Archives for February 2012

Found in Translation – Comedy in Sustainability Communication

Sustainability communicators, who are attempting to ‘interrupt’ and shift the behaviour of large numbers of people in order to avert a number of serious and converging problems, might find the idea of using comedy in their work to be counter-intuitive.

Yet comedy is one of the most effective methods to capture people’s attention in a positive way. Consider climate change.

We’ve had the Stern Report into climate change – hands up, who read it all? All 700 pages of it? Thought so.

The report was essential for policy making and presenting the business case for tackling climate change, but not so helpful for giving the issue traction in the wider community – which is where politicians will be given ‘permission’ to make those decisions.

We’ve had Al Gore’s important and timely documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, which – coming hot on the heels of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and The Stern Review – created a tipping point in climate awareness.

But are the full range of values captured in a documentary, even one that was able to breathe life and story into what was essentially a scientific Powerpoint presentation? Did it resonate with those who remain unconvinced, or unconcerned? There are still many people who are unshakeable in their belief that climate change is not real, and vehement in their denial.

Perhaps what we most need is a ‘Monty Python’ approach to climate change, and sustainability in general?

Having said that, it must be acknowledged that humour can be tricky and delicate to handle – writers will often say comedy is the hardest thing to write, because what one person finds funny, others will not, or will in a worst-case scenario, find offensive. In 2010, the ‘Cut Carbon: No Pressure’ climate campaign backfired spectacularly in the UK:

No Pressure is composed of scenes in which a variety of people in every-day situations are graphically blown to pieces for failing to be sufficiently enthusiastic about the 10:10 campaign to reduce C02 emissions…The film was withdrawn from public circulation by 10:10, on the same day it was released, due to negative publicity. Charities that had backed the film stated they were “absolutely appalled” upon seeing it, and several of 10:10’s corporate and strategic partners withdrew from partnership.

Being mindful of such learnings, and having been criticised for ‘doomsday’ messages, shock tactics and the use of fear and guilt, what if sustainability communicators were more often able to use appropriate humour?

Comedy For Change

In this TED presentation, the marvellously-monikered Chris Bliss speaks of his journey of becoming a better communicator, and his discovery of comedy as an effective technique:

Comedy travels along a distinct wavelength from other forms of language. If I had to place it on an arbitrary spectrum, I’d say it falls somewhere between poetry and lies. And I’m not talking about all comedy here, because clearly there’s plenty of humour that colours safely within the lines of what we already think and feel.

What I want to talk about is the unique ability that the best comedy and satire has at circumventing our ingrained perspectives. Comedy as the philosopher’s stone – that takes the base metal of our conventional wisdom and transforms it, through ridicule, into a different way of seeing, and ultimately being in the world.

By ‘the best comedy and satire’, Bliss means that which comes from a place of honesty and integrity.

Jon Stewart of The Daily Show

He cites The Daily Show, a hugely popular current affairs/news parody fronted by Jon Stewart, as an example. The official site’s headline reads ‘Political Comedy – Fake News’, although there is more than a kernel of truth in many of Stewart’s mock news reports (frustratingly, much of The Daily Show content is not available to international viewers, so try searching for clips on YouTube).

Multiple surveys, including Pew research, have revealed that:

…Daily Show viewers are better informed about current events than the viewers of all major network and cable news shows. Now, whether that says more about the conflict between the integrity and profitability of corporate journalism than it does about the attentiveness of Stewart’s viewers, the larger point remains that Stewart’s material is always grounded in a commitment to the facts, not because his intent is to inform – it’s not. His intent is to be funny. It just so happens that Stewart’s brand of funny doesn’t work unless the facts are true. And the result is great comedy, that’s also an information delivery system that scores markedly higher in both credibility and retention than the professional news media.

Credibility? Retention of messages? Both are targets of sustainability communicators, and social change communicators in general. What could we learn from Jon Stewart and his contemporaries like Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report?

The Physiology of Comedy in Communication

Yet comedy is not merely an intellectual technique – it also has a physiological advantage as a means of communication for change.

