PowerPoint

I fought the slide and the slide won. Using horizontal and vertical logic to make your presentations more effective

Many years ago, I was working with a client on how best to use Power Point.  I suggested that she put a single idea at the top of the slide, rather than a subject header.  She responded that she had already been taught this approach, but that the instructor she learned it from had gone one step further and recommended using ‘horizontal and vertical logic’.  I asked what that meant.  She explained that the horizontal logic meant that someone should be able to pick up the presentation, read only the top line of each slide and understand what is being argued in the presentation.  The vertical logic meant that someone should be able to randomly pull a slide out of the middle of the presentation, read the top line and immediately understand how the content in the body supported the top line.  Brilliant.  Who wouldn’t want a presentation to be that clear and logical?  Frankly, I won’t be offended if you stop reading now, because the rest of this article really just fleshes this idea out (with an extra little magic trick for delivery thrown in at the end).

The topic of how much PowerPoint sucks has been done to death.  Everyone laughs about Death by PowerPoint.  So why hasn’t it gotten any better?  I would suggest the real problem lies in a combination of sloppy thinking and an intent to educate the audience rather than convince.  This results in two symptoms, which are deadly to PowerPoint: noun clusters for slide headers; information dumps with the point at the end of the presentation.  These issues are more difficult to resolve than simply telling people to only use 3-5 bullet points per slide and no more than 5-7 words per point.  As is often the case, we need to go a little deeper if we are going to find a solution.  In fact, when used well, PowerPoint presentations can be extremely effective.  I’m going to look at three ways you can improve your use of PowerPoint so that you don’t get into competition with it:

  • Make a point at the top of each slide (vertical logic).
  • Embed your structure in the presentation (horizontal logic).
  • Introduce the slide before transitioning (a little magic trick).

Make a point at the top of each slide (vertical logic)

The first problem is that the header on each slide is almost invariably two nouns: P&L YTD; Gap Analysis; Critical Challenges; Audience Demographics; Key Stakeholders, etc., etc. When we do this, we force ourselves into information dump mode. Each noun-cluster is a topic, which the speaker is then going to talk about, and if there is a point, it will be buried at the end. 

The solution is quite simple: place a short sentence at the top of the slide.  This will ensure that each slide has a point.  In order for it to be an active argument, there needs to be a verb in the short sentence.  The rest of the slide is then freed up to prove or support the point that is at the top of the slide – preferably with a visual like a graph or chart.   PowerPoint is most effective when the supporting content is presented visually.  The basic idea is this:

Put your point at the top of the slide. Put your proof in the body of it.

Putting the point at the top of the slide gives you control over how long you wish to spend on it (have you ever been told you had 20 minutes to present and when you showed up they asked if you could do it in 5?).  As soon as the slide goes up, the audience should be able to grasp the point and how the body supports it.  It’s up to you to choose how long to spend on the supporting detail.

This was perfectly illustrated to me in a pair of slides I used to see regularly at some of the tech companies I worked with back in the day.  The first slide was titled ‘Current Architecture’.  Underneath was a reasonably simple diagram, with a building on the left, an arrow leading to a cloud (representing a network) in the middle, another arrow to a cylinder (which represented a PBX), down to a set of mainframes, over to another building and back into the cloud.  This slide would generally take the speaker five or six minutes to explain.  Once they were finished explaining, they would transition to the next slide, which was titled ‘Proposed Architecture’.  Which, I could swear was the same slide.  Except, that after five or six minutes more explanation, a dotted red line appeared alongside the final arrow leading back to the cloud, at which point, we learn that the current architecture runs the risk of data loss and the proposed architecture ensures data integrity through a secondary pipeline.  See how fast that was?  If the first slide had been titled ‘Current Architecture runs risk of data loss’ and there was a big red circle around the final arrow leading back to cloud and the second slide was titled ‘Proposed Architecture ensures data integrity through secondary pipeline’ with a big green circle around the dotted line next to the final arrow, those two slides could be presented in thirty seconds instead of ten minutes.

Embed your structure in the presentation (horizontal logic)

A client recently asked me to provide feedback on a presentation he had been asked to review.  I started laughing the moment he opened the file.  “What’s so funny?” he asked.  The first line read: ‘Executive Summary (Slide 1 of 3)’.  If the Executive Summary is three slides long, I don’t think I want to know what’s in the rest of the presentation!

The key to using horizontal and vertical logic in your presentation is in building a concise, idea-driven agenda slide.  The agenda slide should contain your thesis and supporting arguments.  This allows you to then place each of your supporting arguments at the top of the following slides, wherein you can use the body to support the argument at the top of the slide.  Your agenda slide becomes your executive summary and the rest of the presentation simply offers support, proof and documentation for each of your arguments.

