Leadership Workshop Offers Hope and Optimism

Once a year, I participate in Leadership Santa Clara, a wonderful initiative that many cities (not just Santa Clara) conduct in order to seek out and cultivate local leaders in city government and community endeavors. This six-month program, led by SAE Communications, explores governance, volunteerism, environment, media, health, culture, and business communication with bi-weekly gatherings of the two dozen participants.

Our all-day workshop on presentation skills was eye-opening to me on several levels. Here are a few.

Auto-Pilot is insidious

Of the many issues that face presentation content creators, and of the numerous tendencies that they exhibit, perhaps the most concerning is the one of which they are not even aware. The image below is pretty much your garden-variety undesigned PowerPoint slide, with lots of facts, not much focus, and a photo that is too small to be impactful.

Why did the creator of this slide design it this way? “Because that’s the way that everyone does it.”

More telling than the slide, however, was the conversation that ensued with the woman who sent the slide to me (but was quick to tell the entire room that she didn’t actually create it).

Me: Is it really important for every one of these statistics to be listed?

Her: Hmm, that’s a good question.

Me: Do they each serve a useful purpose?

Her: Well, I think there are people who might want to reference those numbers.

Me: But can they really do that in the room, from 20 or so feet away, with someone speaking and standing in front of them?

Her: No, but we can PDF and send them out later.

Me: Fair enough, but that calls my original question: why show them?

Her: Well, that’s just what we’ve always done.

What we have always done. Those five words are responsible for a special breed of Death by PowerPoint. It might be the most harmful strain of all because it is done with little or no awareness. If you know your slides are bad, you might want to take measures to make them better. But if you do something on auto-pilot, with some vaguely comfortable notion that others before you have done it the same way, you might never know it’s wrong. Your co-workers won’t tell you, the presenter for whom you created the slide doesn’t know any better, and even your audiences might not say anything, so accustomed are they to seeing visuals like this one.

It doesn’t require a degree in design to improve this slide. You just need to turn off your auto-pilot.

My makeover of the slide (right) might have been dramatic, but it wasn’t exactly award-winning artistry. It involved finding a higher-quality photo, one simple trick in PowerPoint to create contrast and readability, and a diligent effort to remove the text that didn’t truly speak to the story being told.

There were few people in the room who felt that the creation of this after slide was beyond them, but most of them wouldn’t have thought to try. The before slide is just standard operating procedure. Why change what they’ve been doing for the better part of a decade? If the only thing that people learn from me during one of my workshops is to turn off their auto-pilots, I will consider the day a success.

It’s hard to be yourself

During this workshop, they don’t just hear me speak; they have to hear themselves speak, and that’s never easy. Nobody phones it in, either — they work really hard to develop a narrative, to craft the right talking points, and then to summon the courage to stand up in front of a room full of people.

In fact, they try too hard.

What a conundrum it is to learn to relax while doing something unusually stressful. Is it not impossible to be yourself when you are engaged in an activity that is so unnatural? Reminiscent of the old joke about how does one get to Carnegie Hall (answer: practice), the road to authenticity is paved with sweat, toil, discomfort, and questions that have difficult answers. Starting with this one: who are you? No, I mean who are you, really? How do you even know who you are? And what kind of question is that to ask in a stupid PowerPoint class??

I understand well this frustration; it’s why public speaking is almost universally feared. Disregard the stuff about slide design and forget about whether you should apply animation to your bullets. What kind of an experience do you want your audience members to have and how can you give it to them? How can you tell your story in the most genuine way? Those aren’t skills you can just learn.

And yet, there is a set of skills that can help you find your way. Dealing with nerves, controlling your physical movements, commanding your vocal patterns — there actually exists physical behaviors you can practice and learn that can help you feel more natural in the front of the room.

That was actually comforting to this group — that there are maneuvers and physical behaviors that can be practiced and learned. Once learned, those skills can be used to help you find yourself. As with most things, you might start out feeling awkward and unnatural. That’s okay — finding yourself is not easy.

Use of PowerPoint is…inconsequential

It is typical at my workshops to see a heavy majority of participants identifying themselves as PowerPoint users, but today we’re seeing something different. First off, I can barely find anyone any longer who uses Prezi. I believe that the marketing folks at that company did themselves no favors when they touted as the software’s signature move that which has proved to be such an irritant to audience members. Indeed, calling themselves The Zooming People was not their finest moment.

The idea of cloud-based collaborative slide software is still quite popular, but that territory has been largely occupied today by Google Slides. Among the 21 people in attendance, six of them use Google Slides as their primary creation tool. This includes the two high school students who were invited to participate in the program. They told me that most of their friends use Google Slides, too, so watch for this trend to move in a predictable direction.

