August 8th, 2010

Stop choking your inner Martin Luther King with PowerPoint slides and animation effects

Don’t blame the hammer for the hole in the wall. Whenever my husband sees me walking around with a hammer in the house, he becomes nervous. And with good reason.

“What are you doing? Hanging a picture? I can do that. Let me do that. I said, let me do that…Step away from the hammer!”

Let’s just say that I can do some serious damage to a wall with a hammer. Now, do I blame the hammer? Hell, no. I blame the klutz holding the hammer.

Which brings me to my point: do you blame the tool or the person using the tool? You’ll find much chatter on the internet these days about PowerPoint presentations: PowerPoint has been declared a crime, bullets that can kill. But is PowerPoint criminal, or are our presentations?

Just as I don’t blame the hammer for the hole I made in the wall, I don’t blame PowerPoint for the scores of really bad presentations that I have had to sit through. PowerPoint is not a crime. Our use of it is. Profoundly, utterly and totally criminal. As Scott Berkun notes while defending PowerPoint: “you can do stupid things with any tool.” And I have seen many stupid things done with PowerPoint.

Back in time when only words mattered. Let’s step back in history, to a time before PowerPoint. When you wanted to start a revolution, did you use slides? No, you used words. And those words were fired by passion.

When I first saw a clip from Martin Luther King’s famous speech at the Washington Monument in 1963, I was in fourth year university, taking a break from studying. Along with one of my housemates, I listened to the famous “Let freedom ring” clip, which happened to be on TV.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe.

When it was over, all I remember was dead silence. (I had something caught in my eyes.) Then my housemate said, in what is probably one of the greatest understatements of all time: “Wow. He was a really good speaker.”

Yuh think?

Thanks to the bounties of the internet, I now have the entire speech as a favourite on my YouTube account. I have listened to it, in its entirety, about 45,000 times. (I am exaggerating only a little.) And I never ever get tired of it. Because there are lessons in this speech even for project managers whose messages are so much less profound than trying to lead a civil rights movement.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what we all can learn from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech (transcript here.)

YouTube Preview Image

The words are the pictures. The first thing you’ll notice about Martin Luther King’s speech is the power of words, which is the only tool he has to convey a message. Remember, this was 1963, when television was in its infancy: no internet, no Twitter, no blogs, no digital photos. Specifically, he uses metaphors and analogies to paint a series of pictures. His most powerful metaphor, which he introduces at about 3:19, is the cashing of a check, a check of civil rights to be cashed at the bank of the American justice system. He builds up his metaphor, like a story, until the first climax at 4:19: “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked insufficient funds”. The crowd roars. (Funny thing, I always get something stuck in my eyes at this part.) He finishes off his metaphor at 4:57 when he proclaims that “we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.” More roaring at 5:05. Understandably so. He uses this simple metaphor to convey his message, his mission. And everyone gets it. These words are powerful in their simplicity.

Check out the other pictures he paints which his words: “the winds of police brutality”, “sweltering with the heat of injustice”, “drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred”, “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”. These are words at their most potent. No slides, no photos, no transition effects, no animation. Just words. Beautiful, simple, powerful words.

Repetition. Dr. King keeps repeating certain phrases over and over, like the chorus in a song or a poem. (His entire speech is poetry, in my opinion.) He answers the hypothetical question “When will you be satisfied” (9:15) with a series of sentences, each beginning with “We can never be satisfied”. Like a song with a chorus we all know, he repeats “We can never be satisfied”, pauses, then finishes his sentence with an image or an injustice (the changes he seeks), then pauses, at which point the crowd roars. He repeats the entire cycle again for a total of five times. It never gets boring. Never.

Of course he uses the same technique again at the end of his speech, the famous part, the part that I watched as a young student so many years ago.

He first introduces the phrase “I have a dream” at 12:20. And just keeps repeating it, over and over. Again, he introduces the phrase, then his vision, phrase, vision, phrase, vision, for a total of eight times.

