Corporate vs. Conference: Jesse Dee’s You Suck at PowerPoint

Jesse Dee’s “You Suck at PowerPoint” is one of the most viewed presentations on Slideshare with over 1 million views.

In his presentation, Jesse lays down the five biggest mistakes PowerPoint users make and provides some fixes for these problems. Jesse Dee’s 5 mistakes are:

  1. Too much information, or what Garr Reynolds refers to as a slideument.
  2. Not enough visuals, or text-driven visuals decrease retention, not increase it.
  3. Horrible quality, or in a age of abundance and design, audiences no longer respond to clip art and comic sans.
  4. Visual vomit, or once you have visuals, you must design them for maximum effectiveness.
  5. Lack of prep, or the number one reason why users rely on bullets and templates is because of a lack of content development and rehearsal time.

Because of its popularity and in your face honesty about the misuse of PowerPoint by individuals and corporations alike, the presentation often faces a bit of resistance and backlash. Today, a response to Jesse Dee’s presentation was posted on Slideshare:

The presentation, by design firm Stinson Design, calls attention to several of Dee’s suggestions that Stinson Design believes just won’t work for corporate presenters. The deck makes a distinction between corporate and conference presenters based on the level of control one type of presenter has than another does not. Conference presenters, according to the deck “have control on their content and can decide to present minimal amounts of data” (Source). In contrast, corporate presenters are limited because they must present dense amounts of information and data. The distinction is unclear to me because as a conference attendee, I’ve seen conference presenters display dense amounts of information and data (unfortunately, mostly using bullet points and poorly designed data display), and as a presenter, I was restricted by time, audience type, and subject matter. As someone who has watched four years of “corporate” business pitches, I’ve also seen dense data and complex financial information be presented in a cinematic way that still shows the investor that the presenter is knowledgeable and able to communicate the complex using simplicity.

In the deck, several challenges corporate presenters face in using the cinematic method of presentation design are brought to light. However, instead of looking at these challenges as reasons to abandon the universal principles of design used by 21st century presenters, let’s look at some of these challenges as opportunities. In every instance, presenting well is a challenge; it’s all about being up to the challenge!

Challenge #1: Cutting content is not always possible because corporate presenters have A LOT  of information to communicate

Jesse Dee provides a reasonable solution for this. Use one slide for each piece of content, data, and information. Stinson believes that the amount of information that needs to be presented makes this solution impossible. However, as instructional designers and teachers have learned, the working memory is a finite container (Source). It’s working memory that we are addressing when presenting information to others, and that part of our minds can only retain so much information before information begins to flow over the top of that container and out of our minds. As Julie Dirksen points out, “You can keep handing material to your learners, but you can’t make them carry it around” (Source). So, we must focus as presenters on what’s really necessary; we must be ruthless editors and only include what’s necessary on a set of slides. Similarly, we must understand that slides are not always necessary. A few days ago, I shared this tongue in cheek example of a PowerPoint version of The Gettysburg Address. The idea Lincoln was communicating was complex, controversial, and challenging. He uses ingenuity, the brevity of words, and pathos to communicate this complex idea to his audience in a way that has resonated for hundreds of years.

But, this doesn’t mean that we are sacrificing information for design, not at all. Your audiences can easily (actually much more easily than on a slide) read through dense amounts of information on a document (and that document can be designed for maximum readability, flow, and retention) that you hand out as an accompaniment to your slides, which are not meant to be containers of your information, but an enhancement of your content. This is not a “luxury” as the deck claims. It is simply good old-fashioned troubleshooting. It also helps keep the presentation of content relevant to the audience. Despite what we tell ourselves, our audiences don’t want all of the information on a slide (even if they are conditioned to this). Subconsciously, the mind wants to be able to easily and clearly make sense of information. This is best accomplished by breaking up dense information into smaller chunks.

Challenge #2: It’s easier for a conference presenter to find imagery than a corporate presenter because corporate presenters need niche-specific images

I want to address this challenge very simply. It is not easy to find strong imagery–for anyone. The process of finding and choosing strong images requires time, ingenuity, and at times metaphorical thinking. I sometimes spend hours looking for one image, only to have to revise my approach because I am restricted to commercially-available images only (which is the same challenge corporate presenters face). On this blog, I’ve shared several ways to search through compfight.com, which is one of the best resources for free images available to corporate folks. Another option is the use of commercially-available iconography, such as those found on The Noun Project.

