Use Powerpoint to enhance your presentation, not cripple it

I’m not the first person to point out that Microsoft’s mainstay meeting and presentation application Powerpoint is usually anathema to any sort of useful communication, and that most speakers rely on it as a crutch rather than a memory jog, but I just got back from a three day marketing conference and was really struck by how most of the presenters were still falling into BPS (Boring Powerpoint Syndrome).
You know what I’m talking about if you ever go to meetings or attend any sort of workshop or conference. These are the folk that use plain white backgrounds for their slides and cram ten to fifteen bullet points on each slide, each bullet point a full sentence.

Nothing as succinct as “China: Up 15%” but “Our sales in the Pan-Asian region are up 15% over the same period in 2005, according to market research firm AsiaReportInc”.

And yet, I’m also convinced that Powerpoint can be used very effectively and be a real asset to a meeting or presentation. But only if you understand the basic benefit of Powerpoint in the first place…

Having given hundreds of talks at conferences and workshops, I have learned a number of basic facts about what comprises a good presentation.
The most important is passion: if you want to get your point across and communicate effectively, you really need to be excited and enthused about what you’re saying. You can see this by watching two of my models for public speaking, Anthony Robbins and Tom Peters. In fact, I’ll get back to Tom Peters shortly because he’s the only other person I know who really uses Powerpoint well.

When you’re listening to someone talk on stage, do you watch them or stare at their slides or presentation? Probably the latter, and it undoubtedly lulls you into a zombie-like state where you’re hearing what they’re saying, but it’s not getting past the first layer of your brain and being processed. I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about!

Now, imagine the same presentation without any slides at all. There’s not much you can do other than pay attention to the speaker, is there? If they’re lively and excited enough (remember, I said that passion is the #1 most important factor in a good speech) and if the lighting and room architecture isn’t terrible, you’ll be riveted to them, and your attention will be 100% focused on what they’re saying and, perhaps, selling.

So is there a middle ground? Yes, I think that there is.

Let me show you what I mean, rather than just talk about it, though. Here’s one slide from a highly-lauded two hour presentation I gave over the weekend to a rapt, standing-room-only audience:

Your Home Page is Obsolete
Intriguing? Now, imagine that I bring that on the screen, read it out and pause for 10 seconds to let the message sink in. Then I spend the next five minutes talking about what I mean and why it’s so darn important for anyone doing business online. No transitions, no floating graphics, no text that slides on from the side, no bullet points. My total slide deck for two hours? 17 slides.
I can’t take credit for this approach to Powerpoint, though, because I shamelessly rip this off from Tom Peters, who has these amazing, multi-hundred slide presentations that are comprised of slides that contain one word or quote, against a dramatic, colorful background.

The other people who presented at the conference? They had slides more typified by this mockup:

Boring Powerpoint Slide: do you even CARE what it says?
I can’t demonstrate it here, but you also need to imagine that this actually comprises SEVEN slides in the presentation because each bullet item slides neatly onto the screen as that point is raised by the speaker (or, often, before they’re ready so they have to go back and forth in the presentation until they can sync up again).

And y’know what’s happening during all these slides and transitions? The speaker has to compete with the slide for the attention of the audience, and often, they lose. If you can’t be more interesting than some dull slide you’re showing, well, maybe you have a bigger problem, but it’s a sure bet that you’re not selling what you want to sell, be it an idea, campaign or product.

In the end, I would passionately encourage those of you who make presentations to either try flying without a safety net – skip the Powerpoint completely – or really work hard to minimize your slides. Make the slide reinforce the one key point for a given section of your presentation, and then tell me the rest. If I wanted to read your slides, after all, I’d ask you to email them to me.
That’s my take on Powerpoint slides and presentations. What’s yours?

Two additional articles to read on using Powerpoint effectively: Seth Godin’s Really Bad Powerpoint [ebook, PDF format] and Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 Rule of Powerpoint. You also might be interested in reading my succinct tutorial on how to change the background color of a powerpoint slide.

