Powerful PowerPoint – Part Two: Visuals

We're now in the middle of this three-part series on getting the most out of PowerPoint using Content, Visuals, and Media, so let's press on.  What first comes to mind when you see the word, "Visuals"?  (I thought of photos.)  Though pictures are in the visuals category, they don't make up its entirety.

Since I brought them up, it would be good to mention that pictures do speak volumes and can be a welcome addition to any PowerPoint slide… if done correctly.  Pictures are like content; they must be surgically chosen.  And where the right picture can do wonders for communicating to your participants, the wrong picture can distract them, or even lower their opinion of you and your message.

You can't go wrong if you put one picture per slide, taking up all the space—captions don't have to always go underneath; place the words where they'll make the most impact.  Pictures of people are good, but crop tight from the chest up for individuals, and show some background and scenery for group shots.  Double-check to make sure the right person is showing at the right part of the presentation.  Product shots are good, and buildings too if appropriate.

If ever in doubt, not using the picture you're waffling over is probably the better choice.

But pictures aren't all there is to visuals.  The slides themselves can make or break a bid for participant attention.  Go through the first ten slides or so of this eye-popping PowerPoint presentation.

Pretty cool, eh?  You'll have noticed that they used color to manipulate mood, and sizes of slide elements to call attention to information.  I really like how they used reoccurring graphics as a sort of bullet-point system.  Nothing is worse than seeing the same layout and font, slide after slide, with nothing changing but the information.  (It puts me in mind of white stripes in the middle of the road at night: hypnotizing.) The one critical mistake on this powerpoint is the size of the text. 

But when people see a familiar graphic from a few slides before, they are eager to spot the differences, and quickly learn that these particular slides will be their guideposts for the rest of the presentation.

What visuals are you using to spice up your PowerPoint slides?  How do you like the series so far? 

Next up: Media

Acronym Rehabilitation

Acronym Rehabilitation

The world has gotten fast paced enough that we have developed ways to make it a little bit easier on all of us. We have iPhones so that our music, phone, and email can all be carried in the same place.  Text messaging has replaced the need for pagers. Video conferencing has replaced the need to travel around the world to have a face to face get together. On top of this, more companies are implementing the use of IM in their offices to be able to share information. 

We used to use IM here in the office and writing this reminded that it's not always the clearest form of communication.  I once asked my boss a question and he responded with "y". I proceeded to tell him why I needed to know the answer only to be informed that he meant "yes". That seems like a pretty easy conclusion for me to draw, but maybe there's a reason why I didn't quite connect the dots.

In our zest to get things done faster, we've cut out a lot of "unnecessary" steps to get to where we need to be. Sometimes that can be a step in the right direction - look at companies like Toyota, who have benefited from "cut the fat" policies on their production floors. As great as these policies can be for the bottom line, there comes a time when we need to admit that we've cut out too much.  

Communication is the key to any beneficial relationship and if you can't communicate effectively, you'll never be able to close a deal or get a promotion. While most people are very careful about keeping their "net-speak" and their English separate, who hasn't accidentally dropped a "BTW" or a "BRB" on another person while speaking face to face?

Think about the up and coming generation of business leaders.  They are sixteen now, forever on their laptops or phones, texting and emailing choppy messages to each other. Not because it's the way you should speak, but because it's quicker.  They will change the world, shape the future, and one day, will be working for you. 

The question is, will you understand anything that comes out of their mouth?

Do you feel that acronym addiction will affect the way that communication occurs?  What can we do to rehabilitate ourselves and fast?

Powerful PowerPoint – Part One: Content

I've seen more than a few PowerPoint presentations.  I've experienced some so boring I counted the slides instead of reading them.  And I've seen slides so difficult to read, I found myself blinking coquettish starlet.  But then, every once in a while I get wowed by a stellar PowerPoint presentation.

To really get to the heart of the matter, I'm going to make this little PowerPoint discussion a three-part deal covering Content, Visuals, and Media.  In this first part, let's talk about how content makes those rare PowerPoint gems so great.

Content is what you want your participants to know, to have in the front part of their brains as they return to the rest of their day, and what they think about throughout the week.  However, the strength of content also contains its weakness.  Details, minutia, supporting arguments, and anything else besides your main point serve to drag a presentation down into mediocrity.

As a result, content should be surgically chosen.  What exactly is the main point?  What details are absolutely necessary to support that point?  Only include content that answers either of those questions, and leave out the rest.

"It's not vital information, but it's still important!"

That statement is the grease on the slippery slope that has spawned so many bad PowerPoint slides.  Remember, YOU are the focus of the presentation and PowerPoint is your support.  Show the main points and tell the little details and supporting arguments to your participants.  Everything else gets put into a handout for later reference.

Less is more.  Your presentation can contain tons of data, but your PowerPoint presentation should only bear a fraction of it.

Next up: Visuals

Plan Great Events

Having to host conference calls on the fly can be hard enough and now you've been put in charge of planning a major event. If you've never planned a major conference before, or if you're just not sure where to start, remember the basics:  who, what, when, and where.  Once you’ve defined the generalities of the conference, here are a couple of things that can help to make your next event extra special.

