April 26, 2016
by Andy Saks
Imagine attending a presentation on a topic that fires you up. As the speaker takes the stage, you anticipate an insightful, inspiring experience.
Then a PowerPoint title slide appears on the screen. You estimate this will be the eight-billionth PowerPoint slide deck you’ve endured in your life, and hope the presentation will still be engrossing despite this old, tired, tedious format. But it’s exactly as dull, tedious, and forgettable as you’d feared.
Now imagine attending a conference, seminar, trade show, internal meeting, or other event with a whole lineup of speakers, in which every single speaker uses PowerPoint. As each speaker clicks through an endless series of listless bullet points, confusing charts and cheesy stock footage on pre-fab templates, your very life force ebbs away. You leave drained, angry, and determined you won’t get fooled again.
I’ve attended too many presentations like these, and I bet you have too. (I’ve even emceed a few!) Organizations produce them with high hopes and heavy promotion. And then…the speakers pummel the opportunity into submission with a flurry of forgettable slides. Why?
My guess: when presentations are planned, PowerPoint’s use is almost reflexive. It’s every speaker’s default format. Its use feels familiar, comfortable and safe, a security blanket to which you can tether your content. And no one ever got fired for giving a safe presentation.
Trouble is, to your audience, “safe” translates to “bland, obvious, and forgettable.” A parade of PowerPoint presentations won’t engage your audience, reward them for spending their valuable time with you, or incentivize them to attend your next presentation, forcing you to build a whole new audience from scratch next time.
If you’re planning a presentation (or a whole seminar’s worth of them), remember: your goal isn’t just to deliver information. They can get that elsewhere. It’s also to create a memorable experience. So consider this your wake-up call: DUMP POWERPOINT, or at least minimize its use.
What could you do instead? Glad you asked! Here’s a list of 9 other presentation formats I’ve personally used as a corporate emcee, or seen others use successfully. Each is designed to outshine PowerPoint with an appealing structure that gets audience members actively involved, creates space for spontaneous insight and humor, and makes your presentation(s) seem unique, memorable, and worth revisiting next time you speak.
Ready to use warp your audience’s fragile little minds? Try Prezi, a visual design format that will keep them riveted.
With Prezi, instead of creating a bunch of separate slides, you place all your content in different areas on one ginormous slide. Then, you use Prezi’s unique “pan-and-zoom” feature to zoom around the slide like a prop plane might zoom around above a town, diving into one content area as you address it, then zooming up and over to the next one.
It’ll make more sense if I show you, so here’s a Prezi I created to accompany a booth presentation I built for Citrix at the VMworld trade show at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco:
And here’s me delivering that Prezi in Citrix’s booth at VMworld:
Prezi has its limitations. Its design interface is completely different from PowerPoint, and has some quirks, so there’s a learning curve that I found frustrating. Its design options (fonts, text sizes, text colors and text background colors) are very limited, and it offers only one animation option (“dissolve”). Plus, to edit and view your Prezi offline, you’ll have to sign up for a paid membership. Oh, and overdoing the pan-and-zoom feature can make your audience a tiny bit seasick.
Still, what Prezi does (panning and zooming) it does very well, giving it a whole different (and far more dynamic) flavor than PowerPoint. That’s especially true for presentations about physical objects, because Prezi lets you pan and zoom into each different area of the object as you explain it, thus taking your audience on a fanciful virtual tour. Moreover, using Prezi shows your audience you like taking risks and using new technology, which reflects well on you.
Watching one person expound on a given topic: boring. Watching two topic experts spar on that topic, challenging each other with divergent points of view: fun!
So take a cue from the politicians, bring out the podiums (or “lecterns,” as they’re actually called) and have two or more of your topic experts debate each other live on stage.
Your rules of engagement can vary, and will likely work just fine as long as they create enough structure to hold the format together, and enough leeway for a free exchange of ideas. Try these guidelines:
If this format sounds unpredictable, you’re right. It’s unscripted live theater, and anything can happen. But that’s the allure. Debating opens a myriad of opportunities for unexpected insights, fun verbal jousting, keen perspectives, and situational humor (the best kind!). Your audience members will be on the edge of their seats, eager to see what happens next.
