The phrase "Death by PowerPoint" has become a symbol of all that's wrong with many presentations. Instead of inspiring liveliness, they cause sleepiness and boredom. Instead of communicating, they cloud the mind and emotions. Instead of enlivening a desired response, they antagonize (Figure 1).
Do you have a presentation that's overly busy, filled with complex charts and diagrams, and replete with lots and lots of bulleted text? This is the state of many presentations, but many people simply don't know an alternative way to present.
Why presentations are so bad
Why is this so? Why do we impose ineffective, even painful, presentations on our audience, when we want to persuade them to buy a product or service, adopt our position on an issue, and so on?
There are several reasons:
1. PowerPoint points us not to power, but to weakness, by prompting us to enter text in bullets with its default slide layout. PowerPoint tells us to "Click to add title" or "Click to add text" and we obey, thinking it knows what it's talking about! See Figure 2.
2. We see that others are doing the same, so we follow.
3. Most of us are not trained in communication or design. Professionals write and design our websites and printed brochures, but we entrust only the highest-stakes presentations to professionals. This makes no sense, because our presentations are actually to our business.
Research on multimedia learning
There is a great deal of research on multimedia learning, mostly in an academic setting. For example, Dr. Richard E. Mayer, in his book, Multimedia Learning, came to the following conclusions for an effective presentation:
- Use multimedia: People learn better from words and pictures than from just words (whether written or spoken)
- Integrate words and pictures: People learn better when related words and pictures are presented simultaneously
- Be concise: People learn better when extraneous material is excluded
- Free up the brain: People learn better when words are presented as speech rather than written text
- Structure the content: People learn better when the material is well-organized
It's clear that a presentation consisting of bulleted text that the presenter reads doesn't meet any of the criteria for an effective presentation. The question is, what can you do about it? How can you make over an existing presentation to make it an effective tool for communication?
The Makeover, Part I: Content
This first step is to start with the content. To make the content of a presentation meaningful, you must consider the needs of the audience before your own. You've probably heard many presentations that start with "Who We Are." Next the presenter describes the product and its benefits. Finally, there's a call to buy.
This is backwards!
When you start with a picture of your factory, a list of your offices, and logos of some of your customers, your audience tunes out. They don't really care about you. What do they want to know? How you're going to solve their problems?
Here's a structure for a sales presentation that will both organize your presentation and make it more effective.
I. The problem: Describe the problem they're having (you did research about that, right?) Make it emotional by telling a story about a customer who was having that problem (before you solved it), or by some example that hits home.
II. The solution: Describe your product or service and its benefits. Explain why it's better than other solutions. Solve their problem!
III. The validation: Finally, you can tell them who you are and why you're competent to solve their problem. Complete that story by showing how you solved that customer's problem and describe where that customer stands today. Now you're in a position to ask for the sale.
Perhaps you're not selling. Let's say that you're proposing to streamline the processes in the Human Resources Department. In this case, the problem is internal. The same structure works. In fact, this structure is powerful any time you want to persuade or motivate an audience.
For the content makeover, re-order your slides for the new structure. Add slides if necessary and remove unnecessary slides. Make sure that your logic is clear and organized.
There's more. Most of your slides probably have several bullet points on them. For example, a slide might look like Figure 3.
A slide with several bullet points on it has too much content for an audience to understand and remember. Put each point on a separate slide and illustrate the point. I'll explain more about illustration in Part II.
The Makeover, Part II: Design
Design is the area where non-professional designers tell me they have the most problems. With a little care, even non-designers can create pleasing slides that aren't an embarrassment.
First, each slide should have some type of illustration. An illustration can be a photo (no clip art, please!), a graph, or a diagram. I call this Tell n' Show SM
Tell n' Show means that you tell the audience something verbally and repeat it simply in the slide title. Make a statement. Actually say something in your slide title. Then, you show your point visually.
The makeover for the bullet-heavy slide in Figure 3 might look like the four slides in Figure 4.
Here are some principles for designing slides that look good:
1. Keep them simple. If you're not an artist, don't try anything fancy. If the audience can't understand the slide in about 5 seconds, it's too complex.
2. Make sure that every image has a reason for being there. Leave out anything extraneous, even if it looks good.
3. Use consistent colors and match them to your website and printed materials.
4. Format the slide master before creating your presentation and leave the slides alone, except for a few exceptions when you want some variety.
5. Use a simple background or none at all. Don't use any of the backgrounds that come with PowerPoint, because they look old and dull.
6. Find a meaningful photo, graph, or diagram for almost every slide. Try to find photos that look good together.
A layout that always looks good is a vertical photo on the right side of the slide and some text centered on the left side. Use the Title Only layout and then resize and move the title placeholder so that it's opposite the image, as you can see in Figure 5.
If you need more text on a slide, get rid of the bullets. For more information, see my article, "Banish Bullets from a PowerPoint Presentation."
So take your bullet-heavy, image-light presentations and make them over using these guidelines.
The Makeover, Part III: Delivery
You can take a great presentation and ruin it in the delivery. One thing that audiences hate is the presenter reading the slides word for word. They can always read faster than the presenter can speak, so they just read ahead. Meanwhile, they don't pay any attention to the presenter.
But now, you won't have that problem, right? That's because you won't have many words on your slides. Your audience will take a quick look at a slide, understand the point, and then listen to you expand on it.
You may ask, "How do I know what to say if I don't have the slides to cue me?"
It's a good question, and you may not like the answer. A slide isn't meant to be a teleprompter. It's meant to be a visual aid to supplement what you say and to enhance understanding. The answer is that you'll have to practice. And practice some more. Write out notes and practice with them until a glance at the slide, and maybe a glance at your notes, triggers in your brain the message for that slide. This is the only way to give an effective presentation.
During delivery, you need to connect with your audience by eye contact, using gestures, moving around a little enough to keep your audience's interest. But even more important, you should engage your audience in a conversation. You do this by asking and taking questions. You take questions to answer them, but you ask questions to elicit responses from your audience and create a two-way dialog. See Figure 5.
Practice making over your delivery until it's more fluid and engaging. This type of delivery takes practice but the results will reward you again and again.
Create a Life by PowerPoint Presentation
Your presentations are important and worth the time it'll take you to do the makeover. These principles are doable for anyone; you don't have to be an artist. Try them out and you should see a great improvement.