Geetesh: Tell us more about yourself and Distinction Services.
Distinction came about when I was laid off from InFocus in the Spring of 1998. Over the years, Distinction has become three companies in one. We are a message consulting company to help our clients better shape their important stories specifically for the presentation medium. We are professional presentation designers with a keen sense for how to accelerate important business messages through creative design and animation techniques. And finally, we train managers, executives and sales teams so they can better leverage their presentation tools while connecting at a more personal and credible level with their audiences. If someone truly wants to be a great business communicator these days, they need all three areas working in tandem, not just one or two.
Geetesh: How important is it for presentation creators to be certified in design.
Jim: I'm not sure the rest of the world is convinced yet that this medium requires a different set of design skills. The need certainly resonates with those of us close to this medium but we all face the same challenge. We are constantly fighting a prevailing "good enough" mentality in the business world towards presentations. The pool of professional presentation design folks is growing but there's much education that needs to be done with the business and education community to truly understand the value we bring before "certification" will mean as much to them as it does to us.
Geetesh: From a slide creation program, PowerPoint has metamorphosed into a multimedia tool. Tell us what you think about this transformation.
Jim: There's no doubt that the ability to integrate, link, share, multi-purpose and embed files has been dramatically improved over the last few years but there may be a more pressing question. If we can all agree that PowerPoint is primarily a communication aid, why is it that its dramatic evolution has not necessarily made business professionals better communicators? The answer is that we can't separate the tool from the business process it was intended to improve. Presenting will always be an intensely relational business process that does not necessarily always benefit from the integration of technology and software.
I had a carpenter do some work at my house while back. He had all the latest and greatest tools. A new miter saw, a shiny new hammer but it didn't take long to see that the quality of his work was horrible. I will take someone with good messaging know how and solid design skills over the latest software any day.
Geetesh: If you had to mention one feature that PowerPoint lacks, what would it be?
Jim: I'd say the "common sense" wizard. (I may have to wait for this one.) Despite the vastly expanded feature set of PowerPoint, people can still create some pretty bad presentations with messaging that makes no sense whatsoever. There's no way to eliminate through software the really bad choices many presenters make.
Geetesh: Let's assume there's someone who is just starting with PowerPoint - what would be the best options available to them in the form of help, books and other resources. Also, what is it that they should not do?
Jim: I tend to believe that mentorship with great design folks can help advance someone's skill set quicker than years in a classroom or with a book. Because presentations are intended to actually interface with real human beings, we need to be much more than software and design folks these days. We need to understand what kinds of visual content gets through to pre-occupied audiences. How the brain processes visual information. Understand how to stage and animate information so audiences actually "get" important concepts more quickly because of the approaches we use. You won't get that off a website on in most books. A month with a company like Duarte Design would be worth more than a year in a classroom.
Geetesh: Lately, there's been a school of thought that considers bullet points as not essential. Can such broad thoughts be put across as guidelines?
Jim: The pendulum will always swing on this question. On the one side you have some people have abandoned PowerPoint all together (bullets and all) in favor of simple human interaction while others, without regard for their audiences, fill the screen with a sea of bullets. The problem is this. Presenters generally conceptually think through what they want to say as logical, methodical left-brain activity. Outliners and PowerPoint layouts create a natural extension to this pre-planning process. Now the bad news. By staying in that bullet, sub-bullet format, presenters all but guarantee that the recall of that information will be near-zero. To be remembered, it needs to transition to more right-brain, visually rich and interactive information backed up with good relational instincts.
This may be the strongest justification for presentation design professionals who know how to adapt information so audiences truly can understand it. There are many ways to communicate text information besides bullets. Look at a high quality company annual report. You won't see many bullets.
Geetesh: Could you share any trivia about an unconventional use of PowerPoint, an unknown nuance or something funny?
Jim: I'm always amazed at what people try to get PowerPoint to do because it happens to be the one and only software tool they've "mastered". (In most cases, it's a poor substitute for Director, Dreamweaver, After Effects and other more appropriate tools). I had a marketing VP call once and tell me about how one of his people had created an elaborate set of PowerPoint presentations intended as an interactive product brochure. That person had spent months working on this thing. Then one day they left the business and no one could figure it out. I soon found out why. They sent me 10 extensively cross linked PowerPoint presentations (350MBs worth!) with nearly ever slide embedded with 16-bit, stereo voice-over audio. It was an absolute nightmare to unravel.
The lesson here is simple, use the right tool for the right job. Badly designed PowerPoint converted to Flash only makes it a really bad looking Flash file. Convert that same marginal looking PowerPoint to HTML and now you have an ugly web page. It seems to come back to the essential role of the presentation design professional in doing it right in the first place. The world is just now beginning to understand that we really can make a difference.