Not quite ready to tackle a debate? Take it down one notch, and run a panel discussion.
Speakers love panels because they lessen each speaker’s content burden, which lowers each speaker’s stage anxiety. Audiences love panels because they 1) create a round robin of information delivery, 2) generate multiple perspectives in a single presentation, 3) get the audience directly involved, and 4) shift the topic from what speakers want to talk about to what audience members want to hear about.
To run a panel discussion, line up your speakers in a row on the stage (in chairs, on a couch, or even standing) and have a moderator (the company CEO, an industry thought leader, or a professional emcee) ask a handful of questions submitted by the speakers to get everyone’s juices flowing. Then let your audience members ask questions, either by placing handheld microphones on stands in the aisles, or by having volunteers deliver handheld microphones to audience members who raise their hands from their seats.
Want an example? The first 45 seconds of this video shows me emceeing a panel discussion at the Volvo Construction Equipment booth during the ConExpo trade show in Las Vegas, featuring Volvo’s own engineers:
Game shows are one of my favorite options, because they directly involve at least one audience member, and almost invariably generate oodles of situational humor.
You can easily create your own “generic” game show with these simple guidelines:
If you really want to go for it, you can model your game show after a popular TV game show your audience would know and love, using a similar title, structure, visual setup, even a costume that helps your game show host resemble the one on TV.
Because they generally last only a few minutes, game shows tend to work best as quick “palate cleansers” that inject energy and humor into the room between longer-format (and presumably duller) presentations.
Ready for examples? Here’s a game show called “Make a Bundle with AT&T” that I built and delivered for AT&T at the Channel Partners West trade show in Las Vegas:
Here’s one I built and delivered at an event I emceed for Spark client Atrion, called the AlwaysOn Symposium, held at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA:
Years ago, I emceed a series of corporate traveling shows called the AMD/Microsoft North American Tech Tours. During each Tech Tour, we visited 10-20 cities around North America and produced a six-hour seminar on computer chips and software in each city, featuring product experts from AMD and Microsoft.
Often, we’d stage a special event earlier in the day called a Server Build, designed for local owners and employees of small, independent computer stores (called “system builders” in the industry).
First, participants would buy PC server components and software at cost. Then, we’d gather them in a room at work tables, hand out their server components, and participants would assemble their servers as a group while AMD and Microsoft product experts explained a bit about each part’s design, features and value. Participants would each leave with a ready-to-use server in hand they built themselves.
System builders loved the Server Build for what it was (a rare chance to get their hands dirty actually building something they coveted from scratch with expert guidance and alongside fellow enthusiasts) and what it wasn’t (yet another tedious PowerPoint presentation about building something).
So ask yourself: Is there some aspect of your product or service whose assembly and/or configuration could be turned into a live group activity? Could you offer that experience to your audience members at a reduced cost, so they master it and enjoy a shared experience with their peers as you position yourself as the authority on that product or service? That’s the type of experience they wouldn’t soon forget, and would probably do again next time around.
Yes, I’m talking about singing, dancing, acting, juggling, puppetry, any theatrical format you’re daring enough to deliver.
At first glance, this one probably seems even riskier than the game show. Why would you allow this? Who on earth would volunteer to participate?
But remember: your goal isn’t just to deliver information; it’s to create a memorable experience. I’ll be people on your staff have hidden talents: singing, dancing, acting, juggling, and more. Injecting a short, playful performance into an otherwise-tedious presentation adds an element of surprise and silliness to corporate events often starving for just that sense of fun.
So let your staffers show their creative sides, and they’ll produce a sight your audience won’t forget seeing.
Still skeptical? Will a song about erectile dysfunction convince you? Here’s a performance from my friends at the trade show talent agency CE Talent, singing about E.D. and Viagra in Pfizer’s booth at a trade show for urologists. Hear that applause at the end? That’s the sound of tired trade show attendees drinking in this unexpected fun like it’s a daiquiri in the desert. And dig those sweet harmonies!