Challenge #3: Custom fonts are great but they are not so great for sharing a presentation with others. Similarly, standard fonts are not really that bad as long as the material is clear/readable

I have to agree with the creators of the deck that a standard font is not really THAT bad when it comes to design, and if one has to use a font like Arial, that’s at least better than using comic sans or herculenum. However, what makes a standard font problematic is that just like standard stock imagery, your audience is desensitized to it. This is not to say that I believe one must use a custom font (many of which are free), but using a typeface that connects to your audience, message, and theme can help set your message apart from others in your audience’s mind. Presentation designer Christin Upshaw puts the choice of font quite well:

“[U]sing just a basic font that EVERYONE has (Arial, Tahoma, etc.) is absolutely the right course of action. That doesn’t mean your presentation has to have bad design, it just means the font can’t be something you purchased. You can still make it look great.”

So, what do you do if your client does not have a font installed on his or her computer? If the license allows distribution, give them the font. Even better, export your work as a pdf (which is how many Slideshare users, including Stinson Design, upload their work) and distribute a static, unchanging, and well-designed file to your attendees.

Challenge #4: PowerPoint is still most often used, so it’s the best way to create your work and distribute it to others

Yes, PowerPoint is still the standard, but what’s awesome about tools like Slide Rocket, Google Docs, and Keynote is that files can be converted to PowerPoint (Keynote actually opens PowerPoint files..something I doubt Microsoft will ever add to PowerPoint) and shared with your audience. Neat, right?

Untitled.001

So, what’s your take on the corporate vs. conference style of presenting? Are these really unsurmountable challenges?

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12 thoughts on “Corporate vs. Conference: Jesse Dee’s You Suck at PowerPoint

  1. Roar Sweetly says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you about the challenge of finding strong and appropriate imagery for a presentation. In my role as a presenter of legal information I’m often required to find imagery to reflect a range of concepts from the easy (debt, housing, motor vehicles etc) to the hard (domestic violence, human rights etc). I think this is where I spend most of my time in preparation.

    • Have you tried Haiku Deck? I haven’t – and I think it’s currently on iPads only – but I’ve heard people rave about using it for finding free images for slides. I assume you’d be able to transfer the photos you find into whatever software you’re using at work, like PowerPoint.

      One place I keep going back to for THOUSANDS of free images is accessible from within PowerPoint itself, which it makes it very quick and easy if that’s your tool at the time:
      http://remotepossibilities.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/find-1000s-of-free-photos-for-powerpoint-presentation-slides/

      For domestic violence, you could do something like fade a colour photo of a wedding or of rings (dozens available via the above link) into a washed-out black and white version of the same photo. For human rights, you could use a photo of a barbed-wire fence, handcuffs, a prison, or a candle (as in Amnesty International).

      The other thing, though, is whether having a photo (or a slide at all) adds anything when discussing those issues. If possible, it might be more powerful to present without slides (except for the occasional chart to share related statistics). Would that help?

      • I’ve heard great things about Haiku Deck, Craig! My problem with the clip art and even the photographs inside of PowerPoint is that even with thousands of images, the focus is on standard stock photography approaches to communicating and conveying an idea. While using a source like Compfight (or your own imagery) takes more time, it does help create originality and new approaches to presenting information. Your adaptation, which is to edit the image to communicate a new idea is fantastic and can help breathe fresh life into a sterile image.

        “To slide or not to slide” is such an important question (it’s part of the first letter in my SIMPLE Design acronym). Slides have become so ubiquitous and expected now that we tend to immediately assume we need a slide. However, if we thought of a display as something used on need-only basis, we could devote more time to content development and delivery practice.

      • Roar Sweetly says:

        I’ve never heard of Haiku Deck, thanks for the tip. I source my images from compfight or google and I take photographs myself (of small items like keys or building blocks) using a white cardboard backdrop and a small digital camera. Using good filtered light next to a window works a charm. Great ideas for human rights imagery. I have a no clip-art rule in my slides…unless of course it’s being used ironically!

      • In today’s workshop on teaching personas, one instructor shared her experience with taking her own photographs. With a bit of equipment and ingenuity, one can create awesome original videos that push past that clip art cheese.

      • Roar – thanks for the tips about taking your own shots. Using a white card as a backdrop sounds very professional. I’d love to see some of your results! Fancy posting them somewhere?

