Presentation Zen was published ten years ago. Al Gore won his Oscar for a film based on a presentation in 2006. Amazon sell more than 38,000 books with ‘presentation’ in the title, and more than 7,500 with ‘PowerPoint’. There are over 1,000,000 people with profiles that mention presentation design on LinkedIn, and 15,500,000 that mention PowerPoint. The presentation category on SlideShare has 1000s of decks. There are more than 2,000 TED talks, and 30,000 TEDx talks online – and loads of them are great, and they get everywhere, so lots of you have seen great presentations. Which all sort or raises the question: why are so many presentations still crap? All those books, decks, all that advice – is it even making a difference?

It’s not all bad. I think it’s fair to say that the standard of presentations in certain settings has improved. Technology product launches look slick now. Tech conference audiences don’t generally accept 100s of bullet-point heavy slides nowadays. A few battles have been won – but the war is being lost.

In schools and colleges, in meeting rooms and on training courses, at sales presentations and in project update meetings, audiences are still asking themselves “Why is this presentation so crap? … And what would happen if I just got up and left?”

The advice is out there. In books. On YouTube. On SlideShare. On blogs. But still crap presentations are the rule, not the exception. Why? It makes no sense. So I spent some time trying to make sense of it. Here’s what I think.

Meeting room presentations

Meeting room style presentations aren’t like conference room presentations. A gorgeous image and pithy caption are great at TED or a gadget launch. Try that when explaining your financial projections or marketing plan or science project and see what happens. The two types of presentation (ballroom and meeting room) share a critique of what’s wrong with too many bullet-points and awful design – but they don’t share the same solution. Following advice that works for a huge ballroom doesn’t always help when you are presenting in a meeting room. So people feel like they have been misled, and then just default to what they did before.

Company culture for presentations

If your boss or customer or lecturer or peers all do things a certain way, that’s a ready-made excuse. Organisations have cultures. The ‘ways things are done here’. In most company meeting rooms, presentations are done really badly. Cultural change is hard. And cultural change driven by one mid-level manager is a scary prospect and might seem like a path to ridicule.

Focusing on big presentations not most presentations

Companies haven’t focused on improving their everyday presentations. They have typically looked at conference keynotes – particularly where key executives present outside the company. They have sometimes spent time improving sales presentations. They sometimes work on improving their pitch presentations. But the bulk of presentations – the everyday meeting room presentations – can’t be improved in the same way. They can’t always be outsourced to professionals. But training and providing the right graphical tools (e.g. PowerPoint toolkits) can go a long way to making a difference and reshaping a culture.

Pretty bullet points

Improving what slides look like doesn’t automatically get rid of bullet points. This becomes really obvious when you try to present a text-heavy but beautiful deck. The audience just read ahead and ignore you. Sometimes presenters involve a graphic designer, but pretty slides only address the shallowest issue, without considering how slides and presenter interact. Once presenters think they have tried best practice, and found the results lacking and the experience not worth the effort, they often refuse to bother again.

PowerPoint encourages bad behaviour

PowerPoint doesn’t exactly encourage best practice. ‘Click to insert text’. What would be wrong with ‘Click to insert visual’? Sometimes people want to do things differently, but find that doing what they have always done is just much easier.

Poor PowerPoint skills

Knowing what to do isn’t the same as being able to do it. You might know that you want to use visual slides, and to avoid having slides that undermine you by telling the audience what you will say. You may want to use slides that use visualisation and animation and attractive design. But that doesn’t mean that you know how to do these things. It’s easy enough to write text over a big picture (try Haiku Deck) – but when that doesn’t give good results because the slides don’t really support what you want to say and you don’t want to just give a speech, what do you do next? (Our Advanced PowerPoint Training course works well, by the way.)

Not enough opportunities to improve

A lot of presenters don’t present that often. If you present once every six months, how much time are you ever going to give it, especially if you don’t create your own slides? Although of course if you get good you sometimes get invited back, and the opportunity to get even better. It’s easy to forget that a lot of people just don’t pay that much attention to presenting. They try to avoid doing it, rather than embracing it and trying to use being a good presenter to advance their career.

Not having a team in place

There are a lot of parts to creating a good presentation. There’s getting the message right – which primarily involves not being boring and saying what you need to say. There’s creating slides that are visual, and reasonably well designed. And then there’s delivery – actually presenting well. For important keynote presentations, a team of people might be involved. For the average meeting room presentation, fewer people are involved, and individuals have to do things they are OK at, and things that they aren’t that good at. This can lead to weak presentations, even where people have read some books and looked for bits of advice. A presentation will be as poor as the weakest part (message, slides, delivery).

Too much crap advice

Not all advice about giving better presentations is any good. There’s lots about how to breathe deeply (before you try to read out 112 bullet-points to an audience that know how to read), or how to imagine your audience naked (won’t that be distracting?), or how the number of slides you have is just critical (what if you layer 20,000 slides on each other, is that OK?).

Just like there are some great books on presenting and PowerPoint, there are some really ordinary ones. People at airports seem to buy either.

Just like there are some useful books on PowerPoint and presenting, there are some that are so theoretical that those reading them won’t actually know what to do differently. Some of those that sell the best are the least likely to actually help you present any better.

So, what should you do instead? What should a company do to change its culture of presentations without having to bring in an agency each time? I would suggest (a) get one or two core presentations created professionally (b) use those presentations and additional input to create a branded PowerPoint toolkit for people to use in their own slides (c) arrange advanced PowerPoint training for those who would really benefit, including executive assistants (d) drive change from the top by supporting key executives in changing how they present. Simple.

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Joby Blume

Director

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