Slide titles are often the most overlooked aspect of Powerpoint presentation design, and an area where a little bit of thought can go a long way to improving any presentation.
How many times have you seen a slide with a title like “Our Strategy” and thought, “How awesome!”? Slide titles are headlines. Take a look at the front page of a newspaper. (Yes, they still exist.) You would never see a headline like “What the Police are Doing” or “Here’s the Situation,” yet I see hundreds of slides a month with exactly these kinds of titles, such as:
- Our Software Strategy
- Program Metrics
- Progress to Date
- Next Steps
- The Ask (this one is anathema)
- Summary or Concluding Remarks (some people get really excited at this one since they know the presentation is about to end)
Rereading this list, I nearly fell face first onto my keyboard as a wave of boredom washed over me. Who would be drawn in by any of these headlines? Each of these is guaranteed to cause your audience to lose interest, and worse still, they contain absolutely no information.
Here’s why we get these awful slide titles. Presentation development often begins with a formal outline, or at the very least, a list of key points to cover. Slide titles like those in the list above come directly from these kinds of documents, and generally, no one takes the time to convert them to titles — they’re just outline points transferred to slides and forgotten.
I call this practice “presentation indexing.” It helps the people producing the presentation ensure that all of the necessary topics are covered, and it makes it easier to check the order of the slides and the flow of the story. But since the outline points are never converted to slide titles, they are almost useless from a communications and persuasion standpoint.
Slide titles should summarize the information in the slide and what it means to the speaker and the audience. Taking the examples above, here are some suggestion on how to do that with various kinds of slides:
- Our Software Strategy A Software Strategy Built for the Cloud
- Program Metrics Revenue Per Subscriber is Up; New Subscriptions Lag
- Progress to Date 14 of 22 Classrooms Upgraded
- Next Steps Plan Goes to Review Board April 9
- The Ask (this one is anathema) Designate a Representative from your Organization
- Summary or Concluding Remarks (some people get really excited at this one since they know the presentation is about to end) New Regulations Will Forever Change the X Industry
It’s true that sometimes a title with actual information in it is wordier than a slide with a generic title. And sometimes slide titles are unnecessary (which is a subject for another post). But if you are going to use slide titles, and most presenters want and need them, you can make your presentation much more effective by putting slide titles to work for you.
As a communicator, your job is to get people to listen to, comprehend, validate and repeat your company’s story. In order to rise above the noise and be heard, you need a pitch that helps people understand how your company, and its products and services, relate to them on a personal level.
If your job is to communicate the value of the iPhone or Coca-Cola, or any top brand with universally recognized benefits, telling a globally relevant story is a lot easier than it is if your product is twisty ties for bread bags or lug nuts for automobiles.
The key is to move your story to the top of what I call the relevance stack. There are many examples of companies that have done this successfully. Here are a couple from my own experience:
- When Seagate wanted to expand its brand identity from that of a computer hardware manufacturer to a “lifestyle” brand, the company worked with Silicon Valley PR agency Eastwick Communications to develop a more relevant, universally appealing story of how the company’s products positively affect the everyday lives of consumers. They told a story not of “speeds and feeds,” but of how Seagate storage was at the heart of so many popular consumer products. The company secured big PR hits with a Forbes cover story and product placement of its pink external hard drives on the Ellen Degeneres show.
- Darryl Moon, CEO of Orriant, a leading company in corporate wellness, leveraged his personal platform on personal and corporate accountability for curbing healthcare costs to obtain coverage from Bloomberg and elsewhere. While many companies shy away from taking a public position on complex and controversial issues, Moon is able to rise above the noise and be heard with his clearly articulated perspective backed by facts and experience. By connecting what Orriant does with arguments for and against Obamacare, Moon has moved Orriant up the relevance stack.
I attended a PR roundtable where an editor from Businessweek told us that he had been given the guidance that they would not be doing any more “tech” stories but would instead try to tell to lifestyle stories that would be more relevant and engaging to readers.
