Musings on cartoon thinking, comedy and speechwriting

I’ve led many cartoon workshops over the years, and have yet to meet someone incapable of learning how to draw. But occasionally before a workshop, I’m told, “I’m sure you won’t be able to teach me how to draw, because I’m a verbal, words person, not an arty, visual one.”

The tendency for people to view themselves as either visual or verbal is widespread in our culture. Its roots lie in the mistaken belief that our senses exist in separate boxes, more or less isolated from each other.

The now discredited theory of learning styles – the view that when it comes to learning things, each of us favours the input of one sense, above others – is yet another manifestation of this wrong-headed notion. Imagine the pickle you’d find yourself in if you had to teach a self-described auditory learner the shape of Algeria, using sound alone. Whatever their professed learning style, there’s only one sure-fire way to teach someone the shape of Algeria, or any other country for that matter – you need to show it to them, and they need to take it in with their eyes!

It just doesn’t make sense for someone who regards themself as primarily verbal to insist they aren’t visual – not least, because good writing tends to be jam-packed with images and metaphors. Whether we’re talking Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jerry Seinfeld, good writers and communicators, paint pictures with words.

The art of the gag
Recently, the Guardian invited the very funny and clever stand-up comedian, Milton Jones, to analyse his comic technique. He began with some reflections on this, his opening gag:

“Incredible to think, isn’t it, that the Chinese language started off as English in England, but then one person whispered it to another person…”

As a practising speechwriter (words person?) and cartoonist (pictures person?), I’d like to share a few insights into how I think this delightful gag works, because I believe the same set of techniques could help you bring your own stories, speeches and presentations to life.

Jones observes that when one of his gags works “it’s because it puts a silly cartoon in people’s heads, and they suspend their disbelief for a millisecond.” I know exactly what he means – cartoon thinking is my stamping ground. I use it everyday in my work as a cartoonist, speechwriter, and workshop leader – and I’m convinced it lies at the heart of all good communication.

The grain of sand in Jones’s creative oyster is the phrase ‘Chinese whispers’. He uses the term “reverse engineering” to describe the cartoon thinking technique he uses to pull the phrase apart and then put it back together again, differently.

“Most of my stuff is reverse-engineered from tripping over a phrase or an idea and working out what the most unlikely misinterpretation might be (now the phrase reverse engineer has me thinking). At some point, I played with the concept of Chinese whispers like a Rubik’s cube in my head, until I’d settled on the unlikeliest combination.”

Words into pictures…pictures into words…
Cartoon thinking brings to light the intimate relationship, and interplay, between drawn images, mental images and words. All it requires is something to make a mark with (pens are useful!), something to make a mark on (paper comes in handy!), and an unfettered imagination.

Let’s kick off with some doodles inspired by the phrase, ‘Chinese whispers’, starting with the word ‘Chinese’.
chinese head
The currency of cartoon thinking is stereotypes: the bad cartoonist is blinded by them; the good cartoonist deconstructs and subverts them. The act of thinking about a word or image is akin to throwing a pebble into a still pond – instantly, and without conscious determination, your mind begins to ripple with associated images, words, recollections and feelings.

“Chinese…inscrutable…populous…whispers…Great Wall…take-away…Red Army…power…Chinese language…difficult…pictograms…”, and so on. The order of associated words and feelings will, of course, vary from person to person, but stereotypical thinking guarantees that many key associations are shared.
The word ‘Chinese’ gives rise to ‘whispers’, so let’s look at a drawing of one Chinese person whispering to another.
whisper
The drawing depicts a single act of whispering, but the notion of Chinese whispers conjures up an image of a chain of people whispering – let’s look at one in action.
chinese whisper
Cartoon thinking often employs exaggeration to get our attention, and make its point – rhetoricians call it hyperbole. ‘Chinese whispers…Great Wall of China…’ – what if we imagine a Chinese whisper that’s as long – or maybe even longer than – the Great Wall of China?

