10 May 2015

Interview With Rick Altman, Host Of The Presentation Summit

Rick Altman has a 25-year experience in training and consulting on the whole of the presentation process, from preparation to design and delivery. He is host of The Presentation Summit, an annual conference for presentation professionals held annually. And he is also author of the book Why most PowerPoint presentations suck, and how you can make them better

Recently I had the pleasure to interview him and here's a recap of what we discussed about. 

Why do most PowerPoint presentations suck?

Many people would tell you it’s self-evident. I see three main reasons:
  1. The tool: PowerPoint is probably the easiest program in the Offie suite to start using. Both my daughters started creating slides where they were 10 years old. And while Microsoft would tell you this is one of its virtues, I would tell you that’s a very bad thing. People declare themselves proficient long before they should. 
  2. Design: People are asked to design presentations all the time, but very few have a background in graphic design. Most people don’t even know what the word design means. The result is that slides often act as a barrier between speaker and audience. 
  3. Speaking: We are asking people to do this thing that they are scared to death to do: speak in public. 
Combine these three points and that’s why Death by PowerPoint is in everybody’s vocabulary today. 

Can you tell us about The Presentation Summit?

This is our 13th season. For four days we will cover all the facets of the presentation experience, from message crafting to presentation design, software techniques, and delivery. The thing I am most proud of is the way we created a community around this conference. We brought together people who didn’t know where to turn for help with the greatest challenges of giving presentations. Thanks to our Summit, not only have they learnt how to overcome these challenges but they have also made lasting relationships. 

This year you have two big names in the communication world. One is Garr Reynolds. 

Yes, we don’t deserve such good fortune. This will be his 5th time speaking at the conference. He will be speaking from his home in Japan. In the last couple of years we had him speaking at our Guru Session, which starts at 9pm and goes until midnight (middle of Garr’s day in Japan). It’s for those who can’t get enough of this experience. Last year his appearance was wonderful because he understood it was late for us, in fact we had a lot of beer and wine on that evening. He came with no agenda at all and started taking questions. He was hanging out with us. In fact at one point he actually got a beer too. 

What do you like about Garr Reynold’s approach to presentations?

If you look at his work, everything just fits in a magical way. You know that you are in the presence of a brilliant designer when you can’t really explain it. It’s like recognizing fine art, can you describe what it is? Maybe not, but you know it when you see it. I feel that way when I see Garr’s work. His ideas are profoundly simple and he shares them with such an elegance that everybody can relate to.

The other big name is Guy Kawasaki. What is he going to talk about?

He is going to tell us the 10 Things All Presenters Should Do. From there the sky’s the limit. 

I’m sure one of the 10 things will be his famous 10-20-30 rule. What do you think about it?

It’s so simple as to be almost profound. But it also is quite disruptive. I have clients who are shocked when I tell them the font size should be at least 30 points. As a former venture capitalist, Guy Kawasaki had to sit through so many presentations and that has given him a perspective on this world that's unique. The 10-20-30 rule comes straight out of that. 

What are the 3 things all presenters should do? One tip for preparation, one for design, one for delivery.
  • Preparation: You must know your material. People have to understand their narrative and have to practise with their visuals. 
  • Design: Separate, separate, separate. There are three tenets to a good presentation: what you say, what you show, and what you give. That is, what you say out loud, what you show on the screen, and what you give to your audience afterwards. Those should be three separate things and each of them should be as good as you can possibly make them. What happens all too often is that the deck you prepared is the only thing you have. You say it, you show it, and you print it. If you can separate out these critical pieces of the presentation experience, you are going to become much better. 
  • Delivery. Find your most genuine self. What is it about you that others want to hear about? You can’t fake genuineness and there is no substitute for it. Of course you learn some tactics and strategies to become a better communicator, but you can’t try to become somebody else. 

There are three tenets to a good presentation: 
what you say, what you show, and what you give.

In the Summit you'll have a “PowerPoint vs Keynote” session. Do you think the presentation tool makes a difference?

No. Of course there are differences between PowerPoint and Keynote. Each of them enjoys advantages over the other. But the software you use is just a mediocre commodity and should not be the biggest determinant of your success. You can perform good work or bad work with either one. 

(Here is my take on this topic)

You'll also have a Pecha Kucha session. Do you think people can get better at presenting by practising Pecha Kucha?

(Pecha Kucha is a presentation format where the presenter shows 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and she talks along to the images)

Without a doubt, and I have first-hand experience in this. There is a lot of skills involved. First of all, you can’t fake it you really have to know your stuff. Also, you have to have practised your material enough so that you can anticipate slide transition. And all have to be timed out. Of course you don’t have to be a robot, yet it’s tremendously challenging. 

Data visualization. What are your tips for displaying data effectively? 

Simplify as much as you can. Here's where the software works against you. Who decided that every chart must have a background by default, or the lines going across them, or axes with tick marks? What does any of that contribute to somebody’s understanding of your message? All this weaken our ability to tell a good story. Let’s not forget: we are the presentation, not our slides. So it’s up to us to tell the story behind these numbers. The chart should help us, not take over for us. 

(Here are my data visualization tips)

How do you convince people and companies that the way they have always been making presentations is not effective and that there is a better way?

It’s hard, both in corporate America and all over the world. One thing I do is I show people some before-after slides, so that they can see a slide that’s much more evocative then the junk they have created. Another thing I do is I make them practise with a properly crafted slide which is different from the slide they have been using, which they became addicted to. It helps. Remember, Rome was not built in a day and in the last several years I have seen real improvement. So we need to be patient.  

These are just some of the ideas Rick Altman shared with me. If you want to get more insights, here's the full video.

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IMAGE: Rick Altman on Vimeo