Powerpoint doesn’t equal Presentation

I had the opportunity to attend a webinar by Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design (Thanks to VizThink for arranging.) Her firm is responsible for the design and updates to Al Gore’s presentation for An Inconvenient Truth, among other high profile projects.  The topic of the webinar was around the design of PowerPoint presentations.

One really important point that she made is that Powerpoint equals Presentation and she likened PowerPoint slides to the set design of a play. The design of the set is very important for setting mood and tone and adding to the narrative, but it’s the actors, props, lighting, sound and writing that makes the complete play.  Without all of those components working together it’s not much of a play.

That analogy was a real insight for me and I think it’s a great way to consider the use of PowerPoint. Too many presentations try to jam tons of data, bullets (paragraphs even) into the slides and the “thing” becomes a “slideument”. Not a good slideshow and not a good document. Presenters should have a story to tell. They should have passion for their story and use that passion to help motivate the audience towards action with PowerPoint as one of the tools to help.

Global Cue Card Project Additions

With some contribution from Lori G., I’ve added another 50 or so items to the Flickr group. (Thanks Lori!) I don’t think I’ll make any more “announcements” about mere additions to the site until I actually have something useful to say about the images. Keep in mind, I’m no more qualified to make conclusions about these cards than you are, so if you see some themes or interesting observations, please post. I might actually suffer from the “Curse of Knowledge” on this one so any and all comments are welcome.

Here’s a link to the original post about the introduction to the project.

PowerPoint – Good or Bad?

Neither. It just is.

In response to a question posed to the VizThink Community:

Is PowerPoint a powerful tool poorly used or a poor tool overused? 

Let me offer this quote because quotes make me look smart:

Everything is best for something and worst for something else.  The trick is knowing what is what, for what, when, for whom, where, and most importantly, why. 
Bill Buxton, Designer, Musician, Gallery owner

One thing that I’ve noticed recently is that there is a movement towards using stories and visuals as a way of driving home points in a presentation. PowerPoint is a great tool for supporting this movement. It’s also a great tool for putting up bullet list after bullet list. (I have Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath on my mind these days.)

 If the presenter doesn’t have skills at engaging the audience, PowerPoint isn’t going to help or hurt. It just is.

Working with 3D, Physical Models

If we think of common business concepts as models (eg. financial models, organization charts, strategies, etc.) then those models can be represented/displayed/constructed. They can be represented in a spreadsheet, a Visio diagram or a PowerPoint slide. By their very nature, models contain less information than the things they represent. That is, in fact, the definition of a model.

Part of what I do in my line of work is to get people to compare models and surface the assumptions that went into the creation of their models. When the model was created SOME assumptions had to be made. Sometimes those assumptions are explicit, sometimes not. By learning about what other people are thinking and what makes their perspective unique, greater understanding of the models can occur, changes can be made and ideally two or more models can be combined in novel, innovative ways.

All of that to say…by having people create physical (3d) representations of their models, such as having them build a representation of a supply chain out of pipe cleaners and Styrofoam balls, more information about the model and its underlying assumptions begin to emerge. There can literally be different perspectives on the 3d model as you’ll have people clustered around a table and they each see it slightly differently as its constructed. As well, people tend to learn and retain more effectively when they are actually moving parts and pieces around. This process of co-creation and retention can result in what is commonly known as “buy in”. Actually, I would go so far as to say that this process of co-creation goes beyond “buy in” and moves into the realm of “believe in”. Believing in something is much more powerful than simply agreeing to it.

When I was leading a workshop at the VizThink conference in San Francisco I had the group quickly go through an exercise where they built 3d models of some basic business processes. Here are some photos from that workshop.

Introducing the Global Collaboration Cue Card Project

I had an opportunity to present for 60 minutes as part of the Council for Communication Management conference in Toronto on May 1st. The CCM brings communication professionals together to brainstorm, share best practices, network, etc. I think I stretched some of the participants’ minds a little bit, talking about Wicked Problems, Collaborative Event Design, Graphic Facilitation. My presentation was a bit off the beaten path but I hope that it was engaging for most of the crowd.

The way in which I started my presentation was to give each person in the room (about 60) a blank, unruled cue card and asked them to illustrate, without the use of words, how they would communicate the notion of “collaboration” to a person who couldn’t speak their language. I gave them a minute to do that and when they were done, asked them to find a partner and on a third cue card create an illustration that combined each partner’s work.

