The Perils of Powerpoint

We've all been exposed to them, the expected complement to any presentation—yes, the Powerpoint. Whether it's in front of a 1000 people or a one-on-one with a client, Powerpoints and Keynotes (Apple's version) are ubiquitous. Substituting the words in the adage about design, "Good Powerpoints go to heaven, bad Powerpoints go everywhere." And they are everywhere. But this article isn't so much about ugly Powerpoints, though they are legion, here we focus on the question, "are they necessary at all?"

Too quickly answer that question, yes, they are, at least in some cases, which we will look at below. By the end of this article, you should be able to determine whether or not you need a PowerPoint, and how to go about it in a way that does not put people to sleep or offend snooty designers. (Note: as a snooty designer myself, I will have had to bite my tongue many times while writing this article.)

First, a word about tools: my Dad once said that you are no better than your tools, implying you should not only have the correct ones but good ones. A butter knife is no good for carving the Thanksgiving turkey, but neither is a dull carving knife. But I'm describing an activity that most certainly requires a tool. The question: does your presentation need a tool, namely the PowerPoint? As a churchgoer, I've heard a lot of poignant homilies without a PowerPoint glowing in the background. And I doubt that Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech" would have ever needed a slideshow. One more. Simon Sinek, one of my favorite speakers (has the #3 most popular TED talk), may only make a crude drawing on a pad of paper. My point here, if your content is good enough, a PowerPoint is superfluous.

In case you have forgotten your high school speech class, a few tips: 1.) start with a story or personal anecdote, 2.) tell them what you're going to tell them, and 3.) give them an idea of when you will be done, e.g., "I have three points." Be honest and transparent, never condescending or presumptuous, make it personal, and involve the audience with probing questions.

I have been in talks where I expect to see the PowerPoint screen unfurled but to be pleasantly surprised when the speaker only has a podium to lean on. So before you start creating those PowerPoint slides, make sure you have written a great talk that will stand on its own. The benefits of not using the slide presentation: 1.) you might connect with your audience more readily, 2.) allow interaction, and 3.) keep them focused on what you're saying instead of what you are showing. Don't try to use a sizzle over substance.

There are perfectly good reasons to use a PowerPoint, especially when you need to illustrate, literally, something you are saying. If your talk is technical, it will probably beg for graphs, charts, or illustrations to help make your point. But if it all possible, try to resist the temptation to have a slideshow for the sake of having a slide show. Besides, it will save you a bunch of time, and you won't have to worry about whether or not you have the right adapter to make any connections.

So if you decide that a PowerPoint is required, try to make it a good one. There's not enough room to describe all that goes into making a slideshow, but in very brief terms: 1.) avoid the canned templates, 2.) using too many fonts or colors, and 3.) stay clear of distracting transitions. Use as few words as you possibly can, and instead of cramming a lot of words onto one slide spread, them out over several (the extra slides cost you nothing). Think of your presentation slides as an outline to help your audience follow along. Never allow it to distract the listener from what you are saying. In the end, you might even want to hire one of those snooty designers to help you out. I've helped create templates that multiple speakers can use during a particular event—it's so liberating for those speakers to not worry about the design.

When the big day comes, be prepared—be well-rehearsed and make sure your presentation slide clicks off without a hitch. And finally, 1.) never read what's on the slide—you shouldn't be that much to read anyway, 2.) and unless you are referencing a detail on the slide, never look at your slide when you should be looking at your audience. The slide show should be clipping along behind you as though you don't even know they exist.

In summary: do you have an engaging talk? Do you need a slide show? If so, how can you make it simple and never a distraction? Are you well prepared?

Download this more technical guide to the design of your presentation.

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