certain irony - that images designed to say ‘we stand out in the crowd’ tend to go unnoticed in their own crowd.
9. ATTENTIVE MEETING AUDIENCE
Anyone who has done a boardroom presentation will recognise the upright posture, the bright eyes, the applause, the balanced ethnic / gender mix and all the other elements that you will never see in a boardroom presentation.
There’s a standing-up, office lobby version of this shot where all the executives form a sort of overlapped triangle, which is meant to look like a poster for one of those multiple superhero movies, but always ends up just looking like a photo of some models.
10. PRIVATE JET
Just how rich will using our services make you? Filthy, Pablo Escobar rich. Here’s an artist’s impression of your future life.
I have to admit the Private Jet is my favorite stock shot, always with the sunglasses and the sort of briefcase that nobody carries any more. The classic version of this shot has a hot executive secretary standing over near the door, for added Alpha Business Male appeal.
And now, regrettably, nearly extinct. You don’t take this stock shot to Washington for your presentation any more.
Victoria Beckham has reportedly taken acting and elocution lessons so she will come across as ‘more human’ when she steps into Paula Abdul’s seat on American Idol.
And she shouldn’t be mocked for this: actors spend lots of time with vocal coaches, and that’s why they’re interesting to watch on the screen. Some people have it naturally, others need more work.
Barack Obama is human, Kevin Rudd… well, you can practically hear the whirring of the tiny servo-motors and sophisticated vocal synthesis circuits that make his performances so reasonably human-like.
Naturalness is a desirable quality in your presentations, but it’s hard to do in an environment as unnatural as the stage. Here are five quick tips to help you come across as more human.
1. Open With A Story About Yourself
Humans have weaknesses, and we have a subconscious distrust of people who come across as too perfect. So open with a story that opens a little window into you, the person, rather than you, the Human Resources Director or whatever your title might be. Thanks to social media, the whole world is broadcasting its personal life into the public arena, and sharing a little of it helps breaks the ice. Obviously it’s important to keep it relevant. ‘Here are some photos of my new baby niece’ won’t cut it.
But if someone can make a bestselling book and movie out of life lessons they learned from their Labrador, you can draw on your adventures with your family, dog, salamander, neighbors or clients for a few interesting anecdotes that will lighten up your subject.
2. Vary Your Vocal Tone
Flat, monotone delivery robs your delivery of naturalness and makes you come across like a corporate robot. Concentrate on varying your tone up and down. The secondary benefit of this is that the effort of doing it shows in your face, giving you more energy and a wider range of facial expressions. Watch TV presenters and see how they vary tone and pace.
3. Break The Rhythm
Normal human communication goes back and forth randomly. Speeches tend to follow a rigid routine: talk, click, talk, click, end, any questions? Pause from time to time, and ask the audience questions. Create a conversation rather than a broadcast. It’ll break you away from your pre-prepared answers and give things a more relaxed feel.
4. Don’t Fear Contractions
Some speakers come across like they’re reading a letter from a lawyer, because they believe that contractions sound unprofessional. So they say ‘We could not believe what we had seen’, rather than ‘We couldn’t believe what we’d seen’, which is how you’d normally say it. Cautionary note - this doesn’t extend to dropping your g’s, as in ‘We’re fixin’ to deliver them cost cuttin’ initiatives’.
5. Leave The Lectern
Audiences judge naturalness the same way nature does: by watching, listening, and sniffing the breeze. They look for signs of openness, like open palms, eye contact, smiles, a confident stance. Lecterns block all of that from view, leaving you as just a head poking up out of a box. If you want to come across as more human, loosen that death-grip on the lectern and come out where they can see you. That’s why experienced reality show judges rise up out of their chair when they want to get their point across.
I wouldn’t suggest you go this far, though, all that noise and teeth-baring can be seen as a threat in the animal kingdom or corporate world.
The best thing about doing this blog is reading the search words people use to find it.
Here’s the June Top 10 so far.
1. can special agents grow beards
2. adolf Hitler fun facts
3. inbred human photos
4. how to put a human head onto an animal using photoshop elements 7
5. has karl stefanovic had a hair transplant
6. sneezing pigs
7. everyone has gone away can you hear me?
8. nude girls slaughter chicken
9. is kevin rudd sexy
10. can you eat monkeys in Malaysia
A few people searched on ‘presentations’, but they were outnumbered by the wacky ones. Why you’d rely on Google for an answer to No. 9 is a little beyond me.
“Our family is really enjoying Masterchef. But has anyone else noticed the increasing use of four-letter words? When people swear, it demonstrates their lack of intelligence and creativity in expressing emotion. Why not try out words such as ‘confound it’ or ‘flummox me’? Please Channel 10, rescue us from a new generation of Gordon Ramsays.”
What the flummox?
We’ve dealt with swearing before, and found it to be acceptable in modest doses even for Prime Ministers. And Stephen Fry says the ‘lack of intelligence and creativity’ argument is, well, bollocks.
But if you’re concerned your audience is full of prudish Nigels ready to take offence, here’s 10 genteel swear words, put in presentation context as a handy guide.
