Business professionals, academics, and students live in a world of meetings, presentations, and computer slides. The slides serve as visual aids, helping presenters make their points and connect with the audience. Faculty members create and deliver class material using presentation software on nearly a daily basis, and they also assign and evaluate student presentations. Most students expect to include slides as part of their presentations. The process of creating visual aids helps students in the important task of developing stronger communication skills. In fact, the AICPA Core Competency Framework lists “communication” as one of the necessary personal competencies for individuals entering the accounting profession. Specifically, the framework states that accounting professionals should have the ability to “deliver powerful presentations.”
The amount and quality of instruction related to communication and the use of visual aids vary widely. Training often focuses on the software options available, such as Microsoft PowerPoint, Apple Keynote, and Prezi, and the technical aspects of using them. Given the pervasive nature of presentation software in the lives of accountants at every level, what guidance exists to help professionals and aspiring professionals use these tools more effectively to improve communication? This column provides a review of four books that address this very issue. The reviews summarize some of the highlights and compelling advice that focus on both building the slides and using them in delivery. They will help presenters find the book that is the best fit for them in their quest to improve their own style and method.
Nancy Duarte, slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations (O’Reilly Media 2008)
- Format: This is a detailed and visually appealing book containing 12 chapters packed with directions for using slides in presentations. The chapters progress through the slide creation process, discussing choosing backgrounds and fonts, adding images and animation, creating and integrating diagrams, and displaying data. Duarte provides visual examples throughout the book with easy-to-follow slide makeovers. The author uses a number of specific case studies to illustrate her ideas.
- Main theme: Duarte covers a lot of ground in this book. However, her primary aim is to show the reader how to create effective visual presentations that clearly communicate an idea to the audience. The visuals are meant to support the presenter’s story, allowing him or her to connect emotionally with the audience.
- Most helpful tips: Early in the book, Duarte challenges readers to decide whether they are creating a document or making a presentation. Presentations have slides that support what is being said and clearly communicate the vision. She advocates sketching slides before building them in the software, which helps presenters take the time to consider how best to clearly show the concept. She strongly advocates that slides are a form of “glance media” like a billboard and will be processed in about three seconds by the audience. Specifically, Duarte discourages the use of ornamental distractions, bullets, all caps, and clip art. She encourages presenters to use their own images versus stock images, no more than two font selections, and colors that fit their own industry. Finally, Duarte highlights the significant amount of time required to implement her ideas to design and create effective slides.
- Best uses: slide:ology can be used as a reference book that professionals will return to time after time to find useful instructions about creating presentations. The comprehensive nature of the book makes it beneficial for both reading from beginning to end and pulling out specific guidance for dealing with a trouble spot. It is a valuable resource for those with experience who are serious about making better presentations.
Garr Reynolds, Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (New Riders Press 2008)
- Format: This book relies on Japanese Zen aesthetic principles to convince readers that it is possible to show beauty and powerful messages through simplicity. It is filled with examples of slides that include striking images, white space, and very few words. The volume gives nice examples of slides before and after simplification.
- Main theme: The main idea of Presentation Zen is simplicity. The author aims to help readers present with more clarity, integrity, beauty, and intelligence. The paths to achieve those goals include restraint in preparation, simplicity in design, and naturalness in delivery. Reynolds notes that simplification and omission are keys to beautiful visual imagery and suggests that greatness is found in what is left out. Pictures are more memorable than words, and bullet points are rarely needed.
- Most helpful tips: The author reminds presenters that the audience cannot read and listen at the same time. The slides should make the audience want to listen more. He advises the reader to craft a story and then use pictures to tell it. Any quotations should be brief and not read aloud by the presenter. He also proposes that presenters create a separate and unique handout with details, if needed. He cautions against creating a “slideument,” in which the slides contain all the required information and are simply printed and given as a document.
- Best uses: This book is best for readers who are not looking for an exact presentation method to copy or steps to follow but who want to change their thinking about developing and giving presentations. It includes a number of complete slide presentations as helpful examples. It is also full of resources at all price levels for finding useful images.
Paul J. Kelly, The 7-Slide Solution: Telling Your Business Story in 7 Slides or Less (Silvermine Press 2005)
- Format: This book contains 26 brief chapters, which makes it a fast-paced read. It focuses on using storytelling to persuade the audience to think differently. The slides connect to each aspect of the story.
- Main theme: 7-Slide Solution aims to convince readers that the best presentations involve storytelling. Kelly gives five simple steps for telling a story and shows how to accomplish it in seven or fewer slides. The five steps are:
- Start with a premise that resonates intellectually and emotionally with the audience;
- Find the hook or identify the core conflict;
- Stretch the core conflict or create tension;
- Relieve the tension or make a decision; and
- Resolve the core conflict or picture how things change.
