Presentation Zen has swept through the office, and we are all now working diligently on improving our slides. I'm a big fan of any concept that causes you to think more about your presentation, and the way to deliver content. However, I'm concerned that in focusing too much on this approach, we may miss a key concept: the audience's preferences for receiving content.
Consider: 1995ish. Our GM has a quarterly business review with his peers and the executive staff. In this meeting, they will review all aspects of the business (orders, ships, quality, plant performance, financials, hiring, expenses, etc.) In this environment we still refer to slides as "foils" and the deck is printed out onto transparencies before each business review meeting. Our assistant has mastered powerpoint, and puts all sorts of content onto those foils. She mixes charts and tables, and adds in every reference possible - often going to size 9-10 font to make the details fit. When completed, her decks have every piece of data you possibly could need for this review. Bind up the 40 foils, and you have the equivalent of a detailed briefing book. There isn't a piece of information you could ask about the business that can't be found in this deck.
Viewed through the tenets of Presentation Zen, this sounds like a nightmare. 10 pt font! How can you get across your main point? Why wouldn't you put all of this into a separate document, and have the slides be more focused on the message you want to send? The answer is that our assistant knows the audience. She has worked for the GM for 10 years, and knows all of the players who attend the meeting. They are all engineers by training, with an eye for detail, and each wants to review the data in his own way. If we had gone in with eye catching graphics and only highlighted the numbers we wanted to show, the assumption would have been that either we didn't know what we were doing, or we were trying to hide something. Neither were the case, and neither was the message we wanted to give to executive management. Instead, we led with the data, made it available to each person as a handout, and then raised the key points as we arrived at each slide.
Looking back on those decks, I wouldn't say they stand out as well designed. However, they do stand out as well-suited to their audience. I'm all for good design, and personally would have preferred to have a deck with better graphics, and less detail. But I wasn't the target audience. The people in that meeting wanted details, and these decks with the detailed slides were just what they needed to see.
Keep in mind that sending the message is not the same as receiving the message. While I encourage you to think about your graphics and making your presentation memorable, you also need to stay focused on your audience. Who you are presenting to, and why? How can you meet their needs? How can you use your slides/foils/videos/what-have-you to amplify your message, and make sure the audience receives the message you intend to give? Great graphics are a tool to add in to your presentation kit - but graphics alone do not make for a great presentation. In the end, the most important thing is to get your points across to the audience, and to do that, you might just have to make some really detailed slides.
[Image from the amazing photostream of ~BostonBill~]