What do the Pentagon, corporate CEOs, and Patricia Fripp have in common? We all deplore the current trend toward replacing solid presentation content with flashy audio/video effects. A Wall Street Journal headline (4/26/2000) announced, "The Pentagon Declares War on Electronic Slide Shows That Make Briefings a Pain."

We sit in the audience and watch spectacular presentations using PowerPoint, Director, and banks of coordinated slide carousels, and we think, "Wow, if only I could do that!" Now most of us can. The explosion of exciting new audiovisual technology has made a wide range of special effects generally available to presenters.

However, just because something is available doesn't mean we have to use it. The downside of all the presentation-enhancing technology is summarized by what more and more frustrated managers are telling me: "Our CEO used to be a really great presenter before he had PowerPoint. Now he relies on it so much that he is less effective at motivating our sales force."

Here's a business example. It was near the end of one of my all-day speaking school and coaching sessions for engineers. Everyone there was proud of their expensive, colorful presentation materials and expected to rely heavily on them. I had been demonstrating the relationship of organization and content to delivery, emphasizing that stories are the currency of human contact, the only way to connect emotionally as well as intellectually.

I asked one gentleman to play a game with me. Would he pretend that the power had gone off and he had to repeat what he had just said without any visuals? He did so, becoming animated and enthusiastic. Without exception, all the other engineers agreed that he was a much stronger presenter when he talked to them directly and made eye contact instead of just narrating his slides. This proved what I had been telling them all day about the superiority of human contact over electronics.

That's exactly the problem. Misuse of technology can turn speakers into mere readers of captions for slides. Personal communication is lost.

At the Pentagon, General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has issued an order to all U.S. military bases worldwide thattranslates as, "enough with the bells and whistles -- get to the point." Army Secretary Louis Calderna suggests that the Pentagon's PowerPoint presentations are alienating lawmakers: "People are not listening to us because they are spending so much time trying to understand these incredibly complex slides." And Navy Secretary Richard Danzig announced that he was no longer willing to sit through slide shows, saying they were necessary only if the audience was "functionally illiterate."

Dan Maddux, executive director of the American Payroll Association, who has hired professional speakers for 17 years, says that his favorite speakers use few, if any, audiovisuals. "Every time your PowerPoint slide is on the screen, you aren't!" he says. "Most disappointing is when dynamic speakers totally overshadow themselves and their performance with their slides."

Technology is terrific as long as it supports and enhances your connection with your audience. Most of my corporate clients have communication departments that can create presentations with technology better than many professional speakers can. What dynamic business and professional speakers have is storytelling ability! And it is a valuable skill that can be learned.

In the end, your message depends on creating pictures in the minds of your audience, not only on a screen. Use your unique stories to stimulate your audience's most powerful sensory organs, their imaginations. It is the key to emotional connection.

  1. Start by answering the audience's basic question, "Why should I care about your subject or point of view?" Make your point of view obvious and compelling. Turn numbing data into exciting pictures of what will change in the listener's life. Help them make the decision your presentation is designed to promote.
  2. Use stories. More than any showy visuals, people will remember what they "see" in their minds while they are listening.
  3. Make sure the lights are bright enough to see your face -- if not, order a spotlight.Too many executives and business speakers are in the dark so that the audience can see the slides.
  4. Use technology to support the message, not vice versa. An overreliance on flashy effects can even negate the message.

A fine presenter I know had a nightmarish experience when he was invited at the last minute to speak for a small group in Las Vegas. The audience would be young and the theme MTVish. It was, without a doubt, one of the most exciting meetings he'd ever attended. There were actual MTV clips, high-powered music, and the company officers came dressed as rap stars. The intensity was so great that it was impossible to get the audience to focus on a real live speaker or the topic of the meeting. The goal was lost in the glitz.

Don't let your managers and leaders fall into the trap of using technology as a substitute for communicating directly with their audience. The audience want leaders, not glossy graphics. By all means, use audiovisual technology as a valuable support, but never lose the powerful personal touch! Technology should serve you and your message, not the other way around. Use it as it was designed to be used -- to enhance your message, not to eclipse it.

Patricia Fripp is a San Francisco-based executive speech coach and professional speaker on change, teamwork, customer service,promoting business, and communication skills. She isthe author of Make It, So You Don't Have to Fake It and Get What You Want! Fripp also served as president of the National Speakers Association. She can be contacted via e-mail, at 800-634-3035, or through her Web site Fripp.com.

Copyright © 2000 Patricia Fripp