Andrew Abela is an Associate Professor of Marketing and Chairman of the Department of Business & Economics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and author of The Presentation: A Story About Communicating Successfully With Very Few Slides.
His consulting clients include Microsoft, ExxonMobil, Motorola, Burger King, eBay, and Kimberly-Clark. Prior to academia, he ran the Marketing Leadership Council, was a consultant with McKinsey & Co., and a brand manager at Procter & Gamble. He lives with his wife and their six children in Great Falls, Virginia, and was born and raised on the island of Malta.
Geetesh: Tell us about your new book, The Presentation: A Story About Communicating Successfully With Very Few Slides – it is a long title with a very short and interesting story. Also, what motivated you to write this book?
Andrew: The title is long because I wanted to emphasize the critical difference of this book: “Communicating Successfully With Very Few Slides.” The managers at the companies I work with on presentation design (Microsoft, Volkswagen, Wrigleys, HJ Heinz, Starbucks, and others) really value, almost above everything else – brevity. “Be brief, be bright, be gone” is what the senior executives they present to are telling them.
That’s what I tried to reflect in the book itself: how to develop presentations that are powerful and brief, often four, three, maybe even just one slide long. That’s why the book is so short (though the title isn’t!) I wanted readers to be able to sit down and complete the book in one sitting.
The motivation in writing the book was that, while I received lots of really positive feedback on my first book, Advanced Presentations by Design, the one negative comment I received was that it is too “academic.” I wanted to be sure that it was solidly based on scientific research, and it was, which made it not necessarily the lightest read. Since one of the topics I cover in that book is the role of storytelling in presentation, it occurred to me that I should try to capture the same principles, but in story form. Hence this new book, The Presentation.
Geetesh: You bundle all the existing presentations that include more visuals and less text into a category called ballroom style. And then you go ahead and explain what a conference room style presentation is. Is there really a distinct dividing line between both of them, can the line never be blurred?
Andrew: I believe that there are actually many different types of presentation style. And that’s the key point: you have to choose the right style for your particular presentation goal. So Ballroom style—visuals with minimal text, the kind promoted by Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds, for example—is for presenting big ideas to large audiences. Conference room style presentations: printed, lots of detail, but very visually attractive—the sort of thing that Edward Tufte advocates for—are more appropriate for when you’re trying to persuade a specific audience to do a particular thing or make a particular decision.
So if you’re selling a product, seeking approval for your project, raising funds, etc., then Conference room style is the way to go. That’s because if you’re asking someone to agree to or approve your proposal, then you need to provide them with all the details they need to make the decision. And that is done best through a paper handout, as Tufte argues.
I don’t claim that these are the only two styles. The Lessig method, for example, is another style, although it’s clearly related to Ballroom.
But there is a bright line between Ballroom and Conference room style presentations, and it’s specifically around the treatment of details. Details are for printed slides, not for projected slides. If you try to project details (thereby blurring both Ballroom and Conference room styles), that’s when you get “Death by PowerPoint.”
The Presentation: A Story About Communicating Successfully With Very Few Slides is available on Amazon.com for US$ 7.50.
It’s also available as a free ebook to anyone who signs up for my email list
Some additional details about Ballroom vs. Conference room style are also available in a “Change This” manifesto I wrote, called Presenting to Small Audiences: Turn Off the Projector!