I then dissected the exercise a little bit and talked about how words are in fact models that are loaded with assumptions and values and how communicating with graphics is an effective method for conveying underlying and unspoken meaning.

The Global Collaboration Cue Card Project

As a result of this exercise, I am now endeavoring to spearhead….drumroll please…The Global Collaboration Cue Card Project. With the length of this title and all of the capital letters, I feel as though I should be announcing this at TED or some such conference. It’s not that impressive. All I’m doing is posting all of the cue cards that I get on a Flickr group and I hope that others will copy the activity and add to the set. It would be very cool to see how many different interpretations of collaboration can be created and what common visual themes exist. And it’s all done without words!

What Problem Are We Trying To Solve?

I took part in a discussion this morning (participant, not facilitator) with some telecom folks around what will the residential customer “interface” look like in 10-15 years. What will the devices look like and what services will be offered that are most “value add”? After an hour or so of brainstorming, the two ideas that seemed to get distilled out could be summed up as “Personal Exchange Server.” For those who aren’t familiar with Microsoft Exchange, it’s basically a calendaring/messaging platform that companies use to make it easy to book meetings, share documents etc.

The consensus in the room seemed to be that if there was a service out there that could put together all of your events, free/busy time, coordinate friends’/spouse schedules, professional appointments, etc., this service would be a hit.

While it sounds pretty cool, kind of like Exchange meets Facebook, etc. something in that conversation didn’t smell right to me. That sounded like a bunch of techie professional types getting together and transferring their office desires to the home environment. I don’t think we were able to fully separate ourselves from our boardroom and think like the customer.

However, a couple of things kind of “popped” for me from the conversation:

1) How do we effectively recreate and improve upon the “analogue” comfort zone that people have today, but in a digital way? By analogue, I mean things like sticking stuff to the fridge, having a day-timer with pieces of paper sticking out, a corkboard, rifling through a shoebox full of pictures, etc.

I think that multi-touch technology and surface computing could possibly facilitate the best of both worlds. I could see an internet connected fridge surface that had pictures, notes, important phone numbers etc. That would be cool, assuming it doesn’t already exist. Add in RFID technology that will automatically re-order your groceries, and that’s a smart AND personal fridge.

2) Form factors. The office experience is typically an individual exercise with small amounts of pairs/trios/group work and consequently a laptop form factor works well for this. However, often times the activities in the home better suit themselves to a different form factor. Sharing pictures, accessing recipes in the kitchen, accessing music from a central repository are activites that are clunky with the laptop form factor. The digital/networked home communication interface of the future might have to be fundamentally different from what it is today.

But….the one BIG question that I had leaving that meeting was: “WHAT PROBLEM ARE WE TRYING TO SOLVE?”

Any thoughts, dear readers? What are our personal/home lives missing from a communications perspective? I’m not sure “Exchange in the Home” is it.

Looking at the “ins” & “cons”

When designing large collaborative sessions with complex topics it is almost always the case that there is a big variance between the few people who know a lot about the topic and a few who have little to no context and everyone else falls somewhere in between. Sponsors are generally very anxious to do a lot of “education” around the project so that everyone gets up to speed. Usually this results in a desire to do a 3 hour PowerPoint presentation. This makes me cringe. (I don’t understand how the same people who complain about sitting through 3 hour presentations end up with a desire to present one.) I try to explain that people don’t learn well this way and the information will not stick. 

I started reading a book recently that has really helped me hammer my argument home. Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams by Mitchel Resnick of MIT talks about the difference between instructional learning and constructional learning. He argues that by telling people what you think they need to know, the results are mediocre at best. By having people create something on their own (or with small groups), the concepts are much more likely to stick. It’s a learn-by-doing approach.

With the type of work that I’m in, this concept wasn’t new to me, but the fact that I can now summarize the concept in a framework that clients really seem to get, was a valuable insight for me. I think most people know this as well, but with a lack of a better tool than PowerPoint to use for “education”, it seems to be the default. Suggesting the “instructional/constructional” framework to clients seems to introduce the contrast between socratic methods and constructional methods. They suddenly see “the other side”. By giving the other side a name, it’s easier to convince them of the benefits of giving it a try. Like the old saying goes, “A fish doesn’t understand water until it experiences air.”

I’m curious to know if anyone else has had this type of experience; where you don’t necessarily learn a new concept, but learn a new way to express it that seems to have a lot of resonance. Please comment!