Bliss points out that laughter releases endorphins into the brain, which changes brain chemistry, and opens up the possibility of seeing things in a different way. Comedy is a way of ‘reaching around people’s walls’, because those endorphins bring down the walls. This works in exactly the opposite way to anger, fear and panic – the fight or flight responses that release adrenalin, which raises our walls of self-defence. Through laughter, comedy enables us to question the validity of ours and others’ views on issues without becoming defensive.

And perhaps most critically, comedy is ‘inherently viral – people can’t wait to pass along that new great joke’. Bliss notes:

When you put all of these elements together – when you get the viral appeal of a great joke, with a powerful punchline that’s crafted from honesty and integrity, it can have a real world impact at changing a conversation.

The use of comedy to perturb, disturb, puncture and parody social issues is not limited to new media. One of the best popular culture communicators at the intersection of sustainability and comedy is British author Ben Elton (co-writer of the cult BBC series The Young Ones and Blackadder). His novels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Stark, Gridlock and This Other Eden offered social commentary by weaving sustainability themes in and around stories populated with quirky characters, irony and wit. His books were best-sellers and sold millions of copies.

Comedy is an approach that must be utilised with caution and consideration – but done right, it can breach barriers that no other method can.

Have you ever used comedy in any of your communications approaches? Did you find it helped you further engage with your audience, or did you ‘misfire’?

Do you think comedy translates across cultures? Who are the equivalents of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in your country?

What are some of the best examples of comedy with a social message you have seen?

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How to Map Assets and Expose Real Wealth for Shared Futures

I am pleased to present a guest post from Dr Donnie Maclurcan, my Post Growth Institute colleague, and PGI’s convenor. This article was originally published at Post, and this revised version of the original piece also featured at

In this article, Donnie presents the intent and technique of asset-mapping, a potentially powerful tool for any group involved in change work to recognise the resources and assets they already have among themselves.

A special note: this piece is being posted on Donnie’s 30th birthday – Happy Birthday Donnie! I’m still in awe of how much you’ve taught me, even though you’re only just into your thirties.

Harnessed fully, there are more talents and resources within any small group of passionate citizens than are actually needed to manifest deep social change. It is just a matter of how willing we are to step back and see things through a lens of strengths and possibilities, and how creatively we can bring our multitude of capabilities to light.

In the 21st Century, many of us are more ‘connected’ than ever, and whilst we live within economic and ideological systems that thrive on homogenization, we only have to consider the passions, knowledge, and skills of any one individual to recognize the immense and diverse assets waiting to be unleashed.

One way I’ve explored doing this involves employing a simple technique called asset mapping. In the case below – appropriate for any number of participants – this involves mapping the passions, knowledge, and skills that participants in any group already possess. I have successfully trialled this method with face-to-face gatherings, but the template can be easily customised for an online process or expanded to explore issue-oriented, organisational, or team-specific resources. It is essentially a form of real-time crowdsourcing; except, in this case, every bit of data is of potential, perpetual value to all involved.

pinboard with a range of coloured post it notes, each with an 'asset' written on them by participants

First up, here is one example of an outcome from this process, so that you know toward what you might be working!

The 10 Steps for Facilitating Asset Mapping

1.     Gather the following materials: nine colourful Post-it notes for every participant (e.g. 225 for 25 people), a pack of colourful sticky dots for every 10 participants, three big sheets of butcher’s paper for every 25 participants, and enough marker pens/pens for the group.

Tips: To produce the most visually appealing of asset maps, go for a range of colours (of the lighter kind) when selecting Post-it notes. For pens, note that there is an ideal tip thickness that allows for legible writing and reading from a distance. Also, if needed, you can substitute words or symbols for sticky dots.

2.     Assemble your group in a way that allows participants to partner up, and ensure each has something with which to write, a total of nine Post-it notes, and access to sticky dots for a little later on.

Tips: I have found this exercise works well around tables where people can write on the Post-it notes most easily. Ideally, participants will have a mix of colours within their notes, but as long as there is diversity amongst the group, it does not really matter. (It is okay for a participant to have all one colour or groups of colour with their Post-it notes, as long as there is diversity in the room and across the asset map categories – Heart, Head, and Hand.)

