The Oaks Ignore Their Pleas

It’s Hard to be Simple

Posted in Presentations by Jeff Graves on August 31, 2006

I’ve spent the better part of my “working life” this week trying to develop a presentation for a large group of folks within my company, to make them aware of the progress we’ve made in evolving our online platform.  A few years ago, I would have shown some Gantt chart slides, talked to key milestones from the project plan, and perhaps shown a demo of the product, focusing on all the different features of the product.  Sounds reasonable, maybe? 

But how many times have you sat through a presentation very similar to that…Powerpoint slides full of text and graphics, milestones that mean little or nothing to you, because you’re not directly involved in that effort, a product demo showing off features that you’ve never been exposed to before.  And did you walk out of that presentation remembering or even caring about what the speaker was talking about?

Oh, and did I mention that I only have 20 minutes to give the talk?  Is it really possible to do all of the above, in 20 minutes or less, without sounding like Alvin the Chipmunk?

Perhaps it’s old age, or perhaps all of the 37signals blog posts have started to sink in.  But as I sat looking at my draft presentation, I decided to try something different.  I decided to try and put myself in my audience’s shoes and try to figure out what THEY wanted to hear, what would resonate with them.  In a nutshell, I decided that I would try to tell a story about our product, and that I would make it SIMPLE.  Hey, I’m creative, I used to consider myself a writer, I can tell stories.

 Except, telling a story about something as dry and arcane as a information delivery product for financial services companies is…well, it’s kind of HARD!  First, I decided to come up with the basics of my story.  But I’ve been told (and am living proof) that most human beings only retain 3 or 4 key points from a presentation.  So I needed to distill the entire story of the product down to 3 or 4 points.  Obviously, this meant I had to leave things out.  It was so easy when I could just fill Powerpoint slide after Powerpoint slide with bullet points describing in great detail all of the relevant project milestones, and product features and future planned enhancements.  But leaving things out, wow!  That’s hard – trying to decide on which points are most important to the product team, but also which points are most relevant to the audience.  It took me the better part of a day to come up with 3 major points that I wanted the audience to walk away with.  I should note that the 3 points are not necessarily the points that the project team themselves would have come up with, but I’m trying to look at things from the audience’s perspective.

Then, it was time to assemble slides.  Again, pretty easy, right?  After all, I’ve got my 3 points, so now all I have to do is put an “agenda” slide together, crank out 3 slides of text that detail my points, and throw a “thank you” slide in there.  Oh, and maybe I should include that Gantt chart, too. I mean, it’s way too detailed for anyone to read, even when projected on a giant projection screen, but it will prove that the project team is really busy doing important stuff.

Well, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in 10 years of giving presentations, it’s that the minute you put a slide full of text on the screen, nearly everyone in the audience will start reading your slide, and pay absolutely no attention to anything you’re saying.  So, now it’s time to craft some slides that will highlight what I’m saying, without distracting from it.  And again, it’s HARD (for me, anyhow).  So here I am, it’s 2 days later, and I’ve got what I THINK is a decent set of 10 slides to support my 20 minute talk.  And there are no long bullet lists of features, or Gantt charts.  I’m still not sure it’s really right yet, but I need to get it to the meeting planner by end of day tomorrow, so I don’t have much time left to make changes.  

So far, for a 20 minute presentation, I’ve spent probably 12 hours thinking about, drafting, cursing, re-drafting, cursing, and re-re-drafting my slides.  And I haven’t even begun to start practicing my talk, so I can finish comfortably in 20 minutes and look reasonably professional as I advance through the slides.  Damn, it seems like I can talk for 20 minutes in a bar standing on my head – how come it’s so hard to come up with a 20 minute presentation?  🙂

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