Friday, April 17, 2009

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to PowerPoint

So I started a new Facebook group today, partly out of frustration and partly because my job is to help people communicate better.

How many bad PowerPoint presentations have you had to sit through? How many have you done yourself? According to Mike Futty at (PDF), most audiences find PowerPoint presentations complicated, hard to digest, and smelling of poor planning because the presenter did not use the tool properly.

What is PowerPoint anyway? As someone who does a lot of public speaking, I treat it as a whiteboard. When I speak with a whiteboard, I write down words, or draw simple pictures or diagrams that help the visual learners in my audience understand my key points. PowerPoint shouldn't be asked to do more than save audiences from my poor handwriting and sketching skills.

For those of you who don't present much, just think back to your college, university or high school days. Remember the teacher who caught your attention because they cared about what they were saying, and used the blackboard for emphasis? (I lived the ones who would write down a single word and keep underlining it every time it came up.) Those were good presenters. Remember the ones who had the whole lesson pre-written on every inch of the blackboard when you arrived, and just rambled through? Bad presenters. I even remember an alcoholic science teacher who didn't bother to teach at all. He just left the lesson up on the board, went into his office, and hit the beaker.

Your slides need to be minimal. They should complement what you say, not repeat it. It's that simple.

Now, I know what the other side of this argument thinks, because we get into it almost daily at the agency:

"My clients want something they can read at their computer, without missing details."

This is not a presentation. It is a document. Write it in Word, and make a PDF.

"My audience wants handouts that they can take away for future reference."

This is just laziness. Either write out your speaker's notes and print out handouts that include them, or else suck it up and create a separate and complete (PDF) document to be handed out after the show.

The last thing you want, as a public speaker, is for your audience to be reading when you are talking. It's an epic fail, because it means they're bored.

Even if you don't think you are a strong presenter, here are some tips to help you avoid PowerPoint abuse:

1) Don't write slides. Write your speaker's notes first. Point form is best, but write it out as a speech if you're unsure of yourself. Only then take key words, summary points, or visual support and put it on your slides. They'll be cleaner, and your presentation will be better structured.

2) Know your material. Most bad presentations I've seen stink of last-minute panic. The presenter doesn't know the material, so he or she reads straight off the text-heavy slides. It's sloppy and unprofessional. And really, really boring.

3) Don't be lazy. Give yourself enough time to plan out what you're going to say, and prepare proper documents for audience handouts or later reference. When you throw everything in a PowerPoint and just print it out, smart people will know you've cut corners.

The one other thing to remember is to forget everything your mom taught you about written grammar. Slides should rarely contain full sentences, and never paragraphs. Get rid of all unnecessary words, and make them read like real bullets, which should sound like a 1950s sci-fi robot:

- Don't abuse technological friend

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything you've said here.

    Another effect way to use slides is to let them act as a commentary on your talk -- they can present the information in a different way (say, showing surprising statistics while you're talking about fuzzy concepts); challenge, qualify, or ironically undercut what you're saying; or provide comic relief (think of Colbert's "The Wørd" segment).

    The trick is to keep the slides very simple, use only a few of them, and make sure there's an effective dialogue between you and the slides (e.g. decide in advance who's the straight man).