Visual Improvisation

In a recent interview, John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox, said:

“I was recently at a board presentation at a company that always used the old PowerPoint slides, or didn’t use slides at all. A subgroup experimented with using images that told the story. They had images with very, very simple titles on them, and they had very interesting, well-thought through text that they spoke, and improvised. So suddenly these images were the backdrop that set the context.”

When I’ve used a similar technique at workshops, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. This was the basic setup: I created a PowerPoint presentation with 50 blank slides, then inserted a photo object from a clip art collection on each slide. I set the transition timing at 1 minute, with each slide fading to the next automatically. I told the group we were going to do a little visual improv, and asked for one person to volunteer to stand up. When an image showed on screen, they would begin to tell a business story — the only constraints were that they had to refer to the image in some way, include the name of their business, and that when the minute was up they had to sit down. At that point, the person to their right would stand up and carry on the same story, using the new image to prompt their part of the story. The story continued around the table until everyone had contributed their piece of the story.

The results? The experience was fun. People laughed. They supported each other. They felt a sense of good will. Some were scared of the unknown, but also enjoyed the challenge after it was over. How do these reactions compare to the things people usually say when they talk about a typical PowerPoint presentation? And which set of reactions can help you better reach your communication goal?

Tip: Always keep a fresh eye and ear open for innovation. Don’t stay in a PowerPoint rut because that’s what everyone else does, or because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do. Stay close to your goals, and if a simple visual improv helps you achieve them better than the default approach, let’s see it!

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