Can you tell a story of how your company’s products and services are relevant to a broad, consumer audience? Even if consumers aren’t your target market, if you move your company’s message up the relevance stack, you’re more likely to get top-tier coverage.
* Seagate, Eastwick Communications and Orriant are current or former Socialized clients.
Therapist: You should know I bill based on a 50-minute hour.
Patient: That’s OK, I pay based on a 75-cent dollar.
Time might be real, but units of measure like minutes, seconds and hours are the arbitrary creation of man. Only tradition and laziness prompt us to schedule business activities — like meetings, conference calls, and presentations — for a full hour.
We are all slaves to Microsoft Outlook which not only likes to schedule things to start on the hour, but assumes they should each be an hour long. Event agendas look really tidy with everything starting and ending on the hour. And seriously, a presentation scheduled from 3:13 p.m. to 3:36 p.m. would look really strange, like this road sign on Quito Rd. in Saratoga, CA:
Anyone who has participated in any of these things can tell you how hard it is to listen to anything for an hour, and how extremely difficult it is to find an hour’s worth of things to say.
Which, after some delay, brings me to my point. In most cases 60 minutes is too long for an executive presentation, and as an executive communications professional, I see many advantages to standardizing at 30 minutes instead. Obviously, the amount of time needed for a presentation varies depending upon how much information needs to be conveyed, but in reality, I would venture that >95% of topics can be covered to the satisfaction of the audience in 30 minutes or less.
The 30-minute presentation benefits everyone.
Audience: A 30-minute presentation is faster and more tightly constructed, and therefore more engaging to the people listening to it. A shorter presentation is more likely to be absorbed and understood, and therefore more likely to get through to the audience and achieve the presentation’s objectives.
Presenter: A competent presenter may find it difficult to find 60 minutes of information worth presenting, but will also be challenged to reduce the usual 60-minute story to 30 minutes. This not only produces a more focused presentation, but it inverts the presentation passion pyramid. A presenter who is pushed to speak 30 minutes will be enthusiastic and up-tempo. A presenter pushed to speak 60 minutes will be compelled to drone on and tell lengthy, boring stories to fill the allotted time.
Communications Team: It would seem that as an executive communications professional, I am advocating shorter presentations because it would mean less work for me. Not true! In fact, short presentations are MORE work, because only a presentation pro can present a concept visually and succinctly in one slide. Any hack can do it with four or five meandering eye charts.
So here’s what you can do about it. If you’re building the agenda for an event, consider scheduling 30-minute or 40-minute speaking slots instead of subjecting your attendees to an endless procession of one-hour long auto da fés. If you are a communicator responsible for an executive presentation that could be reduced to 30 minutes, ask the event organizers early if they can modify the agenda.
We’ve all read blog posts, articles and books on how to make individual slides cleaner, simpler and more to the point. (You know, all that “Present Like Steve Jobs” stuff.) But what most people overlook is the opportunity to make presentations simpler and more compelling by making them shorter.
While contemplating an ethical or legal gaffe or some other action that might discredit a company or organization, many executives forget that their actions will long outlive the media frenzy in the days and weeks after they are disclosed. Some will be forever branded with a scarlet “S” (for screw-up) monogrammed on their blazers and shirt pockets.
Amidst a less-than-stellar earnings announcement by Hewlett-Packard today, new CEO Leo Apotheker blamed the company’s services division and its “missed opportunities” under his predecessor Mark Hurd. Reuters goes on to say “Apotheker indirectly blamed the services unit’s problems on Hurd, who left the company in August amid allegations of sexual harassment.”
It’s been less than a year since Hurd was gently escorted to the door, but his tech media legacy is clear: he’s a cheating lowlife who incidentally ran one of the world’s largest and successful (over the long haul) companies. And the new CEO is also blaming him for the company’s financial woes.
More recently, Kenneth Cole committed an online faux pas that illustrated the blinding speed with which social media transmits news of reputational screw-ups.
