At the close of our previous post, I wrote of my desire to provide some insight into how we might use more story in our meetings and slide presentations. As fate would have it, though, I have sat through a number of group encounters so bland that they brought me back to a fundamental query that has long been a part of my life: Why are so many presentations these days so dull and colorless?
Let’s open with a simple sketch. It is at the same time fictitious and authentic—fictitious because I am not describing a particular incident or individual; authentic because it portrays an episode I have seen play out again and again in the organizations I have worked with.
Imagine the scene: Someone who is in charge of a meeting enters the room and begins to address the audience. He or she says hello to people in the crowd, casually engaging with a number of them on an individual basis. There is a high level of energy in the room as participants wait for the session to begin.
Then, the CEO (or other leader) smiles, takes a breath, consults her (or his) notes, clears her throat, and becomes serious. Slides come up on the screen. Rapidly, people who were so ready and willing a moment ago, some of the same ones who had just been bantering with the speaker, begin fidgeting and looking down at their smartphones. One can feel an almost palpable boredom that is about to set in.
What has happened here is what I call a change in mode—from a casual conversational manner to a formal presentation style. Often, this shift is not only radical but also stunningly sudden. Some of the best examples from my professional life come from my long years in France, a country whose culture I love and respect. Nonetheless, I have often heard French-speaking orators laugh and joke with the audience and then abruptly announce: “Maintenant on passe aux choses sérieuses.” (Now it’s time to get down to serious things).
Of course, the French are by no means alone in the use of this type of maneuver. In actual fact, I have seen it in an astonishingly wide variety of contexts and nations throughout the world. And, each time I see this sharp transition into “serious” slide mode—and the clearly discernible lethargy that ensues—it leaves me with three central questions.
First of all, since we can all certainly feel that an audience is truly with us when we are in conversation mode, why do we not find ways to keep that relationship with our listeners, even when making a formal presentation? Second: If so many of our slide shows are so boring, why do so few people seek to break this mold, to stand out by differentiating the way they present?
And most crucially, what might we do to avoid the dynamic shift in ambiance—and audience attentiveness—when we enter presentation mode? Do we really have to become so boring in order to make serious points in a formal setting?
Of course, we can consider the first two questions together, since their answers are largely intertwined. As we have written here previously, people continue to create lifeless slide shows because they have witnessed so many important people in their organizations do it that way. They simply follow the template, the examples of “how to do it” from their daily lives, even when they know that this “accepted format” will result in a boring presentation.
A more important underlying reason, though, is simply that tools such as PowerPoint have become something of a crutch. Following a typical slide format makes life easy, since it simplifies the preparation and presenting process. Few presenters feel the need to find time in their busy schedules, and to take on the extra challenge of presenting in nonstandard—or more engaging—ways.
In coming posts, we will give some quick thoughts for improving this situation—simply, and without much extra effort.
Image: Flickr user Bob Roo