Category Archives: The Art of Writing

Do you make these common presentation blunders?

Presentation software makes public speaking easy. Just outline your talk in bullet points, add some amusing clip art, a nice background, and maybe some stock music, and you are all set. Anyone can look like a pro. But if you have ever been on the receiving end of one of these talks—and who hasn’t?—you know that they can range from confusing to deadly dull. And yet, people continue to make presentations the same way.

Combining speaking with on-screen text can be difficult. Some speakers put text on the slides and then paraphrase it or go off on tangents during the presentation. The result is that they lose the attention of people who try to read what is on the screen. Other speakers read the text on the slides verbatim. This approach can be effective for emphasizing key points. But most people can read the text faster than the speaker can say it, which leads to boredom if the entire talk is presented that way.

When images are added to the slides, text can cause even more problems. This has been demonstrated for e-learning programs, but it also applies to presentations. In e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer cite research showing that people remember less when shown text and images together on the same slide than when they see the image alone with narration. Redundant text (text that is exactly the same as the accompanying speech) can improve memory, but only when presented by itself with no images. Images that are unrelated to the text also interfere with learning by distracting attention from the important points. Animation and music impair learning as well.

Other research has shown that adding extraneous information, whether to make the presentation more interesting, go into greater detail, or add technical depth, made the key points less memorable and reduced people’s abilities to apply what they had learned. (These findings apply to learning new information, and may not extend to cases where people are already familiar with the subject.)

If you want to create a memorable presentation, follow these guidelines:

Consider using no text on the screen, or at most short subject headings and labels in graphics. There is nothing wrong with a blank screen while you talk. People will be more focused on you, and you will come across as a more skillful speaker.

If you do use text, make it the same as what you say, and limit it to a few key messages. Do not paraphrase, explain, or elaborate on the slide text.

When speaking, stay focused on the points you want to make.

Show an image by itself on a slide, and explain verbally what it means. Avoid using text on the same slide as an image.

Use only graphics that add information to the presentation. Avoid clip art, stock photos, and other unrelated images.

Do not use music, animation, or other media that distract from the content of the presentation.

Ghostwriting: A word about authorship

I recently wrote a white paper that named a client as the author. I even laid it out myself, using Scribus desktop publishing software to make a professional-looking document. It looks great, but I must admit I am a little bit frustrated because I would like to show it off to other people as a sample of my work. I can’t do that, though, because I would not want to reveal that the client didn’t write it himself.

When I ghostwrite a document such as a magazine article or white paper, my objective is to showcase the expertise of my client. Even though I am the person putting words to keypad, I am channeling the knowledge that I have obtained from my client through interviews and existing literature. For this reason, it is entirely appropriate to name my client as the author.

Writing is time-consuming and difficult. If you have a project on the back burner that you have had the best of intentions to get started someday, talk to me about getting it started today. The result will be a well-written document that provides valuable information to your customers and makes you look great!

Persuading technical people

Dave Lakhani, in his excellent book Subliminal Persuasion, describes core values that resonate with people. If you can appeal to those values, then you can create powerful ads that influence people’s opinions and motivate them  to take action.

Engineers, scientists, and other technically minded people share these core values. But let’s face it, if you try to appeal to a person’s desire for family security when you are trying to sell an industrial robot, it can come across as manipulative if not threatening.

Technical people do have certain resonating values that might not have the same effect on other people. For example, they like to believe–whether or not it is true–that their decisions are based on rational, objective criteria. They don’t want to think that their choices are influenced by color, shape, or childhood memories. What they do want to know is how a product or service is going to benefit their company, make their jobs easier, or provide needed information. Write about those benefits, and support claims with data showing how much improvement can be expected. It is possible to keep it technical and still make it resonate.