Ever since PowerPoint began to dominate the market, more and more casual users entered the design arena, and a wide variety of “how to” books emerged. In October of 1998, I was asked to co-author a series of PowerPoint books with Patrice Rutledge under the Special Edition: Using Microsoft PowerPoint label of the current Pearson Publishing (QUE) group. I have contributed to several of these titles to match the multiple releases of PowerPoint, through 2007. Geetesh Bajaj was a contributing author in the 2007 book. This was one of the few PowerPoint series that went beyond teaching people how to use the software, as several chapters in the book were dedicated to developing, designing and delivering the content. In these sections I was able to share guidelines based on all our audience feedback over the years.
The challenge in presentations is when the design task is separate from the delivery, making collaboration more critical. As we entered the new millennium, companies began to focus on consistency in presentations, especially for global organizations serving global markets. In fact, it was becoming increasingly clear that audiences wanted a cohesive blend of design and delivery to support a well-developed message.
Too often, when the presenters of content were neither the designers of the slides, nor the developers of the underlying message, the result was an inconsistency that audiences could recognize. The lack of collaboration among creative minds creates a marketing nightmare for so many organizations who seek uniformity across media formats. The most typical example is a presentation designed by a marketing department for use by a remote sales force. The tendency is to produce wordy, busy support content to assist even the “least experienced” presenter. In turn, presenters typically “narrate” the abundant content so as to cover everything, leaving little time for stories, examples, analogies and interaction.
We have always heard that presenters should “know the audience” when creating presentations. In a similar manner, visual designers are being asked to collaborate with presenters by “getting to know” a speaker’s habits, preferences, capabilities, skills, etc. Unfortunately, designers are often limited to casual conversations, short meetings, and a few email exchanges in order to gain familiarity with a speaker, and this is clearly not enough exposure.
In 2005, during the course of training over 300 global speakers from more than 17 countries, I met Dr. Leila Jahangiri, Chair of the Department of Prosthodontics at New York University. Her visionary thinking led to her inviting me, a non-dentist, to join the faculty at NYU in order to help teachers and administrators become more effective presenters. When I arrived at NYU she asked me how I “measured” the presentation skill levels of speakers I had been coaching since 1985. When I said I had no specific mechanism to create a viable “metric” for such skill, she suggested we conduct a study of learner preferences for effective teaching, presenting, or speaking.
We published the results of a three-year study in 2008, expanded the study to multiple countries and cultures, and designed a series of interactive assessment tools and combined all of the research into a recently published book, A Guide to Better Teaching.
The Presentation Skills Assessment can be used by anyone to evaluate any speaker, and provides a “level of effectiveness” measuring 80 independent elements across 21 skill categories based on learner preferences. These studied preferences are consistent with those found in audience feedback in the late 1980’s and mid-1990’s; and, the desire is still for uncluttered, understandable, easy-to-view visual displays supporting a knowledgeable, professional delivery in a clear, concise, non-distracting and interactive manner. A sample of the form is viewable on my Visually Speaking blog in the Assessment Tools section.
Designing to the Delivery
These assessment tools have multiple uses, beyond those of helping speakers self-improve. The analysis provides the designer with clear indications as to what type of presentations would work more effectively for particular individuals, based on audience perceptions. The assessment tools are now giving a designer the collaborative efforts needed to build a presentation that matches a speaker’s style, based on how audiences view the speaker.
Suppose that a speaker uses a highly interactive delivery. Slide content could be adjusted to reveal fewer details early, so the presenter can use foreshadowing techniques to prompt audience for interactive discussion points, which later appear in detail. Perhaps a speaker is more comfortable with adding stories, examples, and analogies. Designers could create slides with short key phrases, revealed in full (no builds), allowing the speaker to “pick and choose” which points to expand upon to add value.
Imagine a presenter who is challenged by verbal fillers (ums, uhs) when trying to paraphrase text, giving the appearance of nervousness in trying to rush through the content. A slide designer could create more graphic images, data-driven charts, perhaps interspersed video, to allow the speaker to “talk around” the visual imagery with little or no text on the screen.
All in all, there are numerous ways that designers and presenters can use existing feedback, such as a skills assessment, to improve the visual support portion of a presentation, so that communication can be optimized and the overall message can reach the audience in the manner intended. The ultimate goal is to create presentations where both the design and the delivery function seamlessly so that audiences are engaged, enlightened, and entertained.
Tom is also part of the faculty at NYU and with his colleague, Dr. Leila Jahangiri, he has collaborated on extensive research in the area of teaching & presentation effectiveness, publishing articles, interactive assessment tools, and the recent book A Guide to Better Teaching. He is the co-author of five other books and two interactive CDs.