Are you making your audience multi-task?

There have been a lot of stories about multi-tasking in the news lately and the research conclusions are pretty consistent:  Multi-tasking actually causes you to complete tasks more slowly and with a higher error rate, even if you think you’re really good at multi-tasking!

Some experts differentiate between background multi-tasking, like listening to music while driving or studying, and switch-tasking, which involves trying to focus on multiple activities at the same time, all of which require attention.

If you’re one of those who still believes you can get more done by multi-tasking, see what results you get on the free exercise at — or better yet, read his book, “The Myth of Multitasking”.

So what about the audience multi-tasking?  No, I’m not just referring to the people who insist on texting or checking their email when they’re bored during your presentation.  I’m talking about what happens in your audience’s brains when they try to listen to you while they read your text-heavy, bullet-pointed slides.

In the world of multimedia learning research, there are 2 principles that related to this concept of multi-tasking:

One is called the split attention effect and it says that presenting different types of information through the same mode (visual or auditory) reduced learning and retention.  An example of the split attention effect would be showing a picture and text on the same screen to describe the same concept in two different ways.

The second is the redundancy effect, which states that presenting identical information through both the visual and auditory modes at the same time is ineffective.  Examples of the redundancy effect are the common approach to presentations, namely having the presenter/narrator speak the same words that are printed on the screen.

By ignoring either of these multimedia principles in your presentations, you are essentially asking your audience to multi-task!

The combined effect of these two principles indicates that the best way to present multimedia information is to offer supporting, but not duplicate, information through the two modalities, visual and auditory.  It is commonly agreed that the best approach is to use spoken narration for the text and relevant pictures on the screen.

While there has not been as much research regarding the split attention effect for adults watching a presentation, I am seeing more and more books, blog posts, articles, videos, and other publications coming out in support of presentations with less text and more pictures to achieve better results in all types of presentations.

Do you have a Clear Purpose for your Presentation?

What is the purpose of your presentation?

You need to be clear about what you want to accomplish with your presentation. Then your next step should be to make sure that your talking points and your slides are all designed to help you reach your goal.

While your presentation goal or purpose is specific and unique to you as a presenter and to each presentation you give, there are some general categories we can consider for why people give presentations.

Your presentation purpose most likely falls into one of these 3 broad, overall categories:

  • educational or informational
  • sales or marketing
  • inspirational or entertaining

But you may have much more specific results you want to accomplish from a specific presentation.

For instance, you may be focused on collecting business cards from prospects by offering them some sort of ethical bribe for dropping their cards into a bowl after your talk. You may need to ensure that employees at your company have been trained on some important policy change. Or you may be giving a keynote address that is intended mainly to inspire your audience.

Sometimes your purpose may seem more complex. In the case of the keynote speech mentioned above, you are probably also interested in marketing a certain message about yourself or your organization. In such cases of multiple goals, it is important to remember your ultimate goal: in this case, letting your audience get to know you and your organization.

As you develop your presentation, you need to keep in mind this ultimate result you are seeking. While you would not include explicit marketing or sales information in a keynote address, you would still want to ensure that you’re presenting a message that reflects positively on you and/or your organization. The marketing would be subtle in this situation, but it would still be there.

Informational marketing presentations are another hybrid example. While the ultimate goal is to generate leads and, hopefully, sales, this type of presentation would be mainly focused on providing so much valuable information to your audience that they form a very favorable impression of your company and are naturally interested in learning more about you.

Don’t forget to implement some method for tracking the results so you will know whether or not you actually achieve the goal you defined for your presentation.

How to Create Slides from an Outline

Creating an outline for your presentation forces you to get much more clear and organized about what you’re going to say and in what order.

Yet many people open up PowerPoint or Keynote or some other slideware program and just start creating slides. As you’ve probably experienced, the slide creation process tends to take on a life of its own and fairly soon you can end up with way too many slides and way too many topics and sub-topics!

I’ve learned that I create much better presentations when I organize my ideas in a Word document first. I use a special form designed by Cliff Atkinson, founder of “Beyond Bullet Points” that helps me create the best structure for my presentation.

Creating the Sentence Outline

First I decide on the 3 or 4 main ideas I want my audience to remember from a 45-minute presentation. Then I determine the sequence of information and the sub-points I want to discuss in relation to each of the main points. Then I’m ready to create my outline.

Unlike a traditional outline, this document does not have any hierarchy of levels. Instead, I end up with a series of sentences, each one starting on a new line.

For a typical 45-minute presentation, I usually have about 45-50 sentences. These consist of: a few introductory slides, my 3 main points, 3 sub-points under each of the main points, and 2-3 details about each of the sub-points.

Importing the Outline into PowerPoint

After saving the outline and exiting my Word document, I am ready to import this sentence outline into PowerPoint. The steps will vary slightly in different software versions, but here they are for PowerPoint 2007:

1. Open a new, blank presentation.
2. Click on the “New Slide” button (on the Home tab).
3. Go to the bottom of the dialog box and click on “Slides from outline”.
4. Find and select your outline document.
5. Click the “Insert” button.

This process will import your sentence outline into PowerPoint and will place each sentence at the top of its own slide. The sentences then become your slide headlines.

I’ll discuss in another post what to put on the rest of the slide, underneath the headline. For this time, I want to finish up with a brief mention of presentation handouts.

Creating Handouts from the Outline

Because I don’t fill up my slides with bullet points and text, the built-in method of generating handouts from PowerPoint doesn’t work too well for me. Instead, I use one of these two methods:

For an easy-to-create, brief summary, I take my original outline document, reformat it slightly, and add a title.

When I want a more-detailed handout, I include the “Notes” pages which contain all the verbal points that I am speaking out loud but which do not appear on the slides. This process is more complicated so I’ll save the explanation for another time.

Secrets for Great Slide Headlines!

Since we’re trying to minimize the amount of text on the screen (so the audience can focus on listening to the presenter instead of trying to read and listen at the same time), it is very important to make your slide headline meaningful and effective.

The typical titles that most people use on their slides — like “How I Got Started” or “What’s Included In This Program” — don’t really give any valuable information.  They don’t mean anything by themselves and so, really, there is no point in putting them on the screen!

Scientific research has shown that an audience comprehension improves when a full sentence headline is used on slides rather than a few words or an incomplete phrase.

The slide headline also needs to be in a large enough font that your audience can read it easily. I wouldn’t recommend anything smaller than 30 points. I usually prefer an even larger font than that, like 36 points or even 40.

Dark text on a light background is easiest to read, but white text on a dark background can work if the font is large enough and bold enough.

Finally, remember that you want your audience to scan the headline quickly and then be ready to listen to your verbal explanation. This means you need to write short, simple, concise sentences for your headlines and they should summarize what you are going to say for each slide.

If you took all the slide headlines from a presentation and placed them in a text document, starting each headline on a new line, you would essentially have a high-level outline of what you’ll be discussing in your presentation.

As they appear on screen, each headline reminds you of the next sub-topic about which you’ll be speaking.

As you display each slide containing a full-sentence headline and a large, bold, related graphic, your audience will have nothing on the screen to distract them from listening closely to what you are telling them verbally.

Remember that the purpose for showing slides is to guide your audience through your presentation and to help them comprehend and retain your message.

In next month’s post, I’ll tell you how to use a simple Word outline to generate all your slide headlines. I’ll also talk about how I use my slide headlines to create the audience handout.