May 17, 2018 / Esther Choy

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has banned PowerPoint in executive meetings since 2004. And with good reason. Around that time, the data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte warned his readers about PowerPoint. “Power corrupts,” he said. “PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” Maybe humans just can’t be trusted under the influence of Microsoft’s presentation design program. But what Bezos does instead might actually offer us a clue about how to enjoy PowerPoint responsibly.

Narrative is a powerful tool for leaders because it helps the audience think with you. It activates their imagination. Data-heavy PowerPoints do the opposite. The audience thinks the numbers have answered their questions, so their curiosity shuts off. There is a place for PowerPoint, such as adding visual context to your story.

But there is one thing you should always leave out.

The most important visuals in presentations should not appear in a PowerPoint deck at all. Or, as I tell my clients, “save the best for never.” Instead of including it in the deck, the way to use visuals in presentations is to draw the most important visual in front of your audience. Use a flipchart like Simon Sinek did when he drew his golden circle at one of the most popular TED talks of all time. Or, if you’re presenting your idea with a small group, draw it on a piece of paper or even a napkin. I have observed the following scene unfold over and over again. When someone picks up a pen or marker to draw something, others pay attention. What will the person draw? The natural reflex is to track and follow how the picture will turn out.

“If you get your visual on the whiteboard, it dominates the meeting,” cognitive psychologist Steve Franconeri told me when I interviewed him for my book Let the Story Do the Work. Three years ago, an asset management fund used this strategy. The portfolio managers were having trouble building interest in their pitch book.

It was full of jargon, data and graphs–which meant that it was just like anyone else’s. In fact, if you removed their logo and replaced it with any of their competitors’, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Because there was very little to make it distinct, potential clients were just forgetting the information as soon as they saw it. The management team knew that, above everything else, their clients wanted them to reveal “just what it was that made their strategy work.” So that’s what they started to focus on.

When they met with potential clients, they drew the graph that encapsulated the reasons their strategy worked. That way, they could explain it, a little bit at a time, engaging their audience’s interest every step of the way. Lo and behold, this graph is what most clients still talk about months and years after it was drawn. Using such simple visuals in presentations became a power tool the portfolio managers could use to influence potential clients.

Technology can assist your business to a certain extent. But if you allow technology to take over and ignore fundamental human needs, you are sure to lose your audience. Some of the most basic human needs are for direct connection and exercising our imagination. Good stories can meet those needs, embedding tools that allow for direct connection and ignite the audience’s imagination.

Every leader can apply the principal elements of storytelling to all forms of in-person communication in modern business. And one of those key elements? Using simple visuals in presentations so you can tell your organization’s story more effectively.

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Need to capture everyone’s attention? Contact us for business storytelling training! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help.  Schedule a working session with us today!

Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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