Building Presentations: Taking Cues from Commercials

Most presenters design their own slides, and their area of expertise is not PowerPoint or Keynote. To make matters worse, these tools don’t come with instructions on how to create memorable presentations.

Slides as Notes

Here’s a slide that might be designed to tell the audience about a new line of perfume.

Speaker notes: Designed for women. Will be called ‘rouge’. Reasonably exclusive. Testers say “hot”, “fiery”, “sophisticated”, “liberating”. Is one of our more expensive.

Many of us have endured countless tedious and forgettable slides like this. The speaker pushes the button, reads the slide, coughs, and shuffles on to the next one. The slides proceed more as a script or reference material that we should print out for later, and in fact often reappear, bound and filed, as ‘handouts’. This kind of slide is more like a précis than a presentation.

Slides as Representations

Of course, it’s fine for the speaker to say what’s on that slide. The bad part is that it’s also on the slide. Slides should illustrate or represent rather than slavishly repeat the messages of the presentation.

Dick Hardt, a Web identity specialist who is unafraid to use his remarkable name to help sell his message, has produced some great presentations. Who Is the Dick on My Site? ( showcases his method of using slides to punctuate, not repeat, his words. His presentation is not sequential or rigidly structured (sequences of key slide, sub-slides); he builds his arguments, but the slides dart in and out of the discussion, highlighting, grabbing attention and sometimes intentionally and ironically undermining. Key words and phrases flash on the screen as he talks, adding pace and punch to his pretty much continuous speech. Pictures and graphics are repeated at various stages to reinforce fundamental points and create a sense of familiarity and closure. The applause at the end of his presentations is genuine, the audience sensing that they have covered a lot of ground, learned a lot, and will remember it long after the Danish pastries are gone and the coffee is cold.

And that’s the main point here: his presentations are memorable – or, rather, the presentation itself makes his arguments memorable and tie otherwise arcane issues to memorable images and events.

Slides as Metaphors

Dick’s slides, though, are still chiefly direct representations, in one form or another, of what he is saying. They’re by no means straight scripts, but they are literal in that they refer directly to one or more points in his speech. He also uses a less direct approach to reinforcing his words.

Slides can also be memorable when they are metaphorical, rather than literal. They provide images that are separate from the speaker’s words and they don’t refer directly to them at all. Instead, slides provide figural glue that helps the messaging to stick in the audience’s mind.

Our perfume presenter plodded through the inevitably impersonal features of the new perfume, and listed those features on a slide that doesn’t help tie them to the product or lend the new perfume any sort of unique identity. We could be talking about any perfume, really. How much more effective is an image to which the audience can associate on the one hand the stated features, and on the other, this specific product:

Speaker notes: Designed for women. Will be called ‘rouge’. Reasonably exclusive. Testers say “hot”, “fiery”, “sophisticated”, “liberating”. Is one of our more expensive.

In this way the speaker is able to use the power of metaphor to link dissimilar objects (product and message) within an image, made memorable by the overall experience.

Presentations as Commercials

Of course, the “product” here is whatever concept or argument that the presenter is trying to make. And the image could be anything that fires the imagination and adds stickiness to the messaging. This is a process familiar to people who make commercials, where they are intending to make as big an impression as possible, as immediately as possible. It’s even hard to imagine a commercial designed along the lines of the average corporate PowerPoint slide. Commercials don’t expect their audience to remember a series of facts, and they seldom punish us with bulleted lists. They engage us, they give us something to figure out, and they enable us to take part in creating a memorable experience by setting up the conditions for this to happen.

What do we achieve when we take on these techniques in our presentations? We exchange mere information redundancy for message reinforcement. Our audience gets an experience rather than a lecture, and instead of dying in their ring binders our messaging lives in their imagination.

Maybe we should treat presentations more like commercials than – well – presentations. We have a short time to make a lasting impression, and we need to focus on making our messaging stick. More on building effective presentations in the May 2010 edition of the rewrite newsletter.

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