death by powerpoint

Death by Powerpoint?

Impact Poland's Agata Stanik has 10 tips to save you and your audience.


The problem with PowerPoint comes from its origins. It was developed in the previous century to equip presenters with a visual tool, enabling them to better illustrate the points they were making. Unfortunately, it quickly became misused as a way of preparing documents to be shown as the background to a presentation. No surprise, given that the 20th century was an 'informational age' - information was power so we got used to presenting a lot of it, in a logical order.

Today, however, we live in a 'conceptual age' - people look for meaning rather than for information. You can always get a bunch of information from Google, but to figure out what it means you often need to refer to others. Experiencing presentations that give just plain information can often feel completely meaningless - and using PowerPoint in this way is rather PowerPointless.

So, how can you make your presentation genuinely interesting and meaningful? Here are 10 basic rules:

1. Do you actually even need a PowerPoint presentation? Would a flipchart suffice? Or maybe Prezi would do the trick? It is always tempting to quickly pull together a few slides to support your message, but before you do, be clear about what you want to say, and whether the slides will help.

2. Before you sit in front of your laptop, take a pen and write down the single most important message that you want to convey to your audience. It doesn't matter if you're going to talk for 5 minutes or 5 hours, people will not remember everything. You need to decide what is the most important point you have to make.

3. Now use other sheets of paper (post its are best for me) and write on them all the important facts that you want to mention to your audience, in any order that they come to you.

4. When all the information is on paper, organise them. It’s much easier to move paper around than slides (our minds tend to look for train of thought and adjust it to the order of the slides rather than the other way around). Remember that it's important for participants to see the logic in your presentation.

5. Now you are ready to start working with PowerPoint. Here are a few things to watch out for:
- avoid using default layouts (everybody has seen them millions of times)
- unless you are going for a retro look, best to avoid clip art ;)
- Animation features can also feel very dated - particularly if you use sound as well.

6. When preparing a PowerPoint presentation, remember “less is more”. In order to turn a written thought into a slide, pick one word or photo that supports it and strengthens the idea (e.g. if you want to say that 80% of presenters put too much information on their slides just write a big 80% on the slide and you'll know what to say; if you want to say that one in 5 people on the planet don't have access to clean water just put a photo of a glass full of dirty fluid - the photo will speak for itself). The simpler the better.

7. Use high contrast (e.g. black letters on white background or white letters on black background - this second set gives great effect while projecting onto a white wall or screen). Use basic sans-serif fonts (e.g. Arial, Gill Sans, Tahoma).

8. Everyone loves stories. When giving an example to support your presentation, turn it into a story. Add details - names, locations, times - to help the audience to visualise and remember. Anecdotes rooted in personal experience are particularly powerful.

9. If someone asks me to send them a slide pack after the presentation, my answer is always 'no'. Slides are for showing. If you want to give participants additional information to take away, then prepare a separate text-based handout. And don’t worry if your presentation has 50 slides and you only have one page of text to give to people - this just means you have some great stories to tell :)

10. Most importantly: don’t read from your slides! The participants can do this themselves - if that’s all you are doing then your role as a presenter isn’t really necessary!

There are many publications out there to help you improve presentation skills. I always recommend 'Presentation Zen' by Garr Reynolds, who has been a great inspiration.