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Presentations and Legal Project Management

If you’re managing legal projects, there will be times you need to present information to your boss(es), your clients, or your team.

I’ve seen many successful projects perceived as troubled simply because the project manager couldn’t “manage” a presentation.

In a project management presentation, PowerPoint (or its equivalent) is good for two things, and two things only:

  • Visuals, and
  • Signposts

It is a very poor tool for the purpose most people use it: transmission of information.

The “Bad” of Slides

Asking people to read a detailed PowerPoint slide will induce a) eyestrain, b) boredom, or c) both. It will rarely build confidence in your abilities as project manager.

Consider two common types of PowerPoint slides:

  1. Bullet points. Each point you want to make is displayed on screen, usually in a hierarchical list of bullets and sub-bullets, sometimes with numbers. What happens when this information appears bright upon the screen? All eyes go to the projection (as Marshall McLuhan recognized so clearly fifty years ago), and attention follows the eyes. Your attendees are not attending to you. They’re reading – or trying to read, through the miasma of missing verbs and shortened phrases. You’ve lost your audience.
  2. Detailed information, such as a text-based project plan. Not only are the attendees no longer listening to you, they’re struggling to read the tiny type, paying you even less attention than with bullet points.

When such slides go up, comprehension goes down. Your audience misses your message, in part because someone is talking while they’re trying to read!

For simple information, tell them straight out. Don’t duplicate the info on a screen. They’re legal pros, and they’re used to picking up information from a speaker.

For complex information, use handouts. For example, if you need to work through a list of twenty schedule items, do it on paper, with full room lighting.

And for background information, send it in email – preferably after the meeting so they’re not trying to read on their laptops while you need their focus in the room.

So what should go on your slides, assuming you use slides at all?

The “Good” of Slides

Visual information works well when projected.

For example, a simple graphic of a schedule might be useful. I wouldn’t use an Gantt chart (which requires practice to read). However, you might consider a crafted graphical version showing, say, half a dozen top-level tasks and their simple dependencies. (“As you can see, we can’t start delivering X to the client until Y is done, which is why I’m asking for extra resources for Task Y.”) Or you could use a calendar image – months or weeks, depending on the timescale – showing critical dates and deadlines.

Each of these visuals requires a bit of work, but once you’re comfortable with PowerPoint, they shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to work up. You’re not trying to get them beautiful, or perfect. They only need be good enough to convey critical information. And PowerPoint will do much of the work for you, keeping shapes rectilinear, aligning them, connecting them, even choosing colors that won’t have the attendees wondering if you failed your Ishihara test (for color blindness).

PowerPoint is also good for signposts in longer meetings.

Signposts can be as simple as headings for each part of the meeting – “Introductions,” “Status,” “Issues,” “Questions and Wrap-Up.” However, if you’ve got, say, five detailed handouts to go over – budgets, schedules, resource allocation, etc. – you should also signpost those. If they’re each one of a kind, as in the list I just offered, use headings: “Budget” and so on. However, if you’re dealing with multipage documents, such as a six-page budget for multiple projects, feel free to project a copy of the current page so that people can look away from their handouts and know what page to come back to. (When I do this, I sometimes blur out the center of the image to force attendees to focus on the printed copy, which I know is easier to read.)

The Upshot

There are plenty of books on improving slides, including my own (PowerPoint Slides That Work! Show + Tell for Grownups). Don’t look for books on presentation skills per se, but for help in sharing information via PowerPoint and similar programs.

I urge you – with or without such a book – to think about your slides in a new way. They are not there to steal your thunder, but rather to support you. If you’re going to present yourself effectively in a meeting as a project manager, you need to take every opportunity to make sure the focus is on a) your project and b) you – not your slides. Your slides cannot manage projects, win clients, or “sell” you to your boss.

That’s your job. Don’t let the slides get in your way.

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