Pictures in your mind’s eye
At this point on our creative journey, the mental image begins to offer much more imaginative versatility than its physically drawn counterpart. In my mind’s eye, I can fly at great speed above a Chinese whisper that circles the world. What’s more, I can swoop down and zoom in to look at the faces of the individual whisperers too. (Compare Churchill’s iron curtain descending across the continent ‘from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic’ – as a mental image it catches fire, but would fall flat on its face as a PowerPoint slide).

Chinese whispers is a visual metaphor for the degradation of a message as it passes from one whisperer to the next. What message could these people be sharing? It’s time to play with another basic cartoon thinking technique that involves turning things on their head, it’s called reversal.

What if the Chinese whisperers aren’t Chinese at all. What if they’re English like Milton Jones, and me? England and China…what if the chain of whisperers stretches all the way from England to China?

Two very different languages, English and Chinese. What could connect them? What if the degradation of the message involved one of the languages morphing into the other? You see where this is leading, don’t you?

As this stage, Jones has a clever idea, but his next big challenge is to translate it into words that do it justice. Like all good writers, he knows that less is more. He tells us that sometimes it can take him years to get the wording of a gag just right: “a subtle inflexion or an extra word can make all the difference. But when a joke is successful it makes people see something in a completely new light.”

And like all good performers – whether they be stand-up comedians or speechmakers – he knows that audiences love to be involved in the act of creation, and like nothing better than being invited to fill in the gaps. The rhetorical devices that make Jones’s gag tick are synecdoche (building a picture of the whole from a significant detail) and enthymeme (filling in the missing gaps of an argument) – devices also beloved of speechwriters and speechmakers!

In a recent Desert Island Discs programme, comedian Jack Dee described these devices another way when he talked about the stuff you don’t say being just as important as the stuff you do say: “it’s allowing the audience to join the dots and do some thinking for themselves, which is brilliant.”

So next time someone asks you about your preferred learning style, think cartoonist and tell them you’re a visual/verbal/auditory/touchy-feely kinda guy, or gal, with a nose for a good idea.

If you enjoyed this post, why not come along to our day workshop on 11th July in Brighton – if you use the promotional code CARTOON when booking your place, you’ll get a whopping £150 discount!

How to be an outstanding communicator

The message from recruitment agencies, employer surveys and the like is familiar, loud and clear: you must be an outstanding communicator if you want to get to the top of your profession. Technical audit skills and practical experience are, of course, essential, but they will only take you so far up the greasy pole; to make it those extra few slippery feet to the very top you’re going to have to find a way of transforming yourself from a good communicator into an outstanding one.

Keep it simple

Outstanding communicators distinguish themselves by the way they use language. The first thing that strikes you when you listen to an outstanding communicator speak is the simplicity of their language: they use words you can understand in a way that makes it easy to follow what they’re saying.

But simple is hard, and takes courage. It takes courage because it goes against the grain of workplace communications. In organisations, language is often used as a protective veil whose main purpose is to cover the speaker’s back rather than enlighten their audience. A concoction of jargonistic words arranged into convoluted sentences is an effective way of covering up ideas that are half-baked, obvious, or trivial.

Many people mistakenly equate this kind of overcomplicated, difficult-to-follow language with cleverness. The following example – though satirical – makes the point:

“Undue multiplicity of personnel assigned either concurrently or consecutively to a single function involves deterioration of quality in the resultant product as compared with the product of the labor of an exact sufficiency of personnel.” Masterson, J. and Brooks Phillips, W., Federal Prose, 1948, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina

What effect does language like this have? It intimidates, it excludes, it frustrates, and, ultimately, it wastes time (and therefore money!). It embodies everything that is the antithesis of outstanding communication. It is puffed up, self-serving – and, in the final analysis, like the emperor’s new clothes it leaves its author looking naked and foolish. Translated into the language of clarity and simplicity, the same gobbledygook becomes:

“Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Beyond plain English

Clear, plain English is an essential part of good communication. It is the language of instructions that are easy to follow, intelligible contracts, and business letters that read as if they’ve been written by an articulate and sympathetic human, not a machine. But outstanding communicators, although masters of plain English, come into their own when they move beyond it.

