Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Presentation Skills

When I worked for Macy's Technology, I had something of a reputation for preparing and leading meetings. I stretched PowerPoint to its limits and always tried to make presentations aesthetically pleasing or, in some cases, humorous. My feeling was that if you were going to have to sit through an hour (or more) long meeting, it might as well be entertaining. There is absolutely nothing more boring that sitting through a series of slides (as we used to call them), each of which is chocked full to the brim with unnecessary details that are of interest to only a limited audience. Plus, if you wear glasses, you'll probably have a hard time reading everything anyway.

I think my attitude toward what and how much to put on a slide probably stemmed from my father and his grocery store sign-making. Back in the day, his local supermarket chain was not of the size to have giant prepared signs to display; rather, he had to draw all the signs himself, even the giant price signs that used to appear in the windows. My dad had worked in grocery stores on the West Coast and up and down the Mississippi River, and somewhere along the line, he developed a real talent for making signs.

The process was typically performed at our house, and it followed something of a regular schedule. On Sunday nights after dinner, my dad would roll out sheets of white paper, uncap several very odiferous Magic Markers, and begin the magical process of sign construction. The TV was always on in the background, and I remember one series of signs that was drawn with Billy Graham's crusade playing. (Reverend Graham's delivery, along with the aroma of Magic Marker, could not but result in bringing one higher and therefore closer to Heaven.) I was fascinated by the skill and speed with which my dad drew these signs. It was as if he had an invisible stencil that made each sign consistent and perfectly well placed on the sheet of paper. He also drew smaller end-display signs that were equally as polished.

On several occasions, Dad let me help with the sign making. I was only about eleven or twelve, and although I tried in earnest to duplicate his style, my signs always seemed a little off kilter compared to his. But my dad, being the kind of guy he was, always put my signs in with his and displayed them in the store. I'd go look at them and think that they were close but no cigar. Still, I appreciated his thoughtfulness.

One of my dad's most entertaining signs was one that he drew when the price of chicken skyrocketed due to short supply. The only chickens that the store could get were very small, rather like oversized Cornish game hens. My dad drew a sign to display above them that read "F.B.I. Chickens," and underneath, it displayed some price per pound that I cannot remember. One day, a female customer asked my dad what the sign meant, and in his typical humorous nature, he replied that many of the parts had been redacted from the chickens and that they were therefore classified as F.B.I. Chickens. I'm sure the customer was quite pleased with the answer, although I heard this story second hand, so I don't know for sure.

I think the lesson from all this is: display with style, but make the point. Sure, you cannot buy a loaf of bread for 25 cents any more, but you can refrain from filling your PowerPoint slides with cut-and-paste excerpts in eight point font from Encyclopedia Brittanica. Make some nice, easy-to-read presentations. And if you need to redact some of the text, just be sure to note that somewhere, in order to minimize questions from the audience.