Stories are effective because people think in ideas, not facts. Ideas can influence how the audience thinks more than a series of facts ever will. Generally, one slide is used for each of the five steps, with an additional slide to tell the “backstory” between steps 1 and 2. The seventh slide can be used, if necessary, to set up a sequel or anticipate future questions.
- Most helpful tips: Kelly directs the reader away from the standard structure of organization, “agenda through recommendations.” While this structure might be clear, it is not engaging. In chapter 12 he anticipates the question, “What about the facts that the presenter must convey?” His response is to include only the key facts that relate to the story’s premise. He advises including the minimum amount of information necessary for an acceptable decision to be made. When it comes to the actual slides, Kelly thinks busy slides can be useful when the presenter guides the group through them. Slides can contain a lot of information, as long as it is meaningful.
- Best uses: This book is best for a reader looking for an exact method of presentation. It includes many examples that can be duplicated in almost any business context. Detailed instructions are given for what to include on each slide of the presentation. The book represents a useful “how-to” approach, but the reader must commit to the entire process.
Jerry Weissman, Presentations in Action: 80 Memorable Presentation Lessons from the Masters (FT Press 2011)
- Format: This book has 80 short chapters, some only one page in length. Each chapter gives a mini-case or story within the larger context of the main story. The volume is largely a summary of three earlier books by Weissman, a noted expert on this topic. Chapters 25–39 focus specifically on designing slides, but coaching on how to use the slides can be found throughout the book.
- Main theme: Weissman reminds readers that the presenter is the focus of the presentation, not the slides. The slides should illustrate the presenter’s ideas, not make coherent arguments. He adopts a storytelling approach but is less specific than Kelly in 7-Slide Solution.
- Most helpful tips: The visuals give the presenter an opportunity to “show versus simply tell,” but the real value is in what the presenter adds beyond the slides. For this to work, the presenter must be prepared and know his or her aim well enough to “give the pitch” in an elevator ride. Weissman offers an example of a news broadcast where the speaker stands in front, with graphics behind him. He urges the use of images over words whenever possible. For example, he advises against using all caps in the slides and gives detailed advice about animation, such as not speaking during animation and using the “wipe” option for slide transitions and animations.
- Best uses: This book is best for readers wanting the most basic, and possibly the best, ideas about presentations. It is broad but not deep, forgoing detailed illustrations and before-and-after demonstrations. It gives easy-to-implement ideas that can be put into use immediately. The series of short stories makes it an enjoyable read.
Aside from personal enrichment, faculty members can use these books to help students develop better presentations. There are several ways of incorporating the books reviewed here and other resources.
- Give the class a short summary of the books and leave them on reserve at the library. This can be especially helpful in courses where the students make presentations to the class. Faculty members can ask students to identify which ideas were incorporated into their presentations.
- Select one book and read through it as a class. The students read a portion of the book each week and then have an in-class discussion about the ideas. Add short assignments that demonstrate the authors’ points. For example, students can work in pairs to show one concept or idea in the form of a picture with limited text and no bullet points. The instructor can show the slides and have the class guess what concepts are represented.
- Assign different books to teams in the class. Each team makes a presentation using the most helpful tips from the book. The instructor helps summarize by showing similarities and differences in the approaches of the various authors.
- Provide additional resources for student reference. The books reviewed here list websites and online resources (e.g., www.stockphoto.com). These can be consolidated into a document and posted for students. The creators of presentation software offer helpful tips as well as training on their websites.
- Model good presentation skills. Many faculty members (including the authors of this column) have dozens of presentation files that are full of bullet points and unattractive clip art. While time might not allow a total and immediate restructuring of the entire course, a commitment to incremental change can make a big impact in the long run.
Accounting professionals in practically every arena are asked to prepare presentations using slides. This gives the presenter the chance to connect with and persuade the audience, whether it includes students, co-workers, clients, or other professional colleagues. Carefully crafting the presentation offers an opportunity to enhance the reputation of the individual and his or her organization and to facilitate the learning process. The advice available in these books varies in both substance and style, but every reader should be able to find methods and tips that resonate with him or her. Without a doubt, the audience will be grateful for the efforts presenters make to create presentations that are informative and engaging.
Annette Nellen is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, CA. She is a former member of the AICPA Tax Division’s Tax Executive Committee and is a current member of the Tax Division’s Individual Income Tax Technical Resource Panel. Christina Ritsema is a lecturer in the Department of Accounting & CIS at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, CO. Tracy Manly is ONEOK Professor and associate professor of accounting in the School of Accounting and MIS at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, OK. For more information about this column, contact Prof. Manly at email@example.com.