3.     Explain to the group the asset mapping process (i.e. the remaining six steps).

Tips: If you would like to introduce asset-based thinking to the group, you can read a quick introduction here. In addition to outlining the process, I would suggest explaining the desired outcomes to the group, as well as how long the process should take. (I have found 90 minutes to be plenty for a group of up to 100.) I suggest highlighting that participants need only share that with which they are comfortable, and that a gift shared with one’s partner does not have to be recorded on a Post-it note. (There is no obligation to place anything on the butcher’s paper later on, but the final maps are accessible to all participants, irrespective of whether they contributed specific gifts.) Perhaps also highlight that this is, in part, a trust-building exercise undertaken on the basis that every person’s shared offerings are respected and not open to exploitation.

4.     Ask everyone to write the words Heart, Head, and Hands in the top left of the Post-it notes, using one term per note, and three Post-it notes for each category.

Tips: So that they can be easily read from a distance, consider suggesting that participants print their words, rather than use script writing.

Participants should now have a range of Post-it notes in front of them, resembling the following (three of each):

yellow post it note with 'heart' written on it green post it note with 'head' written on it pink post it note with 'hands' written on it

5.     Allowing 15-20 minutes for this next step. Ask participants to first record up to nine gifts – ideally three each of the Heart, Head, and Hands – with each gift written clearly in the centre of the Post-it note listing its relevant category. Participants are then invited to share their gifts with a person next to them in whatever way they desire. Explain the gifts as follows:

Heart: ‘I am passionate about…’

Head: ‘I have some knowledge around…’

Hands: ‘I know how to…’

Model the practice yourself to the group, e.g. “I am passionate about caring for animals; I have some knowledge around how to cut a mango properly; and I know how to build a shed using timber and rope.”

Tips: Starting with the heart is the easiest way I have found for people to open up – everyone is passionate about something! Encourage participants to go beyond what they think people might expect them to say are their gifts – the more random the gift, the more likely it will be unique and, therefore, of even greater value to the group. That said, remind people that every gift is welcome in the space and that there is no obligation for people to share nine or, for that matter, any gifts. If participants seem lost, encourage them to start with the exact sentences, i.e. “I am passionate about…”.

6.      Ask participants to add a coloured dot in the top right hand corner of each Post-it note relevant to the amount they are willing to share. Distinguish between a full-time, part-time, and casual offering.

Tips: I use the traffic light colours for dots. Here, red means casual, orange or yellow means part-time, and green means full-time – you can obviously improvise, as long as you make it clear to all involved. Consider modelling an example of each, e.g. casual might mean you can contact me once a year or every so often; part-time means I’m open to weekly/monthly engagement around this; full-time means contact me at any reasonable hour! It also helps to put up a super-sized example of a completed Post-it note somewhere clearly visible to the group.

7.     Ask participants to write their first name and best contact details along the bottom of the Post-it note.

Tips: If relevant, remind people of the range of contacts from which they can select one to share, e.g. Twitter handle, e-mail, phone number, Skype name, or postal address. Let people know that they can write different contact details for different gifts.

8.     Ask participants to add a ‘$’ to the left of the sticky dot if they would like to charge for the use of their gift.

Tips: Encourage people to be honest about whether they would like to charge and remind people that it will be up to those involved to negotiate costs when each exchange occurs.

9.     Participants should now have a range of post-it notes in front of them, resembling the following:

yellow post it note with participant's 'heart' gift written on it (futures beyond economic growth) pink post it note with participant's 'hands' gift written on it (public speaking)

Ask participants to stick each post-it note on the relevant piece of butcher’s paper (Each should be labelled as Heart, Head, or Hands.) that will be on the ground or hanging nearby. Offer people a good amount of time to review what goes up.

Tips: Best to have the butcher’s paper affixed to a wall or pinboard in advance. Make sure the place where the assets will be displayed is accessible to a roving crowd.Trust that magic will now evolve. Encourage people to bathe in the beauty of their shared assets, but also record immediately what offers they might like to follow-up!

10.     Crowd-source someone from the group who is willing to put all of the assets into a spreadsheet and distribute if to the group electronically or through a printed version.