Clear explanation is the forte of the good communicator. But clear explanation alone isn’t going to be enough to persuade people to vote for you, or to inspire them to follow you into the heat of battle. You need something more: you need to be able to communicate in a way that appeals not just to minds, but to hearts as well. When Barack Obama began his bid for the US presidency in 2007 he was a rank outsider, an unknown. It was the power of his oratory that opened the doors of the White House to him. Writing back in 2008, The New Yorker’s George Packer wrote that, moments after listening to Obama’s New Hampshire campaign speech, “the speech dissolved into pure feeling, which stayed with me for days.”

Warming up your language

Modern neuroscience has demonstrated conclusively that we feel our way into decisions. Numerous case studies have shown that people with damage to the parts of their brain responsible for emotional reactions are unable to make decisions at all. It seems that the rational mind working by itself dithers endlessly as it weighs up the various possible reasons for taking one course of action rather than another.

So, to be an outstanding communicator you have to begin by engaging people’s feelings. Once people care about what you’re saying, you have their attention. And the key to making people care is your choice of words. Words are the wrapping for your communications, and if you want your audience to unwrap what you say, you need to warm up your language.

The notion that words can be warm or cold might sound strange, but let’s test it out by returning to the piece of gobbledygook I quoted earlier. Like a lot of organisational speak, it’s crammed full of long words of Latin origin: words like ‘multiplicity’, ‘personnel’, ‘assigned’, ‘concurrently’ and so on – I‘m sure you get the drift.

Imagine for a moment that you’re at a friend’s party and you find yourself chatting with someone you’ve never met before, over a glass of wine. How would you feel if your new acquaintance (another Latinate word) spoke to you using long Latinate words. I suspect that, like most other people, you’d experience him as distant, cold and, given the context, weird.

But what makes ‘friend’ a warmer word than ‘acquaintance’, and ‘many’ a warmer word than ‘multiplicity’? Well, here’s a clue: say the word ‘acquaintance’ to a young child and they’ll give you a blank look. But follow it with the word ‘friend’ and their eyes will light up as the word conjures up an image of someone they love.

Words like ‘friend’, ‘cook’, and ‘dog’ are common everyday words; and, like most common everyday words, their origins lie in Old, and Middle, English. These also happen to be the first words we learn as children – they mark our entry into the realm of language, and verbal communication. Our relationship to them is a visual one, because our first encounter with them is one of pointing, touching or physically interacting with the thing they represent. They embody that magical moment when things become words.

Visual language

By contrast, words of Latinate origin are latecomers to the English language party – both historically, and in the language acquisition of an individual. This explains why a word like ‘dog’ brings to mind an image, while a word like ‘canine’ probably doesn’t. Outstanding communicators favour words of English origin because they are warm and visual – they help other people ‘see’ what you mean.

A quotation ascribed to Winston Churchill offers a good rule of thumb for choosing warm, visual words: “broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” It’s no accident that the final lines from one of Churchill’s most famous and stirring speeches (“we shall fight on the beaches”) is full of “old words” – “beaches”, “landing grounds”, “fields”, “streets” and “hills”.

The multisensory power of concrete language

Latinate words are cold and abstract; Old English words are warm and concrete. Concrete words aren’t just visual, they are multisensory – they engage all our senses. When Churchill used words like “beaches” and “fields”, he knew that they would invoke a variety of sensory responses in his audience: the sight of the sand and the azure blue sky; the sound of the waves lapping on the seashore and the shriek of the gulls; the smell of the sea; the salty taste on their tongue; and the feeling of warm grains of sand on the soles their feet.

