winston churchill and the art of knowing when to powerpoint

Never. In the field of human conflict. Has powerpoint. Badly deployed. Caused so much damage. Of course, Winston Churchill was a good leader. But he was never hindered by pie charts and bullet points on powerpoint. In this post look at where you need to tailor the approach.

by GUEST EDITOR Chris Bolton

Excellent News! Through extensive research* I’ve located a picture of Winston Churchill from June 1940, practicing his Powerpoint presentation of the ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech.

If you squint carefully (its an old picture) you can just make out the Pie Chart percentages of where the fighting will take place: Beaches 45%, Landing Grounds 20%, Fields 10% etc. Apparently Churchill was ready to deliver the carefully crafted presentation when, during a bombing raid the House of Commons projector bulb was shattered by some stray shrapnel. The result was the impromptu, unsupported speech to Parliament, and the rest is history.

The speech might be almost 75 years old, but I bet you could ask 10 people, and over half of them would be able to give you a reasonable ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ Winston Churchill impersonation. Have a listen here, it’s stirring stuff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tq_Rsb8KoKo

What’s this got to do with Powerpoint?

This post isn’t a knock at Powerpoint. I like Powerpoint, it’s been a good friend to me over the years, and has helped me deliver many a difficult presentation. It also suits people with different learning styles. If you have a lot of complicated data to present, sometimes a Powerpoint slide can be the best way.

What I’m getting at is the need to tailor the approach. If you’ve got a very straightforward message, a clear and direct email is probably appropriate. If it’s a big complicated messages, something where people need reassurance or inspiration, I think the spoken word, preferably face to face is best. Imagine if Churchill's speech had been issued as a ‘Send to All’ corporate email, with pie charts; I shudder to think. I might even be writing this in a different language had it been the case.

Face to face communication and the spoken word help to make a message stick and give it so much more impact. Have a listen to the Churchill speech and see if you pick up on the passion and emotion. When I think about the hundreds of presentations I’ve listened to over the years, I remember very few of them. The ones that I do remember always left a mark and usually ended up with me doing (or not doing) something. They all had a few things in common:

  • The person delivering the presentation really cared.
  • They really knew what they were talking about.
  • They weren’t afraid to show it.

This might not work on every occasion. Putting some passion and emotion into material like ‘the audit of the document storage arrangements’ might be a little difficult. However, there are some big things happening in public services at the moment like changes to services and changes to peoples’ jobs. I think there is a huge need with these sorts of changes for communication with some passion and emotion.

Going back to the point I made earlier, imagine if Churchill had delivered that content using a slide presentation or a corporate email. If he had, I’m pretty sure the desire to reassure and inspire a Nation during it’s darkest hour would have been considerably less effective.

Back in the modern world, if there is something big and difficult to say, whether its to staff or service users, I’m suggesting it gets done face to face, with passion and emotion. Absolutely avoid the corporate email and only use a slide presentation if it is necessary and adds something of value. People are more likely to respond if they feel your pain, see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice.

If your organisation is too big and spread around the country, try Skype or film your-self and post the video on You-Tube (or Vimeo if you are posh). In the Web2.0 world there really aren’t any excuses for not talking directly to your people.

Finally. If you like the idea of Churchill's Speech on Powerpoint, you can view it here, along with ‘other famous speeches ruined by Powerpoint’. 

Disclaimer: extensive research* = a photoshopped picture of Churchill (by my son) and a few fibs for the sake of the story.

Chris Bolton works for the Good Practice Exchange at the Wales Audit Office