TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
Zero tolerance for bad presentations

One reason why we still see so many appalling presentations
is that too many audience members put up with them. Sure,
there is a diffuse dissatisfaction about “death by PowerPoint”
as it is sometimes called, but how often do you see someone
in the audience actually get up in the middle of a presentation
and exclaim, “Turn the damn projector off and just talk to us”?
Be it out of habit, politeness, or doubts about our own ability
(or is it willingness?) to do better, we often end up condoning
the lack of structure, overcrowded slides, and poor delivery
so typical of the average business or technical presentation.

One particular example of a surprisingly high level of tolerance
is large international conferences in almost any research field.
Attendees often spend some 2500 USD on registration, travel,
food, and accommodation—and this does not include the cost
of being away from the office or lab for several working days—
to attend three or four talks an hour, up to eight hours a day.
Yet when I ask workshop participants (typically PhD students
and postdocs) how many of these talks they found interesting,
the answers I get, usually with a sigh, range from 10 to 25%.
When I next ask how many talks they found to be “not boring”,
the typical answer I get is “Well… perhaps one or two”. Still,
none of them ever complained about the situation, walked out
on a speaker, or asked the conference organizers for a refund.
Worse: the more junior researchers, who do their best to fit in,
learn by imitation to deliver boring, overly technical talks, too.

Of course, oral presentations do not have to be uninteresting
or boring, even when they discuss highly specialized topics.
Given a method and an opportunity to practice with feedback,
researchers and others often show spectacular improvements
in their ability to prepare and deliver effective presentations,
and the practice sessions of our training programs are usually
all but boring to the instructors and other training participants,
as speakers unleash their enthusiasm for their research work.
It is not unusual for me to see participants who go on talking
about a practice presentation during the coffee break (“Hey,
it's pretty cool work you presented there; I have a question…”).

Improvement requires motivation, so how about we all start
by no longer tolerating poor presentations—from ourselves
and from others. No more excuses. And no false constraints,
either. Got no time to do slides right? Fine; don't do slides.
Focus on your structure: have something interesting to say.
Rehearse your presentation, too—at least once, ideally more.
You're a busy professional? So is everyone else in the room.
If your bad presentation wastes 15 minutes for each attendee
in an audience of 160 people, that's 40 hours you have wasted.

Fortunately, there is hope—perhaps not (yet) at conferences,
but for business presentations. After the economic meltdown
of last year, the average citizens, and newspeople first of all,
have become more critical of financial institutions in general,
which have had to put at least some of their arrogance aside.
For example, Stéphane Wuille of Belgian financial newspaper
L'Echo did not hesitate to use the word torture
after attending
a 167-slide presentation by BNP Paribas on Tue 1 Dec 2009,
further complaining of the meaningless buzz phrases such as
the highest standards of citizenship and social responsibility.

Below are two slides from the BNP Paribas presentation. Note
the high level of noise (header, footer, bullets, frames, etc.),
the small font in graphs, and the high density of information,
complete with double footnotes: how can the speakers hope
to keep your attention with so much to look at on the slides?

Slide 1

Note also the commendable yet unsuccessful attempt to convey
a message (so what) on each slide, not in the slide's title area
but in the gray box near the bottom. Not only is such a location
less prominent than the title, especially on such crowded slides
and despite (or is it because of?) the frame and the red pointer,
but most statements are ambiguous because of lacking a verb
(see Entry 17). Sometimes they refer to the current situation,
other times to a target situation: which it is on any given slide
is hard to see at first glance—and possibly hard to figure out
on closer look, too. The slide above thus states “#1 in Belgium”,
yet it does not include any information about the competition.

Slide 2

Finally, notice the visual lie about private banking (green chart,
top center in the second slide): the rightmost bar states a value
of 63, yet it is over three times the length of the leftmost one,
which has a value of 40. The ratio is exaggerated by a factor 2.

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