Are your PowerPoint slides working from the outside in, or the inside out?
Former Xerox chief scientist John Seely Brown recently said that PowerPoint tools “encourage you just to lay out the first set of points that come to you. There’s very little emphasis in how you tune the points so they become evocative, rather than just descriptive.”
The word evocative has its origin in the Latin word evocare, which means to call forth, or to call out, and today the word also means to reawaken, inspire, or produce a reaction, emotion or response. But if we propose to evoke meaning with the PowerPoint medium, we have to flip our communications approach upside down. Why? For demonstration purposes, let’s say that two different salespeople want to win the same multi-million dollar contract from the World Bank to build a solar energy plant in rural China.
In Scenario 1, the speaker chooses a descriptive approach, presenting this typical blue PowerPoint slide to describe to his audience why his company is well-qualifed to take on the new project. He reads through the bulleted list of reasons, describing why his company is more qualified than his competitors. His audience sits in silence.
In Scenario 2, the speaker chooses an evocative approach. She shows a simple slide with her competitor’s logo and says, “We understand this company is also bidding on this project. What’s your impression of them so far?” It’s a bold and risky move, with the intent of having the audience say something like, “To be honest, we weren’t too impressed until they showed us this morning that they have a new technology they’re about to launch – that put them right back in the running. What can you do to respond to that challenge?” Her risk pays off when she effectively persuades her audience that not only does her company have a similar capability, but they also can complete the project at a lower cost.
For more than 50 years we’ve assumed that communication between people works in a similar way as communication between machines, as described in an influential 1948 paper by Claude Shannon titled A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which was also published as a book. You’re probably familiar with the basic structure for the model:
information source –> transmitter –> channel –> receiver –> destination
But these two PowerPoint scenarios call into question how we should apply this mathematical model to human communications, because there’s more than one way.
In Scenario 1, we the presenters are the starting information source, so we put the information in a PowerPoint transmitter and channel, and our audience is the receiver and destination of our information. The quantity and quality of information is defined by what’s on our minds, and by extension, what’s on the slide.
But Scenario 2 flips the application of the model. The audience is now the starting information source, and PowerPoint is the transmitter and channel that draws forth information for us to receive as the destination. The quantity and quality of information in this case is defined by what’s on the mind of the audience, which fundamentally changes the dynamic of the relationship. It communicates that you are on a peer-to-peer level, that you listen, that interaction is important, and that you will be involved in the solution together. As in this case, it can also open up important channels of competitive intelligence, and can also help you figure out the mood and tone of your audience so you can adapt your approach to respond to their state.
The contrast of these two approaches shows that evocative media calls on a different set of evaluation standards than a descriptive approach. Compare the two slides above. From a descriptive perspective, we would judge the blue slide on how well information is presented in terms of its graphic design principles – How well did we fit all of the information on this slide? But the same standards don’t apply to the white slide, because the only valid evaluation standard is how well it evoked information from people in its specific context – How well did this work to evoke the response that helped me achieve my goal? Unlike other media, evocative media requires you to be present in the experience, so you can listen to the responses and emotional cues, and adapt your presentation to the ever-changing environment. In many ways designing evocative media is much more challenging than designing for paper or a browser, because of the complexity and unique circumstances of any given presentation environment.
Tip: Try turning your PowerPoint approach inside out. The next time you make a presentation, replace one of your usual bulleted lists with a new slide that contains only a simple image on a blank background. When you show the slide to your audience, ask them a question about it. Listen to their response, repeat it back, and tailor your talk to what you heard. If you’ve managed to draw forth any information that helps you adapt and adust your dialogue with your audience, you’re well on your way to evoking communication success.