THE PLAIN TEXT GAZETTE – Issue 2, December 2001
* When communication doesn’t #2: Powerpoint Hell
* More business-speak
In the last issue we used press releases from the fictional company Prolix to look at the perils of technology jargon, and show how its massive overuse can completely obscure a company’s message. If you think Prolix’s release is over the top, by the way, a casual trawl of IT company press rooms on the internet will swiftly prove that the real world holds many worse horrors.
Press releases are a soft target, though. Often produced for some wrong-headed motive, written by a committee and edited by the dreaded legal department, it’s no surprise they end up as monuments to how not to communicate.
Playing with press releases got us thinking about how *every* attempt to communicate in business can have a detrimental effect if the writing is poor.
So having dealt with press releases last time, we’ll look at different types of written business communication in each issue, and show how they can be used to obscure your message completely, or illuminate it delightfully.
This month it’s business presentations that come under the uncomfortable glare of the Plain Text spotlight.
We’d also welcome your contributions to our growing compendium of business jargon. In this issue we also have a special feature on ‘nouns as verbs’, an unfortunate trend.
Keep it plain,
Think back to all the business presentations you have ever sat through and your feelings about them. Fond memories of great times? Or indignation about the good things you could have done with all those wasted hours?
The tyranny of PC-based slide presentations has visited great cruelty on the business community. By making it dead easy and cheap to display vast amounts of complex material on big screens, software firms thought they were taking us a step further toward a communications nirvana where everyone understands everything.
The opposite has happened. Whole departments become preoccupied with the loving preparation of Byzantine presentations whose (usually small) audiences spend most of their time dozing or texting each other like bored schoolkids.
There have been various attempts to change this. Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy famously ordered the removal of Powerpoint from his networks to free up terabytes of storage (and of course to snipe at Microsoft), whilst others have claimed that sequential slide presentations stunt our ability to communicate.
Such cries for help are seldom heeded, though, and attending presentations is still rarely a reason for celebration. In its small way, Plain Text wants to help you out of Powerpoint Hell with some thoughts on how to screw it up and how to get it right.
1. How to screw it up
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* Write a script
It’s much easier to read from a script. You don’t have to worry about forgetting stuff and your audience will hear all of your ideas and arguments in full.
* Just launch straight into it
No-one wants to hear a lengthy introduction or tedious anecdote. They want to hear about your vision of global integrated strategy. So tell them about it. Go on, get on with it!
* Use multiple, complex bullet points
Got a lot to say? Hell, get as much of it onto the slide as you can. Preferably without graphics because people never understand them.
* Use jargon and long words
The people to whom you are presenting are all experts in their field. Don’t patronise them with plain language. Show them how much industry-speak you really know!
* Ignore narrative and just go for a series of random ideas
Your audience is intelligent. They don’t need leading by the hand through your argument. Let them work it out for themselves. They’ll be fine.
* Make some spelling mistakes
Just in case anyone is flagging, you can’t beat a good typo to get your audience’s attention back on track.
* Use all those fancy multimedia options
There’s nothing like a bullet point flying onto the screen to the tinny sound of screeching tyres to boost credibility.
* Don’t bother wrapping up
You’ve told them everything you wanted to so they must have got the message. Job done! Why waste time going back over the same ground?
2. How to get it right
– – – – – – – – – – –
* Never read from a script
OK, so we’re straying into speaker training territory here. But it’s writing related, so that’s OK. If you read from a script, it sounds like you are, and people get bored. The only person who gets away with it (just) is Angus Deayton on BBC1’s ‘Have I got news for you’. By all means write a script, but then summarise it in bullet points and read from that. Your audience wants to hear you, not a prepared statement.
* Always use an agenda, and update it throughout your presentation
You may think your audience’s enthusiasm for you to keep going is because they can’t wait to hear the next idea. Not if you haven’t used an agenda, it isn’t. They are just desperate to know where they are in the presentation. It’s the oldest presentation maxim: ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them…etc.’ but it is so useful, and ignored so frequently, that we still feel motivated to bang on about it.
* Know your stuff, and your message
Remember those presentations where people just read the bullet points? It’s normally because they don’t know the subject. If you do, and you’re confident of the message you want to get over, then you’re already on a winning streak.
* Tell a story
Stories are what people want to hear. If your presentation has a beginning, middle, and an end, they’ll be happier even if the message you’re tasked with getting over is not the world’s most exciting.
* Think minimal
It is said that one single idea is the most you can expect an audience to come away from your presentation with. So why keep putting up lists of twenty? If you must present many different concepts, try and relate them back to your overall message.
* Be accurate
The people in the audience who are likely to be most obsessive about accuracy are also the people who love to bring mistakes and slip-ups to a much wider audience: journalists. Proof-reading is as necessary in a presentation as it is on any other written communication.
* Forget the fancy stuff
Plain Text’s favourite presentations are the ones where someone paces the stage, fizzing with enthusiasm, generally telling a great story and backing it up with the odd crude-but-effective slide. Unless you have a guaranteed stadium-quality sound system, pin-sharp projection and totally reliable technology throughout, presentation gimmickry is at best a risk and at worst a disaster.
* Always summarise and conclude
If you’ve followed all of the above instructions and failed to wrap everything up, then your time has been wasted. Great conclusions save the audience the trouble of trying to draw their own once you have left the stage. They draw a line under the presentation and cement your message.
The unfortunate trend of using ‘nouns as verbs’ is an attempt by poor business communicators to try to ram concepts into our heads.
So insidious is this trend that some of the terms have made it into common parlance, if not all into the dictionary. See for yourself whether this is something to which we should object violently or acquiesce. Plain Text says fight it where you can!
The well-established, but nonetheless irritating to writers:
To chair (a meeting)
To trial (usually software)
To target (customers, criminals)
To fund (anything)
The slightly less well-established and more jarring:
To author (software, typically)
To transition (an organisation, probably)
To impact (the bottom line)
To network (at cocktail parties)
The downright appalling:
To architect (software again)
To fast-track (it *is* bad enough as a noun, thank you)
To solution (yes, really)
That’s enough for this edition. Please email [email protected] with any ideas, comments, or contributions on jargon.
We’ll be back in the New Year with episode 3 of ‘when communication doesn’t’, as well as some more jargon.
Enjoy the festive season.
Paul & Paul
© Plain Text Ltd 2002 all rights reserved