Although not new, the concept of how you deliver your message being just as important as the message itself is more relevant now than ever in this age of constant media inundation. Corporate communication is too often delivered as a series of overly complex, mind-numbing slides that fail to deliver the intended message by not engaging the audience in a positive way. When it’s just as easy for employees to turn to peers or social media to find information, corporate communication must be designed with the audience’s needs at its core. Otherwise, you risk losing additional time and resources while not teaching your employees the skills or information they need to improve.
Death by PowerPoint Defined
How often have you been called into an important all-company meeting only to be accosted by a cringe-worthy slide like this?
As your eyes quickly glaze over, how long does it take you to either consciously or unconsciously decide to tune out even at the expense of missing a message that is critical to your job? While the data is there, it is not presented in a palatable or retainable format. Edward Tufte refers to data tables like this example as ‘chartjunk.’ He explains that “encoded legends, the meaningless color, the logo-type branding… are uncomparative, indifferent to content and evidence, and so data-starved as to be almost pointless.”
Poor design doesn’t only apply to bar charts; don’t forget about the infamous wall of text.
Latin-based languages such as English are typically scribed and are meant to be read from top-to-bottom, left-to-right. As a result, your brain is trained to expect that format as the norm. These slides, however, challenge the way your brain processes information. Larger font sizes, bright colors, and bold text draw your eyes regardless of where the text is positioned on the slide. As a typical reader, you may find yourself reading the larger, flashier text first and then becoming confused as to where to move next. Should you return to the top-left corner? Should you continue moving left-to-right from the last text you read? Do you get so preoccupied trying to interpret the slide that you tune out the presenter without realizing it?
So as you suffer through slide after slide, your senses continue to be twisted by a sea of tiny fonts, indecipherable charts, and a rainbow of colors. Herein lies the problem; regardless of the message value, it fails at its purpose due to a flawed delivery. What should have been an excellent learning opportunity is lost in a series of convoluted slides.
Now, it’s your turn. After the previous presentation failed to teach the team steps to improve product sales, upper management tasked you to recreate the presentation, but one that will succeed in delivering the message. So, how will you succeed where others have failed? Use these four steps to lay the foundation for a successful presentation:
- Envision the End Product
- Design a Goal-oriented Plan
- Know Your Narrative
- Keep it Simple
Envision the End Product
A first and often fatal mistake many designers make when creating corporate communication is not having a clear vision of how the end product should be used. Though the comparison is not often made, electronic presentations, just like WBTs, are eLearning. You have an audience of learners whom you want to learn (or reinforce) a skill or process. Your audience’s needs, not the content itself, needs to be the basis on which you design the end product. This is an important distinction to make because you want your communication to be a productive learning tool and not a spectacle that is remembered more for its appearance than the information it presents.
Assuming you want a slide-based presentation to deliver your corporate communication, PowerPoint is the mainstream tool of choice, but the tool is often used improperly. Look to leverage the tool’s strengths. If used correctly, PowerPoint serves as a facilitator and an organizer for traditional boardroom-style presentations. It enables you to present your content in a clean, organized fashion and gives your audience a recognizable learning structure. Alternatively, PowerPoint acts as a stand-alone teacher, enabling you to present your learning objectives and supporting evidence/data in a straightforward manner.
Choose the delivery format before tackling content design, and don’t forget there are alternatives to PowerPoint. You can change your mind later, but if you don’t recognize your audience’s needs now, you are likely to repeat the mistakes of your predecessors.
Design a Goal-oriented Plan
The best way to avoid mistakes is to design a goal-oriented plan. Start by defining the goal for your presentation. If you had to choose one skill or actionable item (or a short list) for your audience to take away, what would it be? Returning to the example, let’s assume you want your team to increase product sales. Enabling this take-away is your goal.
Next, decide what knowledge your audience must retain to support this goal. Is there a new procedure they must follow? Are there tasks in a software tool they must perform? Do they need new customer-related skills? These knowledge sets shape your objectives, and yes, just like a traditional eLearning course, effective communication is built upon defined objectives.
Now, analyze your content in light of your defined goal and supporting objectives. For each item, ask yourself if it is:
- Essential to support your learning objectives?
- Nice-to-have, but not essential?
