THE BLOG
07/06/2010 02:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Avoid Death by Presentation

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online

Does your organization have an overly complex presentation culture? If you're not sure, ask yourself the following questions: How often are meetings dominated by long presentations with dozens of slides? How much time do people spend preparing, revising, and emailing different versions of slide decks? To what extent are managers assessed by the depth and scope of information that they present in their slides rather than the results they produce?

One of the most common ways that organizations become overly complex is through an overreliance on presentations. Not to say that presentations are not effective forms of communications. In fact, the advent of PowerPoint and similar software has made it possible to convey ideas more quickly and concisely than ever before. The problem is that these tools are often misused. Instead of facilitating dialogue, they can constrain, inhibit, and prevent effective communication. For example, not long ago the New York Times ran a front page story featuring a comically complex PowerPoint chart about the conflict in Afghanistan and suggested that the U.S. war effort was being hampered by excessive dependence on presentation-based meetings.

If you are suffering from death by PowerPoint -- or presentations in general -- here are several ways that you can simplify and improve your communications:

  • Don't turn a presentation into a report. The purpose of a presentation is to extract and summarize key issues in a way that engages the audience -- sparking new thinking and dialogue. That's why your presentation should include graphics, cartoons, short videos, and other easy ways to capture attention. A presentation should be entertaining and thought provoking -- not a data dump. So if you have lots of data and information, extract the key points and put the rest into a report, an appendix, or a handout. Tell people what's there and how to read it, but don't waste their valuable time reading it to them.
  • Clarify the purpose of the presentation. Some presentations are just that -- presentations of key ideas or materials. Others are for the purpose of decision making, problem solving, or consensus building. Start your presentation -- and your preparation -- with a clear sense of what you want to accomplish. Why are you bringing people together and going through these slides? What's the desired end result?
  • Develop a presentation protocol for your organization. To rein in a company's complex presentation culture -- and make sure that presentations are productive and impactful -- you can create rules of engagement. For example, the head of a retirement-services business requires her team to submit presentations for staff meetings two days in advance so that everyone can review them beforehand. The senior manager of a telecom company gives his people a three-slide limit. Another senior manager insists on what he calls a "two-minute drill" -- no more than two minutes of presentation without a discussion.

Mark Twain supposedly once apologized for writing a long letter, saying that he didn't have time to make it shorter. Putting together an effective presentation also requires an investment in time -- but it's an investment that will pay dividends, both for you and for your organization.

Does your company have an ineffective presentation culture? What are your suggestions for doing something about it?