Then he ends the speech with the famous “Let freedom ring”. Same pattern: he introduces the phrase at 15:24. And then repeats it over and over: “Let freedom ring from”, followed by a place in the United States, over and over again. Ten times. Does it get old? Never. It gets me. Every. Single. Time. Maybe on the 45,001 view, I will not have something stuck in my eyes when he gets to the “Free at last” part. Maybe. But I doubt it.

Passion. Of course the last ingredient for any great speech is to believe in your message. With your body, heart and soul. If you watched the entire video (it is only 20 minutes long), you will notice that Dr. King starts out slowly. At about midpoint, (the “I have a dream” series), his voice picks up (especially when he talks about his four children). Then he gets caught up in his message and, at about 17:00, you can see him raise his arms and almost lift himself off of the podium, as if to fly. His body language conveys his passion to the point that the crowd cheers along with him. Like a conductor in a symphony orchestra, he sweeps the audience up into his passion. It works, on me anyway, every time. As for my eyes: well they seem to always have something stuck in them at this part too…must be something in the air…

Channeling your inner Martin Luther King. Before you tell me you are not leading a civil rights movement so this couldn’t possibly apply to you, let me tell you about the time I saw an ordinary person channeling her inner Martin Luther King. She was talking about…building performing teams. Mundane? Not to her.

However, before I got to listen to Ms. Passion, I had to sit through an introduction by her colleague Mr. Boring, who had set out (I’m convinced of this) to break every single tip on how to give a good presentation. He fussed about the animation (I didn’t care), read boring bullets (I didn’t care), put way too much information on his slides, like the number of employees (again, I didn’t care).

Thankfully, after he finished torturing us, he then gave the floor to Ms. Passion. And she did two very interesting things.

First, she bubbled over with enthusiasm, telling us that this was a subject “that I feel very passionate about”. You just can’t fake that kind of passion. (Not even Sally could.)

Then, she stepped away from the PowerPoint, moved over to a flip chart, and wrote down a simple equation. She was using words to tell a story. She knew her audience was full of geeky engineers and we love equations. Smart girl.

The rest of Ms. Passion’s presentation reminded me why I get up at 5:30 am to attend breakfast events like this. That is until she had to give the floor back to Mr. Boring, who killed all the momentum that she had built up, by going back to his tables, bullets, and slides.

Stop choking your inner Martin Luther King with slides. Sure, it’s one thing to give a killer speech at an event, but what does this have to do with work, with project management?

Duh. Everything.

Here are two more examples where I got to see leaders, executives, channel their inner Martin Luther King, at work. The fact that I never forgot these presentations is testament to how successful they were.

The first one was a President of our business area (pretty high up in the nosebleed section) who came to our lowly division to explain why we were embarking on a particular path of change. Do I remember his PowerPoint slides? Nope. What I do remember is this guy standing up in front of us and saying: “I believe, with all of my heart, that this is the right thing for us to be doing. If I didn’t believe, why would I travel to every division in the world to explain it to you myself?”


The second one was a Vice-President, years later, who came to our division to explain some change that we needed to do. (There’s a pattern here, isn’t there?) Sure, he had slides. Nope, don’t remember the slides. What I do remember: he almost jumped in the air (like Martin Luther King does at 17:00) and told us “I believe we need to do this. If we don’t, our business won’t survive.”

I have kept these examples in mind every time I try to communicate a message, whether it’s to a customer, my project team or project stakeholders. We all have a message. We all have an inner Martin Luther King. We just need to stop choking him with slides. And animation effects.

Forget PowerPoint, remember Words, Repetition, Passion. So, for your next presentation, spend less time (like, none) on the animation effects and more time on channeling your inner Martin Luther King. Use words as pictures, keep repeating your message, and be passionate.

Sure, you can have a few PowerPoint slides. Just remember that, like those executives whose passion I remember, it’s not the words on the slides that will move your audience.

You will.

2 comments to Stop choking your inner Martin Luther King with PowerPoint slides and animation effects

  • Project Management Words to Live By…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  • Kate

    Wise words of advice given here! However, as I work for a PowerPoint design agency I have to add to your final comment that although text from a PowerPoint presentation may not be remembered, carefully selected relevant images can work wonders for sticking in an audiences mind.

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