Visually speaking

When I give a presentation, I want to know that my audience is engaged. I’ve learned that engagement works best when I use a visually speaking strategy.

Visually speaking by Nancy Knowlton

A couple of years ago I held a town hall meeting at SMART Technologies to share the strategic long-range plan (shortened to SLRP and pronounced slurp) with the company staff. Our executive team had worked diligently on the 5-year plan, which we had condensed into 5 key strategies. With everyone assembled or connected, I started into the material. I was barely on the second slide when it hit me – the material wasn’t resonating. I could see it in everyone’s faces – people’s eyes had glazed over. Gamely, I carried on and delivered the full plan, but I could tell that the delivery was a flop.

Presentation woes

After the session I checked in with a few people, and they told me they thought the session was good (right). When I asked them to tell me the 5 strategies, they stumbled and failed miserably. I took that as a report card on my communication and determined to resolve the problem.

I went back to my office and dug into the material. It was clear and concise – 2 pages per strategy. It contained phrases and expressions that we had used often across the business. The plan hung together in terms of products, markets and infrastructure strategies that we intended to pursue. So what made the communication fail? Why had I failed? I thought for a while, and then I called a graphic artist to my office to talk about a new method for communicating to the company.

I sketched out a concept on a piece of paper and described what I wanted. A few hours later I had a polished version of my rough sketch (see Figure 1), and it was perfect – what I had described brought to an elegant level of execution.

Visually speaking by Nancy Knowlton

Figure 1

Delivering a strong presentation

I tried it out a couple of times on my own – using the image to show what we wanted to accomplish in 5 years within the context of our mission statement and writing the 5 strategies on the image along with some salient points for each.

I shared the new version of the SLRP at a department meeting a couple of days later. Before I started I asked people, on the honor system, to tell me how many of the strategies they could remember. Then I presented for 15 minutes, annotating the image as I spoke. At the end I again asked people to tell me, on the honor system, how many strategies they could remember now. What started as an average below 2 moved to almost 5. Yes, almost 5 for 5 – near perfect recall. In one short period of 15 minutes I went from goat to hero. So what was behind this remarkable transformation?

Active engagement

As I had contemplated the original materials for the presentation, it suddenly hit me that everything I wanted to share was on each slide. The words were all aligned in neat bullet points below the strategy headings. It was easy for me to speak to the points on each of the slides, but there was nothing active in the process for the audience. Nothing active meant no engagement, which translated to no recollection of the SLRP story.

The problem was the way in which the materials were prepared and shared. Words set out in Microsoft PowerPoint just didn’t allow people to create a compelling image or story in their minds. The words were there for my convenience and for my audience to read, but no synapses were stimulated in my audience. People had no way of cataloging the information in their minds. When I changed to the use of an image with the metaphor of a journey for the 5 years ahead, then told the story and wrote information in front of people, what was a passive experience turned into an active experience. It was harder for me because I didn’t have the crutch of words on a slide, but it was better for my audience.

I learned a number of valuable lessons from the experience, with the chief lesson being that the ultimate responsibility for communication lies with the presenter, and nothing matters if the target audience doesn’t get it.


I started to dig into the phenomenon that I experienced and found a whole range of commentary on the subject.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.