Visual leadership: Drop the PowerPoint crutch and win people over

Tags: business management

If you present for a living – whether you're a CEO selling your ideas to the board, a department manager trying to get funding from corporate for a capital project or a salesperson trying to win new business – your job is tougher than ever. You face relentless competition. People are bombarded with messages from the media, the Internet and other sources. It's getting harder and harder to break through the clutter, yet that's what you must do in order to persuade your audience. And ironically, in a time when you most need to hit your prospects with a powerful pitch, you're likely to fall back on an ineffective crutch: PowerPoint.

"Sellers have become projectionists, throwing words onto a screen while listeners read ahead and sellers plod behind, mouthing what's already been displayed," says Paul LeRoux, the co-author (along with Peg Corwin) of Visual Selling: Capture the Eye and the Customer Will Follow (Wiley, April 2007, ISBN-10: 0-4717936-1-2, ISBN-13: 978-0-4717936-1-8, $24.95). "PowerPoint's electronic barrage of words, bullet points and sentences threatens to turn the art of persuasion into a lost art."

That's right. LeRoux is on a mission to break presenters from the seductive PowerPoint routine. When you allow yourself to play second fiddle to PowerPoint text, you cripple your own selling efforts. By adopting the principles of visual selling – which basically means drawing attention to yourself and shaping images, room environments, personal appearance and gestures for maximum impact – you can give dynamic presentations that truly persuade.

Interestingly, says LeRoux, presenting your ideas with images rather than text says four important things about you:

1) You're different from the average presenter. From the first visual, you're separating yourself from competing ideas, dramatically and non-verbally.

2) Your work and service also will be personalized. Tailored image presentations are more difficult to create than text slides, and they show you'll go the extra mile.

3) You're smart enough to speak without huge cue cards on the screen.

4) You're creative. Rather than presenting the same old material the same old way, you've demonstrated your ability to think conceptually. Your images reflect your imagination.

"People respect individuals who exhibit these four qualities," says LeRoux. "Even without saying, 'I'm dependable; I deliver,' you're conveying these facts. They understand implicitly that the person who is creative, who is smart, who makes an effort and who is different is more likely to deliver than someone who is not."

Here are six tips, excerpted from LeRoux's book, on regaining control of your presentations:

· People remember pictures, not words. Use this principle to your advantage. Researchers tell us that the mind stores and retrieves pictures more efficiently than words. A face is easier to remember and recall than a name. Cognitive psychologists call this phenomenon "the picture superiority effect." You can leverage it to sell your ideas by presenting powerful images to your audience, unsupported by text, as you give your pitch.

"In its anti-smoking campaigns, the Canadian government makes the connection between tobacco use and impotence," says LeRoux. "On cigarette packages, it shows an image of a flaccid, burned cigarette. This is clearly a far more effective and memorable way to get the point across than text alone."

· Use PowerPoint images, but stay away from text. Let's say you're a financial planner trying to get your audience to buy into a retirement plan. Instead of posting a lot of dry bulleted points stating that 57 percent of retirees must continue working to maintain their lifestyles – and parroting the words people see on the screen – you simply show them an image of a senior citizen serving fast food. Emblazoned on his apron is "57 percent." People look at the screen momentarily and then quickly shift their focus to you.

"If you don't read text aloud, you can bet your audience is reading it and not paying attention to what you're saying," says LeRoux. "If you do read it aloud, your audience is insulted. Aren't they smart enough to read for themselves? Either way, PowerPoint text takes the focus off you and drains the persuasiveness right out of your presentation."

· You wouldn't propose marriage with a handout. Don't try to sell your ideas with one, either. Imagine you are about to propose marriage to someone with whom you are madly in love. In your mind, you know what you want to say. You are confident that you know you can make a compelling argument to convince her to say "yes." You get down on bended knee and you begin your proposal. But first, you provide her with a written summary of your main points.

"Obviously, this is ludicrous," says LeRoux. "You would draw her attention away from you eloquently emoting on bended knee and direct it toward the piece of paper. That's what happens when you distribute a handout before your speech. I'm not saying you can't give your audience a handout or deck at all; I'm saying that you should delay doing so until after your presentation."