26 comments on “Use Powerpoint to enhance your presentation, not cripple it

  1. Man, I’m SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO guilty of the “powerpointitis” you mention above.
    Unfortunately, I’ve got hundreds of Powerpoint presentations that look just like that second slide!
    But thanks for helping me get cured before my next presentation!:-)

    Vincent Wright

  2. Thank you for this article. I have been a presentation designer and illustrator for the past 14 years, and I’ve often heralded the call, “Don’t force your audience to read your slide or they won’t be paying attention to what you are saying!!!!”
    Many times, there is a much more effective graphic alternative to 20-bullet slides. For some reason, engineers, especially, have a hard time with this concept…they want to tell the whole dissertation right up front. Add about 12 bullets to the second slide above, and that’s what half of my client slides look like…with the instruction…”Make it fit!” Yikes!
    I hope they are reading this article and will think about it! You can always put the hardcore stuff in handouts or in a PDF you let them download from your site.
    Best regards,

  3. You are right on target, Dave. My friends and colleagues think I am too harsh on PowerPoint presentations, as usually there is only one (maybe 2) in a 3-day seminar that has half a chance of being good. The “let’s jamb as much on this slide as possible” syndrome is way to rabid today.
    As an Architect, I have a choice of boring my audience with building after building or I can exude “passion” and “creativity” in my presentation presence by showing them what I can do ?Now? or wooing them with my past. I choose to show that I am excited by the prospects of the future ? starting with whatever presentation I am in right now.
    If I wanted a slide presentation, I would ask for a print of the presentation and save time by reading it in my leisure.
    Thanks again for the reminder.
    Robert Arnold, Synergy Strategist

  4. I think a lot of the problem is that people use PowerPoint not just a presentation tool but as a report writer. You almost need two presentations: one is the real presentation – succinct and with just the key points you want people to take away; the other is the learned tome with reams of analysis they can read up later. (Maybe it’s one presentation and the learned tome is hidden away at the back as an unseen appendix.)
    The other problem for me is cultural. I work for a Japanese company that worships at the temple of data and detail. Failure to display the detail can be seen as being superficial.
    Also, in a multi-national context, some people want stuff written up on the screen to read because their English isn’t so good that they can easily follow what is for them a foreign language.
    So, I guess it’s also a case of knowing your audience…

  5. I think 19+14 = 33. At least that’s what Google told me. On another note, good points about PowerPoint.
    I also think most people are scared to present, thus the Powerpoint crutch and as you say: You must be passionate about your subject matter.

  6. Just a thought – many people I deal with have no idea as to why bullet points exist. Why were they invented?
    I blame Kodak.
    Prior to the invention of the Kodak Carousel presenters had unlimited space using overhead projector foils. This meant each foil usually made one point, had one graph on it, etc.
    Then along comes 35mm slide carousels that limited the space you had. There were only 80 spaces in the Kodak device, which meant for a meeting of 4 people, you were limited to 20 slides.
    To get all the points you wanted to make, you had to combine information into one slide.
    Once this happened, people used to then do the same with overhead foils, believing that the “more professional” appearance of the 35mm slides must have been right.
    Then along comes PowerPoint, which prior to the invention of data projectors was used to make 35mm slides and hence needed a system to create bullet points.
    But now, with data projectors and the absence of 35mm slides, there is no physical limit on the number of slides you need.
    Hence we can go back to one point per image. Which is what we used to have in the “good old days”.
    Bullet points are an historical accident. The trouble is they’ve turned most presentations into an auto crash.

  7. Edward Tufte agrees with you – and takes it a step further, in this amazing analysis of how PowerPoint may actually have contributed to the demise of the Challenger space shuttle.

  8. !!Yeah!! That’s me cheering you on. I believe it was Charlie Chaplin, who said an audience a was hydra-headed monster, poised to go in 1000 directions, if senses weakness. I think your being kind to call PP a crutch. Too often I’ve seen it used in place of preparation, & self control. Here’s my update on the speakers prayer, “Lord fill the screen with just the right good stuff, nudge me before I’ve done too much!”

