Don’t Blame PowerPoint!

Next to a laptop, PowerPoint (PPT) could be considered one of the top three tools used in business. More than 30 million presentations are built in the software every day tying up 15 million people hours at a cost of $252 million…..every single day! And yet, few of us are Masters of it. In fact, we have a love/hate relationship with the software which has led to the term, “death by PPT.”

AT SW&A, we hear a lot of the angst around preparing presentations blamed on the software.

From the listeners:

  • “There were too many details and too much information.”
  • “I got lost in the details and didn’t understand what the listener was asking me to do.”
  • “It’s a horrible eye chart.”

From the communicators:

  • “We go through more than 15 iterations of decks before we have a final presentation.”
  • “I got so many edits to my slides that I’ve lost the point I was trying to make.”
  • “I’m not artistic or creative; I hate building slides.”

And our response is always: Don’t blame PPT.

It’s the process…or lack of a process…that frustrates you. Not the software.

Here’s a little self-diagnosis.

Assume that you’re asked to deliver a presentation two weeks from today.  Whether you start planning it today or wait until next week to develop it, how many of you will start the process by opening up a PPT document on your laptop?

If this sounds like you, stay with me. Then, you begin outlining points by putting a text box on each slide or if you’ve covered the topic previously, you’ll open up another PPT and begin to migrate slides to your new deck. Either way, you’re building the foundation of your content, one slide at a time.

It’s a very linear approach to structure, and it’s the wrong approach.

Because now you have a collection of details instead of a storyline, and you will present the deck slide by slide versus concept linked to concept.

Is this your approach?  Most people say yes.

When PPT is used as the planning tool, it becomes cumbersome to work with and takes on a very different role. PPT’S role is to help you illustrate details or connect two points, not to thread all the points together.  That’s the role of an outline or storyline structure as we refer to it. The usage numbers above may explain this.  Because organizing content has become such a constant in our day, we may be telling ourselves that we can skip a step and organize our thoughts at the same time as we illustrate them. And, that’s a misuse of PPT.

The storyline structure is the first step, always. Whether you use our model or you have your own tool, as the communicator, you should always start with an end to end view of what you’re asking the listener to do. It’s rarely the details that fail in presentations; it’s always the connection between them.

A storyline view helps a communicator understand the bigger ideas and repeatable points that will lead the listener to an outcome or takeaway.  This changes how you build out a PPT.

When PPT becomes the second step, it works beautifully for the communicator and the listener. A broader storyline helps the listener see beyond what you’re illustrating and understand why you’re illustrating it. The communicator’s focus gets simpler and key concepts get repeated as the communicator focuses on pulling ideas forward rather than making every point.

PPT is also a horrible communicator and a really good illustrator.

Let’s diagnose that one.

Assume that the presentation you’re building is for another leader to deliver or it has such high visibility that several people want to give input before you deliver it. So, you work on the PPT for a few days and then you forward it for feedback.

Does this sound like you?  Then, what you may not realize is that even though you shared it for feedback, you were pretty locked into those slides. And your editors now begin to interpret what the slides mean.  They can see the illustration; they just don’t know the storyline. So, they create their own mental storyline to support your details. Then, they edit to their own thinking.

This leads to adding content on your slides, reordering your slides and even adding new slides to support their thinking. You get the edits back and don’t feel grateful for the input.  You’re frustrated. Because they’ve changed the meaning of your slides and thrown off the flow of your storyline. At least the storyline you have in your head.  Because it was never shared as a structure for the conversation.

Have you had this experience? Most people say yes.


The storyline drives communication; PPT creates illustration. If an editor can read a storyline to see the end to end plan for communication, they are much less likely to edit slides.  Instead, they’ll identify areas of the storyline that aren’t easy to understand or where they want you to add detail.

In fact, when a team is involved in preparing a presentation, we urge communicators to get buy-in to the storyline first before PPT is even introduced. This helps a group align to the full direction of communication and the big ideas before the supporting PPT takes shape. And it keeps a team moving through the organization process together. Then when you move to PPT, the second step, the feedback is limited to the look and feel of illustrations.

As a communicator, you want listeners spending less time on how to follow your thoughts and more time on understanding how the big ideas connect and lead to outcomes.

And if we’re pleased with the transformation we see when individuals add our first step  into content planning, we’re ecstatic when we see teams adopt it. Because if an individual can improve a single meeting, the full team can change their influence in an organization.

We know because we’ve made it happen.

We’ve taken many teams beyond the storyline structure to a team template that gives the communicators a template to follow and the listeners a consistent expectation. So, listeners spend less time trying to follow the structure and more time hearing the ideas.

When teams adopt a standard structure, it quickly takes hold in an organization. They become known for their ability to deliver clear ideas and recommendations which often raises their visibility in a company.

