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An Interview with Bruce Gabrielle

In this interview, Bruce Gabrielle talks about his new book, Speaking PowerPoint.

Bruce Gabrielle is president of Insights Works, a market research firm in Seattle specializing in the high technology industry where he regularly creates and presents boardroom-style PowerPoint reports to executives.

Bruce is author of the business book Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business which describes a 12-step process for creating clearer and more convincing boardroom PowerPoint presentations in less time. Bruce leads PowerPoint training workshops for corporations, consulting firms, associations and business schools. Learn more about the 12 principles in the book at his site, Speaking PowerPoint

Geetesh: Tell us more about how you evolved with the concepts that you explain in your book, Speaking PowerPoint -- and what motivated you to write this book?

Bruce: I worked at Microsoft for five years where we use PowerPoint every day. Not just for standup presentations to a large audience, but also as working documents while we develop strategies. These decks contain complex details, charts and diagrams that must be read standalone or discussed in meeting rooms. And there were no books or training that explained how to use PowerPoint this way.

So I got curious and started digging into the research. What do educators, advertisers and lawyers know about how to use pictures to explain and persuade? Should slides contain color? How much? How do you make better graphs? What's the role of logic and emotion in crafting a clear message? There is 40 years of research in brain science, instructional design and communication that address these issues. This research has just never been pulled together into one place before. So I wrote Speaking PowerPoint as a way to consolidate all this research.

And the more I learned, the more I realized that PowerPoint could be the most powerful business tool for the 21st century when used correctly. PowerPoint can elevate any business presentation, help teams collaborate, help companies make better strategic decisions. And I growingly began to realize that PowerPoint was more like a language -- the new language of business -- that we needed to be teaching in business school and in the workplace. It's that important.

Geetesh: PowerPoint is a program that is often misused, frequently blamed, and blatantly criticized by critics who don't seem to offer any solutions. What are your thoughts about the program?

Bruce: It's funny, but I actually love it when people criticize PowerPoint even if they don't offer any solutions. First, their complaints are completely valid. Second, the solutions are not obvious. It took me two years to research and write Speaking PowerPoint and I was often shocked by what I learned. Third, critics have put PowerPoint in the spotlight, even if they don't offer solutions. Even Edward Tufte, with whom I disagree violently on many points, has done a service to PowerPoint by putting it on the public agenda.

But now we need to turn that heat into light. I'm glad to see many critics turning their criticism away from the software and toward the user. But even the user cannot be blamed. Where is the training? Where are the books to help them learn? They don't exist today. That's why I wrote Speaking PowerPoint.

In the next five years we need to turn the conversation toward the people responsible for training the users: business schools and corporate training departments. PowerPoint is one of the most powerful new tools for the 21st century and a critical business skill. Better PowerPoint skills will save a company money, make them more competitive and help them sell their products internally and externally. The training needs to come under criticism next.

You know, it's "Say NO to PowerPoint Week" next week (Feb 7-11) but I think it should be renamed "PowerPoint Training Week" instead. Turning off PowerPoint solves the problem for seven days, but training solves the problem for a lifetime.

Geetesh: Many people tend to create presentations one slide at a time, right inside PowerPoint -- even before they have a story or plan in place -- what is the best way to educate them?

Bruce: That's the way I used to do it too. But planning your deck on paper is the number one thing you can do to cut your slide-building time in half.

For example, when I worked at Microsoft I conducted some research to help develop a marketing plan. I got the information I needed but it took me three months to complete the final PowerPoint report. But a few years later, after I had developed the Mindworks Method, I conducted similar research and was able to complete the final report in two days. Planning on paper makes that much of a difference.

In my workshops, I teach these methods and then have each table of students develop a PowerPoint deck as a team, using a paper template called the Mindworks Method planning grid. I love wandering through the room, hearing the animated discussions at each table as entire groups collaborate on building a deck together, asking clarifying questions about the message and support structure. These experiences make people fall in love with planning their deck on paper when they see how much better their presentation looks, and how much easier it will be to start creating slides, after just 20 minutes of planning time.

But to really encourage change in the workplace, and what I tell people in my workshops, is you need to start with the managers. They should insist on seeing a paper storyboard before any PowerPoint slides get created. Time is a scarce resource in business, and paper storyboards can be produced much faster than completed slides, at least for the initial draft.

Geetesh: Tell us more about your Mindworks Presentation Method, and how it helps presenters create slides that are clear and convincing.

Bruce: The Mindworks Method (download a PDF of the Mindworks Method) is different than most other methods out there, because the focus is not so much on how to make attractive slides based on graphic design rules. It's how to make clear and convincing slides based on what brain science tells us about how the mind works.

There are three parts to the Mindworks Method:

  1. Develop a clear story,
  2. Construct a clear slide and
  3. Use graphic design to enhance your credibility and lead the eye through the slide.

First part is story. This is where you plan your entire presentation on paper, including your main message, support arguments and the evidence. There are certain limits to how much information the mind can hold to understand a complex message, and in what order it needs to be presented, and we discuss that. For instance, in almost all cases you need to start your presentation by answering the audience's question within the first couple of slides, not leave it to the end of the presentation wrapped like a Christmas present.

Second is constructing the slide, using slide titles, text, pictures and animation. Research has a lot to say about all these things. For instance, bullet points attract a lot of heat. But the research on bullet points is surprisingly positive. For instance, people remember more when your presentation includes bullet points than when your slides are mostly pictures or you use no slides at all. However, pictures make people feel better about the speaker, so bullet points may be less appropriate in a motivational speech. Still, you need to use bullet points properly, such as adding space between bullet points so they don't become visually crowded, and avoiding sub-bullet points.

Third is design. Research shows people are more likely to agree with you when your visuals are aesthetically pleasing, so a strict focus on transferring information misses the emotional part of your presentation. I actually had Nancy Duarte review several chapters and she gave me some wonderful advice that helped round out the research. For instance, some authors like Edward Tufte say to eliminate all distractions from your slides. But after talking to Nancy, I realized that design can also add energy to a slide when used in some moderation. There are other things I talk about here, including color, information design, alignment, charts and tables.

Geetesh: If there was one thing that presentation designers could do to create better presentations, what would that be? And if the presenter is not the person who created that presentation, what would be the one thing that he or she could do to deliver more successfully?

Bruce: The number one thing you can do to create better presentations is to plan them on paper. All kinds of terrible things happen when you try to plan your deck inside PowerPoint. You default to using bullet points. You spend hours creating slides that you don't end up using. You begin pouring graphs and diagrams into slides without any order. You end up with a deck that has no message, no structure and that is overwhelmingly complex. You waste more time than you should and produce an inferior presentation.

I've developed a tool called the Mindworks Method planning grid which can be used by individuals or teams to plan their presentation, slide by slide, before they even open PowerPoint. I personally use this planning grid when I prepare final reports for my market research practice.

If you are presenting someone else's deck, you have to find the balance between storytelling and slideshow. Storytelling works because it forces the audience to use their own imaginations, not direct their attention to detailed slides, which can break the storytelling trance. But detailed slides also have their place. So a good presentation will have some mix of shifting the audience's attention to the speaker's voice to be entranced by storytelling techniques, and then back to the slides to be informed and educated. Actually, Barack Obama's "We do big things" part of his State of the Union address did a nice job of shifting the audience's attention between visuals and Obama's storytelling.