Slides Don’t Matter

At least not as much as we think…

June marked my last month teaching the current campus iteration of PCP. In July, Alex Rister will be tackling the new iteration on campus; and in August, the new online course launches. The focus of the reboots as I’ve discussed before is on helping students develop a personal and professional brand. The courses minimizes the focus on visual design and slides and places more emphasis on process, strong content, and natural delivery. Why this shift? Well, frankly, it’s because slides don’t matter. That’s right–this is me, the presentation designer and Slideshare.net contributor telling you slides don’t matter, at least not as much as what’s at the core of the 21st century model of presenting–conversation, connection, and engagement. Slides and technology, regardless of how flashy, beautifully designed, interesting, or relevant just aren’t a substitute for consistent and thorough preparation, impacting content, and engaging delivery.

What do when our technology fails or our slides don’t function the way they did on our screens? Most of us freak out, begin an elaborate struggle with the computer, and create an awkward waiting period for our audiences while we set that technology right. My students and their teachers often reduce what they learn in PCP to “making better slides,” but this disregards the most important lesson I hope my students learn–that detaching from technology as a crutch or replacement for preparation and engagement is what will ultimately lead them to not only learn when or how to use slides properly but also learn that sometimes, it’s best to go without. To help illustrate, I’ll share with you this brief but excellent talk from Improv Everywhere, “A TED Speaker’s Worst Nightmare.” This talk, while in reality an elaborate part flash mob, part improv, part prank performance, illustrates just what can happen when we rely too much on technology and a flashy concept and not enough on solid content and connection.

What do you think? Do slides matter? How can we use slides responsibly and ensure they don’t overwhelm or derail our talks?

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What’s really wrong with Comic Sans?

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Photo Credit: eanur0 via Compfight cc

 

The short answer is nothing and everything.

The long answer is still nothing and everything, but let’s explore why. Comic Sans, which was created by Vincent Connare was never meant to be used in the regular system of fonts available on a Windows PC (Source). It was created to solve an incongruity Connare noticed while he was working on Microsoft Bob, the interface designed to make the computer-using experience more palatable to novice computer users (Source). Connare noticed that while the interface was a cartoon, the characters’ text boxes uses Times New Roman. This didn’t make sense to Connare, so he created Comic Sans based on the style of Marvel and DC comics. So, the purpose of Comic Sans was to fit a very specific interface and experience–the comic, cartoon, animated experience. It was not meant to be used for business letters, websites, products, signage, CERN presentations, or tributes to retiring Popes. Christine Erickson of Mashable.com explains the source of Comic Sans’ bad rep: “While Comic Sans is perfectly adequate in designs for children or designs related to comic books or cartoons, designers believe it has no place in business or professional work usage. It’s also ill-suited in content body text, which means it’s best used as a headline/heading or short quote — in other words, a comic book” (Source).

In essence, the problem with comic sans goes back to the user (it’s the same reason we have “death by PowerPoint”). The problem with the typeface is not inherent to the typeface itself; the problem is that we use it incorrectly. Every typeface and individual font has a personality and mood. Research has even shown that typefaces evoke specific emotional responses in us. Eric Jaffe of Fast Company writes that “the latest evidence suggests that typefaces convey their own meanings and elicit their own emotions independent of the words they spell out” (Source).

So, not only does a font have a particular tone, but that tone is independent of the words written in that font–this means that text’s impact and meaning can be affected by the typeface used. Jaffe cites a 2004 study in which researchers noted that students described fonts like Times New Roman as professional but common; Helvetica was blah and least artistic; Comic Sans was childish (Source). An even more surprising study included in Jaffe’s article emphasized that while most fonts illicit one emotional response, “Comic Sans produced spikes across the emotional spectrum–from agitation to calm. It’s basically a rollercoaster of emotions wrapped in a few playful curves. People either love it or hate it” (Source). So, consistently incorrect use of an emotionally charged font has led to Comic Sans becoming the most hated, ridiculed, and ostracized font (it’s pretty much as bad as using Word Art).

Do we, as presentation designers ignore the public outcry to ban Comic Sans? Do we ignore the many criminally inappropriate uses of Comic Sans we see every day? How do we explain to novice designers, students, and those who use Comic Sans when a more appropriate font exists that it is up to them to turn the Comic Sans tide, to ensure it is used only when appropriate–in cartoons? Designers out there have their own solutions. Comic Sans Criminal asks users to take a pledge to think twice before choosing a font, and to consider its purpose. The folks who created Ban Comic Sans.com have turned their focus to positivity and using words for good, not evil. Dave and Holly Combs founded the Department of Public Words, an organization whose mission is use the power of positive words to better our community. By emphasizing the positive use of words and typography, we can emphasize that type must be used appropriately; it must be used for good.

