Here’s a quick tip to cut the jargon factor in your presentations. Drop the word “offerings”.
Personally, it makes me squirm whenever I hear some marketing manager presenting their “class-leading range of product offerings”. It makes me think of their product being plucked, still pulsing with warm blood, from some unfortunate’s chest on an altar high above a volcano by men with sinister feathered masks, to encourage the gods to deliver another year of abundant rainfall.
Here’s what to replace it with: nothing. Instead of ‘product offerings’, say ‘products’. Ditto for ’service offerings’. If you can make something shorter, then you should do it every time.
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.
It’s a bit of a myth that people won’t read bullet points.
Stand near the magazine rack near the supermarket checkout, and tell me you aren’t interested to learn more about Angelina’s Hot Tub Romp Shocks Brad - Pics!
You just have to make your bullet points more interesting. Yes, tabloid mags have juicier subject material to work with than you do, but you can adapt their techniques to add more zing to your presentation about indexed pension fund returns.
Rule 1: What’s in it for them?
Great communicators think about the subject from their audience’s viewpoint. How will your material make them more successful or popular, or save them from pain or stress?
So you can take a line like this:
New fund products will generate market outperformance of 3% over industry equivalents.
Average person $7000 a year better off with new funds.
All staff will be required to have Blackberries switched on at all times to ensure customer response times are minimised.
Mobile communications means less need to stay at work late.
Rule 2: Trim the Verbal Shrubbery
When you’re writing tabloid headlines, you don’t have much space. Every word has to justify its existance.
Good PowerPoint writing is the same.
A headline writer would be sacked for writing Angelina’s Romp In The Hot Tub Came As A Shock To Brad, Pictures of it Inside!
So you can trim this:
All new products will be rolled-out in all state markets commencing in January.
January national roll-out of all new products.
Rule 3: Hold Something Back
The job of a good bullet point is to arouse their interest, and make them want more.
In the tabloid mag, you read the cover headline and want to see those shots of Angelina in the tub.
You can do a similar thing with a presentation by not putting the whole story up on the screen. The whole point of presenting live is to focus the attention on you, not on your slides. So use the bullet point to pose a question that you can answer verbally.
So instead of:
The top 5% sales achievers in our company attribute their success to our new interactive laptop product demonstration system.
The secret sales weapon of our Top 5% achievers.
Build up a bit of tension as you read out the line. Let their curiosity focus the attention on you. Then tell them the answer.
If you insist on handing out printed copies of the presentation - and for the sake of the planet, don’t, because nobody ever reads them - then create an amended file with all the information included.
OK, you’ve read this far, here’s your shot of Angelina in the tub. That’s an impressive personal library of clip-art she’s got there.
Legendary circus hustler PT Barnum used to put a sign at his overcrowded American Museum: This Way To The Egress.
Visitors would assume that an egress was some kind of amazing creature, like the Bearded Lady or Iguana Boy, so they’d flock through the door and find themselves out in the street. Because ‘egress’ means ‘exit’, and if they wanted to get back in, they’d have to pay ol’ PT again.
That’s the only use of ‘egress’ I’ve ever heard until this week. I’m involved with organising a school rowing regatta, and the local council has forced us to hire Certified Parking Managers to manage the small car park. They sent us a 20 page form full of ‘event impact statements’, ‘parking needs analysis’, ‘incident risk chain of command’ and so forth.
In their ’scope of operations’, their mission ‘covers the ingress and egress of spectator and competitor vehicles.’
What strange urge makes people say things like ‘ingress and egress’, when there are perfectly good words like ‘entry and exit’?
It’s the need to show that you’re the Custodian of Special Secret Knowledge that others cannot hold, thus proving that you are Cleverer and More Important Than Them. So you can exercise power over others! Otherwise, any hillbilly in a fluorescent vest could watch cars drive in and out of a carpark.
Which brings us to today’s Writing For PowerPoint lesson: using shorter, simpler words.
Because in presentations, using long words and sentences is not grown-up or clever. It makes you come across like a puffed-up petty bureaucrat.
There’s a justification for using long words, and that’s if you’re a scientist, where specific things have names like Xylomatophangalaceous and there’s no substitute.
But most corporate PowerPoint writing is puffed-up with words like:
In our estimation instead of we think.
Service users instead of customers.
Implement instead of do.
After you write a line, read it out aloud.
Does it feel natural, or kinda clunky?
Now imagine you’re at a barbecue, on a Sunday, with a friend who doesn’t work in your industry or understand your jargon.
How would you explain it to them? Imagine them saying “Sorry, I still don’t understand.” Keep saying it aloud until you sound like a normal human talking, rather than a lawyer dictating a brief.
Now write those words down on your slide. That’s clearer, isn’t it?
