Wednesday, September 26, 2012

From #apmp to Sunday school - what should be on our presentation slides?

In a previous post, I tangentially referred to a session that Professor Michael Alley gave to the Southern California chapter of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) earlier this year. Although that post didn't explicitly talk about Alley's presentation, it did link to one of his web pages. The following statement can be found on Professor Alley's page:

Recently, much criticism has been levied at PowerPoint's default structure of a topic-phrase headline supported by a bullet list of subtopics. This web page advocates an assertion-evidence structure, in which a sentence headline states the main assertion of the slide. That headline assertion is then supported not by a bullet list, but by visual evidence: photos, drawings, diagrams, graphs, films, or equations.

Whether you are a disciple of Professor Alley or an advocate of the traditional approach to PowerPoint (load every word you're going to say onto the presentation itself), everyone agrees that the reason that you show slides is because you want people to remember what is on the slides.

But how do you make your slides memorable?

Lessons can be learned from your local Lutheran Church.

Now if you haven't set foot in a church recently, it should be noted that services have significantly changed in many churches over the past thirty years - even in relatively traditional groups such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Thirty years ago, a sermon was something that was given by a pastor, standing in a pulpit. The congregation could watch the pastor speak, or could look at the stained glass in the sanctuary. Today, the pastor is still behind the pulpit, but the congregation may be looking at a screen. PowerPoint slides are displaying on that screen, perhaps showing a verse from the Bible, or perhaps showing a picture of a boy holding a fish, or perhaps showing a video from a skater saying some really rad stuff. (Or perhaps not.)

When you have those PowerPoint slides whirling by, you have to figure out what to put on them. And in this case, the pastor's question is the same as the salesman, the process champion, or any business person - what do I put on the slides so that my audience will retain my message?

According to Pastor Matt Richard, someone at Concordia Seminary, Pastor Joseph Meyer, set out to study just that. Pastor Meyer began his study with certain assumptions:

In his study he set out to prove that the use of pictures on a PowerPoint during a sermon would actually increase retention and comprehension. He set forth to argue that we have become a visual culture and that the use of pictures within a sermon would increase retention because it would evoke the sense of the eyes and emotions of the listener.

But guess what? Pastor Meyer was wrong.

Sermons with ‘pictures only’ in the PowerPoint were least effective.

Sermons with ‘pictures and words’ were better than ‘pictures only’ but not as good as ‘words only.’

Sermons with ‘words only’ in the PowerPoint were the most effective.

Meyer himself subsequently stated:

Since I let the slides speak for themselves, instead of assisting the message, the projected images may have actually distracted from the message. Needless to say, this was a big wake-up call for me since I realized that the visual cues I’ve been using during sermons previous to this study may not have been all that helpful to the hearers; it may have been more of an annoying distraction. Some of the participants in the focus groups told me that the slides became a problem. One person even wrote, ‘I thought it was more beneficial to listen rather than look.’

There's an important lesson here, whether you're "selling" Jesus or you're selling an automated fingerprint identification system. If someone is going to be speaking, the speaker should be the focus, not the slides. The slides should complement the speaker's message, not distract from it.

If I may take the liberty of adapting Pastor Meyer's suggestions for a secular audience, here's how I'd do it:

  1. Use very few slides.
  2. If you are going to use images, keep the images very simple.
  3. Make sure the images tie into the business case.
  4. Project business materials that are being quoted.
  5. Use familiar recognizable images.
  6. Acknowledge the slide/Make the connection with the business case.
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