What’s great about PowerPoint is that you can prepare a talk at short notice. The night before, on the plane or maybe even while the guy before you is giving his talk—thereby giving your exposé a sheen of actualité. Convolve this facility with human nature and what do you have? Brilliant demonstrations that amplify one’s greatest thoughts? Knowledge transfer of a powerful kind? Great ideas presented with new clarity? Unfortunately not. The 8th deadly sin, prevarication, which causes me to write this at the 11th hour, means that there is a temptation not to prepare ahead of time and of course, quality suffers.
Contrast this with the work of a mediaeval writer and his illustrator. If producing a page of text involves weeks of scribing by candlelight to produce a gilded wonder, you bet that you are going to think carefully about what text gets accepted for the manuscript. Only a couple of decades ago similar filters were applied when presentation slides were drafted by real people. They had to pass the implicit test - ‘is this slide worth drafting’.
Expected Intellectual Value
While we are unlikely to benefit from the presentational quality of the Gutenberg bible when we attend a talk, what should we expect? How can content be measured and evaluated? One way is to look at the ‘demand side’ of the equation and evaluate the financial cost of attending a talk. Say there are 50 or so in the audience—and it costs a couple of thousand dollars a day per attendee. If he/she can stomach six papers in a day, each talk ‘costs’ $16,000 to the attendees. I will call this the Expected Intellectual Value (EIV) to make it sound good. Next time you give a talk, think, ‘Am I giving a $16,000 value?’ If you are a keynote speaker addressing an audience of a few hundred highly paid executives, you may be looking at an EIV of several hundred thousand dollars!
The supply side of the equation is a bit harder to evaluate—what is the monetary value of information (MVI)? I really don’t know, but I do have a test which should let you know when your MVI is tending to zero. This is the Reverse Banality Test (RBT). Take a bullet point and reverse it. If what you are saying is blindingly obviously wrong, then the un-reversed point is likely to have a low MVI. My favorite banal exhortations include just about all references to ‘people’ and ‘process.’ For example ‘While rolling out your new 3D collaboration system, don’t forget about the people aspects.’ The RBT would be ‘Forget about the other people in the organization.’ Which might imply amusing subtexts like, ‘They’re probably too stupid to use it anyway. And who cares, if this ever rolls-out I’ll be off on another project anyway.’ Another bullet point for analysis, ‘Developing a first-rate widget is a challenge.’ RBT, ‘Developing a really crap widget is a cinch!’ You see what I mean.
Round trip RBT
Sometimes a round-trip RBT can be instructive as applied to the following popular bullet point, ‘Make sure you have management buy-in.’ The RBT, ‘Don’t tell management what you are doing’ is illuminating. But the round trip RBT is most revealing, ‘Cover your ass first by implicating your boss.’
MVI >= EIV?
If the above helps you avoid near zero MVI, good. But what generates high MVI, enough to satisfy the equation MVI >= EIV? At the heart of this question is the way we consider the ‘commerciality’ in talks. Most learned societies are bent on excising ‘commerciality’ from presentations. This may involve removing a product name or two. This is just silly. Knowing what software was used may be the most interesting part of the talk. In some cases, the aim of ‘non-commerciality’ actually destroys MVI as a talk becomes an exercise in information retention.
For many talks, it’s not ‘commerciality’ that is the problem but lack of content. What fuels MVI is intellectual property (IP), insight gained from experience or original analysis. A talk should contain some or all of the above, preferably $16,000 worth. You may want to give more. How do you do this? By telling folks something they didn’t know already and of which you have a considerable mastery.
Actually the best talks I have ever heard have been delivered without the help of PowerPoint. And the worst have been delivered with the help of PowerPoint and a teleprompter. The best speakers get up, bursting with something to convey and share their IP with the audience without props—maybe even without notes! Perhaps a slide or two are necessary to show some information rich document. But please, spare us the ghastly format of page after page of level one headings and subsequent bullet points. You might need notes, but your audience can take their own if they want to!
If you are uncomfortable with the monetary value approach to a talk’s worth I understand. I’m not really sure that I agree with myself on this one. But there again, I’m not all that comfortable with the way a monetary return on investment is applied to many aspects of business—safety, education and training and our old favorite, data management.
In reality, the value of a talk may well be different to different people. Perhaps a better model for EIV and MVI is the lottery. Whereby one person’s banal bullet point is another person’s company-making inspirational epiphany. Whatever turns you on Happy New Year from all of us at Oil IT Journal.
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