Why complex presentations don't work (and what to do instead)
by Andrea Pacini —
The most successful messages are the simplest. The best writing gets to the point. The greatest speeches are concise and direct.
However, too many business leaders fall into the trap of giving presentations which are overly complex and technical. They navigate their audience down side roads and off on tangents. Their visuals mirror this and are often confusing and convoluted.
Why does this happen? It is all done for the right reasons. We are talking about high achievers who have set up their own businesses and who are leaders in their field.
The problem is that these experts are often too close to their subject and are too keen to demonstrate their knowledge to their audience.
Because they know so much about their subjects, they are inclined to include too many details and convey too much information.
There is also a tendency to resort to jargon, acronyms and industry-specific terminology.
As a result, the audience:
- can’t follow, understand or remember
- is left confused
- doesn’t take action
Too Much Technology
One of the main issues is that we rely too much on technology when preparing a presentation. Technology provides us with tools and templates. The latest version of PowerPoint even automatically suggests lovely looking alternative designs. There are thousands of potential shapes to deploy and images to include. Then there’s video and GIFs. The temptation is to throw everything at your slides, including the kitchen sink.
In reality, your ability to deliver a great presentation has nothing to do with the software you use or the screen behind you. It has everything to do with the key message and story you want to convey.
Technology continues to evolve at a frightening pace. Microsoft PowerPoint was first released in April 1987. Back then, you could use it to create black and white sheets for overhead projectors. We are now up to Version 17, known as PowerPoint 2019.
So much has changed in that time with the adoption of cloud technology and video calls. Computing power, according to Moore’s Law, has doubled every two years.
Meanwhile, the human brain has been evolving for millions of years. Our human ancestors of 200,000 years ago were probably of similar intelligence to us. We have been sharing stories for generations since we were first able to speak—without the need to put some bullet points on a deck.
No wonder then that a recent study by design agency Presentation Panda found that 79 per cent of people agree that most presentations are boring.
Deciding Your Message
If you want to communicate a simple and clear message that is relevant to the audience, you must start with the basic question—what do I want to say?
Then you must be utterly ruthless in deciding what to include and what to leave out. Unless it helps to convey your central argument then it must go.
Create a clear storyline so your audience will be able to follow you, remember what you say and take appropriate action.
I recently worked with Miguel Marcos Martinez, CEO and Co-Founder of ioCommit. By his own admission, he used to overpack his presentations with too many details. We helped him to create a memorable pitch which focused on delivering a clear message in a non-technical way.
He said afterwards: “I feel much more confident about our message and ready to steer the audience. The result is that everyone now understands what we are building, not just the technically adept.”
Three Tips to Improve
So what can you do to change your presentation style and get to the point? Here are three practical tips:
- Start by summarizing your core idea in 70 words (which should take 30 seconds to deliver). If you can’t communicate it in that short time, your message is too complex. You need to make it simpler.
- Follow the Rule of Three. Include just three key messages. It is the same tactic which media trainers tell their clients for TV interviews. Stick to the three points you want to get across. This is very effective and also gives your presentation a good balance and rhythm.
- Use simple words where possible. Using fancy language does not make you sound more clever. It just distorts what you are trying to communicate. The best writing is often the simplest. The best speakers adopt the same tactic and use the least number of words to convey their points.
It’s Hard to Keep Things Simple
Keeping things simple takes effort. You have to edit down your presentation and reduce it to the most basic form. Strip it of long, confusing sentences. Get rid of the jargon and the business speak. Lose the industry-specific terminology that only some of your audience will understand. Be inclusive and ensure that your language is accessible to everyone.
Do not assume knowledge on the part of your audience. It is fine to explain things to ensure that you bring everyone along with you. If some of the audience already knew something you said, they will simply feel reassured. It would be far worse to make the mistake of assuming your audience had some prior understanding when they did not.
What’s your objective when presenting? Maybe you want to sell a product, service, project or idea. Maybe you want to convince someone of something. Maybe you want to persuade or inspire your audience.
Whatever it is, you want to take your audience on a journey from A to B. They will start at point A where they don’t know, believe, or feel what you want them to—and travel with you to point B where they do.
If your message is too complex, this is what it looks like when trying to take your audience from A to B.
It would be like me shouting a foreign language at you and hoping you will understand.
If you simplify your message, this is what it looks like:
Achieving your objective will be much easier.
Business leaders sometimes know so much they mistakenly include too many details and too many messages in their presentations. As a result they lose impact and do not achieve the results they want. You will persuade your audience more effectively if you keep the message simple.
If you deliver a whole presentation in which everything is deemed to be important, then it reduces everything to the same level—and nothing is important. Decide what your key messages are and stick to them. A good trick is to use the power of three.
If you follow these rules and simplify your message, your audience will follow, understand, remember and take action!
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