Tips: The new databasing volunteer should have everyone’s contact details from the bottom of the Post-it notes, but if participants have not listed an e-mail address (and for those who chose not to share their gifts publicly) you may want to facilitate a means of sourcing these at this point. Check also if anyone does not wish to be contacted with a copy of the maps. And do not forget to remind the new volunteer to put people’s addresses in ‘blind carbon copy’ if using e-mail!

group of people around a table asset mapping using post it notes

Asset mapping offers a simple, fast and inexpensive way to resource a project, organisation, or movement. Because it focuses on what already exists, it is positive in nature and is great for unearthing latent potential. Once in a database, an asset map is easily updated by people themselves, and also presents a medium through which people can maintain meaningful connections – it’s actually collaborative living in action! Perhaps most importantly, its informal nature facilitates the strengthening of connections and trust beyond casual acquaintances. But, then again, that’s a common trait to most communal activities that are free and fun!

headshot of donnie

Dr Donnie Maclurcan is Co-Founder of the Post Growth Institute and Ideas Guy at Project Australia, a community organisation helping people launch not-for-profit initiatives.

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Visual Storytelling – Turning Data into Meaning

visual storytelling book cover

In an era of seemingly endless amounts of information, the challenge is now to derive meaning from that information, and so the role of the content curator, the storyteller, the data visualiser and the infographic designer has become critical in journalism.

Art director and information designer Francesco Franchi, whose work features in the book Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, one of Brainpickings’s 11 best art and design books of 2011, talks about the role that visual design can play in shaping meaning from torrents of data in ‘On Visual Storytelling and New Languages in Journalism’:

Warning, warning – do NOT go to Brainpickings. You will spend hours and hours rummaging through fascinating, useful and beautiful content…I mean it…oh, you clicked…you just couldn’t help yourself. See you in a week.

Do you find you absorb meaning from information more easily if it is in visual form?

What do you think makes for a good infographic?

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Money Martyrdom – I’m Not Buying It

One of the wonderful things about change work and the sustainability movement is meeting so many people who are willing to give.

I have been a giver, and also a grateful receiver of the gifts of other givers. I wouldn’t be who I am today without their time, their willingness to share their knowledge and their mentoring.

But there is a flip side to change work – the frustrations, the defeats, the burnout, as I’ve previously discussed in ‘Be The Change – But Not All Of It! I deeply empathise with those who’ve experienced this, as I’ve been there, done that. No doubt many of you have too.

And then there’s the personal financial sacrifice.

Often the work needed to shift the status quo, particularly in the early stages of a shift such as getting climate change into mainstream debate, equates with no means of generating an income from doing this work.

It’s not until the hearts-and-minds-changers, and the practitioners plugging away on small but working prototypes, have built enough momentum to move things to a tipping point that feasible ways of creating an income emerge.

You would have struggled to get paid gigs doing carbon footprinting ten years ago.

Right now, I can think of three friends of mine (and no doubt you can think of many people you know too) who have spent a huge amount of time making a contribution to the greater good, including:

  • one who took over running a Facebook page that helps reunite lost pets and owners, who spends hours and hours of her time contributing to this community service, utilised by almost 5,000 people
  • another who is running a high profile campaign in the UK, but because its goals are for the public interest (and because it’s not the kind of work that will attract funding easily), he is earning far less than what he would be if he was working in business as usual, rather than trying to change BAU for the wider societal interest
  • one who was teetering on the edge of personal bankruptcy after donating thousands of hours of time to community education over many years, time that could have been used to undertaken income-generating, BAU consultancy work

Is it their choice? Absolutely.

Although when people are intrinsically motivated by their values, they often don’t have a choice. They simply can’t not do the work they are called to do.

Do they lack the entrepreneurship nous and business skills to monetise their work?

Possibly, but not always – sometimes it’s because they are too far ahead of the pack and the demand for their expertise is not yet there, or their work is challenging something that will prevent them from being able to go down this path. Sometimes they don’t have the know-how, or access to the mentoring they need.

Regardless, when my ‘lost pets’ Facebook friend was invited to come to the city from her country home to be interviewed about her work, she needed her car brakes fixed to make the trip.

Now, why isn’t there some way for her to ‘withdraw’ on the social contribution she ‘deposits’ so that she could get this service she needed?

These examples are replicated hundreds of thousands of times across our societies, and our societies are carried on the backs of volunteers – life as we know it would not only be less pleasant, but would likely cease to function without them.

