Charles Vallance: Lately, We’ve Let Things Slide


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Charles Vallance



Charles Vallance Founding Partner and Chairman, VCCP in his latest column for Campaign, explores how previous enforced remote working has meant a return to the prominence of Powerpoint Presentations.

One of the many consequences of enforced remote working was the return to prominence of PowerPoint presentations. We soon tired of staring at each other’s faces (or bookshelves) in that odd, unnatural gameshow format and quickly opted instead for some charts to hide behind.

So be it. We had to find our own coping mechanisms back in those days. The problem, however, is that the chart habit seems to have stuck. And it's not as if we were an industry that was averse to slideware in the first place.

Don't get me wrong. I know we need presentations, and presentations often need some slides. They provide a framework for what we have to say, as well as a record of our objectives, plans and recommendations. Depending on the subject matter, charts can often be essential, particularly for information-heavy topics such as media and market performance. But, as the information load gets lighter, so should the charts. If we're simply framing an argument or point of view do we need charts at all?

One of the reasons I ask this question is from my experience of enforced slidelessness. Unless you're one of those people for whom technology always works perfectly (and I'm yet to meet one), the chances are that you will have experienced more than a few tech meltdowns. This inevitably means that the PowerPoint deck you were about to romp through remains stuck stubbornly on a distant, truculent server.

In these situations, whilst the IT technician wrestles with cables and remote controls, and we smile at each other awkwardly, I've taken to asking "should we have a go at starting without the slides?". Sometimes the reaction to my question is one of quiet horror, as if an ancient protocol has been offended. On other occasions we give it a go freestyle and, lo and behold, ten minutes in and everyone has forgotten the wrestling technician. We're swimming without slides. There is even mild disappointment when the recalcitrant HDMI link is restored and we can boot up the slideware.

The meeting immediately becomes more formal and more regimented. There are also more interruptions. Perhaps because there is now something to interrupt. Or perhaps because of boredom. What has been gained in terms of structure has been lost in terms of fluency.

So we should aim for both. This means dramatically cutting down on the number of slides, and also on the number of words on the slides. If you ever find yourself reading out the fourth bullet point under the third subhead of the forty-third slide then I'm afraid you've got a bad case of chartitis. You're reading, not presenting.

We're all guilty of this every so often due to expedience. It's the easiest way of downloading everything we want to say. Chopping words out, cutting down on charts, takes time and effort. Thus Mark Twain's famous proviso, "if I had more time I would have written a shorter letter'.

But lack of time is only part of the explanation. The other is lack of clarity. We end up festooned in charts and bullet points because we're not quite clear what we mean. And for this, there is only one solution. Before you go anywhere near PowerPoint, write what you mean down in normal sentences in normal English. Only then can you tell if it's clear and if it's meaningful. It's much easier to mangle a chart than it is to mangle prose.

The cure for chartitis, therefore, can be summed up in four simple steps. Step 1, start with a script (despite the urge to chartify). Step 2, ruthlessly edit your charts to highlight only the essential points you're making. Step 3, where possible, don't repeat on the chart what you say in your narrative - illustrate, visualise or dramatise your point instead.

The 4th step is perhaps the most daunting, which is to individualise what you present. Don't assume that your script needs slides at all. Slides can so quickly emphasise similarity rather than difference. Why not handwrite your points on boards? Or drag a Nobo chart along and draw your thoughts up as you go through them? - it worked for Simon Sinek.  Devote some time to ensuring that any visual props are an extension of you, rather than the other way round.

We kid ourselves that presentations are viewed rationally. But they aren't. They are far more about empathy, trust, chemistry, body language. And, as such, though we may be reluctant to admit it, they're far more about the messenger than the message.

So step 4 is be yourself. The problem with this step, of course, is that it's a lifetime in the making.

If we're simply framing an argument or a point of view do we need slides at all? VCCP's Founding Partner and Chairman Charles Vallance