Regardless of your designator, you’re going to be called upon to deliver briefs or training all the time. When this happens, you should see it as an opportunity to demonstrate to your command that you’re not the screwup they all think you are. Superior presentations demonstrate three key attributes of a great officer: preparedness, expertise, and communicativeness. With the exception of some unlikely heroic watchstanding, there is almost nothing you can do to accrue credibility more quickly than by demonstrating competence to a captive audience.
Since presentation is such a big and important topic, I’m going to break it up into multiple posts. Next week we’ll talk about how to actually deliver a brief. This post will focus on the tool by which most briefs are delivered today: Microsoft PowerPoint.
I used to hate PowerPoint, instinctively. The first time I was called upon to deliver training to a department of sixty personnel, I decided that I wasn’t going to use it. Certain that the Navy had conducted training for centuries before Powerpoint had been invented, I opted to go with some prepared notes and a markerboard, confident that I would be appreciated for not recycling the same old PPT put together by some long-departed JO. Instead, I got “Why didn’t you prepare for this? There isn’t even a PowerPoint.”
Next time, I went with the exact same approach, backed up by PowerPoint for a few visual aids– technical schematics and such. There was no text in the PPT, not even an intro slide with my name on it. The reception was overwhelmingly positive, and I was thanked for deviating from the same old format. The takeaway is that if a PowerPoint is expected, failing to produce one starts you out at an immediate credibility deficit. It can be overcome if your presentation is awesome, but you’re taking a huge risk.
Hating PowerPoint is pointless. It is a fantastic tool for the conveyance of information, and most of our disdain for it stems from its misuse. Hate the shitty presenter who’s wasting your time, not the abused tool. Use the tool correctly by applying the following eight principles:
1. Start with the references and a blank sheet of paper. The first thing every JO does when tasked with a brief or training is scour the sharedrive for the PPT the last guy used. Plagiarism is certainly encouraged to save time, but you don’t know that the last guy’s presentation is the best format– you might think of something better. Using a presentation which was planned from PowerPoint will just ensure that it is entirely PowerPoint driven.
Sketching out an outline of concepts and ideas is a great way to start. This should be done before you look at an old PPT– this way you know you’re not settling for what’s always been done just because its easy. It’s also something you can do at any time, without a computer in front of you– it’s a great way to kill time during a terrible GMT, for example (irony intended).
2. Ignore all Microsoft templates. They’re all terrible. Stick with plain black on white, white on black, or white or yellow on Navy Blue. Pretty much anything else is unnecessary. A command logo can be nice, but it can also be distracting– best to just leave it in the title slide.
All Microsoft templates are terrible.
The following shouldn’t need saying, but people do screw it up- make sure your fonts contrast with the background or any graphics they’re superimposed over (What is the deal with yellow on white? How does anyone think that is a good idea?). Fonts should be one of the sans serif styles, like Arial or Calibri (Times New Roman is hideous). Where I come from, people who use cutesy fonts, SmartArt, animations or frilly slide transitions get dragged outside and beaten up.
3. Three to six bullets per slide. Any more than that, or any font size less than 24, and you’re probably cramming too much information into your slide– the audience’s eyes will glaze over. The slide isn’t a teleprompter– words on the screen should amplify, supplement or summarize what you’re talking about.
Instead of using PowerPoint as the crutch to guide your presentation, make notecards. Printing the slides with notes at the bottom works too, but loose paper in hand rustles and is distracting to you and the audience. The simple act of delivering your brief from notecards with PowerPoint backup for key points and visual aids will separate you from 90% of presenters in the Navy.
4. Eliminate irrelevant graphics. Where a picture can help convey an idea, you should definitely use one– this is exactly what PowerPoint is for. If a picture does not convey any additional information, it is just a decoration to make your slide pretty. This is the military. We don’t make pretty things, we destroy them. Besides, research shows that irrelevant graphics in a presentation (like most clipart) actually detract from learning.
5. References! Cite applicable references everywhere in your presentation, not just in a generic “references” slide at the end. Make the citation an unobtrusive little line in a bottom corner of the slide, so its obvious that it is a footnote and not meant to be read by the audience. In the citation, be specific, right down to the article and paragraph if possible.
Being disciplined about this does several things. For one, it forces you to find all the stuff you’re briefing in real references– ensuring that your info is up to date. Another thing it does is score you massive credibility points when you can answer questions by quoting the reference chapter-and-verse (when in fact, you’re reading it on the screen out of the corner of your eye). Finally, it turns your archived PPT into a great compendium of relevant references when you need to look something up later. This can be especially useful for complicated subjects that are governed an assortment of documents and messages, like Strike or ATFP.
You will not get credit for everything you know.
6. Make Backup Slides. Thorough research and anticipating questions are critical components of preparedness. Unfortunately, not every data point you’ve discovered merits a prominent place in your presentation (nobody will thank you for going over your allotted time). Accept now that you’re not going to get credit for everything you know, and instead make back-up slides for ancillary information or graphics. In the off chance that someone asks a question which gives you an excuse to bring up your backup slides, you look like a rock star.
7. Test your System. Obviously you’re going to look unprepared if you can’t get the hardware working, no matter how not-your-fault it is (you’re an officer– it’s always your fault). You should do everything you can to get to the system early and have everything hooked up and working well ahead of time. Sometimes it just can’t be done, like when a fire drill runs long or the room is in use up until your allotted time, but you have to do your best. Be rude if you have to– you owe it to your audience.
You should also bring up your PPT on a fresh computer and test it well ahead of time. Sometimes, huge graphics can cause a long lag while loading in between slides, and it will look like the system crashed for an agonizing amount of time. This won’t be apparent on the computer you’re building the presentation on, because they’re already loaded in memory. This problem has bitten me several times– you can fix it by compressing your images.
8. Be ready for hardware failure. Consider this scenario: A Junior Officer is scheduled to deliver training. Her audience is assembled, system is powered up and ready to go, and then right before her eyes, the network crashes. She grumbles and fiddles with cables while a roomful of tired sailors begin murmuring, then concedes that “well I guess we’ll have to reschedule.”
What if instead of rescheduling, she said, “F this, we’re training! Johnson, go get a board and some dry erase markers!”
Granted, sometimes the visual aids are too important to go without– I wouldn’t try this with a piloting brief. The JO who can pull this off, however, is instantly credible. Not only has she demonstrated confidence and preparedness, but she has taken command of the room in the face of Murphy’s Law. The audience now knows that the training is too important to reschedule, and that she is the expert to deliver it. If she came backed up with handouts, it looks like the whole thing is going according to plan.
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I will concede one point on this post: It is written under the assumption that you have unlimited time to prepare for the presentation, a luxury you’ll almost certainly never encounter. It is a truism that like most administrative tasks, making a PowerPoint will expand to consume all the time you’re willing to devote to it. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better payoff for working your ass off than in preparing for a presentation– just make sure you devote adequate time to the other aspects of preparedness– like knowing your subject cold.