Say it Straight
Posted October 20, 2010on:
“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.” – Mark Twain
Too often I hear intelligent, genuine and committed business people speak like morons. Their sentences are full of meaningless words that sound important and have little substance. Hype and corporate-speak replace honest and clear language. Who’s impressing whom and what’s the point? The people who spout out words like ‘paradigm shift’, ‘synergistic relationships’ and ‘extensible repository’ know they’re talking bull because this contrived language is the exact opposite of the way they speak outside of the office.
Away from work their human voice kicks in, with stories and anecdotes to convey their messages. They are informal, spontaneous, funny and real. Once back at their desks the jargon takes over and these smart, talented and sensitive people sound aloof, arrogant and condescending. Conversation is replaced by hollow, vapid, vanilla-coated communications. And what’s worse? This language is so empty that it gets ignored. The listener disconnects and no one pays attention. The message gets lost, sometimes at great cost.
On 1 February, 2003, the seven astronauts on board the space shuttle Columbia were killed when their aircraft disintegrated on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Could this horror have been prevented? You bet it could have.
On 24 January, 2003, the week before the disaster, a Debris Assessment Team delivered a formal briefing using – go on, make a guess – a PowerPoint presentation. While the team warned of the potential risks caused by debris damage at take-off, the message never got through. Why? According to information design expert Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale University, the structure of the key slide was such that it was nearly impossible to decipher the message. The most important point was buried in the second to last line – out of 17 complex fact-filled lines on the slide – and the meaningless word ‘significant’ was used five times. That word fails to ring alarm bells and we all know that there was real reason for alarm. Rather than the jargon-packed, data-stuffed slide the team used in the hopes of persuading NASA of the potential hazard, they should have just written in bold red “The damage could be catastrophic!”
While The Columbia Accident Investigation Board refrained from saying that Power Point caused the Columbia disaster, they did agree with Tufte and acknowledge that the PowerPoint style of writing – compressed and formulaic –concealed the critical message.
What might have been a better approach? High-resolution photographs of the actual damage would have made the point quite dramatically.
All too often, when the slides go on, the audience nods off. How can you use technology to create a presentation that engages, entertains and enlightens your audience?
- Avoid the Template Trap. Start your presentation with a story, a dramatic prop, a video or movie clip, a dramatic photograph. Anything other than a slide that invites you to “Insert Title Here.”
- Be creative in your use of software. Title your presentation as if it were a best- selling thriller.
- Avoid SGPs (Stupid Generic Photographs). Use original photos and artwork. Or, would you prefer to rely on ubiquitous clip art?
You don’t have to parachute into the conference room to create an impact. All you have to do is avoid the predictable. Get your creative juices flowing and break a couple of ‘rules.’ Your audience will love you for it.
If you would like me to make a presentation to your group or organisation about how you can improve your presentations, please call us on +44 (0)1491 640919 or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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