Speaking PowerPoint by Bruce R. Gabrielle is one of the best books on slide presentations I have seen in a long time because it is full of practical suggestions, solidly supported by evidence, and clearly and compellingly written.
But it’s not for everyone. If you want to learn how to put together beautiful slides with stunning visuals to inspire or entertain, buy a book such as Nancy Duarte’s Resonate or Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen.
But if you want to sell ideas to critical thinkers, Speaking PowerPoint will help. To see where this book fits and why it is so important, let’s first look at the situations where PowerPoint decks can be deployed:
At the extreme right of the scale are the ballroom style presentations, which are presented to large audiences. Think of Steve Jobs doing a new product launch. In these types of presentations, the speaker does all the talking, supplies almost of all the words, and uses compelling visuals to add to the emotional impact.
Moving to the left, you have what Gabrielle calls briefing decks, which are used in boardroom settings; the audience is much smaller, but still may include up to about twenty people. The speaker is still doing most of the talking, but there is some interactivity.
Discussion decks are used in boardrooms as well, but the audience might be in the single digits. The presenter still does most of the talking, at least at first, but the primary purpose is a full-participation discussion with a lot of interaction.
Finally, a reading deck can be used as a document, meant to be read individually either on paper or on a screen. In this situation, the deck has to stand alone and convey all the important information by itself.
Speaking PowerPoint is intended for decks on the left side of the scale. The difference with these decks is that the audience is more cognitively engaged. Ballroom audiences might be happy being entertained or motivated, but speakers in most business situations expect strong logic and solid evidence, and might need lots of it before they’re convinced. This book shows you how to deliver it without committing the standard PowerPoint sins of too much text and confusing clutter.
I’ve always thought that the most important phase of creating a slide deck occurs before you even open up the application, so I was happy to see that Gabrielle’s first section has four chapters devoted to putting your argument together. You first figure out what you want to say by putting yourself into the reader’s position and figuring out what is the main question they want answered. (The book uses the word reader, which gives you an indication of where its main focus is.) Next, you structure the main points that support the key theme, and then add the evidence that strengthens your points.
Once you’ve done all this, you might think it’s finally time to crank up the laptop, but that would be a mistake. Gabrielle offers compelling reasons and evidence why you can do better thinking on paper than in slides. Time spent up front on paper will repay itself many times over by time saved during the creation of the slides.
Section 2 turns to the content on the slides themselves. The book explains the best way to write a headline instead of a title, how to break your content into chunks of information that your audience can comfortably process, and various ways to use pictures to make your presentation more understandable, memorable and persuasive.
He might get a little carried away with showing off his knowledge here, as when he talks about “K-maps” for three pages when all he means is “diagrams”, but that’s a mere quibble. In fact, the book is extremely well-supported by research, which adds tremendous credibility to Gabrielle’s own experience and also suggest numerous useful sources for those who want to learn more about each topic.
The last section does a decent job covering design, although the books by Duarte and Reynolds mentioned above cover the topic far more comprehensively. But Chapter 12, Picture and Wallpaper, is definitely well worth reading. It teaches how to guide the reader’s (or listener’s) eye to what is important. My favorite insight was the idea that the best way to highlight the main point is not to add but to subtract. In other words, don’t make the text or the line on the graph brighter or larger than the other information, but instead to make the supporting information less prominent, by shrinking or subduing it. The supporting information becomes “wallpaper”, which enhances the presentation of the picture. Of course, this supposes that you know what the main point of the slide is, and this takes us back to your careful crafting of your story.
That one insight was very timely for me, because a day after I read it last week one of the participants in my presentations class showed me a fairly busy slide and asked for my suggestions for enhancement. I suggested that he try graying out most of the text and keep the main points in black text. The result was a much clearer slide, without a lot of visual elements competing for attention.
I love it when I can take a practical suggestion from a book that makes a difference in my work. You will probably find many others that do the same for you; if you’re serious about selling your ideas in business, this book is a definite asset.