Give killer presentations: Think like a writer

PowerPoint presentations are boring, but don't blame Microsoft. Instead, learn to communicate the 'write' way.

Most presentations are boring and forgettable. But why?

Business presenters have every advantage: A captive audience, big graphics and the benefit of being there in person. Yet most presenters fail to break free from the soul-killing dreck that makes PowerPoint presentations so dull.

Have you ever wondered how good novelists can hold a reader's attention for hours at a time with nothing but words on a page? Have you wondered how good Web writers can keep people glued to the screen when the whole Internet beckons?

I'm going to tell you how to apply skills from the craft of writing to make your presentations enjoyable and unforgettable.

But first, let's understand why most presentations are so bad.

What's wrong with presentations

PowerPoint presentations usually involve a lot of pretending. The speaker pretends to be excited. The audience pretends to be interested. Everybody is faking it.

Most collections of slides are packed with fake images -- stock photography, clip art and other inherently false imagery.

Phil Schiller, Apple SVP
Apple has mastered the writer's style of presentation, developed by the company's late founder and CEO, Steve Jobs. The company fills your head with visual images, impresses you with product success, makes you feel emotions, then gives you the dry details later. In this photo, Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, introduces the iPhone 5 during a media event Sept. 12. (Photo: Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

The human mind is very good at detecting insincerity and fakeness and is repelled by it.

Most business presentations fail because they're based on bad assumptions. Here are some examples of those assumptions:

  • The audience cares about you and what you have to say. (They don't.)
  • The audience is thinking about what you're saying. (They're not.)
  • The audience can grasp the details of your complex slides on first exposure. (They can't, and they won't.)

Most presenters act like their audience is made up of information-harvesting robots, not human beings.

If your presentation contains 10, 15, 20 or more slides, and each slide offers several points, you're assuming that people are somehow going to grasp, memorize or learn dozens or hundreds of facts. This isn't going to happen. You'll be lucky if they remember three.

Business speakers approach presentations like it's a transfer of information: "I have all this information I want you to know, and when I'm done presenting you will now have the information."

This is the worst kind of delusion, because everyone knows it isn't true. People usually retain little more than a general impression.

So if you want to make your presentations entertaining and unforgettable, you should learn from people who are good at enjoyable and memorable communication: Writers.

How to present like a writer

A typical business presentation breaks down communication into subjects like these:

  • Our company.
  • Our product.
  • Our product's architecture.
  • Our value proposition.

These might be the right categories to discuss if the people in the audience were passionately curious about you and your company. But they're not.

In fact, the reason you're presenting is not to satisfy curiosity, but to inspire curiosity. A forced march through your company's details will inspire nothing but despair.

A good writer is more likely to break down the parts of communication into the categories that reflect how the human brain works, like these:

  • Mental images.
  • Stories.
  • Emotions.
  • Information.

Let's look at each of these categories and how you can organize your presentation around them.

Mental images

Professional communicators, and especially writers, pay close attention to mental images. When nonfiction writers want readers to imagine something memorable, they use a good visual metaphor.

When politicians want voters to forget something horrible, they avoid mental images and instead use euphemism and jargon -- which is language that has been stripped of visual imagery.

That's how any skillful communicator manipulates an audience: Use visual imagery to create memories; use euphemism and jargon to erase them.

(One of the reasons most presentations are so bad is that speakers use euphemism and jargon because they think it sounds "professional." It doesn't. It's amateur-hour communication.)

A good metaphor is effective because it imparts a strong mental image that faithfully communicates an idea and makes it memorable.

You can tell people that a particular cow is yours, but nobody will forget the fact that you own the cow if you sink a smoking, orange-hot branding iron into the animal's flesh.

It would be easy to forget the abstract idea of metaphors being memorable. But you won't forget the mental picture you now have of that cow being branded.

Writers use metaphors. But as a presenter, you never have to use them. When you want to create a mental picture in the minds of your audience, show them the picture!

The best business presentation I ever saw used slides that didn't have a single word on them. Every slide was a photograph. When the speaker talked about the growth of his company in the '90s, he showed a striking picture of a race car as he talked. When he moved to the post-recession decline, he showed a picture of a car on fire.

Ten years later, I still remember his presentation.

Pictures are memorable. Walls of data are forgettable. So if you want to be unforgettable, use more pictures in your slides and far fewer words and numbers.

Deliberately show the people in the audience the mental images you want them to remember and associate with your talk.

Very important: Use real pictures, not fake ones.

Never use stock photography, which stinks of artificiality. If you want to represent happy customers, for example, show a picture of actual customers. Show real products, real employees, real users.

Or if you're illustrating a concept, make sure you show scenes of real life, rather than staged or faked scenes.

It's more important for your pictures to be real than to be professional looking.

One of the most striking scenes from the AMC TV series Mad Men was about a memorable presentation. In the show, advertising creative director Don Draper convinces Kodak to call its slide projector the "Carousel." It's a powerful presentation because the whole time Don is talking, he's showing amateurish snapshots of his family. The presentation is so powerful and evocative that one of his colleagues runs out in tears.

Pentagon chart
A few years ago, the Pentagon published what must be one of the most overly complex, information-dense PowerPoint slides ever created. This slide must be the U.S. military's deadliest weapon.
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