Nancy Duarte knows how to make killer presentations. She and her husband, Mark, founded Duarte Design, Inc., a firm that helps everyone from Google to Al Gore master the art of captivating audiences. Her recent book is called slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations. In this interview, she shares the secret to great Powerpoints and tells us how to avoid some of the most common presentation pitfalls.
Question: Why do most presentations suck?
Answer: Most presentations suck because:
1. The presenter has not given the audience any idea why they are there or what the content means to them; messages are disorganized and there's no unifying story line.
2. The presenter uses the slides as a document or teleprompter and reads their slides with his/her back to the audience. This makes the audience feel like the presenter is slow or not very smart.
3. The presenter is not passionate or inspired and has not connected to the audience in a uniquely human way.
Did you notice that presentations suck solely because of the presenter? Great speakers like you can get by without much visual support. Emotive qualities are the greatest assets in a live performance.
Question: How can one tell if the problem is what you're trying to communicate or how you're trying to communicate?
Answer: I've heard some riveting dollards and some dynamic idiots. The best way to find the problem with your presentation is to ask someone who will give you an unbiased opinion. Most of us are not very self-aware. There have been times when I thought I was dynamic but appeared half-asleep and desperate for a vacation. Several friends called about my Amazon video for the book, saying, "Take it down immediately. You're asleep and not yourself. It'll hurt book sales." See? You just have to surround yourself with people who will tell you like it is! Just because people show up to hear us speak doesn't mean we've put the right amount of effort into our content or delivered it in a compelling way. Both are easily fixable.
Question: What is the optimal workflow process for creating a presentation?
1. Develop your content from the context of what the audience needs.
2. Step away from the computer and develop ideas first and then your slides second.
3. Find inspiration from non-digital sources found objects, nature and hand sketches, for example.
4. Make slides that are easy for the audience to recall, not slides that help you to remember what to say.
5. Rehearse the presentation and ask for feedback on the content and slides, thinking about how well the audience will connect to the materials.
6. Change yourself and the slides based on this feedback.
7. Rehearse again until you've NAILED it!
Question: How does one figure out what an audience needs from a presentation?
Answer: There are a handful of questions about your audience you should answer before you begin a presentation. What are they like? Why are they here? What keeps them up at night? How can you solve their problem? What do you want them to do? How might they resist? How can you best reach them?
Basically, you should take a walk in their shoes, figure out their world and then speak in a relevant way to their needs. If this perspective is not intuitively evident, it must be researched. That's part of adequate preparation.
Question: What's the more important technology for a good presentation: sticky notes or PowerPoint?
Answer: Sticky notes or any other tactile method of planning a presentation that works for you. I actually still use 3x5 cards to prepare my initial presentations. For all my internal Duarte presentations, I draw pictures on 3x5 cards, scan them, and use them as my slides.
You've also asked a bit of a tricky question because there are some innovative tools emerging in the content development area. Several collaborative web applications are being developed in the presentation space. And with the prevalence of dispersed work forces, some of the traditional sticky note sessions have moved to online presentation applications. The biggest danger in broad collaboration is diluting a unique point of view.
Question: How should a group create a presentation?
Answer: Start by finding a strong facilitator. Each person on the team has a perspective that needs to be heard because it will resonate with someone in the audience. It's tough to get everyone into a room these days, but that's the ideal way to kick it off. Start by having each person jot down on sticky notes what they think the audience's needs are and what your product or service does to solve them. Sort them by determining which ones will resonate best. Once a meta-structure is determined, sub-groups or individuals can be assigned to each section. When everyone gets back together, each team presents its content for feedback. Once consensus is built, each team builds slides within the brand guidelines.
Question: Then how should it actually be presented?
Answer: Having multiple presenters creates interest and keeps the audience engaged. If there is more than one expert, changing it up a bit is best. But it takes rehearsal to nail down the smooth handoffs. That said, tension and contrast can be quite stimulating in a presentation.
Question: What are the key elements of an effective slide?
1. Arrangement of elements: The placement of elements creates meaning. Contrast, flow, hierarchy, unity, proximity, and white space are fabulous methods for establishing focus and clarity.
2. Selection of visual elements: Create and choose visual elements that hang together like a family and appeal to your audience. They should also reflect who you are. Original imagery and custom info graphics add meaning and simplicity. It also makes it memorable.
3. Use movement wisely: Animation should be used wisely and ONLY when it adds to the value or meaning of the content. If it doesn't have an emphatic purpose, skip it.
Question: How did Al Gore get his groove back?
Answer: He got much of his groove back all on his own. We helped with the visual story but re-tapping into his passion and shaking the political persona was all his own work. One of the key factors in the success of his presentation style is that he had internalized all the key messages. He had delivered that presentation over 1,000 times before the movie so he was comfortable with the content and didn't over rely on his slides. It was seamless.
Question: Beginning to end, how long should a good presentation take to create?
Answer: If you want low impact, little time. If it's high impact, lots of time. There are some presentations that are developed quickly to simply get a point across to a peer. You can just pound those out and put as much energy into them as necessary for the audience to get what you're trying to say. If you're trying to persuade someone to join your cause, buy your product or fund your research, you need to spend enough time so your presentation sways others' opinions.
Question: How long should it take for an audience to process all the text on a slide?
Answer: Three seconds. It is like a billboard on the highway. I get a bunch of push-back from analysts, scientists and engineers on that comment. They need to have the results of their data or the conclusions of their analysis as a slide at the beginning of the deck. Then you can have the details as back up in the deck and also as handouts. They'll be just as impressed with how smart you are.
Question: What's the difference between your book and Garr's?
Answer: Garr's book is fantastic! He is the person who motivated me the most to write and who encouraged me when it felt daunting. He gave me early copies of his work so I could make sure that our content dovetailed well and offered complementary value to our readers. It's an oversimplification, but PresentationZen explains the why and slide:ology explains the how. The two books empower the reader in different ways. Garr's book is required reading for all my employees. We give it to clients all the time.
Stay open, stay simple, stay focused on the audience. Nancy's tips are great for any entrepreneur trying to make a successful pitch, and as a small business owner you will have to pitch for money, sales, partnerships, and permission. If presentations skills moved Al Gore from a stiff caricature on Saturday Night Live to a trendy environmentalist extraordinaire, they can help you too. There's hope for us all.