Beauty, Like the Night

IlluminateShe walks in beauty, like the night; Of cloudless climbs and starry skies… 

Lord Byron’s stunning verse evokes the glowing beauty of a woman’s eyes, comparing them to the loveliness of night. It is a sweet poem about illumination and the soft glow of tender light. It poses the wonders of night against the shine of “gaudy day”.

This is how I feel about clip-art.

In far too many presentations, I’m being forced to look at cheesy clip-art images, their gaudiness burning my eyes like I’m staring directly at the sun. I mean that literally, because sometimes I’m actually looking at the image of a sun — a sun with a freaking smile on its face. Why does the sun have a smile on its face? Because somebody chose to put the damn thing in their PowerPoint. For shame.

Beauty, like the night, is subtler and more refined than a smiling sun, or a thumbs-up emoji, or hands shaking in front of a globe. The images you choose to put in your slides project much about your efforts. When crassly done, they tell the audience that you rushed your presentation, don’t care about it, or are not invested in communicating your ideas. When done with care, they can have great power. They illuminate your points, give them life, and resonate.

This is not to say that clip-art can’t work. It can. But only when images have been thoughtfully chosen to fit thematically with your work. Otherwise, more often than not, they are clichés, unoriginal, and likely to garner groans instead of your intended reaction.

Thankfully, this is an easy fix. You don’t need to be or hire a graphic designer to have great design. There are plenty of striking, beautiful images to be found from stock photo libraries like Shutterstock, iStock, or Adobe that will fit nicely into your work. Better yet, if you have a photographer in your network (or are one yourself), why not create original content? Not only will you see your points jump to life, but you’ll connect with an audience who longs for that personal touch.

When you look into the night sky, do you want to see a smiling emoji giving you thumbs up? Or would you rather see the Northern Lights, glowing, dancing against the darkness, illuminating…

What’s the Big Idea?

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The past two days have tested my patience. I sat through back-to-back presentations that, despite having interesting subject matter, failed maddeningly to resonate. I know I’m not the typical audience member — I get overly frustrated by disengaging slide-decks and prodding presenters pontificating their prose-ridden presentations. It’s surprising that I’ve not been asked to leave — I’m rather demonstrative of my distaste (there’s a lot of huffing and eye-rolling and even the odd “Are you kidding me?”). But I think sometimes presenters are happy to have elicited any sort of reaction, and simply regard me as “engaged and enthusiastic”.

In both cases my problem was an overabundance of information contained on each slide. The term “Slideument” most certainly would apply — documents in slide form that succeed only as a distraction and do nothing to convey the idea.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 3.42.46 PMHere’s an example of one of the slides I saw today. See! Horrifying, right? Now, for the sake of confidentiality, I replaced the text of the slide with my own, conveying as best I could what I actually got out of the presentation. I’m quite certain it’s not what was intended.

Now, compare this to the image at the top of this post. In a second… at a glance… you get the idea. Literally. Because that’s what it’s about. The idea.

Each slide should be limited to one idea. What’s more, no matter how complex that idea is, the context and meaning of the idea should be conveyed in three seconds. That doesn’t mean you can’t have supporting text, images or information. Remember, the role of the presenter is to deliver the information the most suitable means necessary. But again, in three seconds max — you should get the idea.

A good measure of how effective your slides are is to have a colleague take a quick look, and for each slide, ask them, “What’s the idea?” If they don’t get it off-the-bat, you’ll know to reconsider.

And, when you walk off the stage to a round of applause, you’ll know my advice is more than a “big” idea. It’s a good one.

#OpeningDay

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One of the best things about baseball is that you can fail most of the time and still be considered a great success. Last season’s batting title went to Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins with a .333 batting average, meaning he managed one measly hit for every three at bats. That’s a failure rate of 67% — two thirds of the time. Imagine being allowed that margin of error in your job! Most of us are barely permitted one mistake, let alone a 3 game batting slump. Consider child care professionals, for example. You could take care of a thousand kids, and deliver 999 of them back to their parents, safe and sound. But it’s that one kid you lost that they’ll never forget. “Sorry, Ed, you’ll have to forget your merit increase this year — I mean, there was that kid…”

Today is Opening Day of the 2016 season, and it got me thinking about a presentation I delivered a few years ago about what we in the workplace can learn from baseball. I think one of the greatest lessons is that you don’t have to win to be successful. As a major league ball player, you’re not going to win the World Series every year. You may not even make the Post Season. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful season — because every at bat, or every trip to the mound, is an opportunity for success. If it doesn’t work out, there’s next inning. You don’t have to wait till tomorrow, or Monday (as we often tend to do from Thursday on…) to correct your mistakes and make it count.

One of the game’s greatest managers, Joe Torre, says:

“To me, success is playing — or working — to the best of your ability. And winning is a by-product of living up to your highest standards for your-self, getting the most out or your natural talents, reaching down and rooting out your own drive, courage and commitment… But success should be your daily focus. You can’t win every day, but you can succeed in fulfilling your potential as an individual and a team member.”

I often think about baseball coaches when I’m delivering a presentation, because you’re often trying to achieve the same thing — give a team of talented professions the tools, inspiration and motivation to succeed. Communication is so important in the pursuit of winning, be it on the diamond or in the office.

Why not look at it this way? Next time your about to give a presentation, see yourself in the locker room, on opening day. The entire season is ahead of you and anything is possible. The World Series is in reach, because you have the right time to get there. They have the talent, the skill and the drive. All you need to do is give them a little guidance, a few tips, and a touch of belief.

I’ve uploaded a version of the presentation I referenced earlier, with the new addition of the famous “bat-flip”.

Play ball.