PowerPoint has been around for more than 30 years now.
For much of that time, expert speakers have been encouraging us to use it more creatively and effectively than the engineers who designed it to show information to each other.
Include more images, they tell us. And fewer words. Ditch distracting special effects. And for the love of God, stop with the bullet points.
And yet, walk into a corporate conference room today and you’ll see some director of something-or-other giving a presentation. Their slides are packed with wordy bullet points. And yes, they’re reading those bullet points out loud.
You’ll also notice nobody’s much listening. They might be staring slack-jawed at the screen on the wall. Or maybe checking their email on that tiny screen they just pulled out of their purse or pocket.
Presentation software “best practices” are well-established by now. So why are ineffective presentations such a mainstay in American business culture?
Here’s what people tell me about their slides.
- “That’s the way we do it here.”
- “People like to see everything on the slides—they need bullet points.”
- “I need the information on the slides to keep me on track.”
- “I have to send out the slides after the meeting—everyone expects that.”
- “Making the slides is how I start preparing a presentation.”
After my head explodes, here’s what I tell them.
- Your presentation is not your slide deck.
- Your presentation is Your presence in the moment. What you say and how you say it. The connection you make with the people in the room.
- PowerPoint or Keynote should support your message, not supplant it. Well-chosen images can add impact to what you say.
- Use cue cards or notes, even the notes section of your slides, to make sure you say what you intend to say. Don’t project it on the wall for your audience to read and then read it out loud to them.
- If you must send slides out after your talk, make two sets of slides. One with limited information on it that you’ll use live, the other with more information to send.
- Better yet, send a memo. Or let people know you’ll hand it to them at the end of your presentation.
- And about “this is how we do it here.” Doing it differently—and better—will make you stand out. Okay, dated technique is still around. That doesn’t mean you have to use it, too.
It’s not lost on me that I just wrote a bunch of bullet points. They can be very useful to guide the eye in a memo—or a newsletter. Not so much when they’re part of your presentation.
Here’s some more advice from a couple of pros.
Marketing expert Seth Godin’s been talking about how to use presentation technology more effectively practically since it was invented. He actually wrote an ebook called Really Bad PowerPoint.
Seth suggests the slides should reinforce your words, not replace them.
To that end, use meaningful images that evoke emotion and stay away from cheesy stock photos. Use no more than SIX words per slide, ever. One or two keywords would be even better. Skip the dissolves and spins and so on.
Communication is the transfer of emotion, Seth says; focus on images that create an emotional reaction in your audience.
In Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds tells us “bullet points are not usually effective in a live talk.”
Yes, you’ll want the occasional list of, say, the steps in a process or the specs of a new product. And, those lists should be the rare exception rather than the default way to deliver information.
He points out that pictures stick in our memories better than words do. Go for the powerful image that illustrates the point people are hearing from you, rather than letting them see the words you’re saying, written out on a slide.
Garr also points out that slide real estate is limited. He recommends not wasting it on footers, logos and the like. Many companies have a slide template they expect everyone to use – it’s worth rethinking that.
Design-wise, empty space says something too. Your message, whether in words or pictures or both, will be more powerful if it stands alone without the blahblah around the border.
If you’ve heard me speak, you know I’m a low-tech type. My preference is to create a conversation with my audience, to focus on that energetic connection with them. And I sometimes say I’m my own best visual aid.
At the same time, I recognize the value of images. For many presentations, they’re essential. I want my clients to use them well so staring at a screen doesn’t interfere with their relationship to the audience. And it’s certainly possible to do that.
Last word on the subject from Presentation Zen: “As much as possible, the tools and techniques must be used only to clarify, simplify, and support the personal connection that develops between and audience and a speaker.”
You may be married to your bullet points; post a comment below a comment and offer a defense.
Or tell us if you’re shifting your perspective now on how to use presentation technology.