The importance of the voluntary sector is best illustrated by the fact that many larger non profits now have ‘volunteer managers’ – people who are paid to manage the unpaid. This is not to disparage people in these positions, which are necessary because there are people who want to volunteer and they do need to be managed so that their energy is channeled – but it’s still an ironic sign of the times.

In recent years, we’ve begun to see new forms of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship emerging, which is demonstrating new models and possibilities for the nonprofit/voluntary sector.

But for the vast majority of people out there who are volunteering, it’s about time we found ways of placing some kind of value – monetary or otherwise – on work that is donated into the community so that the individuals who donate it can use to meet their needs.

Time banks and local currencies are just two of the methods that can go some way to redressing this situation, but they are transacted from one person to another, either directly or indirectly, not between an individual and ‘the commons’.

However money, or any type of ‘receive’ in exchange for ‘give’, remains a contentious topic in the environment/social change/sustainability movements, and some folks within them seem to have an almost ideological opposition to money.

cartoon with dollar bill on psychiatrist's couch asking 'how would you feel if everyone said you were the root of all evil?'

The ‘Money Martyrdom’ Playlist

Here are the Top 5 reasons for ‘money martyrdom’ I’ve encountered in the sustainability movement – many of the reasons are closely related, or overlap:

#1 – perception that money is part of ‘the system’ they are working to change

Those working for social change sometimes have an aversion to money, as ‘lack of money’ and ‘resourcing’ are typically the cited (and constant) barriers to doing anything worthwhile that contributes to the integrity of living systems and the wellbeing of people.

Money is seen as the agent of ‘business as usual’, a necessary evil that one must use, but should not accept, invite or desire.

What about approaching money as a technology for facilitating exchange? Any technology can be used for good or ill. So use it mindfully, rather than hamstringing yourself from doing the work and living your life by trying to opt-out of the system.

#2 – belief that doing something for money somehow diminishes the value of the work

Oh, it’s so mercenary, isn’t it? How could one possibly expect, let alone accept, any kind of personal reward for work we do out of the goodness of our hearts? Doesn’t that make us no better than…them? 

This is the same mentality that gave rise to scathing criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement – those protesting the system, but using the products and the bathroom facilities of multinational corporations. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi ripped this one to bits in a recent article:

OWS (was accused of being) “Starbucks-sipping, Levi’s-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters denouncing corporate America even as they weep for Steve Jobs, corporate titan, billionaire eight times over.”

Apparently, because Goldman and Citibank are corporations, no protester can ever consume a corporate product – not jeans, not cellphones and definitely not coffee – if he also wants to complain about tax money going to pay off some billionaire banker’s bets against his own crappy mortgages.

Let’s not be too precious, people. That brain you apply to resolving the problems and injustices of the world? It needs fuel. Those hands need tools to give the work effect. The spirit and physical form that drives it all needs to be kept safe.

There’s a happy medium between hedonistic excess and money-grubbing, and self-imposed sacrifice.

#3 – fear of being seen as compromising one’s ‘noble selflessness’

You’ve developed knowledge of, or produced something incredibly useful for people, but you can’t possibly put a price on it because that would be undermining the ethos of what you’re saying – especially if what you’re saying is that money isn’t everything, and we need to change the world so that money doesn’t shape so much of what we do with our lives.

This is the same mindset that many artists and cultural creatives carry ie. it’s the work that matters, not money. Mark McGuiness of Lateral Action dismantled this one in his articles 7 Reasons Creative People Don’t Talk About Money and 4 Ways Money Can Support Your Creativity:

We live in a world obsessed with money, where human beings are treated according to their bank balance, not their intrinsic worth, and we instinctively revolt against this…(yet) from a creative perspective, the best thing about having money in the bank and your finances under control is not having to worry about money. It’s not a problem, and you are free to turn your mind to more inspiring subjects.

And if you’ve had the cheek to want to earn and spend money on not just necessities, but on fun? Tut, tut.

Choosing simplicity is wise. Choosing poverty is foolish.

Remembering you’re also on this earth to live and enjoy your life is vital.

