Right now, in countless hotel meeting rooms, public auditoriums, corporate conference rooms, and small, cramped offices, thousands of competent and otherwise productive executives, managers, and salespeople are quietly snoring and drooling on expensive notepads.
They sleep because some poor consultant, vendor, partner, or other supplicant is hiding in the dark behind a data projector, "telling them what he's going to tell them, telling them, and then telling them what he told them," with every word emblazoned on the screen.
"Now, wait a minute," I hear you saying. "What's wrong with good-ol' PowerPoint? I mean, PowerPoint's got your situational templates, your automatic color schemes, your animation, your sound effects..."
Hey, I'm not saying you can't do cool things with presentation graphics. I'm just saying that's not how you get results as a business communicator. And, OK, it's not Microsoft's fault that PowerPoint is the ubiquitous presentation graphics program on the market. Well, it is Microsoft's fault, but not its fault that it costs the US economy billions of dollars.
PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Docs presentations, among others, are all equally capable of robbing a communicator of his value and ability to connect with people. But the point remains that most business presentations don't work. Yes, deals are made; and, yes, sometimes they're made in close proximity to PowerPoint presentations. But the vast majority of those deals happen despite the presentation, not because of it.
Case in point: Way back in the days of the "dot-com bubble," a prominent IPO-churning investment bank asked me to assess the presentation materials it used to pursue private companies for M&A (mergers and acquisitions) and IPO (initial public offering) underwriting. The "right pitch" (or so the investment bank reasoned) could bring in millions for the firm with a single win, but competition was fierce with numerous banks offering virtually identical opportunities.
The bank's PowerPoint pitch droned for nearly 80 pages about the company's great history and achievements. Those presentations sometimes lasted three and a half hours. When trying to convince this company that its unique ability to create value had nothing to do with its corporate history and everything to do with how it was going to meet the unique needs of this prospect, I felt like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
Not surprisingly, the investment bank, unable to shift its focus away from itself and onto the needs of its clients, became a victim of the economy's dramatic downturn. Equally unfortunate, the addiction to PowerPoint-driven, self-absorbed presentations is alive and well today.
However, the good news is that you have an opportunity for differentiation by using a less formulaic approach.
What's the Real Cost?
A long PowerPoint presentation may not be the best way to communicate, but, you may ask, where did I get 'billions of dollars' lost? OK, let's take a look.
How much did the investment bankers pay the smart young analyst trainees who stayed awake until dawn consolidating reams of data and plugging it all into PowerPoint? What was their core competency? I bet it wasn't PowerPoint. What was the executive presenter's time worth? What if he could have closed more deals in less time? What was the opportunity cost of a wasted "branding opportunity"? What is the opportunity cost of failing to differentiate your company, product, or service from your competition? I'm calling it billions. You can do your own math.
The real cost may be in the formulaic thinking those presentations tend to reinforce. Somewhere along the line, executives started worrying more about their elevator pitch than about the problem their company solved.
If we've learned anything from the cyclical collapses—of various "bubbles" —it's that you have to have a great business before you can tell a great story, and PowerPoint has little to do with either one.
What's the Objective?
As business communicators, leaders must move people to action. That they hear you, or even understand you, isn't enough to move them to action.
Yet, most standard business communication tends to look and feel like a data dump. Guess what? By itself, data doesn't connect with people—people connect with people.
Learn to Connect First
If PowerPoint "data dumps" don't work, what does? In a word... connection. Relax. You don't need to lead a corporate encounter group. No group hugs necessary; I promise.
For you, a business communicator, "connection" means that everything you say and everything you do is driven by the result you want in relationship to the reality of the people you are talking to. The way you use your body and voice, as well as the ideas you choose, had better meet the needs of the people you are talking to if you want them to change in some predictable way.
If as a business communicator you are not being driven by the result you want and if you don't have a radical sensitivity to the people you are talking to, then you are leaving money on the table.
Next time you have an important phone call to make, don't ask yourself what you want to say. Instead, ask yourself, "What do I want the person I am calling to do as a result of our conversation?"
Starting with the result you want forces you to be more strategic and to plan your ideas with a greater sensitivity to the other person. Put on her moccasins for a while, and look at the world from her perspective. Her reality, needs, wishes, etc., not yours, will drive her willingness to act. If you let her reality, in relation to the result you want, drive what you say and how you say it, then you are communicating strategically in a way that deepens relationships, creates value, and differentiates you from your competition.
Establishing a Core Message
Let's say you need to talk to your company's board of directors to get approval for discontinuing quarterly reports so you can focus on long-term client and shareholder value. You don't begin by planning with PowerPoint. PowerPoint wasn't designed as a planning tool. It was designed as a "presentation graphics" tool. It has simply been used the wrong way for too long.
Instead, plan with a notepad or, if you must, a Microsoft Word document. First, determine the action you want from your audience members; then, evaluate their needs; and let that combination drive your "core message."
That message has to offer a "quid pro quo": Take the action I want you to take, and I will deliver something you need.
If you dream up ideas that go beyond that promise, chances are you're back to talking about what you want to talk about (not about what they need to hear)—and worse: back to merely dumping data.
Graphics as Friend, Not Foe
Only when your ideas are listener-focused and results-oriented is it logical to ask, "Must some of these ideas be made visual?" If the answer is yes, then it's time to go have a pint at a local pub, or at least imagine that you are going to one. Because the way we create visuals on the fly—when we have no technology and when the people we are talking to need some sort of visual aid—provides a pretty good thinking process for developing visuals that work. In a pub, sometimes a complex concept can be made simple with a quick sketch on a cocktail napkin.
If you are willing to work hard enough to evaluate your ideas from your audience's perspective and in the context of a particular result, achieving an effective use of visuals is pretty straightforward.
Presenters the world over try to reinforce everything they say with graphic support. That creates a logical problem: If you are trying to reinforce everything with the same type of visual support, then you end up reinforcing nothing! A lone stalk of corn in a big field is a beautiful, singular miracle of nature. A field of corn is, well... yellow and green. If each visual is not a critical part of the process of moving a listener to act, then it is probably just a foe (i.e., a distraction), not a friend.
One more example: while attending a huge venture forum in San Francisco, I witnessed a technology company executive go through an incredibly complex, artistic, and downright entertaining PowerPoint presentation on his product, about which, tellingly, I can't remember a thing. The lights were low, and no one could really see the speaker, but everyone was mesmerized by the "show."
Afterward, in the breakout room, a line of seemingly motivated potential investors waited to talk to the speaker. The first question asked seemed to be on the minds of everyone in the queue. Each time that same question was asked, the speaker seemed more and more deflated. Were these people challenging him on market size? No. Were they grilling him on systems architecture? Nope. Questions about the team? Sorry, no. So, what was the common burning question? It was this: "How did you make that little bear dance on the screen?"
Stick to the Basics
As a business leader, you are not talking in public forums to entertain, to look smart, to inform, or even to educate. Start with the action you want others to take, analyze the needs of the people you will talk to, advocate a solution to a problem in your message, and allow your ideas to convince them that you can deliver that solution.
Communicate with empathy, power, and influence, and communication will become a strategic process, too. When you do that, you will help make this nation economically great once again!