Persuasive Presentations

Back in my consulting days at Diamond Technology Partners, I was known for my ability to bend PowerPoint to my will and fashion epic presentation-stories from lovingly-crafted slides. There was a term used when a client wanted a good looking presentation; they would ask if it could be "Zachified." Ah, the false glory.

Now I realize I was merely an amateur in designing presentations that could entrance and persuade an audience. I was going on instincts without much thought to the types of evidence, structure, and flow that would convince my audience.

Last week I had lunch with a man who has made a living from teaching others how to create effective presentations. His name is Andrew Abela and his blog is Extreme Presentations. Andrew has developed a thorough framework and training approach. He has a Doctorate and is a professor at Catholic University, so you know he brings an academic seriousness to the messed-up world of flufferpoint:

def (Withrop Hayes): A presentation that attempts to distract from the lack of substantive content or evidence with use of screenbeans, clip art, and other stock pictures or illustrations. A.k.a. clipterfuge (Todd Moy), clusterpoint (Cathy), The Macy’s Data Day Fluff Parade (Jamel).

Andrew gave me a quick backstage pass to his training methodology. Here are a few highlights:

1. Like a fool, I asked whether he preferred the sparse Lessig method or the more traditional, content-rich method. False choice. It all depends on the situation, just don’t use the wrong approach at the wrong time. Andrew makes the distinction between "ballroom style" and "conference room style."

"Ballroom style presentations, like most typical PowerPoint presentations, are colorful, vibrant, attention-grabbing, and (sometimes) noisy. They typically take place in a large, dark room, such as a hotel ballroom. Conference room presentations are more understated: they have less color and more details on each page. They are more likely to be on printed handouts than projected slides, and they are more suited to your average corporate conference room. The single biggest mistake that presenters make is to confuse the two idioms, and particularly to use ballroom style where conference room style is more appropriate. I would estimate that upwards of 90 percent of all PowerPoint presentations use ballroom style, yet most of the time our presentation conditions call for conference room style."

That’s from an article he shared with us called Achieve Impact through Persuasive Presentation Design (PDF)

2. It is important to mix data-based evidence with anecdotes. People need both of these types of information to persuade both the mind and heart (my interpretation).

3. Anticipate your audience’s objections and build them into your storyline. What is better than having exactly the right slide next when someone raises a concern?

4. Good presentations require a lot of thought about their design. Andrew has defined five dimensions of an "Extreme Presentation": logic, rhetoric, graphics, politics, and metrics.

His blog offers a couple useful tools:

  • A framework for choosing the right chart
  • Slides that pass the squint test : "A good way to test whether your page is laid out properly is to apply what designers call the "squint test." Squint at the page, so that all the text is blurred and illegible. Do you get anything about the page without having to read the text? If you can see that the page is showing a process or two or three alternatives or a bunch of things converging, then your page passes the squint test."