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For presentations, it's best to unclog the kitchen sink

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2009
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PowerPoint poisoning. Most business people suffer through a few painful PowerPoint slide presentations every week. Waltham public relations executive Mark McClennan also endures them as part of his volunteer service as a Framingham Town Meeting member. He blogged recently about some of his advice for those who fire up the projector and get up in front of a crowd.

For the past two weeks after work, I have been participating in Framingham Town Meeting. Over the course of six nights, we have been privileged to receive no fewer than 35 PowerPoint presentations. Since I also serve on ways and means, I have seen a dozen more. Unfortunately, the end is not in sight. It makes me feel like I am an analyst or [venture capitalist], and I have new sympathy for the VCs who sit though more than I ever will. . . . Many of these presentations are given by experienced professionals in financial services and other business services companies. Some have been outstanding. Some have driven me to my BlackBerry and to think about what I like and dislike about the presentations in general. Following are three guidelines that even the most experienced presenter can [often] forget:

  • Simplify - Most presentations try to do too much. The best thing to do is pick a few points and make them. Adding more detail often creates confusion. Yes, the presentation may be your one and only chance to share your views, so the temptation is to throw in the kitchen sink. But an empty kitchen sink works better than one clogged with dishes.

  • Hand-outs are a beautiful thing - A presentation should help you tell a story or communicate an idea. Nothing can bring that to a screeching halt like three columns with 20 rows in 12-point font on a single slide. Even if someone is presenting business cases or budget proposals, leave-behinds and hand-outs help communicate the key elements and answer likely questions without detracting from the presentation.

  • If you read your slides, you have lost already - Your back is to the audience, passion is leached from your voice, and you end [up] not connecting. This also means you don't need complete sentences on every slide.

  • These three reminders are common sense. But even the most experienced professionals occasionally stray from the path. If you are using a PowerPoint to supplement your meeting with media and analysts you need to ask yourself three additional questions:

    1. Do I really need a PowerPoint?

    2. Is the PowerPoint a crutch or does [it] add value?

    3. Am I ready to close the presentation and engage in dynamic discussion and debate? (You better be.)

    Social experimentation. To grasp social technologies, argues Forrester Research founder George Colony, you can't just read articles about them or get briefed on them by a colleague. You have to try using them.

    Social is like sex. It's fun to talk about and read about, but you can't truly comprehend unless you do it.

    Here's a story. Forrester's COO, Charles Rutstein, and I made fun of Twitter when it came out. Twitter is the technology that enables you to send short messages (of approximately 25 words) to people who elect to monitor you on their PCs or cellphones. We instantly pronounced the whole concept to be brain-dead. A few months later, Forrester bought Jupiter Research. Charles said to me, shortly after we bought the company, "Hey, those analysts at Jupiter like being part of Forrester." I said, "How do you know?" He said that he was watching their Twitter streams and the feedback was positive. I signed up for Twitter the next day.

    The CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, uses social extensively and now has 300 customer service reps at the company on Twitter. Why? As Tony says . . . "People don't relate to companies, they relate to people." This is important insight. You, the 57-year-old CEO, may not use social, but that doesn't mean that your customers don't use social. You are not your customer.

    Yes, much of the social technology is a titanic time-waster. . . . But there may be real value here for your company - something that you can't grasp unless you engage with social.

    Gloomy times for green start-ups. Venture capitalist Rob Day, a principal at Wilmington-based @ventures, noted the shutdown of GreenFuel Technologies Corp. and said "there is a lot of bad news yet to be seen in clean-tech venture capital." Cambridge-based GreenFuel had raised more than $70 million to try to commercialize a process that used specially bred algae to turn carbon dioxide into biofuels.

    A lot of high-profile [clean tech] start-ups have high cash burn and unclear follow-on financing prospects, because they raised big money at big valuations in the past and since then the world has changed and fewer big money/big valuation deals are getting done. Many of those companies have over the past few months been put into a slowdown mode and maybe have received bridge financings and the like. All of which helps them stick around, but also doesn't completely address their growth needs - in fact, it might hinder their ability to grow . . .

    Meanwhile, although there's been a rally on Wall Street and some encouraging signs, the overall consensus of economists seems to still be that it'll get worse before it gets better - the trajectory is improving, but is still down. . . . And so it will be hard for these struggling companies to right the ship in this economic environment.

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