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The Army Lawyer


Next-Level PowerPoint Presentations



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It has been said that human beings innately fear two things—snakes and speaking in public. I am not sure whether that is true or not, but it certainly feels true. The dry mouth, the rush of adrenaline—it happens to even the very best of speakers. Nonetheless, a sure way to calm those public speaking nerves is to show up prepared and practiced. For most of the presentations judge advocates, civilian attorneys, paralegals, and legal administrators will give, our “good friend” PowerPoint will certainly be in the mix. It can be very tempting to lean on PowerPoint in lieu of preparation and practice. Doing so, however, can lead to disaster. PowerPoint is a very useful tool, and when used in the right way, can amplify your message to your audience. Here are some tips to transform your presentations.

1. Know your audience

Have you ever found yourself sitting in an auditorium or a classroom and the presenter says something like, “This slide doesn’t really apply to you. Next slide . . . ”? Cue three-quarters of the audience jotting down grocery lists, scrolling through Instagram . . . doing literally anything other than actually listening to the presenter. The point of any presentation is to share knowledge. By knowing your audience, you can identify key (normally, but not always, three) takeaways for your presentation and build your presentation’s theme around those takeaways. Identifying the takeaways should be fairly easy if you put yourself in the position of your audience and ask the question, “If I were a ‘fill-in-the-blank’ (Battalion Commander, Family Readiness Group member, Officer Basic Course student, etc.), what would I want to know at the end of this presentation?” If you are not familiar with your audience, consider asking the person who requested you give a presentation for more information. If, for example, you are giving a class to a group of commanders, find out which units they are assigned to and what judge advocate provides advice to that commander. Call that judge advocate and ask what they think the commander would want to know or hear about. Giving a presentation that feels tailor-made to the audience will increase the likelihood that your audience will listen and actually retain the information presented.

2. Step away from the computer

Now that you know your audience and you have made a decision as to the key takeaways from your presentation, create a road map for your presentation. Wait . . . are you reaching for your computer right now? Stop. Resist the temptation to jump onto PowerPoint. It’s best to sit down with a pen and paper and sketch out your road map, analog-style. This is a tip I learned from Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, and it made all the difference in the world. By going “analog” when coming up with the ideas for your presentation, you are able to play with the flow of your presentation in a much more creative way. It also allows you to think through your presentation and actually use PowerPoint as a tool to amplify your takeaways. If you jump on PowerPoint too early, you risk using PowerPoint as a crutch, forcing you to read your slides aloud to your audience. (Cue mental images of everyone staring blankly in your direction.) Additionally, when not distracted by technology, you can envision what you want a slide to look like and then set about making that vision a reality.

3. Keep it simple

As we have all learned (and witnessed in many courtrooms), the best cross-examination questions are simple, direct, one-fact-per-question declarative statements. Consider doing the same with your presentations. Choose pictures that illustrate your point and are easy to digest, visually. Try using fewer words on your slide, and when you need to use words on your slide (particularly in a briefing), build in time to allow your audience to read the slide. Then, move on to slides that amplify what your audience should not just read. If you are transmitting information that is complex and words are necessary, consider putting together a takeaway product that you give your audience at the end of the presentation. That way, they aren’t tempted to read the materials while you are presenting.

4. Explore the space

Go to the venue. Play with the technology. Look at how the room is arranged. You might want to change up your slides based on lighting or seating. Knowing that the colors on your slide are not visible, or that they are far too harsh, is half the battle. You want to make sure you eliminate the distraction that such little problems create for your audience so that they can focus on your message and key takeaways. Last, but not least, practice your presentation whenever possible. After all, practice makes perfect. Added bonus—if you are uncomfortable speaking in public, visiting the venue will help make you feel more at ease.

In the words of the immortal Coco Chanel, “Dress shabbily, and they remember the dress. Dress impeccably, and they remember the woman.” You want your presentation to be memorable because you have made the message memorable, using all the tools at your disposal, to include PowerPoint, to do so. Remember, your audience needs the information and you are the right person to share that information. Let PowerPoint work for you; not the other way around. Best of luck out there, and remember to have fun! TAL


LTC Wakefield is the Chief, Strategic Communications at the Office of the Judge Advocate General.