Have a guest speaker

Seek out someone who's knowledgeable in the field you're hosting your conference and find a way to get them involved.  A lot of people are more than willing to throw their hat into a ring for a good cause or for something with a good enough message.  Do some research, find out someone who would be willing to take a little bit of time out of their day and speak at your conference. Having a guest speaker will boost the interest in the conference and provide you better over-all interest, and give you a higher number of attendees as well.

Practice Makes Perfect

Doing a run through can make the difference between a great conference and a good conference.  Know your materials and how you're going to flow through them. If you're using a web conferencing platform instead of just audio, familiarize yourself with the platform before the conference begins.  Get with a customer service rep at the provider and go through a demo.  They are there to answer your questions and help your conference run as smoothly as possible.  Go through a mock conference with a co-worker and make sure that you know the different facets of the service provider you have chosen to use.

Have a Back-Up Plan

Everything should go as smooth as silk as long as you're prepared, but just like that old cliché says, you should expect the unexpected. Computers crash, PowerPoint's fail, and no matter what you should be ready for it. Plan ahead for the conference by sending out the slide show (if there is one) as part of a participation packet so that attendees have it in front of them and if something happens, they have a hard copy. It will also encourage them to read through the slides and prepare questions in advance.  As much as you want the conference to go well, so do they.

Will you use these steps to prepare for your next conference call? Am I missing something important? I’m sure there are a lot of quick and simple things that you can do to plan your next event and make it special. Comment your thoughts here and tell me how you plan for a great conference.

What Do You Really Sound Like?

Too Big?

Or, to quote an Oppenheimer article title: "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly."  Using big words is one way to show how smart we are—often unsuccessfully—but they don't help the situation when we're trying to convey information clearly and concisely.  This goes for the $10 words, but what about business jargon?

How can slinging the lingo be a bad thing?  Well, someone spouting off about paradigm shifts—changing the basic thinking of an outlook, plan, or strategy--during a meeting is all well and good, but it's so often misused.  Even worse, it's become a bit of a cliché, adversely affecting the user and their message.  The speaker would probably be better off saying, "We need to rethink how we're going to do this."  This is much more direct and clear.

"Thinking outside of the box," or even good ol' "get our ducks in a row" can have worse consequences than merely causing miscommunication.  An article on MSNBC.com talked about how business jargon can cause management to appear weak and untrustworthy to their employees.  A study found that 40% of employees feel that their bosses use jargon to cover up bad news or avoid the truth.

And those big unnecessary words can be a waste of time… literally.  Have you ever been in a meeting where it took forever to get from capital letter to period in the average sentence?  It's good to provide a clear picture, but adding all those asides, adverbs and adjectives, sub-plots, and background information takes a long time to get through, not to mention hiding the point of what's being said.

It's a little ironic for me to be talking about this; at least, I know my friends would think so. (Yes, my average story length is "long.")  But I know when is or isn't a good time to spin a yarn.  In business settings, if I don't speak plainly, clearly, and with brevity, I'll fail to deliver my point, lose my audience, and be labeled a "bore."

Are any of you long-winded like me?  Are you able to keep it from intruding on your professional life?  Tell me about it in a comment.

You Can't Take It Back

How many times have our eyes widened in horror after we realize what we've just said?  For the more fortunate of us, our social gaffes weren't too bad, or we just got very, very lucky.  For all of our futures though, let's look at some suggestions from WikiHow.com for preventing the wrong things to be said.

To get it out of the way, here is the tired cliché: "Think before you speak."  (I more prefer, "We have one mouth, but two ears.")  It's tired and overused for a reason; its good advice.  Take a breath and consider the other person and how their point of view may see your comment.  Pausing to consider is especially important on a conference call as they can't see your face and won't know you're smiling or whatever.

Another cause of saying the wrong thing during teleconferences stems again from not being able to see all the other participants.  It can be easy to be lulled into believing you are on a call with just two of you.  It's the same as if you forgot the twenty people standing right behind you while you talk to a friend.  The others on the conference call may not have said anything yet, but they are definitely there, listening to everything you say.

One of my favorite ways to prevent saying the wrong things is preparation.  Whenever possible, I like to make a list of topics to be covered, questions I want to ask, and possible answers to give. I also jot down a bit about each person I know will be on the call.  These lists help remind me that thirty faceless people are right there listening.

If it's not too painful, tell us about your biggest social gaffe.  Maybe there's been enough time passed and we can laugh at it together.

Completely Inappropriate Places to Conduct a Conference Call

Conference Call in the Restrooms

We are a society of telecommuters.  Inventions like cell phones, laptops, and Wi-Fi have made it easier to keep up with the movements of society and the need to be on the go. However, I feel that convenience has taken a little something out of the process of business:  courtesy. I hear stories all the times about conference calls gone wrong.  From barking dogs to the sounds of emergency sirens in the background, I have put down a couple of places that, in my personal opinion, are the worst places to be trying to host, speak, or participate on a conference call.