Finally, designer Craig Rozynski has created a sleeker, more designer-friendly version of Comic Sans called Comic Neue. It is available to download free here. I tell students and teachers that bullets, Comic Sans, and frenetic animations “kill” their audiences and their presentation’s impact. Sometimes, this is perceived as me hating on the very foundations of the Keynote/PowerPoint presentation. And, they are right. But reducing this idea to “hating” is missing the point, which is that we must do better as presenters. The only way we can work to create better presentations is to let go of the bad habits of the past. Once we outgrow those habits, we may learn to use them the right way.

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Story differentiates your body of work

In today’s world of work, which is characterized by abundance, instability, and ingenuity, professionals have to find ways to differentiate themselves from the many others out there who possess the same or similar skills. How does one rise to the top of a mountain of great communicators, strong work ethics, and innovative, effective, responsible workers (these words all come from LinkedIn’s top ten most overused buzzwords of 2013)?

In oder to differentiate yourself and maximize your competitive advantage, you have to tell your story. Pamela Slim, author of Body of Work: Finding the thread that ties your story together, uses story herself to illustrate the resonance an engaging story can have. She tells the story of her father and John Legend among others, and shares her advice via stories of her own experiences as a career coach.  What story does is place your body of work:”…everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created” (Source) into a unique context.

Slim’s book is a great starting point for discovering how to tell your story, but you can also draw much inspiration from the remarkable examples of professional stories on Slideshare.net. One such story is Matt Henshaw’s “How to Rock the Perfect LinkedIn Profile”:

Henshaw’s deck is of course a beautiful example of clean, minimalist design. It’s also one of the best examples of a professional story I’ve seen since David Crandall’s “Anti-Resume Manifesto.” Henshaw tells the story of being “this close” to achieving his dream–being a professional musician–losing a major record contract, redefining himself as a college graduate and computer science sustainability research assistant (phew!), finding his way back to his passion, and articulating a successful plan to pursue this passion as career.

It’s so difficult to tell our own stories at times, especially through a visual medium. Finding the right way to begin a story that for us has very fuzzy beginnings can stop most of us from sharing that story with others (no one tells you to think about how working at a local grocery store is the start of you becoming a teacher 20 years later). Matt’s deck is both inspirational and useful. It shows us that a story can compel viewers, contextualize “failure”, and that careful attention to every version of your story on the web can make a difference. If you want to maximize your competitive advantage, create a body of work and then tell your story.

 

 

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What are your talents?

Two months ago, a student introduced me to one of the most useful resources for developing a professional brand and persona. During a class break, the student pulled up a site called talentoday.com. I saw the student answering a series of questions, then studying a visualization and set of descriptors. All it took was a peek to realize that this could be a wonderful brainstorming and content-building exercise for developing a personal brand.

Talent Today is a free service whose goal is to help users determine their professional personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and motivators. The site is designed for current students and new grads, but the questionnaire and accompanying personality report can be enlightening to veteran professionals as well.

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Many of my questionnaire’s findings aligned with how I already perceive and define myself as a professional–I feel at ease in public and love to meet new people; I find it easy to take on a leadership role and readily volunteer for new initiatives; I believe that innovation is important; I don’t handle stress very well (or as well as I’d like); and I prefer collaboration to competition.

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A few of the findings challenged me to reexamine how I approach work, particularly how low on the motivations scale private/personal life was. I also appreciated the overall analysis of my talents (conscientiousness, responsibility, determination) and my areas of growth (identifying and dealing with sources of stress, remaining loyal to professional ambitions).

My Talent ID gives me a set of percentages based on strengths and areas of growth.

My Talent ID gives me a set of percentages based on strengths and areas of growth.

All in all, my report shows the areas in which I am already excelling (and can continue to grow in) and the areas that need more attention. Such self-analysis is critical for success in Pamela Slim’s “new world of work” (Source).

Take a moment to complete your Talent Today report. What were your talents? Motivators? Areas of growth?

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Prezi’s Top 100 Presentation Resources

I am proud and happy to announce that Tweak Your Slides has been chosen by Prezi as one of the Top 100 Presentation Resources on the web. I am honored to be counted among some of my presentation heroes including Alex Rister of Creating Communication, Scott Schwertly and the gang at Ethos 3, Dr. Nick Morgan of Public Words, the team at Duarte Design, Andrew Dlugan of Six Minutes and Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen. Check out the full list by clicking on the banner below!

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They Key to Credibility is…

Empathy! Yep, that’s right–not credentials, expertise, title, or extensive research. The key to achieving strong credibility with your audience is to empathize with them. Why is this? Because, empathizing with the audience helps speakers achieve the type of true credibility Aristotle describes in Rhetoric:

“We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. . . his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.” Aristotle, Rhetoric

True credibility comes from a person who is “good,” a person of good character. Empathy, the ability to become your audience’s needs, wants, values, fears, and desires, is key to conveying good character. A presenter who can empathize with his or her audience is truthful–no one likes to be lied to; a presenter who is empathetic conveys his or her expertise–he or she knows her audience will trust a presenter who is wise an experienced; a presenter who can empathize will focus on shared values and goodwill–no subject is one-sided, all perspectives matter; and finally, an presenter who is empathetic has a good reputation–no one will believe a speaker whose reputation is questionable or whose intentions are self-centered.

