Death by PowerPoint

September 8, 2011

Every year in which I have been involved with organising  the SCL Annual Conference  we have debated the best format for each presentation. We want to stimulate and inform the audience with relevant material – not bore anybody or send them to sleep.

The worst presentations to my mind are those where the speaker approaches the podium, gives a good introduction to themselves, their business and their topic – and then show their first real slide. This has 20 points on a complex legal issue in small text that even those at the front of the auditorium cannot read. The presenter looks back at the screen (thus losing the attention of 25% of the audience) and then rather sheepishly apologises for the “busy slide”. They then proceed with their back to the audience to read through every word on the slide. By the time they have finished they have lost 75% of the audience. Only a few zealots who probably know the topic better than the speaker are still with him or her. This is not a good recipe for a successful presentation. Even slicker slides can still act as a crutch which instead of supporting hampers the ability of the speaker to communicate their often excellent knowledge.

The two best presentations I have seen were by Edward de Bono the lateral thinker and by Larry Lessig at a previous SCL annual lecture. Edward de Bono sat in the middle of a conference centre in Westminster with an overhead projector by his side (remember those – they were all the rage some years ago). On that was a blank acetate slide on which he drew simple diagrams to illustrate his talk. It was frankly mesmerising. Larry Lessig by contrast had hundreds of slides – a recipe you would suppose for disaster. But the slides contained simple text, pictures and other media, rolled by very quickly and rather illustrated or punctuated his talk. It was equally fascinating.

Therefore we strive at SCL Annual Conferences to encourage interaction, with panel  sessions and debate supplementing more normal presentations. We really value contributions from the floor,  which can sometimes be the thoughts you take away from the event. These interactive sessions are admittedly more difficult to manage and require a chair or moderator capable of leading the session and not just introducing a range of stellar speakers. This means being able to curtail the over enthusiastic person who just won’t shut up and drawing out the more timid panel member who may have more to say. It also allows more interaction and discussion with the audience which when it works properly gives the session a real buzz. There is often a host of knowledge out there on the floor which everybody would benefit from hearing. It just requires some encouragement and opportunity to bring out the best in the audience as well as the panel.

And this year on some of our sessions we are taking this a stage further. For example, we are running a world cafe session at tea time on the first day that is a completely different approach to participation and learning and indeed networking. This is a collaborative system of exchange of information and knowledge, based on interaction in a Starbucks style setting. Our session is going to be  in an actual cafe with real coffee.

You just have to come along and join our annual conference on technology and risk in Bath in October this year ( ) as we are taking interaction and participation to new heights .  See how we fare in meeting the PowerPoint challenge.