United States: PowerPoint Isn’t Your Problem

Last Updated: August 8 2013
Article by Cheryl Bascomb

You wouldn't blame Word for a lousy article or a boring letter. Why blame PowerPoint for a crummy presentation?

Let me get it right out there: Microsoft PowerPoint is an excellent presentation support tool. PowerPoint's incredible features and flexibility allow you to incorporate images, video, and audio to enhance your presentation. It offers an enormous array of design tools—from Smart Art shapes and graphics to adaptable color palettes to endless picture treatments. While designers may poo-poo it, the typical business person can't do much better.

And yet, people complain constantly about PowerPoint. Why? Because people—both presenter and audience—confuse the PowerPoint slides with the presentation. The presentation is what the presenter says. The slides or videos or music or whatever all support (there's that word again) the presentation. When done well (and darn few do this well), the slides use graphical images to support what a presenter is saying or provide more impact than the presenter is able to do with just his or her words. Any text on the slides should be there to keep the presenter on track, not to provide the main source of information for the audience.

Most business people fall prey to the fallacy that slides should double as a handout or, worse, become the script (not the guide, but the full script) for the presenter. Why bother to give your presentation? You could literally mail it in and save yourself the time and effort and heartache of standing up and speaking in front of a group.

The result of this "handout" approach is the dreaded bullet slide packed with text or numbers. While I appreciate the presenters who understand that an audience craves visual relief from solid text, some images cause more trouble than they're worth. Beware of using Clip Art (perhaps Microsoft's worst invention ever) to decorate (read: detract from) presentations rather than to support a key point.

So, besides complaining about the miseries of misused PowerPoint, what constructive tips can I offer you for developing your next presentation?

  1. Don't make your slides serve as handouts. If you want something your audience can use to take notes, provide a brief outline as a handout. Your slides should be there to provide you with cues for what you say, and the images or video in the slides should serve to illustrate your point or provide context.
  2. Start from scratch and ignore the rules. Begin with a clean, white slide. Skip the template. Don't start with something you wrote last time. Unless you are giving the very same presentation (perhaps with this year's tax info rather than last year's), begin afresh. First, organize your thoughts in an outline rather than creating slides with bullets and categories, since a slide that starts with bullets almost never becomes anything else. I'm not a fan of templates. To paraphrase one great presenter, your audience won't forget what company you are with from one slide to the next, so skip the logo and forget the colors. While there are certain benefits to templates—you get a consistent font or style, numbers, charts, and pictures look like they all work together—there's no reason to have colors or bars or stylized decorations that aren't supporting your point. Your design should be simple and every single element, every word, every letter, should accentuate what you are saying.
  3. Keep it very, very simple. So often, I've heard the question: How many bullet points should I use per slide? That's the wrong question. The right question is: What's the most powerful way I can present this concept so that my audience grasps it and I stay on track? Maybe it's best to use an image or a quote or a graph or a table. Maybe you should use bullets, but, if you do, make them support your points or provide an overview of a concept; don't make them the outline or detailed magnification of your hypothesis. Remember, "Simplicity is powerful and leads to greater clarity, yet it is neither simple nor easy to achieve"—Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen. (Check out Garr Reynolds' web page for his excellent tips.)
  4. Your slides should not stand alone. They may be interesting and provide some elucidation, but they should never be sufficient to provide someone who was not privy to your voice the whole transcript of your talk. Don't use full sentences. Don't subject your audience to full paragraphs. If you find yourself falling into this trap, perhaps you are creating a handout or a script. Feel free to do that, but then create your slides by paring it way back when done.

PowerPoint as a tool certainly has its limitations and frustrations. Animation is over used and serves as more of a distraction than a helpful function. PowerPoint forces you to be linear, both in your presentation and in your thinking. It is not easy to dive more deeply into a point if the following slide does not necessarily cover that topic. It is difficult to move around out of the order of your slides without scrolling forward or back through material. There are presentation tools that break the linear lock, but most don't have the same range of flexibility and design support that PowerPoint has.

Stop blaming the tool and embrace the opportunity it gives you to amplify your message with 21st century technology. The most powerful part of your PowerPoint presentation may be the "B" key. Press it to pause your presentation, leaving the screen blank. Let your audience look at you instead of the screen. Look back at your audience. Enjoy this increasingly rare occasion to interact in person without a screen doing all the talking for you.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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