1. Egad, I left my laptop in the cab!
2. Great horny toads, we’ve run three hours over time!
3. Consarn it, these solutions are nowhere near enterprise class!
4. This minty cola has been a goshdarn long time in R&D.
5. Send those concepts back to research, you stinkin’ polecat!
6. What in tarnation happened to the pension fund?
7. Doggone it to heck, Kim Jong Il, are you testing missiles again?
8. ABC: Always Be Closing, you hornswogglin’ varmints!
9. Oh fiddlesticks, we have to merge with Fiat!
10. That question is out of line, you puck-socking goat-poker!
Sisyphus, first king of Corinth, now there was a man who couldn’t be trusted. Seduced his niece, killed travelers and guests, and betrayed the secrets of Zeus, CEO of Mount Olympus.
Zeus was particularly unamused by the secrets bit (incest and random killing being something of a way of life in those days). Worst of all, Sisyphus thought himself smarter than Zeus, and CEO’s feel threatened by that.
So Zeus delegated some middle-management gods to inflict a suitable punishment. Every day, Sisyphus had to push an enormous rock up a steep hill. Every time he got near the top, it would roll back down, and he’d have to start again.
Over and over, every day. Forever.
When you know that nothing’s going to change, ever, it breaks your spirit.
Which raises the question: what have we, the conference-goers, done wrong to be condemned for all eternity to dance to the music of the late 70’s and early 80’s?
Hang on, Mister Opinionated Blog Man. What does this have to with presentations?
Well, a cluster of presentations is a conference. And a conference always has a gala dinner, which has a band. And no matter where you are - you could be at the Goat Herd Management Conference at the Kabul Sheraton - that band will still play exactly the same songs. Specifically:
1. Nutbush City Limits
2. Blame it on the Boogie
4. All Night Long
5. Leave Your Hat On
6. The Time Warp
7. Dancing Queen
8. Old Time Rock’n’Roll
9. Mustang Sally
I lived through those songs the first time, and they were horrible then. Now they refuse to die, and pushing a rock up a hill looks like quite a decent alternative.
There’s been a quarter century of perfectly good dance music made since Joe Cocker hung his hat up, but you won’t hear any of it at your gala dinner.
I’m not one for global conspiracy theories, but can I suggest there’s a secret Gala Dinner Music Tribunal made up of David Brent / Michael Scott-type guys who meet once a year to iron out the playlist.
“Yeah, YMCA! Love that, reminds me of my pre hair transplant days. It stays for another year.”
And so the memo goes out to all the party bands of the world – stick to the designated Top 10 or get their entertainment license revoked.
I call upon the conference managers of Gen Y to rise up and purge the playlist of these crusty relics. Viva revolucion!
Presentations are often about trying to get people to change their thinking or behavior. To try a new way of doing things. To see a subject through fresh eyes.
Change is a tricky thing to achieve, because most people over 25 are very set in their ways and fear change more than spiders.
But what about yourself? Are you trying to persuade people to change something, while everything about your presentation follows the same tried, true and tedious techniques that audiences have been enduring all their lives?
Maybe it’s time to question everything you do. Just because most people follow a rigid rule book, why should you?
With that in mind, here’s 10 questions you should ask yourself before you put together another perfectly average presentation. We’re not suggesting that these are the ideal answers to a winning presentation, the idea is to suggest that it’s possible to break the routine a bit.
1. Why do you have to stand up the front? Why not walk down into the audience, get them to gather their chairs around you, and talk like you’re around a campfire?
2. Why not do a 5 minute speech and a 25 minute Q&A instead of the other way around?
3. Why not hand-write all your graphics with a felt-tip pen, illustrate them with your own childish, colored-in drawings, scan them and put them up on the screen to add some real, memorable personality instead of slick’n’predictable PowerPoint?
4. Why not do your presentation in the form of an on-screen puzzle they all have to solve, like a crossword made up of your key topic words or a something?
5. If it’s a small audience, why not take them for a walk outside and talk to them as you go?
6. Why not videotape yourself at work for a month – put a camera in the corner on a tripod and use a remote control - as you go through the real-life situations that form the basis of your presentation. Difficult phone calls, meetings, hallway chat, the rougher the better. Anyone can edit now, in a good-enough fashion - cut together short bursts of material that illustrate your points. It breaks up the routine and it shows you’re talking from real experience.
7. Why not put a large lounge chair on the front of the stage and talk to them from that, like a presidential wartime address? I suppose you can’t smoke a pipe these days, but would that make you look thoughtful?
8. Why not set your whole presentation to music, like a documentary narrator?
9. Why not restrict yourself to one word per slide, big enough to fill the whole screen?
10. Why not take a handycam, walk down the street and ask total strangers questions about your topic? If their answers are smart, it’s good material to illustrate your points. If they’re stupid, it’s good for a laugh and makes your audience feel smarter.
You can always find reasons not to change anything. There might be a Vice-President of Something or Other in the audience.
There might be a hundred other speakers and the meeting planner will kill you if you mess with their processes. But don’t let that scare you into eternal conformity.
Start gently. Maybe use a font other than Arial. Then gradually increase the size of the rules you break. It’s OK. You won’t go to jail, and you’ll jolt your audience into paying attention.
Ian Whitworth believes passionately in the power of live communication, without the buzzwords and bullet points. He works as a creative director and principal of agency A Lizard Drinking. He is also one of the founders of audiovisual company Scene Change. Ian is an ex-professional presenter and long ago, ex-audiovisual technician. For non-presentation stuff, try @ianwhitworth.