Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a three-part series that looks at powerful presentations and effective communication.
As human beings, we have two methods of communication: the written word and the spoken word. It doesn’t matter how we communicate, across what medium, or with whom. When we exchange information and ideas with each other—whether our intent is to inform or persuade or reminisce or share a tender moment—we either write it or we speak it.
Any medium of communication that we have today, or have ever had, fits into one of those two categories. Ancient scrolls? Written communication. Stories around the campfire? Oral. Newspapers and magazines? Written. Radio and television? Oral. Blogs, online discussion groups or Twitter? Written. Podcasts and YouTube? Oral. Text or e-mail to a friend? Written. Conversation with that same friend over Skype or dinner? Oral.
Communication methods work best when kept apart
While the written word and spoken word each have their strengths and weaknesses, the science is becoming increasingly clear—each method works best when they’re kept apart. In fact, if your intent is to communicate effectively, the worst thing you can do is bring them together.
Try having a Skype conversation with someone while they’re reading something on their computer screen, or discussing a news release with your boss while he or she is trying to read it. Human beings simply cannot read and listen at the same time.
You can easily test this. The next time you’re watching your favorite all-news channel, try listening to what the announcer is saying while reading what’s scrolling across the bottom of the screen. Even if both are focused on the same story, it won’t take longer than five or 10 seconds for you to realize that you must block out one or the other to get anything meaningful out of the exercise.
Bad news for most presentations
As you can imagine, this is bad news for the vast majority of the 40 million-plus PowerPoint (or Keynote) presentations delivered worldwide each and every day. Whether slides are projected or printed (or both!), if they contain anything other than the bare minimum of written information, they are in direct competition with what the presenter is saying.
Science strongly supports this view. “Currently, we use technology such as PowerPoint because we can, not because it results in improvements,” says John Sweller, Ph.D., emeritus professor of education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “I feel the evidence is overwhelming that the way in which we currently organize presentations is ineffective and inappropriate.”
As one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists, who has spent most of his adult life examining how the human brain processes information, Sweller doesn’t make this statement lightly. His research has clearly shown that when humans attempt to read and listen at the same time, they actually understand and retain less than if they do either activity separately.
What does this mean to us, as professional communicators? Quite simply, if we wish to enhance communication effectiveness, we need to break away from the current paradigm of typing ideas into a slideware program before projecting them onto a screen or printing them as a presentation deck or, worse yet, doing both. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re developing our own presentations or someone else’s.
While someone is attempting to communicate with the spoken word, if the audience’s attention is directed to written information—whether on a screen, a smartphone, a tablet, a presentation deck or any other form of printed material—communication effectiveness is, by definition, limited. They get less than if they simply read. Or listen.
If we hope to achieve better business outcomes from presentations, we have to set the standard and help our internal and external clients separate the written word from the spoken word.
Finding a solution
So what is the alternative? It’s quite simple, really. It just takes one small change in behavior.
As professional communicators, we should discourage the use of PowerPoint to develop presentation content—for both our own presentations and those developed by or for others.
By using slideware to develop content—whether PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, SlideRocket or any other program currently in use or yet to be developed—the end result is too much written information on each slide and too many slides. If slides are used during any presentation (and slides are not the only visual tool that can be used to communicate effectively), they should be developed last, not first, in the content development process.
Instead, we should use other methods to develop content. There are a number of tools available, such as the free Present With Ease workbook. If you’ve ever submitted an accreditation portfolio or entered an awards program like IABC’s Gold Quill Awards, you’ll recognize many of the approaches in this workbook. It uses many of those tools (and others) as the basis for which effective presentations can be strategically developed to achieve desired outcomes.
Strengths and weaknesses of each
The spoken word is a storytelling medium. It is conversational. Ideas can be exchanged quickly and efficiently. How many times have you picked up the phone or walked down the hall to clarify an issue because the written exchange was getting you nowhere?
The written word supports the development of data and knowledge. Ideas can be captured in space and time. They can be built upon. Without literacy, we would never have amassed the knowledge necessary to build our complex societies. If we still passed knowledge from one generation to another via word of mouth, PowerPoint would be impossible because there would be no computers, projectors or screens in the first place.
As professional communicators, one of our greatest challenges in this unfolding information age will be to understand how to apply a growing list of communication media to the challenge of helping our internal and external clients achieve the business results they’re seeking.
In this, however, the science is clear. If we wish to help them communicate most effectively, we have to help them separate the written word from the spoken word.
The next article in this series will examine the value of relaxed, natural body language as the foundation for clear thinking and effective communication.
Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC, has been a member of IABC for most of his 30-year career. He is a former president of IABC/Toronto and former chair of the IABC accreditation committee. His first book, Media Training with Excellence, was published by IABC. His latest book is 5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint.’