PowerPoint Poison

Last week, I presented a two-day Interpretation By Design workshop in Jacksboro, Texas, with our mysterious and reclusive third author, die-hard Texas Rangers fan Lisa Brochu. I always love traveling to present IBD workshops, as it affords me the opportunity to partake of local fare. In Texas, I got to eat a meal at a real City Drug soda fountain counter, see a game at a new (to me) Major League Baseball stadium, and learn exactly what 106 degrees feels like. (On a serious note: The IBD workshop took place just before the wildfires started. Our thoughts and best wishes are with our friends in Texas.)

There’s a facial expression I’ve seen a lot in recent years. As a frequent traveler and a parent of young children, I am very familiar with the look of dismay that dawns on airplane passengers’ faces when they see me approaching their row with my kids in tow.

I have seen this same look on the faces of conference attendees when they walk into a session room to find a presenter firing up an LCD projector and checking the batteries on his laser pointer. It’s bad enough when you’re faced with one or two hours with a PowerPoint show, but two days would be torture. During our two-day workshop in Texas, Lisa and I used PowerPoint slides for less than half the time.

The first morning of the workshop was conducted entirely without PowerPoint, then we fired up the projector after lunch that first day. So imagine you’re a participant in a two-day workshop. It’s roughly 1,000 degrees outside in the hottest summer Texas has had since the earth was an unformed ball of magma, you’ve just eaten chicken-fried something with fries and a milkshake for lunch, and you walk into a room to find the presenter turning off the lights and firing up the ol’ projector. What would you think? You’d think, “Oh no. Those kids aren’t going to sit by me, are they?”

Here are some tips I follow to keep from crushing the souls of IBD workshop participants with PowerPoint:

Make it image-intensive. I project images, usually with no words, and I talk about those images. Sometimes a single slide generates 10 minutes of conversation, sometimes it’s 10 seconds. The image above is a slide from my PowerPoint that I use as a springboard to talk about how different people use grids in different ways. (Look how adorable my children are. Don’t you feel bad about rolling your eyes when you saw them get on the airplane?)

Get the words out. At the moment, there are 166 slides in my slide show. (It changes frequently.) Only 15 of those slides have words, and most of those are introducing new sections. There are fewer than 50 total words in my entire slide show. (For the record, the word count goes up when I’m presenting with Shea. He can’t tell you his name in fewer than 50 words.)

I know you’ve heard this before, but the worst thing you can do is project bullet points and then read those bullet points. The only reason I repeat this is because I keep going to presentations where presenters read bullet points. Whenever I see this, I feel like the content of each slide is new to the presenter and he’s discovering it along with his audience. When I do use words, as with the “Serif” slide above, I don’t use full sentences to be read aloud, but rather a single word or phrase to be discussed.

Drop the laser pointer. If you have so much going on in a slide that you need a laser pointer to show it, you have too much going on in that slide. The only reason to take a laser pointer to a presentation is if you’re presenting to a room full of cats and you think it would be fun for them to chase the little red dot.

Not only are laser pointers not helpful, they are actively distracting. I find that presenters with laser pointers use them way more than necessary, seemingly absent-mindedly, to fill dead space or as a nervous tic. It makes me wonder if the laser-pointer button is connected to a morphine drip, like with those lab rats in that experiment back in the 1970s.

Don’t use effects. Don’t. They’re distracting and everyone hates them and we’re not impressed that you applied a checkerboard transition to every single slide. And for the love of all that is sacred and good, don’t make your bullet points bounce into the frame from the side.

The only time you’ll see me using transitions, movement, and sound in a slide show is in the above slide, which I use to demonstrate that PowerPoint effects are the Comic Sans or clip art of the multimedia world.

Mix it up. No matter how good your slide show is, it’s not going to keep everyone engaged for the entire presentation. Be sure to mix in activities, conversation, and content that does not require projected images.

Finally, take everything I’ve said here with a grain of salt. I realize that every presentation is going to differ based on the content and purpose of that presentation, so it’s impossible to apply hard and fast rules to every one of them. The most important common thread of all of my suggestions above is that presenters should seize control of their content. PowerPoint is a useful tool, but used incorrectly, it can sap the energy out of your presentation. It should complement your personality, not replace it.

