September 22, 2015

The Single Most Underrated Career Skill Ever Is …

Guitar… PowerPoint.

I’m not kidding! (It is a strange one, isn’t it?)

You probably thought it was going to something like “initiative” or “creative thinking” or “interpersonal skills,” didn’t you?

Let me explain.

I’m using “PowerPoint” as a kind of shorthand. I am not really talking about how to bullet a list or bold a word. I’m talking about something a little more.

What Are PowerPoint Presentations, Really?

PowerPoint is really just a tool.

When we say “PowerPoint” today, we mean a “presentation.” And when we say a “presentation,” we usually don’t mean public speaking. Who gives speeches at work other than the CEO? No, we mean a “report,” an “update,” a “brief,” or a “summary.”

And by all of that, we mean a “structured, written communication that combines words, data, and graphics.”

At the bottom of it all, what we talk about when we talk about “PowerPoint” is our value-add — our ideas, our recommendations, and our work in a form that is comprehensible.

And that, for our careers, is the whole ball game. Without others seeing, understanding, and recognizing our value-add, our careers will be rather short.

Great communication skills are the very foundation of career success.

The Role of Communication Skills in Your Success

BooksCommunication is the core enabler of social enterprises like business.

Being a poor communicator hinders your ability to be understood. It undermines your credibility and makes you less efficient. It even lessens your ability to lead — after all, people do not follow those whom they don’t understand.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) conducted a survey in 2014 that asked hiring managers what skills they prioritize when they hire college graduates. The top five skills were:

  1. Ability to work in a team
  2. Ability to write effectively
  3. Ability to solve problems
  4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
  5. Ability to work with numbers and data

Writing effectively (2), solving problems (3), and working with numbers and data (5) are all central to strong communication.

The Medium Is the Message

Written business communication happens via business presentations. PowerPoint is the lingua franca of corporate America.

PowerPoint has become how we communicate. We used to use typewritten, one-page memos. Now, we use graphs, tables, pictures, and color. We have adopted the convention of slides to structure our communication.

Understanding how to communicate is no longer just about being able to write well — although that remains critical — or speak clearly. No, the bar has been raised considerably.

Needed: A Distinct Set of Skills

Creating a successful written presentation requires leveraging a broad group of very different skills, including:

  1. the ability to think in a structured, logical manner;
  2. the ability to write concisely and clearly;
  3. the understanding of numbers and data;
  4. the ability to communicate data effectively;
  5. and the appreciation for and ability to create great designs.

1. Structured Thinking

IpadStructured thinking is the process of putting a framework around your ideas. It is an approach in which related detail are designed to support larger, more abstract arguments. Structuring your ideas can be very challenging for many people. It is difficult to do.

2. Writing Concisely

Omit needless words. Be clear about what you wish to say. Simplify.

3. Data and Visualization

Demonstrate; don’t just simply assert. Use facts, and preferably data, to demonstrate. Show data with graphs, charts, and tables. Avoid pie charts.

4. Design

So many people get trapped by the task of designing a presentation.

Usually, less is more.

If you lack design skills, get yourself a professionally designed template from GraphicRiver or SlideHeroes.

What Next?

Many jobs require you to use PowerPoint ever day. Learn how to use the tool. Then, go beyond the tool and learn how to communicate powerfully.

Learning to create great business presentations can take you a very, very long way.

Creating great business presentations requires practice. Here are a few additional recommended resources:

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte

The Pyramid Principle, by Barbara Minto

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr.

Read more in Business Communication

Michael Smith is the founder of SlideHeroes, a provider of presentation-writing video training for professionals. With 15 years of experience as a management consultant (ex-Oliver Wyman, London Business School), Michael is committed to helping as many professionals as he can learn the lost art of presentation craftsmanship -- while avoiding looking as foolish as he did when he first started!