The use of PowerPoint has got completely out of control. Not only is the tail wagging the dog but it’s doing so with such vigour that the dog is often just a blur.
Before we look at how PowerPoint can enhance a presentation, let’s first be clear about how NOT to use it.
A set of slides is not intended to tell the story by itself. If it does, the speaker is by definition redundant.
There are three main reasons this happens:
1) An organisation wants to ensure everyone is delivering exactly the same message, so it creates a standard presentation and requires everyone to stick to it.
My answer to this is that it’s really only the message the organisation is concerned about. As long as you deliver that message, there is no reason you should not do so in your own words and style – in fact, it will be much more effective if you do.
2) The speaker has been asked by conference organisers – or by those who are going to make up the audience – to provide slides so that they know in advance what he/she is planning to say. Sometimes this is so that the audience has a copy to keep afterwards, in lieu of a handout or taking notes during the presentation.
The problem here is that you’re then stuck with a set of slides that will be clunky to use and make it difficult for you to present with panache. If conference organisers ask for your slides, why not send them a written summary of what you’re going to say? This would, actually, tell them what they need to know much more quickly and easily than slides would. If it’s your audience asking for slides in advance, again I suggest a written report would be more useful to them.
Particularly where a copy of your slides is meant to be a help after the event, I strongly recommend you rethink this. What constitutes a good slide does not make for a good handout – and vice versa. It’s more work to prepare two different documents but it’s well worth it!
3) The speaker feels safer imparting the information visually, rather than verbally. (Given that this approach is so common, it may also be, as I was saying last week, that he/she has simply never considered doing it differently.)
Nervous speakers tend to like the idea of the audience’s focus being on the screen rather than on them, but this is a vicious circle. Because this style of presenting is unlikely to engage the audience, the speaker gets even more nervous and hides behind even more densely composed slides. Break this cycle by connecting with the people in front of you and it will transform the experience for all concerned.
Whether speakers are nervous or not, it has become an accepted idea that the slides should contain enough information to obviate the need for notes. While I can see why people think this is a good system, in my view it has two major flaws. The first is that you ought to be telling the audience whatever it is, rather than showing it on the screen. The second is that you’re much less in control than you are with a discreet set of notes in your hand or on the table, where you can see what’s next before you deliver it.
So what IS the point of PowerPoint, then?
It’s to support the speaker by providing a visual dimension when that is the clearest way to put the point across. A chart or a graph, for example, is a shortcut to explaining a lot of statistics and can put them in context. A map makes sure we all know where we are. A picture famously speaks a thousand words. Text, on the other hand, has to work extremely hard to justify its existence on a slide. The audience is not here either to read from the screen or to hear you do that: the audience is here to listen to you talk.
PowerPoint exists to serve you – not the other way round. Take control and you’ll find your presentations become both easier to deliver and much better received.