Advertisers constantly exploit the power of multisensory concrete language. They don’t try to sell us just any old generic chicken. No, it’s not just chicken: they tell us it’s actually farm-reared, organic, golden Wiltshire farm chicken. Carefully selected picture words like these are designed to give us an experience – one that appeals to our tastebuds and stomachs, as well as our intellects.

Outstanding communicators don’t tell, they show. Statistics are abstractions that leave us cold. If you want to bring home the full horror of a natural disaster, you don’t talk about the thousands of people who have perished, and the unimaginable scale of the humanitarian disaster visited upon those who’ve survived. Instead, you put the disaster into a human context by making it concrete, and you do this by focusing on the story of a single family.

Story and metaphor

Study after study shows that people are very poor at understanding risk. And disasters like the financial meltdown and the BP oil spill raise the question of just how effective risk experts are at communicating what they know about risk to non-specialists. Outstanding communicators understand the limits of statistical data – they know that in most instances it just goes over the heads of a lay audience.

The most effective way of communicating risk is to get people to feel it, and the way to do this is to use story and metaphor to create an imaginative experience of what the risk is like – one that make sense in terms of what people already understand. To most lay people, a statistic like: 50 million acres of rainforest are cut down every year, doesn’t mean too much. It doesn’t sound good, but it’s far too abstract for a non-specialist to grasp.

Most people don’t know what an acre looks like, and they certainly have no experience of quantities as large as 50 million. On hearing a statistic like this neither their brains nor their emotions are engaged. So the chances of keeping their attention are slim at best. Al Gore faced the problem of communicating this statistic in his campaign to save the rainforest, and being an outstanding communicator he chose to dramatise the statistics by transforming them into a story-like metaphor.

This is how he did it:

“We lose one acre of rainforest every second. Imagine a giant invader from space with football-field sized feet, clomping across the rainforests of the world – going boom, boom, boom every second. Would we react? Well, that’s essentially what’s going in the rainforests right now!”

Putting it all together

Gore’s transformation of a dry statistic into a story metaphor that helps people experience as well as understand the enormity of the situation, exemplifies all the elements that make an outstanding communicator. From the outset, Gore doesn’t allow his expertise to act as a barrier between himself and his audience – after all, the word “communication” originates from a Latin word meaning “to share”.

Rather than blinding them with science, he puts himself into his audience’s shoes and looks for a way of helping them understand what they don’t know (the statistic) in terms of something they’re familiar with (football fields and B movies about invaders from space). He uses familiar, short, concrete, visual words – and he makes the simple complex without compromising its integrity.

So the key to transforming yourself into an outstanding communicator is to make your language as visual and concrete as possible. And the best way of doing this is to heed Churchill’s advice and go for short, everyday words, rather than difficult-to-understand long ones. Always think carefully about who you’re speaking to, and never allow your expertise to shroud your message in fog. Finally, use story and metaphor to bring what you say to life – and always remember that outstanding communicators move hearts as well as minds.

(This article was published in August 2010 in the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors’ magazine. Shortly after it appeared, the IIA’s Keith Labbett – Head of Audit at British Waterways – invited us to give a two hour interactive plenary session on ‘Outstanding Communications’ to the IIA’s South West Conference, which we did on 12th May 2011. Delegates loved our session and found it both stimulating and practical.  We could do something similar for your conference, so please get in touch if you’d like to talk things over.)

How to be an ‘interesting’ speaker

Most speeches and presentations are dull affairs. Soporific experiences to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Part of the fabric of everyday life; like a visit to the dentist – but more frequent.

But why should this be? After all, there are plenty of interesting, articulate people around. So how is it that so many of them are rendered boring when called upon to stand before an audience and speak?

Ask a colleague what they think of PowerPoint and you’ll find a clue. Chances are they’ll tell you that in their experience most PowerPoint presentations are about as stimulating as a general anaesthetic. However, if you ask them about the presentation they’re currently working on, don’t faint from shock when they tell you it’s going be a PowerPoint one.