Here’s another example from the AMD/Microsoft Tech Tour shows: at the end of each show, we ran a no-holds-barred Q&A session for the audience. We brought on stage every product expert from AMD and Microsoft featured in the show, and let audience members fire questions at them for as long as we could manage.
Like the other formats, these sessions were wonderfully unpredictable by nature. Most of our attendees ran PC-building businesses that relied heavily on AMD and Microsoft products, so they had a heavy business stake in everything AMD and Microsoft. The Q&A offered them a unique, coveted chance to speak directly and in person to representatives from those companies. For some audience members, asking their question provided their primary motivation for attending our show.
Consequently, Q&A sessions were unpredictable and often raucous. They ran anywhere from 15-45 minutes. Some questions focused on benign, factual topics, like product specs and launch dates. Others featured an audience member venting angrily over AMD’s or Microsoft’s products, policies, or personal treatment. Some answers tied product experts in knots, or forced them to admit what they didn’t know or couldn’t share; others generated heated exchanges between attendees with differing opinions.
Why would we intentionally initiate a structure so burdened with negative potential? Credibility. These sessions demonstrated a willingness by AMD and Microsoft not just to stop by and deliver their own marketing messages, but to listen openly and respond honestly to the concerns of their customers, which cemented their credibility with one of their core constituencies. In fact, through eight separate Tech Tours and over 100 total shows, the Q&A segment was one of the few components we ran at every show, without fail.
Your organization may not possess the visibility or importance to engender any hostile exchanges. More likely, your Q&A session would elicit a handful of reasonable “softball” questions from audience members. Regardless, your willingness to stand on stage and make yourself directly accountable to your audience members would generate the same credibility for you.
Sometimes PowerPoint is inevitable. You have content you want to share, and a slideshow is simply the most effective way to share it.
In these troubled times, try spicing up your delivery by turning your monologue into a dialogue.
Often on the Tech Tours, we’d bring chip and software engineers on stage to talk the audience through the latest AMD and Microsoft product releases. These folks were extremely smart, but rarely comfortable serving as the focal point of the action, blinded on stage by a bright spotlight, and hearing their own voices boom out of the speakers and off the walls, all with hundreds of spectators watching.
Rather than leaving them on stage to suffer alone, I’d sit with them on stage and walk them through the slides, like a talk-show host walking through a casual late-night interview.
At the beginning of each slide, I asked an easy “lead-in” question that offered them a natural jumping-off point to discuss the topic. (“So Jim, how does this PC processor differ from last year’s model?”)
As they answered, I served as the audience’s proxy, asking follow-up questions about things audience members likely wanted clarified or expanded. (“You say this year’s processor is 18% faster. How will the average customer of a PC builder in the audience experience that bump in speed in their day-to-day computing?”)
When a given slide’s content was exhausted, I asked a teaser question to create a bridge to the next slide and topic, and build audience anticipation for it. (“This new processor has impressive speed, but I understand that’s nothing compared to the speed increases you’re planning in your product roadmap. Can we take a look?”) (Note: I could tease the next slide because we always placed two monitors at the foot of the stage facing the speakers. One, the “program” monitor, showed us the same slide the audience saw on the large screen behind us. The other, the “preview” monitor, secretly showed us the next slide in the deck, so I could always see the next slide at a glance.)
Based on our feedback, both our product experts and audience members found it helpful to have me greasing the wheels of the conversation through this talk-show format. For product experts, I provided a calming influence on their public speaking anxiety, a focal point for their attention, a chance to turn a daunting lecture into a friendly conversation, and a “cheat sheet” for their content as I prompted them on what to say next. For audience members, I served as a proxy to get their questions answered, a through-line to make the content delivery more connected and understandable, and a second presence on stage to liven up their viewing experience.
