Blogs, YouTube (GOOG), Twitter, and other social media tools have changed the way we deliver ideas inside and outside of work. Combine these tools with recent research into how the brain works, and business owners have new ways to enhance their pitches and presentations. Here are four of them.
Think visually. The average PowerPoint slide has 40 words, mostly in the form of bullet points. Why are PowerPoint decks normally so overloaded? The problem begins as soon as you open PowerPoint. The first page to appear is a template that has room for a title and subtitle, or bullet points. Most people write a title, add a bullet, then a sub-bullet and sometimes sub-bullets of sub-bullets. By this point, they are really in the weeds and are on track to lose their audience.
There's a better way. Psychologists call it the picture superiority effect, or PSE. I recently spoke to Dr. Richard Mayer at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has been studying and writing about multimedia learning since 1990. He told me that the peer-reviewed research into this area has lead to one undeniable conclusion: It is better to present an explanation in words and pictures than words alone.
If information is presented orally, people only remember 10% of the content after a 72-hour period. But that figure goes up to 65% if you add a picture. Our brains process information visually and in the case of text, each letter is processed as an image. That 40-word slide is literally overwhelming the brains of your listeners. If you really want to connect with an audience, dramatically reduce the number of words on a slide, add a picture, and eliminate bullet points entirely.
Cater to "clip culture." Pictures can enhance your presentations, but embedding video clips into your slide deck will take it to another level. YouTube has spawned a "clip culture." It's never been easier to create, upload, and share video. But how do you play video clips if you don't have a live Internet connection? Embed them in the presentation itself.
Online tools make it pretty easy. Zamzar.com is one service I have been testing. You simply type in the URL of the video clip into the application, choose the format you want to convert it into (the compressed Windows media video format—WMV—works best for PowerPoint) and type in your e-mail address. Within minutes, Zamzar sends you the file to download. Download the clip to your hard drive and insert the video into your presentation.
Create Twitter-length headlines. Twitter allows you to share bite-sized messages about the things that happen in your life between e-mail and blog posts. Most important, it limits those messages to 140 characters. Preparing "Twitpitches" (BusinessWeek, 5/16/08) about your company, product, or service is a great exercise to refine your message.
When Steve Jobs unveiled Apple's (AAPL) MacBook Air in January, he could have described it as a mobile computer with a 13.3-in. LED-backlit display that still allows for a full-sized keyboard, spacious trackpad with multi-touch gesture support, a 1.8 GH processor, and 2GB of memory. Of course, by this time, he would have exceeded his Twitter limit. Although the description above is technically accurate, and Jobs did provide such details in his presentation (BusinessWeek.com, 1/25/08), it just doesn't capture your imagination the way one strong headline does. Instead, Jobs called the MacBookAir "the world's thinnest notebook" (that's just 29 characters, spaces included).
Try this exercise: if you only had 140 characters to describe your product, what would you say about it? You can find examples of fellow readers' Twitpitches here.
Practice regularly and incorporate feedback. Great presenters rehearse much more than average. But they practice deliberately. Dr. Anders Ericsson is a psychology professor at Florida State University. His research is focused on answering one question: What makes someone really good at something? Ericsson has discovered that world-class athletes, doctors, even chess players, practice in a unique way. They don't just repeat a task like hitting a serve thousands of times or shooting free throws until their arms wear out. Instead, they set goals, obtain immediate feedback, and use that feedback to stretch their skills.
This research applies to public speaking and presentation skills. For example, when I was a television anchor, I found that guests who said they conducted tons of interviews and were pros at it, were usually the worst—ill-prepared, long-winded, and boring. But the guests who asked for my opinion about how they did after the interview were typically much better than average. They probably used my observations to help them improve on their next interview.
Ericsson's research explains why those guests were so much better. Simply because you repeat a task—like an interview or presentation—doesn't mean you're any good at it. The key is to solicit feedback from friends or colleagues and continue to work at it. I have had the opportunity to meet some of the best presenters in America today. To a person, they practice their presentation skills much more deliberately than their peers.