A big part of the art of PowerPoint is the ability to write slides with clear, short sentences.
So your ideas leap off the screen with the power they deserve.
So your bullet points never stray into the fatal second line.
So you can save money on AV because you won’t need a wider screen.
Over the next couple of posts we’ll look at how to whip flabby slidewriting into a lean, buffed’n’sculpted message.
The largest single flab generator is using the passive rather than active voice.
Here’s a typical passive slide sentence:
“Conferences are being held by all state offices.”
And here’s the active version:
“All state offices are holding conferences.”
“It is hoped that the program will be a success.”
“We hope the program will be a success.”
See how it’s shorter and clearer?
Start with who’s doing the thing, then tell them what they’re doing.
Politicians like to use passive sentences for their evasive powers:
“A wiretapping operation was implemented.”
By who? Your audience wants answers on that sort of thing, at a subconscious level. If you write and speak in the passive voice, you come across as a bit evasive. The audience feels that they’re not getting clear information, so they switch off.
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!”
I heard a radio phone-in segment the other day, in which callers related tales of having their stories stolen by other people. There seems to be a lot of it about.
Imagine you had a really hilarious experience, full of amusing twists and turns. Like this squirm-inducing tale from singer Megan Washington:
Then picture yourself at a party, where you find one of your friends telling an entralled circle of people the story – with themself as the central midget tickler character instead of you.
That’s a crime.
Storynappers abound in presentation land as well. I’ve seen lots of speakers, professional and amateur, relating stories in the first person that you know they picked up from someone else on the circuit or read in someone else’s book.
That’s white collar crime.
If you’re borrowing stories from other people, acknowledge your source. There’s no copyright on spoken stories, but stealing is immoral and the bad karma will catch up with you at some point.
A lesser crime is telling stories that have been done to death. I caught up with presentation consultant Mike Kelly the other day, who counsels his clients against using stories that have been worn thin by countless retelling.
It was a good story. But I think I’ve heard it more times than Colonel Sanders made unproductive sales calls during his bleak startup phase. Presenters haul it out like a wedding band trying to kick some life into You Can Leave Your Hat On.
Look to your own life and work for interesting stories. They don’t have to be huge success stories that end with you owning a global fast-food chain. Small, personal stories are just as interesting. You’ll tell them much better, because you were there.
And if nothing that makes an interesting story has ever happened to you, it’s pretty clear you should change jobs or go on a long holiday to Peru.
By the way, check out Megan Washington’s music. I wasn’t aware of her until the midget story. She has a voice of startling beauty.
But the most important question is: what you actually want it to achieve?
How will the world change, just a tiny little bit, as a direct result of what you’ve told people?
Do you want them to buy your software? Help you save the Spotted Frog? Stop injuring themselves with teaspoons at work?
Whatever your cause, it’s incredibly hard to get people to act. Just talking around the subject isn’t going to do it. You need to plan exactly what you want people to do, and make it really clear how they can do it.
In the land of direct marketing, it’s the Call To Action. Visit this web site. Phone this number. Get something free. And do it now, because it’s a limited offer and it won’t be around forever.
To make a call to action work, it has to be:
So any fool can understand and remember.
In the right place
In the case of a presentation, right at the end
So people don’t feel embarrassed about doing it, like when speakers try to get everyone massaging each others’ backs. Ugh.
Something that appeals to what they like (not what you think they like). By taking action, they’ll make money, get promoted, feel good about doing something worthy, and their family won’t lose a Dad to a preventable teaspoon injury.
When you’re applying a call to action to a presentation, there’s no need for complex tricks or creative concepts. Just tell them what you think they should do, your reasons why, and ask them to do it.
And in that spirit, I ask you to start planning your next presentation just a little earlier so you can have a clear idea why you’re doing it. They’ll like you much better on the day.
Some words really should be handled with care in presentations and corporate communication, because they actually carry the opposite meaning in those situations.
If you use the words ‘cool’,‘edgy’ or ‘stylish’, then your audience will know your company is the complete opposite of those things.
And people who are trustworthy never say ‘trust me’.
Then there’s relationship.
Did you ever start a meaningful relationship with anyone by saying:
“I’d like to have a relationship with you.”
No, because that would be a strange, stalker-like thing to say.
And certainly for the male half of your audience, the word evokes the chilling line:
“We need to talk about our relationship.”
You, like me, might have had some grey-faced drone at your local bank branch hand you a card with ‘Relationship Manager’ on it.
It’s the language of people who have no idea that relationships come from what you do, not what you say you’re going to do.
Try to keep words like this out of your presentations, or you’ll come across as like you’re living in a deluded dream world, in which your company becomes a treasured member of your customers’ social circle. Like in this little gem I found on a surf trip at the weekend.
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.