Here’s an interview with an AMD rep discussing a new product called AMD Live at a Tech Tour show in Atlanta:
In 2013, I saw Richard Branson speak at the closing keynote of the Cisco Live US trade show at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas.
Just before the keynote started, show management asked the 1,000-plus keynote attendees who’d packed the ballroom open a Cisco Live smartphone app we’d previously downloaded. As pulsing music began flowing through the speakers, we were instructed to hold up our smartphones and not press any buttons.
Watch what happened at the 33-second mark:
That’s right; the Cisco Live smartphone app commanded the flashes on our smartphones to blink on and off in time with each other and to the music, automatically. All we had to do was hold our phones up high.
Think about that. Cisco Live had instantly and unexpectedly created a shared experience through the technology they knew we were carrying. Each of us scanned the room, gazing in wonder at all the smartphones flashing in time with our own, seeing our own sense of amazement reflected by those around us.
I’ve worked at over 200 trade shows and attended many trade show keynotes. Most I’ve long forgotten. But I’ll never forget this one, because it made me a participant in something unforgettable, something that underscored the power of new technology.
Here’s an even-more-impressive example: A few years ago, the public radio show “This American Life” staged a live video broadcast of its weekly program, streamed to movie theaters across the country. To close the program, titled “The Invisible Made Visible,” host Ira Glass invited the band OK Go to perform their song “Needing/Getting” on stage. To augment their performance, the band used a smartphone app downloaded by theater audiences (including mine, in Framingham, Massachusetts) to turn audience members into musicians “playing their smartphones” in time with the music.
It makes sense when you see it, so take a look:
Now think about your event, organization, theme, venue, audience, product, services, speaker(s) and topic(s). Think about the technologies you have at your disposal, both within your organization and in the wider world, including in the pockets of your audience members. Could you harness that technology to produce an unforgettable, shared experience like this, something that makes your audience members gasp with wonder?
Every AMD/Microsoft Tech Tour show ended with a prize drawing, the “dessert” of our event.
Prize drawings are no-brainers at almost any event. Everyone loves free stuff! And it’s a great way to end your event on a loose, fun high note, showing gratitude for your audience members showing up and staying through your event.
So before the show, gather some goodies for a prize drawing. At the conclusion of your event, raffle everything off, by drawing names or numbers out of a hat (or some other method of random selection).
Prizes could include:
Make sure you:
How would your prize giveaway look? Steal some ideas from this prize giveaway I ran at one AMD/Microsoft Tech Tour show in Seattle:
I hope these PowerPoint alternatives create the drive and direction for you to try something new, fun, interactive and memorable in your next presentation. Don’t worry that it won’t work perfectly; it doesn’t have to. Audiences will be so grateful for something different, the’ll give you leeway to make mistakes if you smile through them. It’s all part of the live experience.
And if you step out of the PowerPoint box, you may find that for a long time afterward, when you encounter someone who was in your presentation audience, they’ll tell you they remember what you said, how you said it, and how inspired it made them feel.
Got a question or a idea of your own to add? Share it in the Comments field below, or contact Andy directly anytime!
ABOUT SPARK PRESENTATIONS
Andy Saks owns and runs Spark Presentations, a private company founded in 1998 that provides presentation skills training and speech coaching for executives, salespeople, marketers and other businesspeople, plus booth staff training for trade show exhibitors.
Spark also books professional presenters and public speakers to represent its clients at high-profile events, in roles like keynote speaker, trade show booth presenter, master of ceremonies (emcee) and auctioneer, as well as on camera talent and voice talent.
Spark’s client list includes large corporations like AT&T, Best Buy, FedEx, Hyundai, Intel, Kimberly-Clark, Olympus, Owens-Corning, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Volvo; high-tech industry players like AMD, Atrion, Citrix, Gigamon, and Symantec; service organizations like Vistage, 1nService and NERCOMP; and New England institutions like the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Andy is also the author of The Presentation Playbook Series, a three-volume set of books that help businesspeople master common presentation situations by building and running speaking “plays” like a coach or player calls a key play in a game.