How often have you sat through a meeting or presentation where you were bored near to death by the speaker reading slide after slide after slide full of bulleted text? If you're like me, it's been more times than you care to count.
Early in my career in the United States military, I vowed not to be that guy, and I made a valiant effort over the years, only to hit a brick wall almost every time.
Chances are good that you can identify with my experience. Maybe you have a boss that wants presentations done his way … period. Or maybe your organization is slow to change, like mine. Even if it's both, there's still hope for improving your own presentation skills and making presentations better across your organization. Let me share with you what worked for me.
After seeing my first TED presentation in 2006, I imagined being able to deliver a TED-like presentation without getting in trouble for not following standards. That's not long after I read Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points and became convinced that our presentations could be better. But after more than a decade of hitting brick walls, I just didn't know if it was possible. I did eventually begin delivering TED-like presentations, but it didn't come easily, and it didn't happen overnight.
You can understand what makes a great presentation and become an expert at delivering a great presentation, but if you cannot overcome the resistance to change, it's easy to feel like you wasted your time.
Overcoming organizational and individual resistance to change requires courage—courage to try something new, to be different, to stand out.
Even if you're brimming with courage, overcoming organizational resistance to change still isn't something that happens overnight. By the time I 'saw the light' to delivering better presentations, the United States military had been using PowerPoint in meetings and briefings for 15 years.
In all that time, presentation techniques and formats remained relatively constant—briefing slides in a prescribed format filled with mostly bulleted text and some charts. This style had become so ingrained in how briefings were done that it was almost sacrilege to suggest anything different. The organizational resistance to changing presentation styles was intense.
How to overcome resistance
To overcome that much resistance, you have to be incremental and deliberate in your efforts, preferably with the support of a champion or advocate. I took small steps, recommending more readable fonts, higher contrast color schemes, appropriate images, and gradually less text. Small changes over time are easier to accept and can influence change better than dramatic changes.
To help you determine whether or not a change is too much, balance 'wow' against 'shock'. A good change to presentation styles or formats 'wows' the audience when it is noticeably improved over what they are accustomed to seeing and hearing.
My first attempt
However, a change that 'shocks' the audience because it is so dramatically different may not be good if it immediately raises the barriers to change. I remember following Cliff Atkinson's advice for one briefing, ditching the standard template, putting the main point of the slide at the top instead of a generic title, and using simple but effective diagrams and images. The first improved slide went up, and I got blasted immediately.
'Where's the title?'
'Why isn't this in the standard?'
'That's not the right font.'
'Where's the logo and vision statement?'
And the criticism went on…
The audience was so shocked by the stark difference in style that we spent valuable time discussing the format of the slides rather than the topic of the briefing.
The next time I briefed that same topic, I made less 'drastic' changes—larger 'slab' font, more descriptive title, less text. No complaints.
Each subsequent briefing, I tweaked a little more until I almost got to the format I tried the first time.
Make subtle, incremental, deliberate changes, not dramatic ones.
This is also where a champion or advocate can be a great help.
Champion or Advocate
To find the balance between wow and shock, seek the assistance of a champion or advocate. Preferably, you need someone in more of a position of authority who is like-minded with you in your campaign to improve presentations.
However, your advocate can also be a colleague or coworker who can speak up in support at the right time. Sometimes those people will naturally emerge as you attempt improved presentations. This was usually the case for me. I would give an improved briefing, and someone of authority in the audience would provide immediate, positive feedback. That positive feedback would help 'smooth over' the change in format.
Sometimes you have to seek them out as you prepare improved presentations. You may even have to help them overcome their own resistance to changing briefing styles and formats.
Everyone has a briefing style and format to which they are accustomed and comfortable. Changing someone's mind about what makes a more effective presentation can be difficult.
If you've studied the art of great presentations, you can discuss with them the benefits of better presentations, both in general and specifically for your organization and its goals.
You can also provide examples demonstrating the difference between 'good' and 'bad' presentations. If the person is receptive, you'll gain their support in improving presentations and maybe even their participation and cooperation in planning, designing and preparing to deliver them.
Sometimes, even if you 'know your stuff' about great presentations and can demonstrate it, it won't be enough to convince your organization or even an individual to support you.
Besides leaving a copy of Garr Reynold's Presentation Zen in the break-room (as Stephanie Evergreen suggests), it's probably time to take some risks.