Nearly every time I sit through a grueling PowerPoint, I get more disgusted at the way this technological crutch damages business communication. But now and then, I see a glimmer of hope.
On a single day recently, I witnessed two remarkable presentations that left me with lessons worth passing on as soon as possible. One was PowerPoint-free, the other a hybrid that couldn’t have been more telling had it been cooked up in a human behaviors lab.
At a 7 a.m. service organization meeting, following the best breakfast in town (velvety quiche) in a church meeting hall, the new president of the local Chamber of Commerce introduced himself and then stopped talking — in two minutes! That’s right. He stood there, told us about his background in the military, and invited questions and comments. No list of goals to reinvigorate downtown, attract businesses, open a dialogue with small businesses, keep an open door, blah, blah, blah.
Nope. No speech, no lecture, no slide show. Just a chat in front of the head table, not behind the lectern. Not only was the effect charmingly modest; it was an invitation to converse. The unspoken message: “I need to know how you business folks think, and I need to listen carefully.”
As he responded to our questions and observations with some fresh ideas, I found myself actually getting to know him, and out of that familiarity grew a sense of trust. What a great and natural way for the new Chamber president to be himself.
That night, I had dinner with another service club in another town, where the guest presented on a sister city relationship with a town in Cuba. This one was a slide show. The room darkened a bit and the lady stood next to a table and turned away from us to the keyboard, where she tapped from slide to slide and apparently read some notes to herself before speaking. The sad fact was that she built no momentum, or at least a narrative stream to keep us interested.
I think there was a story to tell, but all we saw were images of light-skinned and dark-skinned people in stiff poses, smiling and shaking hands and, when there were too many folks in the frame for that ritual, staring off at I don’t know what. Worse, our presenter’s voice was too low for the room and halting, as if she hadn’t rehearsed and barely knew her material.
She wanted to show well-intentioned people reaching across cultural boundaries, but all I saw were awkward postures and manufactured cordiality — not unlike the “grip and grin” check-passing photos in the C Section of your community weekly. Worse, when our presenter glanced at her keyboard, I looked around and saw polite boredom, eyes at half-mast and glazed over.
After the last slide, she mumbled thanks for hosting her and asked for questions. More out of pity than genuine interest in the topic, I asked how and when President Obama’s new Cuba policy would take us beyond cultural exchanges to NGO involvement in the island nation.
That’s all it took. Suddenly and effortlessly, our speaker morphed into a confident, articulate expert whose enthusiasm sparked a give-and-take with our questions generating other ideas in what amounted to a discussion, not a “talk” to a passive audience. Her voice gaining strength, the speaker took charge and entertained us. Adding some zest and depth to the session was the fact that many of us had done charitable work overseas.
So…do you see what links the two episodes? Personality, confidence, expertise, infectious knowledge.
Just one note: What would have worked were a few slides showing Cuban children playing musical instruments or painting or singing to demonstrate cultural connections. After all, kids can be photogenic. Then leave the last and best slide on, and start the conversation.
Dave Griffiths, a veteran-owned small business, has taught writing (following the Plain Writing Act), presentation skills, and media relations at about 15 federal agencies. Following a 27-year career in journalism that included Pentagon coverage for Business Week, he helped design a course linking writing and critical thinking for the VA.