Could this apparent contradiction be explained away by the fact that they are brilliant at using PowerPoint? Surely if that were true, we’d already be living in PowerPoint heaven. No, the usual response is that they use PowerPoint because everyone else does. It’s just the way things are – like taxes and computer crashes.

We humans are inherently paradoxical creatures. Within our hearts we dance to two very alluring but contradictory tunes. One expresses our overwhelming need to be part of the herd, while the other gives voice to our acute desire to discover and assert our individuality. The success of each depends on the failure of the other.

Take, for example, the history of stock market bubbles and crashes. From time to time the herd becomes caught up in the frenzied buying, or selling, of shares, irrespective of whether or not it’s a good time to do it. This is a powerful demonstration of just how much the herd’s behaviour is driven by the heart, not the head. The greed of the herd inflates the bubbles, while its fear pops them, and creates the crashes. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of this mayhem, it’s the handful of individuals moving in the opposite direction who amass the profits.

It may seem like a giant leap from the stock market to the writing of a speech, or presentation – but it isn’t. Interesting speeches and presentations are written by individuals, not herds. So always ask yourself: “what kind of speech, or presentation, would the herd produce in this situation?” And then do it a bit differently.

The key word here is ‘bit’, because you’ll find that even the slightest deviation from the predictability of the herd will result in a disproportionately substantial benefit. There’s no need to go mad and turn everything on its head. Think instead of chaos theory and the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil setting off a tornado in Texas.

In your next presentation you could decide to surprise, and delight, everyone – including yourself – by not using PowerPoint at all. Or, you could try using it sparingly: a small number of slides as an accompaniment to your script, rather than as the main course.

The problem with herd slides is that they usually have far too many words and bullet points in them. You could experiment with slides that contain no words at all, just an image. And the image you choose could be one that acts as a visual mnemonic for one of the small number – ideally not more than three – main points you want your audience to take away with them.

When you’re writing your script make an effort to avoid over-used words and phrases, because the herd is addicted to them. So try not to be ‘passionate’ about things. ‘Passionate’ is a perfectly respectable word that’s had the stuffing knocked out of it by years of over-use and abuse.

Genuine passion is associated with intense emotion. Nowadays the herd is passionate about everything from ice-cream to plumbing. But if you’re passionate about everything, you end up being passionate about nothing.

So give praise to the herd, because thanks to its existence, being interesting isn’t half as difficult as you might think. It’s simply a matter of learning to trust your individual impulse, and allowing it free rein. And, finally, remember to pay attention next time your individual impulse asks the question, ‘why?’

A Gift for Speakers and Would-be Speakers

The holiday period is a time to relax and recharge your batteries for the challenges to come. If you’re a professional speaker, it’s an opportunity to think about what you do and how to do it even better. And if you’re someone who’s new to public speaking, it’s a time to seek advice about how to do it well.

One of the most demanding stages of preparing to speak in public is working out what you want to say, and turning the material you come up with into something that will interest and inform your audience. With these thoughts in mind, I offer you a modest holiday gift: a medley of tips on how to prepare – and write – a speech or presentation that will make an audience sit up and listen.

Purpose

Think about why you’re giving your speech or presentation. What do you want your audience to do, know, or feel, as a result of experiencing it? Is this the best format for achieving your aims? For example, speeches and presentations are a very inefficient means of sharing lots of content – consider an emailed pdf instead!

Audience

Who are you talking to? What’s in it for them to listen to you? Think about what will interest them, and start planning your presentation from there.

Message

Don’t drown your audience in content. Work out your key message, and stick to it. Write it out in the form of a proposition – a brief sentence that asserts or denies something about your content. ‘My day at the zoo’ is not a proposition. ‘All zoos should be banned’ is a proposition. Propositions make content interesting because they express a point of view. Use your proposition as the spine for your whole speech or presentation.

Beginnings, middles and endings

Begin with something that grabs your audience’s attention and keeps them listening. Never make more than three points. And end by repeating your key message.