If you’re getting bogged down in details and edits, don’t blame PPT. Put the first step back into your process. And if you’d like some help learning to do that, join us for an upcoming storylines workshop. Even better, bring your team together and strengthen the group’s impact across your organization.

Call us when you need us.

Sally Williamson & Associates

Are you Training Your Leaders to be Performers?

I hope not, but I suspect many companies are unintentionally training leaders to be performers as communication workshops taught by actors and acting companies continue to pop up in corporate curriculums. I’ve only experienced one of these workshops first-hand, but I hear a lot about these classes from clients who are confused by the tools and uncertain of the takeaways.

And, I realize that these programs are driving a whole new set of habits in communicators. I believe it’s the wrong set of habits.  So, I offer the following perspective as a way to consider what you’re trying to develop and how to think through the impact of any training program on someone’s ultimate objectives as a communicator.

It may seem that I’m just trying to undercut a competitor because if someone says they teach communication skills, then we’re in the same space. And, you could easily say it’s just a different approach on a similar topic. But, that’s about the experience itself, and that’s not what I’m challenging. Many day-long workshops are focused only on the day’s experience. Is it fun? Was it different? And if that’s your goal and measurement, then my concern about habits is not a worry. You may have found a fun and energizing workshop that meets the needs of the day.

My challenge is about helping someone develop the skills of a compelling and authentic communicator.

That isn’t a one-day experience. It’s a longer journey where a workshop may be used as a starting point to lay the groundwork for strengthening and changing habits. And if you’re approaching some of the performance-based programs with the intention of helping someone on the journey to effective communication, I hope you will hear caution in the actual outcomes and observations below.

I’ll start with Ted Talks, one of the fastest growing communication formats. The format of a Ted Talk has done a lot to change the look of corporate keynotes. And, that’s a great thing!  If you haven’t been behind the scenes of a Ted Talk, the format represents a conversational approach. Podiums are gone, note cards are out and presenters appear to be more conversational.  Many companies ask us to help their leaders present in a “Ted Talk” format without realizing what that implies.

Ask someone who has given a Ted Talk, and most will tell you that they love the visibility and they hated the process.  They were coached to memorize the content. The pressure is on to get it exact, to do it right … it is everything but conversational and authentic for most business communicators.

Most leaders walk away with the wrong message from this format. It is so time-consuming, that they never want to do another one. And many seem less confident about their ability to lead a storyline than they did when they took it on.

Memorized words fight listener engagement in every communicator. It’s the wrong technique, and it has consequences for anyone who really wants or needs to engage a room full of people.  It leads to content blocks and worries about words and phrases. It keeps someone in their head trying to follow a thread or word association. And while your leaders may invest the time to memorize a Ted Talk, they will never invest that kind of time to prepare for a town hall or customer conference. Instead, they need to learn how to bridge ideas and follow the flow of a storyline. It’s a much easier way to organize content and bring the listeners into the experience.

If you’re trying to create visibility for a specific leader on a specific topic, the Ted Talk experience may be the best forum to launch your leader.  But if you’re trying to change the communication culture within your organization, you’d be better to coach your leadership team to leverage storytelling to become more involved and connected with a group.

Storytelling has also become front and center in companies. And, it’s the approach that leads to engagement. It’s also coachable. I think storytelling goes back to President Reagan who put people in the balcony during the State of the Union address so that stories would resonate with viewers as they connected a person to an experience. And corporate settings provide a great way to leverage stories as customers and employees can be visible and are able to bring their experiences to life in a similar way.

It’s the connection factor, and the emotion that communicators should draw from an audience that leads to the concern with actors teaching communication classes.

If you’ve ever taken an acting class or been in a play, you’re memorizing lines and trying to be in character. Your role is to act like someone else. And if you remember the performance itself, you were very tuned in to timing, cues and everything happening on the stage as the performance took place.  You had very little awareness of the audience and probably never noticed who was in row eight. I remember this from my own experiences in theater, and I loved every minute of it. But it was never about the audience; it was always about the performance.

Public Speaking should be exactly the opposite. It’s all about the audience and little about a performance. A great communicator reacts to the audience and tries to draw them into the content. The start of a communicator’s journey is to gain awareness of the voice and body and how to use them consistently so that their focus can shift off of themselves and onto the audience. If you coach someone to view a business setting as a performance, you’ll find that the audience watches them and rarely interacts with them. In fact, the communicator is unintentionally setting that up to happen.  They’re focused on getting things right and seldom get out of their heads or connect beyond their lines.

I’ve worked with hundreds of people who have experimented with acting as a path to become a good communicator, and it just doesn’t work. And I think most actors themselves would agree. The goals and settings are just different.

