Last fall, I was getting ready to present at the American Evaluation Association’s conference with my friend Agata Jose-Ivanina. We were going to share Agata’s strategy for instantly creating reports by sending Excel charts directly into Word with VBA code instead of tediously copying and pasting everything.

This is a tricky process to do, and even trickier process to teach others.

Preparing for the conference…

Plan A: So we started by building a PowerPoint with a million little bullet points. That’s how you’re supposed to prepare for a conference presentation, isn’t it? Type all your ideas into slides?

We gave a practice presentation to Agata’s teammates. It was awful. We had to click back and forth between PowerPoint, Word, and Excel about a dozen times. There were awkward pauses. The audience got bored. I think someone even looked at their watch. We clicked on the wrong windows in the computer. The laptop froze. I was flustered. At one point, I even turned the laptop off by mistake. I’m not sure how I clicked the power button, but I did.

Plan B: Even though we’d spent hours building our slides, we trashed the PowerPoint presentation and built a one-page handout that simply listed the 4 steps in this report automation process.

Next week, at the conference…

We’re sitting at the front of the room, waiting a few more minutes until it’s time to present. Ready, set, GO. We give a brief introduction. We’re about to start sharing the process.

Someone calls out, “Wait, you forgot to open up your PowerPoint!”

“We don’t have a PowerPoint. We’re going to teach you how to do this process yourself instead of just telling you,” Agata answered.

Silence. The woman was surprised. Shocked.

I heard someone else whisper, “They don’t have a PowerPoint?!”

“We’ve got handouts,” I offered. “So you can watch what we’re doing, take notes, and ask questions. You know, so you can learn what we’re doing?”

“Oh!” someone said. “Yeah, ummmm, okay!” said another.

Next, people put their heads down and started frantically taking notes. And asking tons of great questions. I’ve never seen anything like it. Imagine that, people paying attention rather than playing on their phones? A rare phenomenon.

I’m not saying that all presentations should ditch PowerPoint slides. There are plenty of great ways to spruce up slides and make it more likely that your message is understood. But I wonder if more presentations could benefit from sharing handouts instead of slides?

– Ann Emery