Achieving each of these qualities: truthfulness, expertise, goodwill, and reputation requires empathy. But, how do we work to truly become empathetic speakers and humans? The RSA and their RSA Animates and RSA Shorts series provides a good starting point. According to Jeremy Rifkin, empathy begins at birth. We are empathetic creatures, driven by our soft-wiring by the “drive to belong” (Source). Empathy is what leads us to not only be aware of our own mortality but also be aware that others are mortal and fragile.

Dr. Brene Brown adds depth to this definition in her RSA Animates short, created by amazing animator Katy Davis (find her at Gobblyne).

For Brown, empathy is what “fuels connection,” the very thing that we are trying to achieve through credibility in the first place–connection from one human to another, connection that helps us bridge divides and conquer opposition. Further, empathy is a conscious process each presenter must engage in. It is a process characterized by perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in others, and then communicating that emotion. Our job as presenters is to make the world better for our audiences, and “what makes something better is connection” (Source). Credibility isn’t about credentials, expertise, or experience. It’s about showing the audience you are a good person–empathy is the key to achieving this goal!

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Data Display of the Day: How to Sell Without Selling

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In my class, Professional Communication and Presentation, my students and I devote a significant portion of time to persuasion and selling. From my perspective, every presentation is persuasive. Even when the on paper purpose is to inform–quarterly report, update, process, lesson–there is an underlying current of persuasion that cannot be ignored. Even if a presenter is informing an audience on how to complete a process or how to engage in a process, he or she is really persuading the audience that his or her approach to completing that process is viable, worthy, or preferable to another method. In addition, every presenter must persuade the audience that he or she is credible and worth listening to. So, it naturally follows that learning more about persuading and about one of its most prevalent types, selling, can help each presenter grow his or her skills. Selling today (just like persuading) involves more finesse, innovation, and a knack for visualization than in the past. Most consumers today see right through infomercials and are much more drawn to subtler forms of persuasion–advertisers know this and continue to adapt. Presenters too must adapt to our new world of communication and content interaction. Today’s infographic, brought to you by Daily Infographic, discusses the subject of passive persuasion, or selling without selling. There are a few key ideas in this infographic we can apply to persuasive presenting:

1. People buy into ideas that appeal to their needs

According to today’s infographic, people buy products for a variety of reasons. Each of these coordinates with one of Maslow’s needs (physiological-basic needs, safety-replacement or value, belonging-urgency/scarcity, esteem-name recognition, self-actualization-a good cause), which is a good starting point for tailoring a message to a particular audience. What is interesting about the reasons people buy products is how readily we are driven by higher-level needs like name recognition. By purchasing an Apple product for instance, a consumer becomes part of one of Seth Godin’s “tribes,” a group of others whose values align around a brand. Harnessing Maslow’s needs when crafting a persuasive message taps into the very reasons audiences make the choices they do–WIIFM or “What’s In It For Me”.

2. People buy into well-designed products

A well-designed product is appealing–from color and form to function, usability, and novelty, user-focused design can truly make the difference between a product that thrives and one that fails. The same goes for slide decks. If 85% of consumers say that color is the main reason why they choose a product, and 93% of consumers are concerned with visual appearance, then it’s clear that design is king. David McCandless, of Information is Beautiful, provides a bit of insight into why visualizations are so useful in disseminating information. Our vision is our primary sense, and we are bombarded by an incredible amount of information each day, most of it visual (Source). By harnessing the power of design, we can speak to audiences in two languages–the language of the eye (visuals) and the language of the mind (text, numbers).

3. People buy into products that use surprise and unexpectedness

The final lesson we can draw from today’s infographic is that surprise and unexpectedness draws audience’s in and sets the conditions for persuasion. Chip and Dan Heath codified the formula for ideas that stick in Made to Stick. One of their primary modes of crafting sticky ideas is unexpectedness. When the brain encounters something incongruous, something that does not adhere to the schemas or cognitive patterns already in place, it cannot help but want to find a solution. This is why mysteries and thrillers are so popular–they break a schema and then through careful construction, create a new way of thinking.


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3 As of an A+ Web Source

This week is spring break at my school, which means it’s time to spend some time attending continuing education workshops, making a big dent in the Professional Communication and Presentation reboot, and working on creative projects (along with a small side trip to the beach and another to the Salvador Dali museum). In addition to working on revising rubrics and creating lessons for the reboot, I’ve been working on two new infographics. The first is a teaching tool I’ll use in class; the second is an infographic exploring the concept of superteacher, something both Alex Rister and myself have talked about before on our respective blogs. Today, I’ll share with you the first.