        Similarly, my favourite spot for taking portraits of people indoors is side-on to a window, so there’s natural but indirect light across their face. (That’s how I took the self-portrait on my blog’s About page!)

        Chiara – all the photos on my blog tend to be PowerPoint’s (from Office.com), and there are some pretty good ones I think. (You can see a few examples via the links at the bottom of the post I referred to in my previous comment.) The choice is fairly small, but it can be a good place to start.

        Recently I’ve begun to think we use TOO MANY photos on slides, and using less would make it a bit easier to find good ones! For a bit more on that, please see the chart at the bottom of my latest post (which is called “Why present? JFK said it all”).

        I’m looking forward to hearing more about your SIMPLE acronym. The post below explains an acronym I use myself – the “FiRST framework” – and again the photos are from PowerPoint but are not what I’d call standard stock photography (which makes me think of smiling models):
        http://remotepossibilities.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/5-ways-to-be-a-top-presenter/

      • Thanks for keeping our awesome thread going! I do feel like we can take that cinematic, image-driven approach too far sometimes, or what I really mean is that those who move into this mode tend to always fall back on big image, little bit of text. But, that won’t always work (sometimes a diagram is needed, sometimes a quote can stand on its own, sometimes clean data display is more important). I’ve begun moving away from the image-only approach towards more work with typography and iconography. Today’s SIMPLE design installment focuses on the one idea per slide concept. In teaching students and teachers, I find that this is even more important an idea to implement than “always use an image”. The problem with the display portion of presentations isn’t that folks don’t understand that they should pair image with text. The problem is that repeated exposure to dense documents on slides has reinforced the idea that we must fill a slide with as much information as possible. Slides have become an expected and often detrimental part of a presentation. As this is the case, we must employ techniques that work best within this medium (and that just isn’t text–text kills your audience’s attention, your credibility, and the impact of your words). How do we find that balance between well designed slides, airtight content, and impacting delivery?

    • Hi there! I enjoy the process of looking for images, despite the frustration. Learning to think a bit more conceptually has helped me find ways to display information outside of the standard stock photography imagery.

  2. Roar Sweetly says:

    Oh and my take on conference v corporate presenting… I believe the same principles of presenting and slide design apply. The aim is to engage with the audience. Having a lot of information to convey is a weak excuse for dense, text-heavy slides. That is the role of hand-out materials.

    • I think defining the difference would really help strengthen the argument Stinson Design makes. The implication seems to be that one is “more serious” than the other, but in reality, this is a devaluing of an entire form of presenting (the TED model, for instance).

  3. I absolutely agree with you and with Roar Sweetly about using handouts, and not overloading your audience – regardless of whether you’re at a conference or in a business meeting. (Here’s a post with 9 tips to help focus the presenter and slides alike: http://remotepossibilities.wordpress.com/2011/12/31/minimise-blur-firstframework-part-1m/ )

    To me, overall Jesse Dee and Stinson both make some helpful and some less helpful points.

    On the subject of fonts, I’d say one of the key traits of a good choice for a particular use is that the audience shouldn’t even NOTICE the font! So if you’re presenting to designers, by all means use Delicious, and if you’re presenting to CEOs, go for your life with Arial.

    Most comments about fonts are made by designers, who care about fonts. Most audiences, though, are made up of people who care far less about fonts!

    I always say fonts are like business shirts – they need to do a job, they need to be subtle (not distracting), and (most of all) you shouldn’t waste your valuable time choosing them!

    Not sure if using a PDF avoids problems with missing fonts. I’ve had problems in the past with PDFs that used non-standard fonts. (In Acrobat, there used to a menu option – Use System Fonts – and if you switched that on, any non-installed fonts used by the PDF would become apparent.)

    • While I am not a trained designer (I’ve taught myself everything related to design), I do think that while the audience may not recognize the importance of a typeface, it is an integral part of any graphic or visual design. I don’t necessarily think a person needs to devote hours to choosing type, but the choice does matter. If the audience doesn’t notice it, that’s because the designer has done his or her job in choosing a typeface that aligns with the design and speaks to the audience’s needs. At the forefront should be readability and clarity. Sometimes, Arial is the way one does this (especially after considering audience carefully), but sometimes, it is more important to align each element of design more carefully. Again, I know this is coming from the perspective of someone who lives and breathes design, but the careful creation of a deck in which each element works is worth the time to me.

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