  9. You speak a profound truth, Dave. As a training manager, I often tell people, “Just make three slides.” They think they’re supposed to have slide after slide of the salient points of their talk. Boooring. They believe the copy of the slide deck is the only takeaway from the presentation. Dave’s right – the passion you have for your subject should be the most memorable part of the presentation. Oh yeah, people also freak out when the handouts showing every slide don’t get shipped to the hotel/meeting room. Hey folks – you don’t need anything – just YOU!

  10. Can’t agree with more with the sentiment! I spend my life as a presentation skills trainer working with the presentation-terrified who would rather face the Alien Queen naked than deliver a presentation. To a man and women, their first response to being told they have to make a presentation is to fire up PowerPoint…. where-as clearly it should be the last thing (if it’s done at all!).
    One quibble though – be very careful about dissing a white background and replacing it with a coloured one. Many people in the audience will find this makes the slide harder to read – colourblingness, dyslexia and so on. I always advise people to stick to a very pale grey as their default colour (white can flare, grey is less likely to).
    Ah-ha! There’s the idea for my own next presentation skills blog entry! 🙂

  11. One word (actually two)
    Effective use of black screen brings the audience attention back to you. I also like the aforementioned limitation of slides to salient points.
    Humor is good, I always use a pertinent cartoon.
    Another great technique: The odd-ball slide.
    Every once in a while throw in a slide that is completely unrelated to the presentation, for instance, a humorous image and say, whoops, how did that get in there and quickly go on to the next slide and your presentation. I guarantee the audience will perk up and pay closer attention to the screen and to you.

  12. I am doing my first presentation for my business this May. I am starting now to work on it and I am so happy I came across this web site! WOW… I could have been one of the boring ones.

  13. I couldn’t agree with you more! I am giving a presentation to demonstrate my teaching skills and was TOLD to have a PPT prepared for the session. I never use PPT to teach (nor do I use copius handouts that have no relevance except to give them paper to doodle on.) You are right on!

  14. Interesting article. WHy not write something similar on the differences between Powerpoint and Visio our students always get confused where one starts and the other stops for drawing and flow diagrams

  15. Dave, thank you very much for your insight on enhancing my Powerpoint presentation. This is my first one for school and is essential that I nail it. I feel I have excellent ideas but lack enhancement. You have brought to my attention that enhancement is key to an effective presentation. Thank you.

  16. I am delighted to comment,saying that all of the above commenteries are relevant and I can passionately agree that, there are at times competition between the slides and the presenter himself. To have someone assist you with the slide definitely helps, but ultimately, knowledege and command of the subject in question, captures your audience attention throughout! Using cartoon characters and the bottom of screen (minimised) helps, especially when our department was about to launch our new TARIFF. Question and answers between slides, lengthens the presentation time. However, leaving the Q and A for last allows you ample time to disseminate your information and provides the ideal platform for your presentation!
    “To God be the glory, great things he hath done”, Proverbs3:5-6.

  17. Dave, thank you for your insight. As a young professional I find myself learning incrementally more with each PPP I create. Any recommendations on graph and chart presentaion for Six Sigma professionals?
    Thanks again

  18. Interseting article, good insight on how to prepare a presentation and how to avoid some common pit falls. Focus needs to be the speaker and the PowerPoint is just a tool to aid the speaker. I’ve sat in a class where the powerpoint presentation totaly over shadowed the speaker which made the lecture difficult to follow. Simple rule, just keep the powerpoint simple.

  19. Powerpoint slides can be really distracting and actually take the focus off the speaker. I really can’t stand a boring presentation, the slides don’t replace the interest of the audience if the presentation itself is not good.

  20. I loved how you mentioned that people shouldn’t put a ton of words into one slide. It’s so typical and really unnecessary as you stated. So many of my professors have so much information per slide that they could be breaking up. With all that content on the single slide its hard to fit all of it in my notes. Maybe some of them need to read this article?

  21. I would totally agree with you when you mention the speaker gets lost when there is allot going on in the PP slides. We have quarterly meetings at work and there are so many bullets and so much happening in the slides. It seems we spend majority of the time reading the slides and now hearing the presenter. Simple is better.

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