When I graduated from college, as eager to reshape the world as to shed the scourge of volcanic acne, my mother passed along sage advice. Okay, not advice, per se—a mug. Bold black sans serif on white porcelain rejoiced, "Congratulations, Graduate! You Made It." Awww... Then I caught, and followed, the ominous downward-pointing arrow. The bottom of the mug spat what Mom really wanted me to hear: "Don't Screw It Up!" (She might have spared me further self-doubt by not parroting that exact message, to all present, at the moment I read it...but that's Mom for you.)
Long story short: I Screwed It Up. Could I even choose the best of my worst? Taking a half-year "sabbatical" to write my now-out-of-print book of essays that, although picked up by a legit publisher, never found its 100th paying customer? Passing on "career transitioning" support after I was downsized, foolishly certain I'd be snapped up even before I slogged my personal stuff off the elevator? Or maybe that stand-up routine I felt compelled to bounce from the bucket list?
Still, failure isn't always a poop sandwich. One acquires prescience for things that likely won't end well, along with a twisted soupçon of validation when others raise the bar to even more spectacular clustersf**kery.
Soooo...let's put my life's hard lessons to good use, and kick the legs out from under your next presentation, shall we? Here's how:
F**k-up #1: Let your slides give you the day off.
You don't go to a concert to witness your favorite artist sitting next to a boom box blasting out your faves. Similarly, when you deliver a presentation, you shouldn't defer to your slides, because your audience is there to see and hear you, champ.
Often, when I'm given a rough draft of a presentation to finesse, my first act is to gut it of anything that could take the focus off the speaker. I yank about 80 percent of the words off the slides and paste them into the notes, where I don't have to look at them. Ewww. I then take the remaining 20 percent and crunch them into key points and supporting visuals. I kill others' darlings with impunity. What's on the screen should reinforce your message; it should not deliver it. If scrolling through your slides tells the whole story, why are you even there? Just prop a cutout of you against a chair, set up your slides to advance automatically, go grab an espresso, and come back just in time for the standing O. Or have me present for you—after all, I am all about what's on the screen.
F**k-up #2: Don't worry about the flow of your thoughts; we'll sort it all out in our gloriously well-organized brains.
A confession: I like some people. I'll even go so far as to say I like a few people more than my dog Charly—no small feat, because Charly is freaking adorable. What sets these rare few apart from my super-pooch? Four things: they don't bark incessantly at nothing at all; they run from skunks, not toward them; their bathroom habits rarely affect me; and they can tell a compelling story. Their words progress from a logical beginning to a satisfying end. The messages reveal something about the storyteller. The story builds tension throughout. The speaker gives me something to recount for others later. I look forward to hearing more, and feel glad I was part of things.
Watch the top TED presentations. The strongest speakers aren't just delivering information—they're serenading their audiences. Not so with many conference speakers. They don't tell stories; instead of weaving magic, they vomit information readily available in magazine articles. Like taking a smoke break between foreplay and the main event, if you lose focus, and string together a bunch of random, disjointed and emotionless thoughts, you're likely to see your "one-night-stands" leave no more satisfied than when they arrived—and, perhaps, to see them cut out early. If this is your goal, skip any process of outlining or storyboarding. Don't worry about niggling details like theme, message, flow, or story. Just be brilliant in the abstract. You'll probably be just super.
F**k-up #3: Your presentation software has lots of shiny baubles, so you should use them all.
Transitions and animations can be very effective. They can also turn a potentially meaningful, moving and educational experience into something akin to dry-humping the audience members' eyes—no matter how generous your intentions, you're still just a nasty dry-humper (with the oddest of fetishes, to boot). As with #2, above, special effects should be considered in the context of the flow of your story. If your presentation is emotional, screen movement can also convey emotion. But if your audience comes away wowed more by your dissolves and checkerboards and other geegaws than by what you said, you need to rework either what you're saying, what you're showing, or both. Or maybe you're just jacked if people think you're super cool; hey, whatever floats your boat, dry-humper.
F**k-up #4: You know the generally accepted standards of "yuck," but you can't help yourself from being yucky
You're a lone wolf, eh? Sure, one need only Google "good presentation tips" to uncover a plethora of sound dos and don'ts, but you don't roll that way. Every expert can advise you against pumping out slide after slide of bullets, but, dammit, you dig those bullets; they make you feel safe. Your message could be conveyed powerfully and succinctly as a few simple words in a clear font against a contrasting background—but it just wouldn't be the same, somehow, without a big picture of a bear—in low-res, no less, and with the watermark "Shutterstock" shouting out to the world you're bigger than stupid copyrights. Take that, polite society!