For many people (students, teachers, and professionals), the web is a primary place to seek out information quickly. The web is a vast source of information and can be a great place to find relevant, useful content. But, the web is also a perfect example of information gone wrong. Information that began as “truth” is diluted, repeated, degraded, and misrepresented. While most teachers encourage or require students to avoid web sources found through Google and other search engines, asking students instead to use library resources–books and database articles–the truth is, most students will still Google their topic, choose the first five articles on the first page of results and call it a day. I find that for students, research is often a cursory part of the presentation or composition process (I often hear, “I hate the library databases; I can’t ever find anything in there!”). They understand why they need it, but are often frustrated because they don’t have the tools they need to seek out the best information.

Now, some of this stems from a need for further instruction on what search terms to use, how to best use a site like Google to filter out unusable information, and a habitual belief that good information should be instantaneous (how often do you have a conversation involving the name of this or that movie star? how often do you simply look the information up quickly on your phone, landing on the answer in the first two or three Google hits?). But, part of what makes the process of researching frustrating for students is not knowing exactly what is a credible, worthwhile source of information.

Today’s infographic, “The 3As of an A+ Web Source” is meant to address this specific need–isolate specific qualities that make a source credible and present them in a way that is visually engaging but also information rich. The infographic focuses on three core characteristics of a strong web source: authority, applicability, and aim. Within these are other categories commonly used in determining strong research: credibility, reliability, accuracy, purpose, bias, currency, and audience. I’ll be adding this as a downloadable file to the current and future iterations of PCP. In class, I’ll pair this infographic with an already existing lesson on research that includes the deck below and a series of analysis and application activities. Note that this deck is specific to using sources in a presentation, though it could easily be adapted for research in writing:

Check out the infographic below, and feel free to share with others!

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How Eno Can Jumpstart Your Creativity

Brian Eno is one of the most prolific, creative, and influential artists and producers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Eno began as part of glam rock band, Roxy Music.  After becoming a solo artist, he experimented, grew his craft, and was responsible for founding and growing the ambient music genre. Eno’s prolific influence and impact are in great part due to Eno’s ability to think conceptually, to consistently evolve his creativity, and his willingness to think differently and actualize his wild imaginings.

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Image courtesy of cinetech

Eno was the first to introduce “chance music” to popular audiences; he produced work for greats like U2, Coldplay, and David Bowie; and his work extends beyond music to include art installations, writing, and today’s focus, “Oblique Strategies,” card game he created intended to resolve studio conflicts via randomness.  I learned about Oblique Strategies today and right away started thinking of ways I could integrate this into the classroom, specifically as a part of the creative process in presentations. For teams, Oblique Strategies helps put members outside of the conflict zone, which helps them resolve conflicts.

This image by Flickr user Rusty Sheriff is of an Oblique Strategies card. Seems fitting for sparking presentation-based creativity!

This image by Flickr user Rusty Sheriff is of an Oblique Strategies card. Seems fitting for sparking presentation-based creativity!

For individuals struggling with themselves (or their lizard brain) to choose or develop a topic, Oblique Strategies can help reposition that internal conflict, recharge the creative process, and lead to growth. Oblique Strategies decks are still rare, but lucky for us, there are web versions available. Oblicard.com is a random card generator available free on the web; it contains many of the cards created by Eno and creative partner Peter Schmidt. Next time you face conflict, whether internal or external, try generating a random topic. It could be the spark that jumpstarts creativity nirvana!

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Slideshare of the Day: The ten worst body language presentation mistakes

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SOAP presentations is definitely among my top Slidesharers to follow. Their decks are consistently useful, well-designed and engaging. Today’s Slideshare of the Day features a topic that is important to both live synchronous presentations and asynchronous video presentations. While we can debate just how much we say through body language vs. verbal language, no one can deny that an audience makes certain decisions about a presenter’s credibility and relationship to them based on non-verbals. As Amy Cuddy asserts, our body language can speak volumes about how others perceive us (Source). Garr Reynolds in The Naked Presenter speaks about the honeymoon period of a presentation:

Even famous, well-established presenters–including celebrities–will only get a minute before audiences grow tired of their inability to grab attention.

Often, it is body language that can determine whether or not a presenter can truly grab an audience’s attention. Maintaing an open posture, facing the audience, maintaining genuine and consistent eye contact, moving with a purpose, and focusing on clarity in vocal delivery can all make the difference between an engaging, memorable presenter and a forgettable one. Pairing SOAP’s tips with Amy Cuddy’s “power pose” strategy can be a great starting point for stronger physical delivery. Check out today’s Slideshare below. For more on Amy Cuddy’s theories of body language, check out her TED talk.

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