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Tactical Approach to Message Format

Now that PowerPoint has been around for awhile and PowerPoint skill levels are either established or well on their way to becoming so, business people are looking to PowerPoint to deliver all or most of their company's messages. This may not be such a good thing. While PowerPoint empowers companies to create slick presentations for all purposes (webinars, seminars, cozy one-on-ones, boardroom gatherings, etc.), PowerPoint is also being used to deliver messages that might be better delivered in formats other than "presentations."

PowerPoint is best used as a tool to support the presenter, not as the presentation in and of itself. Therefore, leaving a printout of your PowerPoint presentation with your audience may not be the best idea. PowerPoint presentations are typically comprised of data without a tremendous amount of interpretation or discussion and sentence fragments without full and complete meanings, which means that the printouts may not be sufficiently self-interpretive. This can be a limiting – as well as dangerous – tactic. You need to have a plan.

The plan – format for primary message delivery

The venue and audience size are the biggest determining factors for how your message should be delivered. But other factors are how formal the gathering will be and the level of commitment you're requesting.

  • Large venues and audience sizes are usually served well by on-screen slides, especially when the presenter is too far away for the audience to see facial expressions and other nonverbal communications. Presenting to large gatherings is usually to impart information or to introduce/demonstrate something new – not usually to get a high-level commitment and action from the audience.
  • When the gathering is small enough that the audience can effectively focus on the presenter (small halls, college-type classrooms), on-screen slides can also be the best choice. But, the presenter needs to be sure to draw the audience's focus off the screen and back to him/her often. The on-screen slide is not the presentation, it just supports the presenter. There are a number of tactics for managing the audience's focus: blacking out the screen periodically, never turning your back on the audience and "presenting to the screen," etc. There are many fine resources for presenter dos and don'ts. The size of this gathering also allows for a higher interactivity with the audience: questions and answers, time after the presentation for one-on-one or small-group discussions. The presenter can ask for bigger commitments from the audiences at these types of gatherings.
  • Small gatherings are typically where high-level requests and decisions are made: asking for specific future behaviors from management or employees, approvals to spend company funds, strategic direction setting, etc. When the requests for commitment and investment become large, the message delivery needs to be more formal. This is where you may want to consider a whitepaper approach: sitting down sans on-screen presentation and systematically going through the issues outlined in well-constructed, text-intensive document that contains a few key conceptual charts and data-driven graphs. This approach tends to minimize the "instruct and persuade" tone of on-screen presentations and encourages a fact-based, highly interactive exploration of a topic.

The Plan – format for a secondary message delivery

In situations where you need to make your case strongly (instruct and persuade) or you are looking for commitment(s), your interpretations are incredibly important. Also, in situations where decisions will not be made before you "leave the room," it's important to leave reference material behind that contains your findings, interpretations, and recommendations in a complete and compelling manner. Therefore, although you may have used PowerPoint slides during your presentation (and your presentation did its job well), you may want to consider creating a companion piece to your presentation: a text-intensive, self-interpretive vertical Word document with imported graphics from the PowerPoint slides used in your presentation. Leave this behind as a point of reference – a sound and strong tactical maneuver.

Alternatively, leaving standardized marketing collateral behind may be all that is needed: a brochure or flyer-type handout developed for the occasion that includes high points of your presentation and contact information. This is especially helpful for large gatherings and seminars.

Another option might be to flesh out your presentation by adding a lead-in or take-away field on your slides that tells your audience how to think about the data/ideas on the slide. If you have a lot of day-to-day contact with your audience, adding a bit of interpretation to your presentation may be all that is necessary.

An especially effective, but seldom-used format is a double-sided print-out version of your presentation that has a carefully written text message on the back of the previous slide, right above (in horizontal formats) the current slide being viewed. This format makes a visually strong connection for your audience with what they've seen onscreen and what you have left behind. The appropriately worded text message above the slide (on the back of the previous slide) is basically your presentation narrative. You may also want to consider adding the lead-in phrase and/or take-away thought to the slide to really drive your points home.

Developing the plan

Below are a few thought starters to help you make good decisions when choosing primary and secondary message-delivery formats. Selecting the correct format(s) is a process.

Once a communication need arises and before any production starts, it's important to be clear on the scope of the effort:

  • What are the objectives?
  • How much time is allotted?
  • Will the message/communication be left behind?

Answering these three questions thoughtfully and deliberately may lead you in some surprising but appropriate directions.

What are the objectives?

Careful assessment of the objectives is critical to success. To help you pin-point your objectives, answer the following:

  • Establishing credibility: why should they listen to you? Audiences will not act according to your recommendations if you have not established credibility.
  • Setting tone: is the gathering formal or informal? This is important. Sitting in a boardroom with executives, asking them to make a large-dollar-amount commitment requires the correct approach and tone. Be sure your materials support your message accordingly.
  • Delivering a clearly defined message: will the audience be empowered to make decisions or act based on your message? The quality and MECEness of your message is crucial getting the response/reaction you're looking for.
  • Interpreting data: does the material you're presenting stand on its own, or does your content rely heavily on interpretations? Be sure you understand this and be prepared to support the statistical findings you present. Data can be interpreted in many ways and are influenced by many factors. Don't present raw data.
  • Establishing depth into the subject matter: how deep should you go into the subject, and where should the boundaries be? Keep the details in the presentation at an appropriate level. Know what that level is before creating your message.
  • Creating follow-up opportunities: what is the most effective way to establish a need/desire to get to next-level discussions? Create a streaming interest that leads to the next-level discussions, which requires more than comprehensively covering your subject.

Now that you have your goals identified, can you accomplish them all within the timeframe you've been given?

How much time is alloted?

This is an important question. Using time effectively is difficult but critical to successfully communicating your message. Therefore, messages need to be developed with this in mind. If time is short, resist the urge to simply pare down an existing longer presentation without giving it much thought. Each situation needs to be assessed independently for maximum results. Know the answers to the following questions before you begin crafting your message(s): based on the time at your disposal …

  • Do you have enough time to accomplish all of your objectives?
  • Is the presentation a stand-alone opportunity, or will you have an opportunity to meet with groups of attendees afterward to continue to "present"?
  • Will there be social time afterward that can be leveraged?
  • Are there subsequent meetings scheduled?
  • Are handouts appropriate?

Don't be afraid to ask the host or coordinator. Knowing the time restrictions and the follow-on opportunities will help you phase your effort and accomplish your objectives.

Will the communication be left behind?

Dispensing information is sometimes a quick hit, and sometimes it requires a one-two punch. You need to know which is appropriate for a given situation before you begin developing your materials.

  1. Quick hits: introductions and broad concepts and directives are usually quick hit. These types of communications do not usually require significant leave-behind material.
  2. One-two punches: sales pitches, deep dives into topics, and anything that requires action as a result of the presentation usually require that material be left in the hands of the audience members.

Be kind to your audience by delivering complete and comprehensive information, whatever form the information takes. Your presentation can be extended way beyond the point you cease speaking if you're thoughtful, creative, and spend the time to develop the materials.

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There's no question that considering all of the issues, options, and alternatives will add time to your message-development process. There's also no question that the time spent incorporating the appropriate options will create a favorable result.