Complex, illegible charts? Check. Slides from other presentations, built on a different template? Let's just call it a mash-up; check. Lots and lots of colors? You betcha. Check.
What's more, in spite of everything you've been told, you're determined to spend the first quarter of your allotted time introducing yourself, reading through an agenda, being falsely self-deprecating, and sharing the joke your spouse told you (a) wasn't funny, and (b) might even be a tad offensive.
You go, lone wolf. Awwoooo!!!
F**k-up #5: You don't need no stinkin' quality control
When I'm in an audience, if I spot one spelling or grammatical error on a slide, my brain screams to a halt. I can focus on nothing else; nothing. No matter how utterly you'd convinced me I was basking in the glow of the world's foremost guru on gluten-free, non-GMO, psycho-spiritual life cleansing, I'll now remember you only as "that knob who couldn't spell." Go ahead. Get naked. I won't even notice. Okay, I'll barely notice...but you'll still be a knob.
So, if you want to look like that knob who can't spell, don't bother to have anyone else check your presentation for errors. If you want to compound your problem, don't rehearse your presentation, either. To complete the trifecta, show up minutes before you're ready to speak with complete confidence all of the equipment is going to work flawlessly, and rejoice about the magic horseshoes up your butt.
F**k-up #6: You took art classes in high school; you're practically a designer, right?
I can microwave a Hot Pocket™ like nobody's business—this doesn't make me a chef. You might have an eye for beauty; this doesn't make you a pro at crafting presentations. I wish I could argue this last entry isn't a shameless plug to promote myself and my services. I'd be lying. Some people are very good at designing presentations—mostly because they've created a shit-ton of presentations, have digested countless articles about good design (and bad), and have learned through excruciating experience what does and doesn't work. To be fair, some people just have a knack; to be equally fair, many more folks think they have said knack. If you feel confident you have that knack, best of luck. If not, let's chat. I'll be (mostly) gentle; I'm not my mom, after all.
Earlier this year, Visual Congruence was thrilled to collaborate with Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. Shel is an immensely popular speaker and leading voice on the application of technology in employee communication. I connected with Shel as he was preparing to roll out his New Model for Employee Communication to a large audience at the IABC World Conference on June 14.
Many prospective clients ask, "How do I work with you?" Here's the short answer: in most cases, I nail down details of what is needed through several short conversations and a review of any "raw material" (documents, slide decks, and the like). More often than not, I work with people I may never meet in person.
Shel graciously allowed me to share the back-and-forth that led to the visual enhancement and presentation of his new model (which itself evolved as we worked together). My hope is that this "as-it-happened" case study will help better answer the "How do I work with you?" question.
On March 17, Shel wrote: "Hey, Brian, I'm working on a presentation, with a new model for employee communications, that I'll present at the IABC World Conference in June. I'm NOT a visual design guy, though I've been trying to express what I'm talking about in a graphic. There are still some concepts I've been unable to incorporate and what I have, frankly, looks awful. Interested in helping me improve it?"
Of course, I was interested. Shel explained that he would be presenting for one hour, and that he'd likely need around 25 slides. He kicked things off by sending me his draft model:
The next day, I sent Shel a starting point for his reaction, and explained I would add text and subtle animations on subsequent slides. Here's what I sent:
Shel wrote back, "I like it! I'm still struggling to convey that everything is two-way in the model. Any thoughts on how to visualize that?" I soon came back with this:
Shel liked the refinements to the graphic, and agreed I could start playing around with builds and breakouts of that model, in slide form. The first rough draft looked like this:
Shel responded, "This looks great!" He added that he would have to be able to control the build so he could talk about each element. Soon thereafter, I sent him a more "finessed" version. These are just a few of the in-progress slides:
Shel responded by saying these were "fantastic," which was music to my ears. He then accepted my offer to provide a handout version of the new model.
A couple of weeks later, Shel sent me a number of additional slides he would be using in the presentation, with a request that I dress them up to be consistent with the slides related to the model.
Here are a few samples of the reworked slides I sent back to Shel:
A couple of weeks passed, and Shel added a few more slides to the deck, and asked that I "work my magic" on them. Here's what Shel sent:
And this is what I sent back:
On June 14, Shel rolled out his new model to a large and eager audience at the IABC World Conference.
The story ends there, right? Nope.
Two days later, Shel wrote, "I got some great feedback on the model itself that leads me to believe I need to add a fifth element to the ring around the model: Alignment. How big a deal would that be?" I got back to work, and came up with this:
A couple more days passed, and Shel wrote again: "So, a number of people have asked me, 'Where's measurement?' in the model. I had considered measurement as a model element; besides, I'm a measurement geek. Ultimately, I decided measurement is EVERYWHERE in the model. How might we add measurement in a way that shows it's everywhere? It wouldn't be a sixth ring, because you have to measure each segment of outer ring, too. Just pondering..."
