Tailoring your message to the audience is everything!

By Robert Lane

This article is adapted from Relational Presentation: A Visually Interactive Approach, by Robert Lane. This book is available for both PowerPoint 2003 and PowerPoint 2007 from Aspire Communications Books.

In my book Relational Presentation: A Visually Interactive Approach (2003 and 2007 editions), portions of which are excerpted below, we explore a style of digital communication known as Relational Presentation. Using Microsoft Office PowerPoint in this way helps a presenter to thoroughly, continually, and easily customize visual displays to ongoing audience dynamics. In other words, he or she chooses which slides are needed, and in what order, while presenting — rather than allowing the software to dictate that order with a single, linear slide show. Why is such a tailored, customized approach to messaging important and why should you consider presenting this way?

Being willing to spontaneously adjust a performance to the interests, backgrounds, and understandings of viewers helps you establish a relationship, a connection with them. That relationship is everything. It enables conversational interaction, which, in turn, builds trust. Whether selling, teaching, training, or simply presenting information, well-done dynamic delivery almost invariably improves effectiveness, not to mention expanding viewer perception of expertise. Quite frankly, it's also a fun and compelling way of approaching live presentation. Stale topics take on the life of a cafe conversation. Having full versatility to express yourself freely while on stage, both verbally and visually, is almost addicting at times. For the moment, you'll just have to take our word that such is true. Soon enough, you may be saying the same thing.

The methodologies taught in these books are unique in a presentation context and, to the best of our knowledge, can be found nowhere else. At the same time, they really are nothing new. Similar logic and processes have guided other forms of media use for decades. We simply are applying these valuable techniques to speaking contexts. As a result, your slide shows become powerfully interactive networks of interconnected slides, making it possible to fully customize rich, visual display at any time. Our inspiration for pursuing these methods came from two important observations.

First, we noticed many speakers, whose styles were dynamic and eloquent before using PowerPoint, seemed to become robotic and less natural once introduced to the software. We wondered why. Our initial assumptions placed blame on the computer; maybe speakers were not comfortable switching from overheads to computerized display. In some cases this was true, but the main culprit turned out to be the way people were using their computers. Long, linear slide shows with preordained slide-to-slide advancement were wreaking havoc on otherwise conversational delivery styles. Basically, the presentation medium was breaking the relationship between sender and receiver, with detrimental consequences.

Second, we noticed the standard slide show model was outright inefficient and ineffective. Sometimes we would build elaborate, time-consuming, super-duper shows that in our opinion were the greatest technological achievements known to mankind at the time. Even so, every audience was different. For each performance, our masterpieces had to be torn apart and reassembled. Eventually, pieces of old presentations were spread all over the place, with various versions of slides duplicated across multiple shows. The whole process was a mess. We desperately needed a content management system. Our "aha" moment came upon realizing "Hey, we never use the exact same slide shows for different audiences, but we sure do use components of those same materials over and over again." For instance, certain introductory materials were universal, regardless of who the audience happened to be. This simple realization completely changed our organizational strategies.

If we said it, we tried to show it at the same time

About the same time, we began adding high-quality visual information to our presentation materials. At first, the goal was simply for slides to look good. Later, we explored using images to supplement or replace monotonous textual components and communicate a visual message, even if no actual words were said. Back then, we didn't have a clue why any of this was important. It just seemed like the right thing to do. There was, perhaps, an intrinsic sense that words alone, whether printed or spoken, are not enough.

Words connect to visuals

In this process, one of the main goals became connecting what is said verbally with supporting visual elements that reinforce those words. If we said it, we tried to show it at the same time. Years later, it became apparent this dual mode of communicating ideas takes advantage of a basic process in our brain known in cognitive psychology as dual coding.

Dual Coding Theory (Paivio, 1986) asserts our brains process verbal and visual information differently and store the results in different areas. Thus, if we give people information in verbal form only, they will process and encode that information in the brain's verbal channels. Visual information, similarly, is encoded in the visual channels. The theory further suggests that presenting the same information both verbally and visually at the same time results in the material being encoded twice, potentially producing stronger recall and understanding of the topics.

If you say it try to show it

Let me show you something that may help answer your question

Relational Presentation capitalizes on this process in several ways. By displaying meaningful visual information simultaneously with supporting verbal detail, messages are in fact dual coded. To accomplish this feat, the presenter often navigates to slides on demand, showing visual detail that relates to ongoing verbal exchanges. What this looks like in practice is someone might ask a question, and you then find yourself saying, "Let me show you something that may help answer your question," while in the process of navigating to needed content.

Let me show you

Dual coding can occur, of course, during standard linear presentations. But often the right visual you need is not on the current slide, or on the next slide, or even on another slide somewhere in this current show. Therefore, a true dual channel approach involves flexible delivery, where any slide in any show is always available. Flexible delivery, in turn, involves a substantial shift in thinking about what it means to give a presentation. Being able to customize visual display to the needs of the moment is enormously powerful; it also requires setting aside many established habits that PowerPoint users tend to embrace.

