Don't blame PowerPoint

Don't blame Powerpoint

What’s the difference between watching a PowerPoint presentation and undergoing a root canal? One is forced upon us, causes excruciating pain, and often requires lengthy recovery time. The other is a dental procedure.

But I’ve got news for you: It’s not PowerPoint, it’s you. I know these are painful words to hear, but the time has come to stop the buck-passing and take some responsibility. I think we can all agree that the majority of slide presentations (and this includes PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, GoogleDocs, Sliderocket, GoAnimate, Slidesnack . . .) are a screaming bore. In many cases the presenter seems to be struggling as much as the audience to endure the whole ordeal. So what’s the problem?

I submit that the slides are not being used as they were intended. They are acting as a roadblock to communication, rather than the vehicle. The fact that most decks don’t work is no secret. Regularly, I hear people say, “I know this slide is too busy, but . . .” or “I know this looks terrible, but . . . ,” or “I don’t address this part but it has to be on the slide.” Drives me nuts. After a little digging, I find the problem is usually caused by the same four culprits:

1.     “We’re stuck with this template”

2.     “We always modify from previous presentations”

3.     “The board/my boss/the company/only wants to see (insert number) slides”

4.     “This company is formal and conservative, so I can’t be creative with the presentation”

Well, this is all just bunk and here’s why: All of these (and other) defenses for a bad presentation are arbitrary and meaningless when we consider why we are presenting in the first place. Let’s knock them down one-by-one:

  • If the template is poor it should be changed. If it’s not, or it’s truly unchangeable, we need to find a way to be effective within the boundaries.
  • Modifying a bad presentation saves time on the front end and wreaks havoc from that point on. It’s like repeatedly cooking from a lousy recipe and expecting the resulting meal to magically taste better than the last time.
  • Where did this magic number come from? If two slides work better than one, do we ignore this and stick with one? Do we think that it’s worse to move through two well-planned slides than to slog through one overcrowded one during which time we completely lose our audience? (I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t.) The reality is that we should plan for as many or as few slides as we need to accomplish the goal we set for the presentation, in keeping within the allotted time. That’s it. And, let’s not forget, there needs to be a goal.
  • Formal does not have to equal boring. Formal does not mean that our time and the time of our listeners are not valuable and deserving of respect. It is possible – and advisable - to be both creative and formal.

There is another defense of poor slides that I would like to address on its own, “The deck is the handout that everyone gets before/during/after the presentation.” It mustn’t be. It’s nice to think of a deck performing double duty in this way, but attempting this shortcut ensures that one or the other (or very often both) versions will fail in their role.

The function of a complete handout is to provide something to look at prior to or after a presentation, with details, sources, appendices, and so forth. It is written to be read, to serve as a reference, and to support what was learned in the presentation.

A slide deck is visual reinforcement of key points that a presenter is offering to an audience with the intention of moving that group, through live communication, to a desired action. The deck also serves as a prompt for the speaker for the order of the material, the pacing of the delivery, and the emphasis on key points and ideas.

When these two distinctly different functions, that of the slide deck and of the handout, are forced together into one “document” the speaker is often stuck reading each slide aloud. We are all capable of reading a document on our own, so it cannot be argued that we need to occupy our valuable time listening to someone read slides aloud to us. What’s the goal in that, anyway? When I pose this question the response is invariably either a) they were told to present it so they are complying with the request/demand, or b) my goal is to “let them know ____ . . .” If the reason you’ve called me away from my work and other demands to a conference room or auditorium is simply to let me know something, I’d prefer you just send me an email. I’d rather show up for a more compelling reason than that. Identifying the “why” in the presentation is critical and will be the topic for another article and a different time. For now, suffice it to say that the success of a presentation – and the level of your confidence giving it - depends on it emanating from a solid, provocative purpose.

The bottom line is this: slides are there to help us deliver a message that drives the listener to action. And contrary to popular opinion, slides don’t do anything we don’t tell them to do. PowerPoint is not the enemy but merely a visual (and sometimes audio) tool that we can employ to support our thoughtfully prepared message.

I’m not a big fan of hard rules, but it’s safe to say that poorly designed slides – ones heavy with bullets and text, covered with confusing graphics comparing multiple sets of data that require a lot of time and concentration on the part of the audience to decipher – are not recommended. It’s also important to restrain ourselves when it comes to overly 'creative' animations – these often subtract rather than add to the value of a message.

Building a solid deck takes some time and strategy, but it gets easier the more you do it. It’s time well spent because you are preparing for the final delivery of your message even as you build it. Later, you can also recycle elements that work well for you, as opposed to modifying a bad presentation again and again.

Need help? You are not alone. Like most skills, this is something that must be learned and, in the early stages, can be more than a little nerve-wracking. An experienced speech coach can be extremely valuable in helping you to develop these strategies, practice your delivery and grow the skills and confidence you need in order to make your next presentation a real winner.  And you’re in luck. I just happen to know a great one.

Stephanie Silverman is an Executive Coach for public speaking and all areas of spoken communication at Silverman Speech Consulting.