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An Interview with Jeff Van West


Jeff Van West Jeff Van West puts his get-the-job-done philosophy into practice in training movies on Effective Presentations which is available online from Lynda.com. Other movies cover Home and Small Office Networking and Illustrator CS2. He is also the author of several books, articles, and custom training curricula for software, hardware, and aircraft systems.







Geetesh: Tell me more about yourself and your Effective Presentations title.

Jeff: In 1998, I was working for a science museum in Seattle, Wa., delivering science and technology workshops for classroom teachers. I used a highly interactive approach and I found myself mixing presentation tools — usually PowerPoint — with activities, handouts, games, and storytelling. The results were excellent, and I thought, “Hey, this comprehensive approach would work for just about any presentation.”

I left the science museum and struck out on my own getting contracts to develop curricula in computers and aviation technology (I’m also a flight instructor). All the while I searched for a publisher for a book on the Effective Presentations style I used. Despite the fact that I had three other books published on computers and software, no one was interested. At that time, the concept of a “computer” book focusing on how to use software effectively, rather than on just the how-to of the program, was a radical idea.


Geetesh: What’s the single, most important thing people could do to improve their presentations?

Jeff: Clarify the mission and the goals before you do anything else. The mission of the presentation is a one-sentence statement of what you hope to accomplish with your presentation. A mission can be many things, but there is one thing it cannot be: It cannot be something within your control. The whole point of giving a presentation is that the audience has some power that you do not have yourself and you ’re trying to harness that power and get them to act — to do, to buy, to invest, to learn, to use correctly, to understand — and your presentation is a tool to make that happen.

Next you clarify what presentation goals you have that support the mission. These are the items you do have control over — exploring a chart, leading an exercise, showing a video clip, evoking an emotion — that you must cover during your presentation.

This process leads to far more effective presentations. They’re also often shorter by being more focused. It also takes the pressure off the slides for carrying all the weight of the presentation. Invariably, some of the goals that you’ll generate are things you can do before the presentation even happens or are better served by handouts or follow-up materials.


Geetesh: Tell us more about your PowerPoint experiences — the limitations and frustrations, and the solutions and workarounds.

Jeff: PowerPoint does one thing — and arguably only one thing — well. It focuses your audience’s attention. When you have a slide on the screen at least some of your audience is looking there at any given time. Effective use of PowerPoint leverages this strength by either strengthening your words or by offering a visual representation that accompanies your words, or, occasionally, your silence.

For example, if I have a complex spreadsheet in my handout but I want to call attention to some key features, I can use PowerPoint to zoom in on those features over several slides. Another example might be my speaking about my company’s new biofuel technology while showing high prices at gas pumps and lines of frustrated people. In that case, my words are appealing to people logically, but my visuals are connecting to them emotionally.


Geetesh: How important is it for PowerPoint creators to have knowledge of design, color, typography, etc?

Jeff: Ever notice how some people always look well-dressed or write great memos or speak well at meetings? These folks either intuitively understand or have learned what colors, words, or styles make them look good.

Applying good design to your presentation works the same way. Almost 600 years of printing and almost 100 years of radio and video have honed how we communicate with words, sounds, and images. If you apply these techniques to your work, it’s like dressing your presentation in a sharp, stylish suit. People will pay closer attention and get more out of your work because the design, colors, and typography make it easy and comfortable for them. Ignore these standards and you may get something that works fine, or you may end up with the typographic equivalent of a polka-dot tie and plaid pants.


Geetesh: Working PowerPoint with other programs such as Word, Excel, PDF, Flash, sounds and video files — these are problems everyday PowerPoint users face all the time. What can they do to resolve or reduce their problems?

Jeff: Adding complexity always adds some risk that it won’t work. Obviously, you’ll want to test it out well beforehand and work out any bugs.

When it comes time to set up for a specific presentation, restart your machine and then quit any programs that automatically launched but you don’t need. Computers are so complex these days with so many processes running that predicting how well a given program will work on a given day is like predicting the weather. Reduce variables by running fewer things. Next, launch all the programs you’ll switch between and test them out before you present. With practice, you should be able to switch smoothly between what programs you need using Alt+Tab (Cmd+Tab on the Mac).

There are some other oddities, such as plugging in your laptop when you present so the processor runs at full speed rather than a battery-saving low speed. I cover many of these in my videos.


Geetesh: Can you share any trivia about an unconventional use of PowerPoint, or just anything you would like to share with Indezine readers?

Jeff: Once you break out of the paradigm that PowerPoint is a tool for showing slides and recast it as a tool for directing people’s attention, anything is possible. I’ve used PowerPoint as white board, facilitation tool, brainstorming aid, game show board, backdrop for improv — you name it.

The key is to take the pressure off your slides. They don’t have to do everything. Want to set a mood with slides while you give supporting data? No problem. Want to show all the steps in a process for reference while you demonstrate each individual one? Go for it. The only limits are the ones you set.



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