You're awake working on a presentation for tomorrow. The computer screen glows; its clock mocks you: 3 a.m. And you're not done with your PowerPoint slides. At this point, you make every slide background a blue gradient, type in the last bullet point that covers the minimal requirements for this presentation, turn off the computer and go to sleep. And as you lie down, you think, "Will they get it?"
This situation may sound familiar. Or maybe you're up late dreading sitting through such a presentation or meeting. Or you're preparing the sales pitch of your life. Or you just want to explain what it is you do, exactly, on your company website.
In this information-overloaded age, your employees, potential clients and investors don't have time to sift through the numbers and charts thrown at them. Just as in a grocery market or a bookstore where you just have to judge a meat sauce by its packaging, or a book by its cover, your audience needs you to help them choose you by simplifying your business, not by complicating things.
The point you communicate must be memorable. Here are five ways to have simpler, clearer and more engaging communications.
Force yourself to think it through. Dan Roam, founder and president of Digital Roam Inc., management consultant and author of Back of the Napkin, encourages his clients to map out presentations in pictures.
"Using pictures to clarify our own idea will help us see things in our own idea that remained completely invisible if we hadn't created the pictures," he says.
As you sketch it out, Roam says you'll find a singular focus.
Nancy Duarte, principal of Duarte Design, in her book slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, writes, "Sticky notes allow ideas to be captured, sorted and re-arranged as needed."
She recommends using a Sharpie and one sticky note per idea to keep them simple. It's easy to throw everything you know into a PowerPoint.
"It is far harder," she says, "to come up with a simple, clear explanation of our idea."
Roam and Duarte agree that the understanding and response you receive from your audience is worth the time and effort.
Know your audience and address the knowledge gaps. Now you have simple ideas that make sense to you. Excellent, how do you ensure that other people receive what you say?
Aric Wood, president of XPLANE, a consulting and design firm in Portland, Ore., says that when his team begins a project, it goes straight to the audience.
"One mistake companies often make is that they try to create one communication and send it to everybody," Wood says. "But the reality is that you talk to a CEO very differently than you would talk to an employee on the factory floor."
Put yourself in your audience's shoes. Think of their needs, their questions and their contexts. Then start thinking about how to best cater your points to them.
In her book, Duarte suggests creating an "audience persona" slide and placing it somewhere visible so you'll keep your audience and the context of your presentation in mind.
Don't expect every person will understand you. Cut the jargon. Lee LeFever and his wife, Sachi, of Seattle-based Common Craft, create videos that give simple explanations of complex ideas.
"People who are experts in their world have a really hard time communicating," LeFever says. "They can't imagine what it's like not to know what they know."
Engage your audience. Once you know your audience and what makes them tick (or not tick), you have no excuse for boring them. You can't assume the audience will be attentive just because you're in front of them, Wood says. They must be attracted to and curious enough about what you're saying in the first place to listen.
Wood and Roam agree that pictures always speak louder than words. Humans are wired to be visual learners. Visual information cuts across languages, cultures and many other barriers to understanding. LeFever and Wood use videos to engage people. In an era of text and instant messages, brief e-mails, and short bursts of information, expecting customers to read four paragraphs on your company's mission statement or employees to sit through 50 slides on the new SEO process could harm your business.
Differentiate yourself from the crowded marketplace. See what everyone else in your market says and send your message in a unique, memorable way, Wood says. Printed visuals, brochures, videos and images all communicate ideas simply, clearly and differently from the rest of the pack.
"Use the right tool the right way," Duarte recommends.
PowerPoint is such a tool, Roam says. Use PowerPoint to make evocative and memorable presentations. Your slides should look different from the templates. Anyone can make a cookie-cutter slideshow. But why waste your time and, worse, your audience's time, as you read one bullet point after the other.
Drawing out the solution or explanation with good ol' pen and paper (or on a whiteboard) also sets you and your company apart. In a sea of words, customers and investors will seek you out if they get you and your company in one glance at a picture.
Practice it. Make the time to simplify your communication now. Whenever the next problem comes up, Roam says, no matter how significant or puny, start drawing out the solution. The discipline of sitting down and thinking through it so that it's clear to you will help make it understandable for others.
Get others involved in the process, as well. If you draw out what you're thinking on the whiteboard, allow others to add to it or change it, creating a collaborative solution that everyone understands--and a peace of mind that everyone can appreciate.