Experimenting with new presentation styles

Like a lot of folks, I was inspired by Dick Hardt’s presentation in the Lessig style. It was my first introduction to this fast-paced, minimalist approach — and far cry from the denser presentation style I usually use.

I probably wasn’t alone in thinking: I could do that with my next presentation and bask in the glow of my audience’s admiration. Stephen O’Grady at Red Monk seized the opportunity and put together a great example of a Lessig-style presentation here. At Juice, we’re always looking for new and better ways of communicating with our clients and have been paring down the visual complexity of our presentations recently. After trying this approach with my last couple client presentations, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on my experience:

  • A Ying to the prevailing Yang. The dominant style of presenting, the one that Cliff Atkinson tenaciously rails against, can be best identified by its long lists of bullets and mind-numbing detail. The Lessig/Hardt camp offers a diametrically-opposed alternative — one that requires the presenter to focus on the flow of the story. Trying this approach was a great reminder that you should be telling a compelling story, first and foremost. It also asks you to breaks the ingrained habit of throwing everything you know on each slide.
  • Dazed and confused. From my experience, you have to be careful not leave your audience in a Roadrunner-esque cloud of dust. The Lessig/Hardt style starts off fast and doesn’t slow down. Particularly if you are well known to your audience, there is an implicit contract between you and your audience. The audience has expectations about your communication style and it is jarring to them when you change. On the other hand, if you bring the skill and commitment of a Dick Hardt, the audience is likely to recover from the initial shock and quickly get into the flow of the presentation.
  • Be your own stylist. All of which made me wonder: Is the value in Dick Hardt’s presentation popularity in asking us to reconsider how we present information — rather than suggesting we simply copy his approach? There isn’t one right style for playing a song, making a movie, or writing a book — why do so many presentations look alike? Some would blame it on the tool (i.e. PowerPoint), but I think it stems from basic corporate conservatism.
  • Fit style to the story. After trying pure Lessig, I wondered whether we were trying to force a style on a presentation that needed something different? Maybe each presentation — and even parts of presentations — have a best approach for imparting the information. Remember when MSFT had presentations "starter packs" that would build a 15 page presentation for you with stubs on different pages? Interesting that the content varied for the different presentation objectives, but the presentation style/approach didn’t! The default style in PowerPoint becomes the "right way" even if it isn’t.A better way to present is to consider the characteristics of the information. High-level, conceptual points may be well-suited to a single word, phrase or picture. In contrast, a rich display of data can be equally compelling if you need to impress the audience with your homework and deliver a foundation to support your case. We have even started to experiment with using separate handouts with the important raw data to supplement a sparse, story-telling style of presentation.