#4 – reluctance to admit that money matters because of peer pressure to not care about money

The ‘peer pressure’ within these movements to ‘not care’ about money because ‘money should not be your motivation’ is misplaced, misguided and even dangerous.

You can sing the ‘money doesn’t matter’ tune for a while, but whether you like it or not, eventually it will. 

Circumstances change. Children come along. Health fails. Relationships break down. You get sick of existing on two minute noodles, and living in a cramped, crappy flat.

Define your goals, your purpose, live your meaning – use money to do this, where necessary. Make it your servant, not your master.

If you don’t want money to control you, be aware that a lack of money created by this mindset can also control you.

#5 – avoiding accusations of hypocrisy, and the guilt/trade off/justification game

Have you ever found yourself justifying something you’ve done, something you have, or something you’ve purchased? That’s you pre-empting the money (and subsequent carbon and consumption) guilt trips that we place on ourselves and others, so that we aren’t seen as conspicuous consumers.

‘I bought a new computer – but I’ve had my old one for years…’

‘I flew to x but it was for something I really had to be there for, and you know, I ride to work every day…’

The conversation dynamic becomes a moral high ground issue, and before you know it, some innocuous comment has you in danger of being cast as a hypocrite.

Conversely, if you pride yourself on being someone who ‘doesn’t need money’ and overly zealous about consumption, you become a caricature of self-denial and guilt, and that only reinforces to those who don’t identify as part of the sustainability movement that this is not something they want to be part of.

Yes, we need to be mindful about money (and consumption). No, money is not everything. But going from one extreme to the other, and especially invoking guilt or blame games (either implied or direct), is unlikely to create an example for others to aspire to either.

I understand where all of these come from, and I’ve felt the same way myself. I still struggle with it all.

I know that money has commodified what used to be exchanged as gifts, and broken the social bonds that came with those exchanges. I’m aware that the process by which money is created and controlled is a major part of our environmental and social dysfunction.

But I’m calling ‘bullshit’ on all of this ‘money martyrdom’.

The system that we live in, right now, requires us to do certain things to meet our needs for food, shelter and services, as well as our wants.

Right now, most (but not all) of those needs and wants are met through the need to exchange our labour to earn money to pay for it.

That’s just the way it is – right now.

Remember: we’re all working on changing what constitutes ‘right now’.

And even though we might vehemently disagree with aspects of ‘the system’, sustaining oneself is critical for being able to do that change work.

You cannot do your best work for the world when you are worrying about paying the rent and the mortgage, or putting food on the table.

Your dentist doesn’t have a problem charging you when you get your teeth checked up. Your mechanic is just fine with billing you for time and materials needed to make sure your car’s running well and the brakes are working.

A colleague who has worked in this area for many years put it eloquently:

…money is just a symbolic representation of the things we need such as food, shelter, clothing etc. Does anyone apologise for needing those things? I know our society has got very good at specialising, but it’s like some people have delegated the hard moral stuff to others, and part of that includes expecting them to somehow be above these basic requirements, like they can be nourished exclusively on some moral plane. Sorry folks, we do not accept the delegation!

She makes an important point here – why should the financial sacrifice of change work fall on the shoulders of a relatively small number of people in society?

And secondly, even if there is some value recognition attached to this work, true change is not going to come if the rest of society is not part of it:

The world will be saved when people realize we all have to pitch in. You can’t just pay your money and hope that someone else will do the job right.

Pete Seeger

Right now, there’s a huge imbalance of both money and energy out there.

So, change agents, don’t shy away from looking to monetise your work, or develop opportunities which can help you free up your time – or at least your brain – from financial concerns, so you can concentrate on what truly matters to you.

The most important thing change agents can do to ensure they are able to continue to do whatever it is they’re passionate about is to look after their own security and wellbeing, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – AND financial.

And don’t apologise for it.

Have you ever encountered ‘money martyrdom’, in the sustainability movement or elsewhere? What do you think motivated it?

Did you challenge it? If so, what happened?

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‘Bad’ Powerpoint Banned at National Conference

As audiences around the world are sent into a soporific stupor through being subjected to bad presentations, the usefulness of Powerpoint as a means of communicating ideas has been called into question.