One final note: Thanks to Friend of IBD Matthew Greuel, who shared a link on our Facebook page to the Swiss Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP), which fights against the “economic damage resulting from presentations using PowerPoint.”

An Emotional Connection: Reasons for Thanks

I have recently been encouraged to be more emotional in my writing, and I’m not sure how that makes me feel.

I’m a highly emotional guy who is excellent at hiding my true feelings or thoughts. That may be a surprise to you coming from a guy who keeps a blog packed with insightful, hilarious, introspective, creative and clever observations (okay, perhaps hilarious was taking it too far, how about “moderately annoying”?) that he shares with the world. This post is a departure for me since it is my nature to be sarcastic and it is much easier for me to take sucker punches at Paul.

But as IBD reader Kelly Farrell has pointed out in the past, we work in a profession that has defined interpretation as “a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections.” If we are to connect with visitors the emotional element has to be given priority over the intellectual.

At the recent NAI National Workshop in Hartford, Connecticut, I felt a connection, a connection between IBD (Paul and me) and our readers. Let’s face it, despite a WordPress plug-in (that Paul and I place way too much value in and check way too many times a day) that monitors our visitation statistics, it has yet been determined if anyone actually reads our posts. The other element that bothers us is, of those who read, how many people are we inspiring change in?

After hearing many positive, encouraging comments (plus three negative comments and one distinct incident of the “stink eye”) from many workshop participants, I really felt part of a bigger community, a very strange, outspoken community. I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you.

Phil Broder, thank you for sharing a copy of your kiting magazine that is now completely Comic Sans free.  The other things you shared via text message would have us arrested in several states.

Scott Mair, thanks for the encouragement and the hugs.

Jay Miller, your kind comments after the awards banquet were just what I needed to hear, thanks.

Marc Blakburn, our conversation was meaningful, I’m glad you care and I appreciate your support.

To the NAI member who bought our book and was looking for Shea so that “she” could sign it, I appreciate you for keeping me grounded. It is true, I am a man.

Lori Spencer, Julia Clebsch, and Susie Edwards, thank you.

Paul, thank you for editing my work. Being the “grammar guy” is really pretty cool.

Ted Cable, thank you for going birding with us (that was a total name drop and  that may be slightly related to a man crush).

Amy Ford, thank you for singing and sharing with me.

Sometimes in life people cross your path that just belong. Jeff Miller, I love you too.

CaputoSign Jane Beattie, I like the way you think. You took a picture in Italy and instead of sending it directly to Paul, you saved it, waited for the right moment and emailed it to me at the workshop so that I could make this punch line.

Caputo Appliances: Our repairman (Paul) is the loneliest guy in town.

Punch line explanation: is a play on the great Maytag tagline/slogan of the 60s (this is for all you generation y’rs that didn’t get it). Jane thank you for taking pictures of signs.

For all of the lurkers out there, thanks for reading. You know who you are, and we know your IP address.

Todd Bridgewater, you are IBD’s new creative director, thanks for the great ideas and sharing the free internet in the lobby.

Lisa Brochu (co-author of IBD who, due to creative differences, is primarily absent from IBD the blog) thank you for the kind and encouraging comments about me and the work Paul and I are doing. It is true we are writing for a “very specific audience.” An audience that is fascinated with the differences between typefaces, loves sausage, can talk about color for hours, and use the phrase World Champion New York Yankees as often as possible.

NAI Staff, thank you all (Tim, Lisa, Paul, Jamie, Russy, Carrie and Beth) for working so hard for us in Hartford.

I had one final connection while flying home from the workshop. I woke up with my head on the shoulder of a sweet lady who had the middle seat. When I awoke suddenly, unsure of my surroundings, finding myself in this embarrassing situation, she kindly said that I “was cute.” After I apologized and I asked her if I had been snoring she said “no honey, you purred.” We had a moment. I would create a different ending here if she wasn’t reading this post. Feeling the connection, I gave her my card, email address and URL. The only thing that she offered me in return was an awkward smile and silence.  Perhaps some connections are meant to be broken.

Thank you for being a part of the IBD community and making my National Workshop experience complete. I hope to see all but three of you in Las Vegas.