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!

Gordon Brown’s problem isn’t performance – it’s the words!

Let me put myself in the firing line. When it comes to public speaking, I believe that Gordon Brown’s problem has little do with the way he performs.

In fact, I’ll go further and say that when you take stellar performers like Obama and Blair out of the equation, Brown can deliver a speech as well as the next man, or woman.

Before you dismiss me as delusional, let me tell you I am not alone – there are other communications professionals who share my view. In today’s Guardian, theatre critic Michael Billington – a man who knows a thing or two about acting – describes Brown’s performance at yesterday’s Labour Party conference as “highly effective.”

And a couple of weeks ago at the UK Speechwriters’ Guild conference, I heard Philip Collins – Tony Blair’s chief speechwriter, not the drummer – say exactly the same thing. Interestingly, Collins went on to tell us that, unlike Blair, Brown insists on writing his own speeches. And there, I think, lies the cause of Brown’s plight.

Brown’s a distinguised academic. But the academic style is about as far away from the language of great oratory as you can get. The problem for Brown, the academic, is his love of abstract words and ideas.

Great leaders express their vision with concrete words, not abstract words. They paint verbal pictures that an audience can see, and feel. Billington puts his finger on it when he writes that having begun his speech with a list of Labour’s achievements, “it would have been rhetorically effective to end on some of its proposed radical changes. Instead, Brown ended up with an appeal to abstract principles that wasn’t nearly as stirring.”

When, at the climax of his hour-long speech, Brown urges us to “never stop believing we can make a Britain equal to its best ideals,” my mind’s eye is blinded by the glare of abstraction, and I am unmoved. Things don’t get any better when he urges me to “never, never stop believing. And because the task is difficult the triumph will be even greater.”

Believe what? Task? Triumph? Abstract words like these don’t grab me. They don’t conjure up images – and without images, I’m struggling to see, feel or get excited by what I’m hearing.

A key theme of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inspirational ‘I have a dream’ speech is reconciliation. But the abstract word ‘reconciliation’ doesn’t make a single appearance throughout the speech.

King’s lesson for Brown is simple. The best way to inspire people with an abstract idea is to find a way of describing it concretely. Don’t use a word like reconciliation when you can have a much more powerful impact on your audience by showing them precisely what reconciliation looks and feels like.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Over to you Gordon!

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