Signposts

People are easily bored, so keep your audience with you from start to finish by summing up, clarifying and using verbal signposts throughout.

Write your script

Even when speaking ‘off the cuff’, write out a draft in full first. And then break it down into sections and keyword notes later. If you read from a script, design it in short, well-spaced sentences, and use a large font.

Keep it concrete

Avoid abstract language. Give plenty of examples, and use stories, case studies and analogies to illustrate and clarify your points.

Visuals

Your speech or presentation will almost certainly be better received if you avoid using PowerPoint. But, if after writing it you feel the need to show some slides, use PowerPoint sparingly!

Rehearse

Rehearse out loud, and time yourself. Don’t memorise word-for-word, but practise speaking from your notes and looking out at your audience.

Anticipate questions

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and write down any questions you think they will want to put to you when you’ve finished speaking. Prepare your answers, but be ready to deal with the unexpected, too!

PS This post is one of a number of contributions to Angela DeFinis’s first “blog carnival” Visit her website to read the other guest blogs – http://www.definiscommunications.com/blog/public-speaking-and-the-holidays/

What PowerPoint can’t show you

Why does PowerPoint Presentations that Changed the World rank so high on the list of books that will never be written? Perhaps the clue’s in the title.

PowerPoint has been with us for over twenty years but during that time it has gained more of a reputation for sending the world to sleep than changing it.

Great orators, past and present, have managed to get by quite nicely without it – preferring instead to weave their magic with words alone. Would Nelson Mandela’s statement at the opening of his trial have been more powerful, or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech more moving if they’d been delivered as PowerPoint presentations? I think not.

Riffling through his collection of clip-art, and desperately entering multiple search terms in Google, Churchill would have struggled in vain to find a picture of an “iron curtain” to accompany his famous speech. Time pressure would have forced him to abandon his strikingly original idea in favour of something more literal, mundane and attainable, like a brick wall, or a barbed-wire fence.

I just broke off writing for a moment to try the experiment myself. Googling the phrase “iron curtain” produced the image below, which is clever but understandably fails to depict the paradoxical nature of something both soft and hard at the same time. Not surprising really because the brilliance and power of Churchill’s image come from the fact that it’s literally impossible.

It’s what rhetoricians call an oxymoron: that is, a contradiction in terms – a sort of condensed paradox. Other well-known examples of this figure of speech are “darkness visible”, “deafening silence”, and “bitter sweet”.

At first sight oxymorons like these may appear to be little more than a bit of clever, but meaningless, word play. But a second more thoughtful and less literal look often reveals a poetic truth or insight – one that captures not just the look of an experience, but its feel.

How many of us have inadvertently created a deafening silence by opening our mouth and putting our foot in it? Or had a bitter sweet experience during the course of an intense, but ill-starred love affair?

Images in PowerPoint slides are limited by their literalness – whereas the only limitation on an image conjured up by words is our imagination. Mental images aren’t confined and restricted by frames either – they don’t have edges. So in our mind’s eye we can begin to appreciate the full enormity, and sweep, of Churchill’s monumental “iron curtain” as we watch it descend “across the Continent”.

The images that words evoke in our minds are not just pictorial either – they are multisensory. We feel the soft unyielding hardness of the iron curtain in our bodies – it doesn’t just help us understand the tragedy of a divided postwar Europe intellectually, it helps us feel it too.

How not using PowerPoint can make you a better presenter

This morning I began writing a response to a comment posted on yesterday’s blog by Olivia Mitchell but as I did it slowly evolved into a post – so here it is. Olivia’s comment can be seen on yesterday’s post – Warning: PowerPoint may cause template thinking syndrome.

Olivia – thanks for some really good questions that have given me the opportunity to clarify CreativityWorks’ stance on some important issues.