So, for an example, let’s use the mini-outline I used in the article on being more succinct:

Thesis:  We need to invest in replacing X legacy infrastructure to meet the current and future needs of  the business.

  • The current infrastructure no longer serves the needs of the business;
  • We’re holding the current legacy infrastructure together with binder twine and duct tape;
  • The cost of maintaining the legacy infrastructure is rising exponentially;
  • There’s an off-the-shelf solution that meets the current needs of the business and is fully scalable to respond to future needs.

Let’s translate this into a full presentation:

  • Slide 1 – The topic of the presentation (Legacy Infrastructure), likely a standard internal template for cover slides.
  • Slide 2 – The Agenda – thesis, followed by the list of five arguments (see above).
  • Slide 3 – Your first argument at the top of the slide – The current infrastructure no longer serves the needs of the business.  In the body of the slide, present supporting proof.
  • Slide 4 – Your second argument at the top of the slide – We’re holding the current legacy infrastructure together with binder twine and duct tape.  In the body, show historical patches on infrastructure.
  • Slide 5 – Your third argument – The cost of maintaining the legacy infrastructure is rising exponentially.  Support with a chart showing increasing cost of maintaining infrastructure.
  • Slide 6 – Your fourth argument – Fully scalable off-the-shelf solution available.  In the body, show solution and how its scalability meets current and future needs.
  • Slide 7 – Your fifth argument – Investing the money now will save us money down the road.  Use the body to demonstrate ROI.
  • Slide 8 – Repeat your thesis and present the action you are requesting of the audience.

I recently received an e-mail from a client with the subject line: ‘OMG!!!!!! That was so easy!!!!!’  He’s the CIO of a financial institution who has to provide quarterly updates to the senior leadership team on the data analytics group’s progress.  Typically, this involves a week of back and forth with the person building the presentation for him.  This time he built a skeleton outline with the thesis and structural arguments on the agenda slide, followed by slides with the arguments on top and a circle with ‘Insert Relevant Data Here’ in the body.  The person building the presentation built charts that supported the top-line arguments (ensuring the arguments were in fact accurate) and they were done the presentation in a day.

Introduce the slide before transitioning (a little magic trick)

One of the biggest problems PowerPoint presents is that presenters put themselves in a no-win competition with their own material.  Typically, a presenter transitions slides and then begins talking to it.  From an audience perspective, as soon as the slide changes, we start reading the new slide, trying to figure out what it’s all about.  If the speaker is talking while we are reading the slide, we maybe half listen to the speaker, half read the slide.  Except that the speaker is talking about the first point and we are reading the third.  If the slide is especially dense, we will often actively shut out the speaker so that we can figure out what the slide is saying.  In either case, the speaker is in competition with his or her own material, and it isn’t a competition they can win – we will always gravitate to the visual.

What the two points above do, by creating vertical and horizontal logic, is create a separation between idea and supporting content.  This creates the possibility of a division of labour between speaker and slide – human beings are good at speaking ideas (preferably with conviction) and PowerPoint is good at presenting proof (preferably visually).  Having the idea at the top of the slide and the proof in the body allows for the division of labour to happen.

So, here’s the magic trick: introduce the next slide before you transition to it.  When you are at the end of one slide, introduce the single sentence at the top of the slide, and then click the button.  The audience hears the idea from you, while they are looking at you.  Then the slide transitions and they look at it.  They see the single idea at the top of the slide that you just spoke (most people will think, ‘Oh, look, he was right!’) and then will look to the body and see that the body supports what you just said.  This gives you a chance to pause and check your notes before beginning to speak.  You are now putting the ideas forward, PowerPoint is backing you up and you are controlling the pace of the presentation.  The difference this makes in establishing your authority has to be seen to be believed – it is night and day what a difference this simple shift can make.  All you need to do is prepare your notes so that you know what is coming next and practice introducing the slide before transitioning.  Easy-peasy.

Conclusion

We’ve all seen the horrible ways PowerPoint can go wrong (no, you shouldn’t turn your back to the audience, read the bullet points and use a laser pointer to repeatedly circle a diagram).  But, suggestions for improving PowerPoint often focus on the symptoms rather than the underlying causes.  If your thinking is clear and well-structured, PowerPoint can be an exceptionally powerful tool.  The trick is in embedding horizontal and vertical logic into the presentation and creating a separation of labour where the speaker is presenting the ideas and PowerPoint is providing the proof.  Next presentation you have to build, make a quick outline for yourself before beginning: what’s your thesis and what are your supporting arguments? Once you have those in place, building the presentation will be easy.