· When presenting to a group who insists you use a handout, give them an "image deck." You'll satisfy their need to "follow along" without distracting them. It's true that there are situations in which a group demands a handout. When this happens, print full-page versions of your image slides and duplicate them to create your handout. This is an acceptable compromise. With an "image version," your audience will not be overly distracted.

With a text-driven handout, heads are down and eyes are glued to the copy. With "image handouts," people rapidly peruse the entire document and return their attention to you. The viewer's "fast take" occurs because image pages only broadly indicate where the seller is heading. It gives the skeleton of your message, but it doesn't flesh it out in a way that is absorbing. Images need a presenter to fill in the details. As a result, your listeners will listen that much harder while you speak.

· Do use strategic hand gestures. When you're under pressure, your adrenaline surges and you want to do something with your hands. Don't try to squelch this natural impulse by hiding your hands behind your back or jamming them in your pockets. Instead, use gesturing to your advantage – to indicate size ("small" costs or "huge" margins) or action (sales will "skyrocket" or we'll "check off" results). (LeRoux's book provides illustrations.)

Proper gesturing has five specific benefits:

Burning off energy: Instead of fidgeting, pacing, or making inappropriate movements, gestures provide a positive outlet for your increased energy.

Looking professional: Gestures, executed correctly, become positive movements instead of negative, embarrassing ones. The right gestures can convey confidence and commitment to your prospects and customers.

Supporting the message: It's not uncommon for gestures, even more than words, to carry the message. (Think of how an obscene gesture can enrage the viewer.)

Involving listeners: When sellers gesture, people pay attention. Viewers find it mentally hard to turn away from the "action."

Slowing down: It takes a half-second to match the words to the gesture, so you naturally slow down into a conversational pace.

· Learn the simple technique that creates instant enthusiasm. No doubt about it, enthusiasm sells. In fact, "enthusiasm" is a Greek word that translates roughly to "the god, the spirit and the energy within you." Yet, it's the hardest of all delivery skills to learn or to teach. But LeRoux says there's an easy technique anyone can use to convey heart, drama and passion: just speak up.

"Increase your volume and, like magic, enthusiasm usually appears," says LeRoux. "It is a direct, one-to-one relationship. When you speak more loudly, you are also more likely to display body language that communicates your enthusiasm. Oh, and by the way, a microphone does nothing to produce enthusiasm. It's a crutch. I suggest that, unless you're in a large room speaking to 40 or 50 people, you don't use one at all."

It should be clear from these tips that there's no mysterious "speaking gift" involved in delivering compelling presentations. With practice and coaching, anyone can learn to sell visually. And speakers who do, consistently outshine the competition to win new accounts, convince stockholders, or bring home venture capital monies.

"You don't have to be a 'born speaker' to convince a group," says LeRoux. "That's a myth. You simply have to be trained in proven techniques for selling your ideas, not merely 'telling' them. You must abandon the put-'em-to-sleep-with-a-PowerPoint approach and seize the attention of your audience. Selling visually is a tangible skill--and you can master it."

Derailing Details: The Top 12 Visual Mistakes Presenters Make . . . and How to Avoid Them
Excerpted from Visual Selling: Capture the Eye and the Customer Will Follow
(Wiley, April 2007, ISBN-10: 0-4717936-1-2, ISBN-13: 978-0-4717936-1-8, $24.95),
by Paul LeRoux and Peg Corwin.

Mistake #1: Overlooking "Murphy." If it can go wrong, it will go wrong. This mistake basically means that you walk into the room where you're going to present and something is wrong. LeRoux tells a story about a multimillion-dollar sales presentation to which "Murphy" paid a visit – in the form of missing curtains and a boardroom window overlooking a huge pool surrounded by bikini-clad swimmers. (You can guess what the attendees looked at instead of the presenter!)

Remedy: Visit important presentation rooms at least a day in advance. If that's not possible, have someone take pictures from different angles and email them to you.  