Do I think that it’s better not to use PowerPoint at all? Yes, I do – and I’ll tell you why. In my experience, when clients are encouraged to cure themselves of PowerPoint template thinking more often than not they are amazed to discover that it’s not as essential to the success of their presentations as they thought – a bit like the reformed alcoholic who discovers that enjoying a party doesn’t always depend on having a drink.

Thinking of PowerPoint as your slave rather than your master fundamentally changes your relationship with it. It allows you to spend more time on the important parts of your presentation – the core message (proposition) and words. As a result PowerPower if used at all becomes an occasional accompaniment, not a guiding light. Many presentations, and presenters, find they improve dramatically when they abandon their knee-jerk reaction to the use of PowerPoint.

Martha and I had proof of this recently when we got feedback from a client who had worked with us on the closing keynote for a major conference. He’s a senior government adviser and he excitedly told us that he was the only one of ten speakers who didn’t use PowerPoint. He was delighted by the positive response of his audience – indeed, many of those who came up to talk with him afterwards could remember many of his points word-for-word.

This brings us to your question about exploiting the visual part of your audience’s brain so that they learn more. Visual thinking is at the heart of CreativityWorks’ approach. The best communicators use visual language – people can see what they mean. Just as it’s often said that “the pictures are better on radio”, we believe that the best way to engage the visual brain of an audience is to express your message in visual language.

In November 2007, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable stood up in the House of Commons and criticised new Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s vacillation over whether or not to hold a general election. He said: “the House has noticed the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation in the past few weeks – from Stalin to Mr Bean.”

The juxtaposition of two such incongruous images – Stalin and Mr Bean – brilliantly encapsulated Gordon Brown’s fall from grace. No one listening had to make an effort to remember Cable’s imagery – and the power of Cable’s metaphor was so great that Brown’s brand has never recovered from it. I’m not sure that anyone would argue that Cables lampoon would have been even more effective if he’d been given special dispensation by the House of Commons to use PowerPoint!

Warning: PowerPoint may cause template thinking syndrome

PowerPoint users – and I know there are many of you – don’t be alarmed, but there is a growing body of evidence that many of you run the risk of developing a condition known as template thinking syndrome.

The main symptom of template thinking syndrome is an overwhelming tendency to begin the preparation for any kind of presentation by first transferring all your content onto a series of PowerPoint slides. This invariably leads to the next stage of the syndrome in which the presenter spends some time aimlessly shuffling their slides around until they feel they are beginning to make sense.

At this point, syndrome sufferers delude themselves into believing that their presentation is just about ready to go. They convince themselves that the combination of their carefully prepared slide show and some accompanying explanatory remarks on the day will keep their audience on the edge of their seats.

There is, however, a growing body of evidence that this approach results in audiences that are confused, and ultimately bored. Audiences, in fact, that live in fear of attending their next PowerPoint presentation.

Another fascinating symptom of this syndrome is that close observation of its sufferers reveals the fact that the majority of them have split – or dissociated – personalities. A series of research experiments discovered that if sufferers are instructed to attend a PowerPoint presentation by another presenter, a large number of them attempt to escape by running in the opposite direction, beating their chests and wailing loudly.

But can anything be done to treat or ameliorate the syndrome? In principle yes, but in practice it’s very hard because it demands that sufferers think carefully about each presentation they do, rather than revert to the mindless default of the PowerPoint template, just because it’s easier and takes less time.

Throwing content at an audience in the form of PowerPoint slides and hoping that they’ll make sense of it is a recipe for disaster. Instead, presenters should begin their preparation by working out what it is they want to say and expressing in it in the form of a proposition: a statement that their audience will either agree or disagree with.

A non-propositional statement would be something boring like ‘my day at the zoo’. Whereas, a propositional statement on the same theme would be something like: ‘all zoos should be closed down’, or ‘animals are much happier in zoos than in the wild’.

So next time you are working on a presentation, if you find yourself drifting towards template thinking syndrome, take a break, make yourself a cup of tea, take a deep breath, and dare to think the unthinkable: maybe this presentation doesn’t require PowerPoint at all!

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