The Bathroom – This is such a horrible idea. It's completely understandable that sometimes business just doesn't allow you time in between meetings. Trust me, I get it.  The bathroom is somewhere that business should never be conducted in. For me, I don't like knowing when someone is texting or tweeting me from a facility, much less trying to listen in (or worse, host) a conference call.

Chuck E' Cheese – Really, this applies to any other child-friendly zone. Not to be mean to the future of America, but kids don't really understand the meaning of “shh”. Sitting in a place where children run rampant, shoving pizza and soda in their mouths is not a place to try to conduct your business.

Any restaurant – This one should be pretty easy. There's a lot of background noise and clutter that can muddy up the sound on the conference call. You want to be able to pay attention, and above all, you don't want to be a disruption to what's going on.  Avoid places where the waitress will be heard asking if you want more iced tea or dropping a tray in the background. Plus, you'll avoid getting any kind of sauce on your notes.

Frankly, if you absolutely have to take a conference call from any of the aforementioned places, use the nifty little features on your phone called a mute button.  With the mute on, I say more power to you when it comes to being on a conference call while going through the grocery line or trying to grab a bite to eat. As a host on a conference call, most services provide a way to mute participant lines or even provide a command for you to give to people to mute their lines through the conference service, also eliminating the possibility of the hold music playing.

What do you think though? I have my opinions on when it's okay to try to conduct business and when it isn't, but I know that everyone is going to feel differently.  Is there anywhere that it is a complete and utter no-no to try to be on a conference call?  Have you ever forgotten about muting your line and hoped that the embarrassing thing that just happened can never be traced back to you?

Meeting Magic

The title could also be "Meeting Miracles."  Or possibly "Santa Put the Perfect Meeting in my Stocking," would have worked as well.  Getting the right people in contact with each other to obtain a specific objective is one of the business world’s greatest tools. 

If done improperly or haphazardly though, meetings are ineffective and a waste of time.  The most crucial parts of a meeting are stating the clear objectives and goals to accomplish, and including a feasible agenda to make it happen.

Pop quiz:

Which one is a "good" meeting?

A.  In conference room B, all employees and managers on the 2nd floor will meet to talk about the five current projects, their progress, and how they can be improved.  Their last meeting was three months ago.

B.  Team B will have an audio/web/video conference meeting about improving their part of project 3, specifically getting Widget 117 to work properly.  Only the six members of the team—and their manager—will join in, and all work on the same floor.  They already meet weekly.

The answer is both… or neither.  It was a trick question.  The meetings in both A and B have good and bad elements to them.  Their success depends largely upon the organizers. 

In A, there is danger in bringing "everyone" into a meeting as most of them don’t need to be there.  They can be filled in later on what they need to know.  A rigid agenda is required to keep things on track, and a system is needed to capture great ideas and table digressions for another time.  Also, with so much ground to cover, the meeting could be rushed, incomplete, or just very long.

In B, we have the right people whose opinions or ideas matter.  It may seem a bad thing to do an audio/web/video conference with everyone within shouting distance, but it’s a great advantage if they use the technology to collaborate on documents and other files in real-time.  The real danger lies in the scheduled, automatic meeting, or "we’re having a meeting because we have one each week" meeting.  If they approve the necessity each week, then they will continue to have effective meetings.

How do you keep your meetings effective?  Leave a comment and tell us about what you’re doing.

AccuConference | A lesson from my 5th grade teacher

A lesson from my 5th grade teacher

I recall my fifth grade teacher would have us journal every morning and we had to keep writing without a stopping. She told us to streamline our thoughts and that it didn’t matter if we made spelling mistakes or if our sentences didn’t make sense - so long as we kept writing.

I recently had a chance to re-read one of these journals. I wrote stuff like “My brother annoys me and cows don’t jump over the moon.” It doesn’t get more random then that. Anyway, that’s what I’m doing right now. Already I’ve hit the backspace button ten times but I keep plowing forward the best I can.

Too many times we don’t push forward on a task and we’re afraid to throw it on paper. I’m amazed at how unproductive I can be and how much time I waste staring at the wall. I think about work-related stuff but I don’t write it down.

I’ll be honest, I cheated with this blog entry. I decided in advance what I wanted to write about which makes this though-streaming-process much easier. I’ll have to try this again and truly start from scratch. I suggest you do the same. On your next big project or task, try putting your thoughts on paper, regardless of what they are. Whether it’s an email, newsletter, blog or memo – don’t go back or make any edits until you’re done.

I’m convinced that this will make you more productive and will also help you stay focused. I already feel better having done this. It also takes a lot of concentration. I’ve had to keep typing even as my outlook emails pop up in the corner of my screen. But I press on!

I’m happy to report that this blog took about five minutes to write (which is a record for me).

Let’s see how long it takes to edit it!

[Updated: It took about twice as long to edit… I’ll have to work on shaving that down next time]

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