Mistake #2: Delivering Split Presentations. It's difficult to read the subtitles of a foreign movie and follow the action. When sellers stand at a distance from the screen, they create a similar problem. You probably won't build rapport with someone whose focus is repeatedly divided.

Remedy: Stand next to the screen and present a united message.

Mistake #3: Positioning Yourself Incorrectly. Right-handed sellers usually stand with the screen to their right. This allows them to point more easily. However, people read left to right. Salespeople are unable to capitalize on this fact when the screen is to their right.

Remedy: Position a screen, flip chart or easel stand to your left. Then people will naturally start with their eyes on you and return to you after glancing at the screen.

Mistake #4: Choosing the Wrong Screen Size and Position. In most meeting rooms, screens are two to three times bigger than necessary. The bigger the screen, the more it overshadows the presenter. Recessed ceiling screens are typically centered. This provides nice room symmetry, but it also diminishes the seller.

Remedy: Bring a portable screen. For two to fifteen people, a 4-foot by 4-foot screen is fine. Place yourself in the room's center or key focal spot, and then angle the screen about 25 degrees toward yourself.

Mistake #5: Seating Decision Makers in the Wrong Chairs. In important sales presentations, seating arrangements matter. The first chair to the presenter's left is the best viewing point for a decision maker and the first chair to the presenter's right is the least desirable.

Remedy: Obviously, place the decision maker in the first chair to your left. Plant your feet firmly perpendicular to your group and be conscious that your body will continuously try to rotate toward the screen. Don't let it, or you'll give more eye contact to the non-decision makers.

Mistake #6: Dimming the Lights. Darkness induces drowsiness and mental wandering. Plus it eliminates the best part of a presentation – you!

Remedy: Keep the room lights on or dim them slightly. If multiple light switches are available, turn the lights off directly above the screen. (Of course, since the lights are on, you will need to design slides that are visible at higher light levels.)

Mistake #7: Promoting the Screen. Too many presenters feel that the information on the screen is the real "star." But the audience needs to see you as well – you pull them into the story unfolding on the screen and bring the message to life. As an American Indian proverb goes, "Move closer to the campfire, so I can see your words."

Remedy: Bring the lights up enough so that both you and your visuals are clearly seen.

Mistake #8: Playing with Pointers and Other Toys. Anything you hold in your hands becomes a plaything with which you'll fidget. You might as well twirl a baton, since your hands gripping some object will distract people just as much.

Remedy: Keep your hands free to gesture by not holding a pointer, marker or remote.

Mistake #9: Blocking the Screen. Do not turn toward the visual and point with your right arm. This causes you to partially block the screen from viewers to your right.

Remedy: Point at the screen with your fingers together, palm down and parallel to the floor. Point to the screen with only your left arm, but when you gesture, use both arms.

Mistake #10: Holding Remotes or Clickers. Remember, it's human nature to play with objects in your hands. If you're nervous, you'll speed up and change the slides faster than you should. Besides, holding a remote causes you to gesture less. You'll settle into the easier, boring role of a talking head instead of selling your ideas with your upper body.

Remedy: Place your laptop or remote on the lectern or a table under the screen.

Mistake #11: Positioning the Lectern to the Side. Usually, in high-dollar presentations, two items dominate the room – the screen and the lectern. Too many presenters place the lectern well away from the screen (causing the aforementioned split presentation), and then they hide behind the "box." To "take cover" defeats the whole idea of selling visually.

Remedy: Position the lectern, screen, and presenter together, so the presenter can interact closely with the screen and use the nearby lectern to hold content cue cards or the remote to change slides. If you're the presenter, stand in the center of the room or stage with the screen to the left and the lectern to the right.

Mistake #12: Reading Someone Else's Text Slides. If you take over someone else's text-heavy presentation at the last minute, you face an uphill battle. By just reading the text slides, you'll put your audience to sleep.

Remedy: Use different words from what appears on the screen. Be very enthusiastic. That will help viewers overlook the boring slides. New Call-to-action