In Switzerland, a political party called the Anti Powerpoint Party has been formed, which encourages people to report Powerpoint Sinners and submit ‘Horror Slide of the Month’!

The APPP sees itself as ‘…the advocate of approximately 250 Million people worldwide, who, every month, are obliged to be present during boring presentations in companies, universities, or at other institutions…’

The party’s founder, Matthias Poehm, has also written a book called ‘The Powerpoint Fallacy’ which makes the case that Powerpoint has the opposite effect on the audience that the presenter intended.

The primary objective of any presentation should be to engage, and not bore, your audience.

bored baby

Yet Powerpoint, and other presentation platforms, are merely the tools; perhaps the real issue is how we are using those tools?

Hence, I was both pleased and amused to learn of this announcement from Meetings and Events Australia, via Duarte Design’s Facebook feed:

Meetings & Events Australia (MEA) has become the first organisation to ban the traditional use of PowerPoint-style presentations at a major conference. The MEA Annual National Conference, to be held in Sydney on 21-24 April 2012, attracts around 900 delegates to discuss meeting and event issues.

Given its role in advising clients how to communicate effectively at events, MEA has long questioned whether speakers who read out bullet points provide a useful experience for meeting delegates.

“The bullet point model was created in the pre-digital era, when there was a shortage of expert information. It was worth flying somewhere to hear that kind of speech. Now the web is full of expert presentations you can watch in your own time and location, so meetings need to provide something beyond that,” said Linda Gaunt, chief executive officer of MEA.

The aim is to deliver presentations that are simpler, more emotive and more human than delegates normally see. Presenters are encouraged to tell stories rather than read out lists. Endless studies have shown that stories are far more memorable and inspiring than the standard style of business presentation, but until now organisations have balked at enforcing speakers to break the mould.

MEA has drawn up a banned list of classic PowerPoint techniques. Bullet points, flow charts, template backgrounds, clip art, reading from the screen, and other proven yawn-inducers are all forbidden, a challenging task at an event with speakers from around the world.

Presenters have been briefed to present with simpler, more involving material: photos, videos, demonstrations, old-fashioned storytelling. No image is allowed to have more than 10 words.

“As an industry, we manage everyone else’s events. It’s up to us to set an example to show that when you get people together, it doesn’t have to be a process of dull, passive one-way communication,” said Gaunt.

“We’re pushing everyone outside the comfort zone, and we think it’s going to be involving and inspiring. It’s the future of meetings.”

Source: Spice News, 2 February 2012

It is heartening to see MEA have made a decision to walk their talk – to understand the power of story and the perils of ‘slideuments’ – essentially putting a document in Powerpoint and reading it to your audience:

We are out of the age of ignorance about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to presentations, so there is no longer any excuse for boring an audience to sleep!

In the past, I have been guilty of Powerpoint sins, but having sat through one too many appalling presentations – including several by an executive who literally used to copy and paste text-dense paragraphs onto slides, and another which attempted to get through a three-digit number of slides in an hour (speed Powerpoint, anyone?) – I have endeavoured to change my presentations in accordance with the kinds of guidelines mentioned by MEA, which has banned the Powerpoint ‘bads’.

In 2008, I gave a presentation which was almost all images, and very few words, although I still admit to reading from prompts – it was my first go at doing a presentation this way. It was the last slot of the afternoon on the last day of the event, about the time when most people want it to be over so they can go to the bar for some drinks.

Halfway into my presentation, I noticed that none of the audience had left, and they appeared attentive when they otherwise might have been expected to be nodding off, distracted, or have left for the bar. It was because I was telling them a story, and the images on the screen were illustrating my words, not competing with them.

Following on from what not to do means learning how to craft presentations – which are both technically excellent, and that work in terms of memorable content – from those doing this best and teaching others presentation skills.

Duarte Design’s Resonate and Garr Reynolds’s Presentation Zen are both leading edge, and their books, blogs and videos are essentials for anyone interested in delivering successful presentations and ensuring their message is received by, and stays with, their audience.

What are some of your Powerpoint horror stories – either presentations you’ve given, or ones you’ve experienced as an audience member?

If you have delivered the kind of presentation the MEA is talking about, how did it feel? Did you notice a different response in your audience?

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