So, why are these programs used in companies? Well, an acting class or improv exercise can be a good way to set up the basics of communication… standing in the front of the room or opening up the body. And as long as that’s the only intent, it can be helpful. The challenge is that the people who like acting exercises or improv exercises weren’t the ones who had trouble getting up in front of groups in the first place. The more literal learners who may be introverts or hesitant communicators need someone to put them at ease and link communication to conversation versus pulling them out of their element with exercises that don’t translate to a business setting.

Leaders aren’t performers; they’re communicators.

And while a performance can be entertaining, provocative and so well done that we jump to our feet with applause, we recognize it was never about us. We were merely spectators as a story unfolded. As employees and customers, we want something different from leaders. We want communication to be about us. It can be entertaining, provocative and well done. But when we leave, we want to leave with a clear understanding of what the leader is doing to impact us. It’s a different setting and a different goal.

So, if you’re looking for a day’s experience and a fun way to loosen up a team, a workshop led by actors can be an energizing exercise. But if you’re trying to develop communication skills, think twice before you set your future communicators on a journey to become a performer.

In fact, we’d like to help you set the right journey for your team that leads to a compelling outcome.

We’re here when you need us.


Sally Williamson - Training Leaders

Do you have the Right Approach to Training?

If your initial response to that headline is “of course,” I hope you’ll read on. Because as simple as it may seem, approaches to training continue to evolve. And, the “best approach” can get lost in the rush to deliver or the desire to fit a program within a certain time frame. Time is a reality and costs are, as well. But skills development should trump them both. As the pace of work and expectations of workers continue to increase, employees have to be given the skills to be successful in their roles.

In the last few years, we’ve noticed that some companies pick a training model and push all training through the same approach. So, an employee who is being onboarded goes through the same approach as an employee who needs to renew health benefits. An employee who needs to get certified as a scrum master is following the same approach as someone who needs to learn how to access reports on Salesforce.

That can’t be right!  

We explored e-learning as part of our approach several years ago. At the time, we had access to initial work that a few clients were doing, and we explored formats and approaches with them. As those conversations progressed, I quickly realized that the success of e-learning was based on scale and not impact. Several months after the kick-off, I asked about results. The metrics they shared were accessibility and completion rates. There were no metrics tied to impact. 

For the SW&A team, that was a big concern because we’re vested in an approach that drives change and delivers impact. So I went back to hear from participants who had taken part in e-learning and found that their focus was on completion as well. They were pleased with how quickly they had completed a course, even though follow-up testing revealed a less than 20% retention rate on applying what they learned. I asked the leader about those dismal results, but she didn’t see it the same way. She told me that she was OK with a B- on impact as long as she could show that she was delivering access and information.

And that’s when I knew it wasn’t viable for us. That’s not a criticism of e-learning; it’s confirmation that one approach doesn’t fit every training need. And if you’ve met anyone who watched a 30-minute video on impactful communication and then delivered an impactful message, I’d love to meet them. It’s not an easy skill and few have mastered it.

It’s also a different expectation. And it illustrates the difference in awareness and adoption.

Awareness vs Adoption

One group with a large training need is the sales organization. This “go to market” group needs to understand products they sell, understand tools they use for forecasting, and execute really well on leading a customer conversation. If you were a sales leader thinking about the best approach to training in all these areas, you’d be smart to think about expectations.

Where are the expectations highest? Where do you need a salesperson to understand information and where do you need a salesperson to adopt new skills for impact?

A salesperson needs to know the products and the different capabilities the products deliver. But no one is going to ask them to build the product at the customer site. In fact, once the conversation advances to product adoption or implementation, the salesperson is going to get a lot of help from sales engineers and product designers; those are the groups who have mastered adoption of the product.

A salesperson has to adopt skills to lead an effective customer conversation. It’s not just knowing what a good conversation looks like or having tips for connecting with a customer. It’s learning a skill and adopting it in a way that you can repeat it over and over again.  It’s driving change and helping a salesperson drive impact.   

A smart sales leader will invest time on the adoption skills and leverage time on the information skills.

And, here’s the most interesting part. Every company is talking about change and trying to help the work and people evolve with that change. But the process of how people learn hasn’t changed as much, and a lot of companies get confused by that. You may have employees who are impatient and easily distracted, and they want to control the way they get information. That’s not the same as the pace at which they learn and adopt a skill. Adopting a new skill takes exploration, a deep understanding of fundamentals and repetition to build confidence and consistency.   

We’ve put a stake in the ground on the best approach to building effective communicators. We believe it takes a deep dive upfront to understand fundamentals and set personal goals. And then a communicator needs practice to reinforce progress. Our training has remained consistent on the best way to embed the fundamentals and continues to evolve as we expand to innovative ways to support practice and build communities for coaching. We believe that’s the best approach.

Do you have the right approach?

We can help you figure it out. With the new year ahead and a new set of expectations defined for your team, we can help your communicators adopt new skills to drive results.

We’re here when you need us.

Sally Williamson & Associates