Change is essential

Making that shift in thinking is absolutely essential to your success while implementing these ideas. Therefore, we will approach the transition from numerous angles so that you will be well prepared. Sometimes the change is subtle, and other times it involves a complete flip of expectations.

Paradigm shift

For example, learners often approach Relational Presentation methods from the perspective of "Wow. I'm going to learn some really cool PowerPoint techniques that will jazz up my slide shows and blow my audiences away." Technically this will be true; you certainly will learn many fancy, showy methods that turn the traditional PowerPoint paradigm upside down. Even so, you may be very surprised at the results of your work.

Ironically, most — if not all — of those fancy techniques will have an effect opposite from what you expected. Rather than drawing more attention to your technical prowess, they will cause the presence of PowerPoint to be less noticeable. The software will fade into the background where it belongs, to provide a support role for the presenter. You want this to happen. Remember that you, your content, your message, and your connection to the audience are the true foci, not the technology. What all of the sophisticated methods you learn in this book do, if used properly, is focus more attention back onto you.

Think of it this way: In a relational context, slides become a natural part of ongoing interactions and exploration; they no longer especially stick out, interfere, or dictate what must be said and when it should be said. PowerPoint becomes a tool that enables what we call Visual Dialogue, adding flexible use of visual elements to your normal verbal framework.

The pitfall some presenters fall into at this point is thinking, "Yeah, yeah. I can see the advantage of synchronous visual and verbal presentation. What's the big deal? I'll be able to do this in my sleep." Relational Presentation methods are relatively simple and straightforward, all in all. Most people grasp the basic ideas quickly and begin applying them right away. Still, if the process was that easy and obvious, a lot more people would be presenting this way — but they are not. In reality, the changes necessary are more involved than first meets the eye. Becoming a polished relational speaker requires a period of adjustment and a healthy portion of open-mindedness and experimentation.

Imagine trying to take all of your knowledge and expertise, everything in your brain that represents who you are and what you know, and digitizing that information. Such a collection could represent thousands upon thousands of slides. Now, contemplate locating one of those slides, right now, to illustrate a thought that just occurred to you while talking with an audience member. How do you do that? How do you basically show your thoughts as they occur, just as you would spontaneously think of words to say?

Analyze your content and organize it into hierarchically arranged modules

These questions can be scary to people initially contemplating a visually interactive approach. They illustrate the complexity behind Relational Presentation's simple exterior. "What if I'm up front and can't remember where I put a slide?" That's a legitimate concern. The good news is that superior design can dramatically reduce content's organizational complexity, so that presenters can spontaneously display specific visuals — easily.

Presentation network

Such content management strategies are possible by analyzing all your content and organizing this material into hierarchically arranged modules. These modules are then tied together via hyperlinks. The result is called a Presentation Network and has a structure closely resembling a Web site with interlinked Web pages. The steps used to form a Presentation Network's organizational logic are collectively called Information Architecture and are little more complicated than separating apples from oranges. Pieces of related information are grouped together in small clusters, which are then grouped under broader clusters, and then broader clusters still, and so on. Eventually, the result is a hierarchal road map of sorts, outlining the categories that form the network's branches and subbranches.

Grocery store
(Photo Courtesy Fry's Food and Drug)

Use a Presentation Network

How does using a Presentation Network help you? Think of a grocery store as an example. Perhaps you decide to buy a single green apple. In which direction do you walk after first entering the front door? You certainly don't head toward dairy, cosmetics, or canned goods. You walk toward the produce section. That single decision effectively eliminates most other products in the store because those products at the moment are irrelevant. Upon reaching produce, you ignore the tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions to focus on the apples section. Finally, you select a green apple from the varieties available.

Produce stand
Click 1. (Photo Courtesy Fry's Food and Drug)

In this example, the store is equivalent to a Presentation Network. To find desired content, you must work your way down from the broadest possible starting point, in this case the entire store. In a Presentation Network, the starting point is called a Main Switchboard. By moving through progressively specific levels, you soon reach the desired goal, which may be either a slide show or a specific slide within a show.

Let's take the analogy a step further. Pretend you create a Presentation Network that actually contains a picture of every individual product in the grocery store. Perhaps there are 10,000 products total. Using the hierarchical logic just described, locating the one apple picture out of 10,000 choices is very easy. Starting with the highest point (the Main Switchboard representing the entire store), the desired slide is only three clicks away.

Click 2. (Photo Courtesy Fry's Food and Drug)

Click 1 takes you to a section containing produce-related pictures. If there are 100 produce categories (apples being one of them), this single click just eliminated 9,900 other product categories, or 99 percent.

Click 2 selects the apples category, meaning that of the remaining 100 categories, we eliminated another 99 categories, or another 99 percent.

Click 3 specifically selects the green apple picture from the several varieties of apples available in the one remaining produce category. Locating one picture out of 10,000 choices was that fast and easy.

Green apples
Click 3. (Photo Courtesy Fry's Food and Drug)

Robert Lane is president of Aspire Communications, a company that specializes in visually interactive presentations. The video demonstrations of visually interactive presentations are available on the Aspire Communications Web site, or you can contact Lane directly at Aspire Communications.

Applies To: PowerPoint 2007

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