This led to the next--and now final--iteration:
Below is a link to a quick video (YouTube) with a few samples of visuals, animations and transitions from Shel's presentation:
A not-insignificant portion of my work over the years has come from close relationships nurtured through almost two decades in the trenches of HR consulting. No longer quite an insider, I often toil today behind the scenes, a "consultant to consultants," advising former colleagues on how best to communicate visually with their own clients--and, ultimately, with those clients' employees. Many of those influenced and informed by my work never know I breathe the same air. Thankfully, I don't sport a monstrous ego--life and experience whipped most youthful cockiness from me--so I'm content being anonymous but effective.
In truth, it remains something of a wonder, even to me, that I've found myself focusing on information design for more than 15 years. I didn't study graphic design in college, except for a couple of classes on page layout--all executed with paper, scissors and glue sticks. After I graduated from a public relations program, nobody hired me to create educational maps or infographics; the bulk of my early career centered around conceiving employee communication strategies, and writing--lots and lots of writing.
This experience, I believe, richly informs most every graphic I develop for a client today.
Through the years, I picked up design skills here and there--working on one of the earliest desktop publishing platforms, and creating slides using an expensive and quirky apparatus that captured photos (on film) of what was on the screen. However, any visuals I created were influenced less by my desire to create something beautiful than by the expectation the "look and feel" remain secondary to my communication consulting and writing. Strangely, as my career evolved into something quite different--where the visualization became my calling card--my background in non-design-related work became even more important.
Which brings us to the present.
The Blueprint for Sustainable Performance was borne from some very basic raw materials--(1) a brief telephone conversation, and (2) a stack comprised of disparate slide decks and copies of email strings. The consulting firm for whom I developed this "placemat" passed these over with a simple direction: "See what you can make of this."
I took their starting points, did a ton of online research, and whipped up this map. Had I not learned, on the job, about HR and employee communication practices decades ago, I doubt I'd have been able to interpret and shape the key messages. Had I not written and edited so many benefit brochures, newsletters and video scripts back in the day, I question how effectively I might balance the images with words.
My strongest designs, I believe, emerge from years of experience that had little to do with design. This intentional foundation helped lead me, over time, to this most happy accident.
P.S. Please contact me (email@example.com) to share your thoughts, pick my brain about your needs, or to ask for a full-size PDF of the blueprint. I look forward to hearing from you.
1. Stir up those brave new worlds.
Sketch dreams of tomorrows the audience feels possessed to create and nurture. Vivid characters, action, tone and pacing—woven with prose, photographs, infographics and the like—liberate messages from the quicksand of blah-blah-blech and make them vital elements of a mind-and-heart-stirring celebration of, “Yes…this…THIS is what I want.”
2. Marry your images to equally visual language.
On your visual canvas, strive to paint a clear, compelling path; any words you add should motivate and guide, not toss up roadblocks and sinkholes. To stamp your message into viewers’ memories, marry eye-snaring imagery with captions, call-outs and labels that stimulate both the senses and emotions. Instead of droning, “Information about covered benefits, along with directions on enrollment, can be found on our corporate intranet under the tab, ‘Sure to Make You Snooze,’” body-check the reader out of her stupor: “Explore. Expand. Act. Select and shape your employment rewards on PeopleZone now!”
3. Become a lean, mean, action-driving machine.
Be ruthless—pare each story to the sparest mix of active-voice words and pictures. Each element must inform, guide and propel viewers toward a desired destination. For example, nudge and steer employees, step by step, through benefit enrollment, as though “assembling” a package. Nothing should serve only to fill space; no piece should add noise. Everything should get the person from point A, to point B, and via the shortest route possible.
4. Connect with fellow flawed-but-hopeful souls.
Odds are you share a species with most readers. Act like it. Liberate your company’s lore and dreams in a warts-and-freckles way and—surprise, surprise—you may happen upon another human or three inclined to warm to you and your message. Don’t be gloom-and-doom. Don’t be a polyanna. Just stay refreshingly, unabashedly and gloriously real.
5. Stand apart.
The world barrages your audience with stimuli—many of which sparkle and drip with star power and production mastery your corporate toolkit (and budget) can’t begin to touch. Your strongest chance to compete comes from offering the unique—an insight that reinvents a career; a hint that inspires a solution to a lingering nuisance; the trigger for an “a-ha” revolution. Relish and replicate your B-movie moments of magic.
is Chief Solutions Architect for Visual Congruence's clients. A 30-year veteran of corporate communications, Brian spent much of his early career in senior leadership positions with large HR consulting firms. He founded Visual Congruence in 2003.