We do forgive some who commit ethical blunders, and time seems to help. Nixon was the center of of some of the dirtiest tricks in American politics, yet many have softened their stance in light of his 1972 trip to China, which led to the establishment of formal ties between the U.S. and China. And sometimes we forget. Who ever mentions the late Kenneth Lay, convicted of fraud and conspiracy just five years ago?
What is clear, is that at least for a time, we label people who commit legal and ethical missteps with their deeds, a phenomenon that should be considered carefully before proceeding along any questionable path.
Within the past 10 days I have told someone “Don’t put into an e-mail, chat, a tweet, a Facebook status update or anywhere else something you don’t want on the front page of the New York Times.” It’s classic communications advice.
And yet, Goldman-Sachs executives are apparently too stupid and too arrogant to show any such restraint. The U.S. government has launched a fraud lawsuit against Goldman-Sachs for, among other things, misrepresenting to the federal government the company’s losses during the mortgage crisis, and according to the New York Times, “creating a (financial) product secretly designed to fail for the benefit of a favored hedge-fund client.”
In email messages, “Lloyd C. Blankfein, the bank’s chief executive, acknowledged in November 2007 that the firm had lost money initially. But it later recovered by making negative bets, known as short positions, to profit as housing prices plummeted. ‘Of course we didn’t dodge the mortgage mess,’ he wrote. ‘We lost money, then made more than we lost because of shorts.'”
According to the times, Fabrice Tourre, a Goldman-Sachs trader and a defendant in the SEC’s suit, wrote in an e-mail to a friend:
“I’m still stuck at work at 10PM, but it’s been six years since I’ve been functioning on this @!$#@!$@$# schedule, so who cares. I feel like I’m losing my mind and I’m only 28!!”
It’s not as if Americans like the investment community right now, and this sure isn’t helping.
In so many stories of corporate malfeasance, reaction to the facts surrounding a company’s misbehavior (whether alleged or proven) is so often overshadowed by damning information that comes through other, informal communications channels, like remarks made at a company party, or in an e-mail.
In 2003, jurors watched a portion of a four-hour videotape of a company-paid $2 million party in Sardinia thrown by Dennis Kozlowski, then CEO of Tyco, for his wife’s 40th birthday, which included “Margaritaville” singer Jimmy Buffett and an anatomically correct statue of Michelangelo’s David spewing vodka. Kozlowski and his CFO were on trial for looting the company of $600 million. Who’s brilliant idea was it to videotape the party? Kozlowski apparently laughed about the video after leaving court for the day.
More recently, Phil Jones, head of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, set off a storm of media controversy over global warming when he sent a series of emails with some ill advised (though apparently somewhat true) remarks about the quality of certain research on the topic, giving detractors a golden opportunity to call into question the validity of all global warming research.
It’s hard to give everyone media training, but that’s the only way to avoid these situations. A company must be truthful. It must communicate on a timely basis any circumstances that must be brought to the attention of regulators or law enforcement. But there is no rule that says the company must allow every employee to publicly say anything he or she wishes. And that’s what being careless about informal communications amounts to.
I’m not suggesting cover-ups. The only thing worse than writing a dumbass email is deleting it to hide a smoking gun. In fact, deleting emails brought Arthur Andersen, a multi-billion dollar company, to its knees. Don’t do it! It’s probably illegal. (And deleted emails aren’t deleted any way. Another story for another time.) But save yourself from embarrassing the entire company and imagine every email, every tweet, and every café remark you make is public.
Again, I’m not saying informal communications are the problem. Unethical and illegal behavior are the problems. But companies are compounding the problems with ill advised informal communications that always seem to come out.
A little commonsense will allow you to retain some degree of control over a crisis, or avoid it entirely. As soon as there are emails containing a company executive’s claims that it made billions of dollars when it told the government exactly the opposite, and videos of the CEO’s anatomically correct sculptures with their, um, er, well you know as a spigot, you’ve lost in the court of public opinion.