Slave to the cliché

Recently I’ve had occasion to reflect on the awful state of presentations. You see them all the time — in meetings, at conferences, shunted around via e-mail — and they sap the soul.

There are many aspects of crappy presentations, but I’ll focus here on only one.

From Wikipedia:

“Shave and a Haircut” featured in many early cartoons, played on things varying from car horns to window shutters banging in the wind. Decades later, the couplet became a plot device in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the idea being that Toons cannot resist obeying cartoon conventions. Judge Doom uses this to lure Roger Rabbit out of hiding at the Terminal Bar by circling the room and tapping out the five beats on the walls.

Here’s the scene from the film:

In film there’s a term called “mickey mousing” which refers mostly derogatorily to the underscoring technique of using music to exactly ape what’s seen on screen. Early cinema used it all the time, as the medium was new and unexplored. Examples include playing a sea shanty when a ship floats into view or mimicking the slicing of Janet Leigh in the shower in Psycho.

As with any technique used smartly it had its place, but mickey mousing quickly devolved into caricature as a stock device in cartoons (hence the name). Music in cartoons, usually orchestral, almost always reinforces in the most literal way the action on screen. Which is fine, because cartoons are meant to be laughed at.

But most presentations are not meant to be laughed at — at least not all the way through — and this is a problem. The idea behind mickey mousing pervades most presentations. That is, presenters often attempt to reinforce what is being conveyed in one medium (usually bland bulleted text) with another (usually hideous clip art of illustration).

This is almost always a bad idea. And the reasons are many.

First, it distracts from the real message. Presentations should be about the presenter, not about what’s on screen. If there is an image on screen it should complement, even slightly modify what the speaker is saying, not mindlessly illustrate what the bullets say. (Which goes the same for the bullets too: if what you’re saying is on the screen why even present at all?)

Second, mickey mousing in presentations demeans the intelligence of your audience. Do you really need to put a clip art image of an airplane next to your point about airborne supply chain routes? Does this make your point more compelling? Might it not say something more about the point itself? Or your confidence in the point? Or maybe just your confidence as a presenter? Most audiences, if not snoozing, are smart enough to ask these questions themselves.

And sometimes bad graphics have much direr consequences.

There are plenty of resources out there to help you make a better presentation. If you want an example of an extraordinary interplay between what’s being said and what’s being shown, have a look at Dick Hardt’s Identity 2.0 talk from OSCON 2005.

My colleague Ian Smith has put together a great overview of strategies for making yours more persuasive and entertaining. Highly recommended.

Maybe the simplest piece of advice is to ask yourself, is my presentation a deliverable or a performance? That is, is it meant to be read, studied, and digested (a solitary activity) or is it meant to sketch broad themes to many people and connect the authority of the presenter with the validity of the material?

These two things — a document and a presentation — should almost never be the same thing. They can cover the same material, but throwing a presentation made for reading up on the screen is like projecting the score of a symphony in the orchestra hall in lieu of music.

One response to “Slave to the cliché”

  1. Whit says :

    I liked this John – the book Presentation Zen recently made the rounds in my department and we’ve all been working to move all of our presentations in that direction. It’s hard work, but very worthwhile. Ian’s video did a great job of reinforcing a lot of the points from that book and giving a new angle on them.
    On a somewhat related point, you might want to consider increasing the default font size on the blog. I had to bump it a couple times in Firefox to read comfortably. Just one man’s opinion.