How preparation and practice can prompt policy change

Presenters from SITAM and ResLeSS were given an objective ahead of a national workshop in Burkina Faso in March – to each create a Powerpoint presentation that would deliver a pithy and powerful story of their recent research on ways to step up efforts on sustainable intensive agriculture in that country. But how would a deeply ingrained way of writing for academic research publications be unlearned, in favor of time-honored techniques and the latest tools and research on delivering presentations with impact? SAIRLA communication consultant Sarah Wachter tells how. Credit: IUR

Artists, especially painters, as well as writers, for that matter, rely on a suite of techniques built up over centuries, some dating back to Greco-Roman times, to tell stories that deeply move their spectators and their readers. Contrasts of shade, perspective and foreshortening. Rhetoric, metaphor and the importance of brevity. Today, in the Internet era, as more professionals are tasked with telling their stories in a compelling way to convince potential donors and partners, they need to borrow heavily from these playbooks. However, while the tools to shape presentations and social media posts are ubiquitous and easy to use, the craft necessary to get good results is less obvious.

Economists working in development are really passionate about the truly game-changing potential of their work, and they often have pages of published research references attached to their CVs to show it. But when you ask them to put the sum of a project into a compelling 10-minute Powerpoint presentation, they often think it’s just a matter of taking a piece of research, chopping it into slabs of text, add a couple of really complicated diagrams of processes. To jazz things up a bit, they add several colors of typefaces and some arresting punctuation. We have a saying for this, and there is even a YouTube video on it: Death by Powerpoint.

A series of coaching sessions was organised with the presenters to help them avoid this trap. To kick off the sessions, a note of best practices was circulated, that included not only a toolkit emphasising how to motivate a policy audience through human stories and brief, pithy messaging, but drew on the latest research on effective presentations in Powerpoint.

In the first round of drafts, by and large the participants learned the importance of ‘less is more’ using less text per slide (enriching each slide with facts, figures and anecdotes in invisible trainer’s notes instead) and keeping the format largely in the same style of typeface and layout. The messaging was clear but needed to be more compelling. However, the policy research outline was still very apparent, complete with numbering systems; compelling headlines and short, punchy text were lacking. Sentences were long and complex. Bullet points – a real no-no–  were abundant.

Through the training, in their second drafts they started to give more thought to visual elements, such as a consistent layout and a two-color type format, and finding ways to present text briefly without recourse to bullet points, fold in photographs of the project, and explore Powerpoint’s animation features for a dynamic fade-in.

After the Forum, the communications training identified these lessons for fashioning future presentations:

For best results, best begin weeks ahead: Policy makers are busy people, especially when getting mobilised for a major event, on top of their regular duties and field visits. But there is a common, preconceived notion that communications is the last item on the to-do list. While efforts were made to disabuse the participants of this notion, this is something to bear in mind – communications, from roughed-out messaging, to brainstorming on a moving metaphor, ideally begins weeks out for optimal outcome.

Visuals are as vital as memorable messages: For policymakers who are used to only trafficking in words, this is a real game-changer, to think through the content and ultimate objective from the vantage point of telling a story visually.

Mastering these skills means regular practice: Communications, unlike other professions, is a skill, not a theory, and only improves through constant application.

A wealth of free and professional kit awaits online, but it takes time to get adept. From world-class images at the Getty Library to infographics apps, there is a wide range of professionally-designed graphics, and stills by some of the world’s photographers, to give a presentation the polish and impact needed to change mindsets and motivate policy change. But it also takes time to reflect on the visual metaphor to illustrate and to make concrete a virtual process, such as multi-stakeholder dialogue. Again, advanced preparation is the watchword.

Feedback is fundamental:from the messages crafted to the photographs and line art selected, a presenter needs to seek out a trusted colleague who will be forthright about whether the presentation is compelling, the messages are clear, and the graphics arresting and suitable.

Revise, revise, revise :Policymakers and many experts who are not trained writers often believe that a first draft is the end of the task. But good writing is all about rewriting, with a checklist in hand, to make sure jargon, technical language, grammar and spelling errors, muddled messages and the like are excised and the language is unerringly simple, clear, and engaging.

The participants cited a few of the tips as key to their learnings: one idea per slide, less text and more arresting  images, the importance of well-chosen action verbs to inject dynamism, and the tutorial on key message architecture.

This article is also available in French.