Beyond that, we usually get a smattering of folks who use Keynote — usually less than one out of 10 — and we had one person who genuinely did not know what she uses. At first, I was astounded by this…then amused…and ultimately, encouraged. When you go to the hardware store, do you pay attention to the brand of hammer you buy? That metaphor might be an oversimplification, but not as much as it used to be. It is becoming increasingly common to meet content creators who are truly software agnostic and I like that trend. While software aptitude is a valuable skill, the more valuable commodity is recognition that the software is not crucial to creating an audience-centric presentation experience.

Do millennials still “like” everything?

Before I answer that question, I guess I have to acknowledge that high-school-aged kids are not really millennials. While we all wait for the New York Times to decide on their generational name, I will refer to them as post-millennials. And if the ones who annually participate in this program are any indication, our future is in good hands. These kids are sharp, inquisitive, mindful, and fully able to sit through an entire day of grownups talking at them.

And while they don’t say “like” nearly as often as my 25- and 22-year-old daughters do, the elaboration here is informative. One of them, named Caroline, had the assignment of sharing a life-defining moment. She spoke for about three minutes and for the first 90 seconds, she was methodical, measured, and perhaps a bit tight. Then she began to loosen up and her meter, her tone, and her energy level all perked up. In listening to her, I was fascinated to keep score of her use of the dreaded filler word. In the first 90 seconds, she only said “like” once, and it was actually in context as a simile. But in the final 90 seconds, when she got into a flow and started telling her story in a more natural way, I counted eight instances of “like,” all of them fillers.

I think I know why this happens. In Caroline’s case, you could see all of the physical manifestations of her brain speeding up: She was more active with her hands, her eyes were more animated, her speech pattern more energized. Her mouth literally could not keep up with her brain, and her employ of “like” was the vehicle to allow her words to catch up with her thoughts.

Which Caroline was the more effective, the one who spoke in measured tones, devoid of “likes,” or the one who was, like, more energized? I am not one of those commentators who rails against the use of verbal ticks. A few ums, uhs, and you-knows don’t bother me, as I recognize them to be a simple method of jump-starting the thought process. But “like” has a different reputation, a stigma of belonging to vacuous and vapid thoughts. I tasked Caroline with trying to find the balance, whereby she can get into the flow and find her upbeat cadence, but not speak so fast that she needs fillers in order to keep pace.

Everything she showed me that day suggests to me that she can learn this. Her regard for story structure, her indifference to slide software, her ability to pay attention to adult concepts for hours at a time — these are all encouraging indications that there might be less Death by PowerPoint in the not-too-distant future.


2018 Presentation Summit:
Last month for early pricing

With more seminars than we’ve ever offered and a full array of new presenters mixed with old favorites, we couldn’t possibly be more excited about the approach of our annual conference, Sep 23-26 in sunny San Diego CA. Evidently, the same can be said for all of you, as registration numbers are way ahead of our normal pace.

We’ll almost certainly sell out before we get too deep into summer, but our more immediate interest is in saving you $100. That happens by your registering in the month of May. Early pricing of $1,495 is good for the rest of this month and then the price rises to its regular plateau of $1,595. That price gets you the following:

  • Thirty-six information-packed seminars, across our three tracks, Design, Build, and Deliver
  • Five keynote addresses to inspire creative thought and innovative thinking
  • Non-stop access to our Help Center, staffed with the most knowledgeable software experts on the planet
  • Evening activities ranging from discussion groups to fun team-building activities to let-your-hair-down social events. Oh, and you haven’t lived until you have watched or played in the Summit’s PowerPoint Trivia Contest.
  • Full breakfasts all three days, delicious lunches on Mon and Tue, and hosted evening receptions Sun-Wed.
  • Intimate access to the masters of the presentation industry in an environment of sharing that you won’t find in other business conferences

If you have attended the Summit before, you know the incredible value that we pack into four days. If you have yet to join us, make this the year. Your head will spin from all that we teach you, your phone will blow up from all of the contacts and friends you’ll make, and you will fall in love with San Diego in the fall.

Find out why this conference is on so many people’s can’t miss list. Find out why we have patrons who have attended all 16 years. Find out why spending four days with us will completely change the way you look at the presentation experience.

Visit the Presentation Summit website for complete details, the full schedule, and bios of all of our presenters and experts. If you’re reading this online, find the Contact button at the bottom of the page to reach us directly. If this arrived in your inbox, just reply to it and a human being will write you back straight away.

We make available only 200 seats. We want you in one of them. Register today.

1 Comment

  1. Woody Parks on May 16, 2018 at 11:06 am

    I thank you again for sharing your blog posts with us. You demonstrate that lousy PowerPoint slides actually reflect aimless thinking. And I love your story about Caroline. At my age, 64, I recognize that we now live in their world. I am heartened at the passion and skill she showed.