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No More Mind-Numbing Number Slides:
Bring Your Presentation to Life

By Jerry Weissman

Business people are perpetually faced with the challenge of one of life’s greatest burdens: presenting a number of slides without numbing their audiences into a soporific stupor. This narcoleptic effect is the result of four common missteps perpetrated by most presenters:

1.   The presenter starts each slide by saying, “Now I’d like to talk about…” forcing the audience to re-start the presentation with each slide.

2.   The presenter reads the words on the slide verbatim, causing the audience to feel patronized and become resentful, thinking “I can read it myself!”

3.   The presenter discusses the general subject of the slide without referencing the specifics on the slide, splitting what the audience sees and what they hear, forcing them to dart back and forth between the screen and the person, causing complete confusion.

4.   The presenter recites only the data on the slides, adding no value.

Therefore, the problem is in the presenter’s narration more than in the design of the slide itself. Of course, it is important to wield a sharp razor ruthlessly in the graphic design, slashing and trashing extraneous data, Keeping It Simple, Stupid. But even the most minimal design must be accompanied by a clear and consistent narrative.

Here then is a simple solution for each of the four common errors, one for each error, plus one bonus solution, linking your slides into a fluid story narrative.

1. Title Plus. To avoid the re-start effect, start each slide with a title plus, a single statement that captures the overview of the entire slide by referencing the title of the slide plus the other images. For a slide with 5 bars, say, “Here are our revenues for the past five years.” Or for a slide with 20 bars, say, “Here are those same annual revenues in quarterly increments.” For a pie chart say, “This slide represents the percentage of our revenues by region.”

You can also use the Title Plus to describe other than number slides. For a bullet slide say, “These are the four steps we intend to take on our path to profitability.” For a complex technology diagram say, “This is our comprehensive technology architecture.”

2. Paraphrase. To avoid the verbatim effect, paraphrase or juxtapose the words on the slide, or use synonyms. For instance, if the slide title reads, Significant Revenue Growth, say, “Our revenues have grown impressively.” Or if the slide title reads, Multiple Market Drivers, say, “These are the many forces driving our market.” If the slide title reads Broad Patent Portfolio, say, “We have strong intellectual property protection.” Your audience can easily make the interpolation.

3. Navigate. To avoid the split perception effect, describe the images on the slide by navigating the audience’s attention with your words. For a pie chart, say, “The largest wedge is the green with 55 percent, moving clockwise, the middle wedge, in yellow, is 38 percent, and the smallest, in blue, is 7 percent.” For a table, say, “The vertical axis represents speed from low up to high, and the horizontal axis represents costs from low out to high.”

In addition to making it easy for your audience to follow and understand, this navigation technique has an extra benefit: it displaces the ubiquitous pointer. For some inconceivable reason, pointers, whether the retractable fixed type or the frenetic laser dot model, have become standard equipment in presentation environments around the globe. Presenters then brandish the pointers as antagonistic weapons; navigation is user-friendly.

4. Add value. Financial prospectuses have a boilerplate section called, “Management’s Discussion and Analysis.” Make this the theme for every presentation. Discuss and analyze beyond the information depicted on your slides. Don’t settle for mere recitation. Add value, dimension, and depth to your discussion.

5. Bonus: Linking words. You can create continuity from slide-to-slide with a technique writers use to create continuity in their narratives. Writers chose a word or a phrase from one paragraph and repeat the word or phrase in the subsequent paragraph to connect the two paragraphs. The same technique can be applied to two consecutive slides, where the first is titled Significant Revenue Growth and the second is titled, Margin Improvement. When you click to the margin slide, say, “Our impressive revenue growth has helped us improve our margins.” Or if the first slide is titled Broad Product Line and the second is titled Leading Market Share. When you click to the market share slide, say, “Our state-of-the-art products have made us the market leader.”

Contrast this technique with the conventional rote transition that maddeningly starts each slide, “Now I’d like to …” which provides no link at all.

The linking words technique, along with the other four solutions, brings logic and continuity to what is essentially a disparate and interchangeable laundry list of data. It also brings life to your number slides, as well as to all your slides, and to your audience.

Read other articles and learn more about Jerry Weissman.

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