This is a difficult, but critical step. Not only do you want to maximize your audience’s learning, but you want to enable them to retain the knowledge they need to perform. Obviously, you want to remove all the content that is unnecessary, but what about the nice-to-have content? It’s not always easy to hear, but if you want to make sure they are remembering the correct details, remove the distractors. In other words, you’ll want to remove most, if not all, of the nice-to-have content. Except for obvious items, don’t remove content wholesale now, but you will actively reduce your content during the next two steps on your path to creating your final presentation.
Know Your Narrative
As stated above, the plan for your presentation follows some sort of path. As you begin thinking about what slides, texts and visuals you want to include, overall organization becomes key. With your objectives in hand, your next critical task is organizing the flow. Are you building a business case for a decision? Orienting the audience to a new key process? Recognizing some recent achievements? Your objectives inform the kind of narrative your presentation follows. One way to ensure you have the right flow is to lay out the barebones presentation in outline mode. One key point per slide, organized in a fashion that supports your overall objectives.
You’d never think of training your team on a new procedure with steps that are out of sequence. Outlining the presentation’s narrative helps you stay in line with the sequence, even as you dive into the fun part of creating the content. That sequence may be a series of steps; a story arc with an introduction, body, and conclusion; or a rationale with a thesis, claims and supporting data, and a concluding proposal. But there is a sequence, and sticking to it helps to achieve the objectives you set out, and make better decisions on keeping or removing that nice-to-have content.
Keep It Simple
How do you decide what stays and what goes? Just like with defining your goal and objectives, we want to move away from the complex and keep things simple. That starts by removing as much unnecessary information as possible. Let’s return to our friend, the cringe-worthy bar chart.
Its dreadful appearance aside, the slide suffers from data overload. In other words, it’s not clear what knowledge your audience should take away. Should they be most concerned about the universal drop in units sold in 2013? Should they care that care that combined sales failed to meet projection in some years, but not others? Since series D appears to be featured, how important is the data for the other series? Why is this particular time span (2008 – 2014) presented?
The key is to define exactly what your audience should take away from the slide. Let’s say you are primarily concerned with the sales figures for series D and that the other series were originally included as a benchmark. If your defined take-away for the slide concerns series D only, then the data covering the other series should be removed.
Make sure the data you want the audience to remember is clear and obvious. In this case, you are concerned with the volatility of the sales figures of series D year-to-year and want to highlight the current downward trend.
Lastly, adjust your layout to be simple, interesting, and not distracting. Consider this example:
The slide layout is cleaner, more systematic, and visually appealing. All unnecessary sales data was removed, leaving only the desired Series D data, which was split into three simple columns: year, projected number of units sold, and actual units sold. The actual units sold data overlaps the projected sales data in the third column to show sales performance against projection. Color coding (red, green, gray) highlights if sales failed to meet, exceeded, or met projection numbers. Two critical points (derived from the bar chart data) are called out in the text box at the bottom of the slide and can be used to transition to the next slide.
Changing how you display data is only one example of how to simplify your presentation. Chances are most of your slides contain content other than bar charts (I’d feel sorry for your learners otherwise), but apply these same guidelines to each slide in the presentation:
- Content should be removed if it does not directly support your presentation’s objectives and goal. For example, remove clip art only displayed for the sake of filling space.
- Data (values, percentages, etc.) needs to be presented in well-defined, simple terms with sufficient separation (distance) from other data. However, text referring to the data should be placed in near proximity to the data so that the learner logically connects the two.
- Cosmetic issues – font size and color should be consistent on each slide and throughout the presentation. Changes in size and color should have a set meaning (i.e. font size denotes heading level, specific colors are used for headings, body text, and data sets). Dramatic changes in size and color can be used to make text stand out, but use appealing colors and do so in moderation. If done too frequently, the use of color and size loses its effect. You also need to keep in mind any style or branding standards your organization follows, as you should keep your font and color choices consistent with them..
Your Presentation as eLearning
Whether you are presenting it at a conference, distributing it by email/web, or sharing it with a small team in a huddle room, remember the purpose for your presentation is to teach. You know what you want your audience to take away from your presentation, but how you display your content is just as important as the content itself. In the end, you want your audience to achieve the defined objectives as opposed to remembering your penchant for Comic Sans and creative use of rose-colored gradients.