If you must use PowerPoint

How refreshing it would be if we reflected on whether using PowerPoint to present with was the best tool to use. So often we use presentation software without a second thought for whether we should. There may well be a more effective way to present information. Throughout history the greatest presenters had no access to such software: it didn’t exist. It didn’t make them second-rate presenters. These people knew how to present. However, we live in different times and software is available to us and perhaps our audience expects us to use it as well. So, if you must use PowerPoint how can you make your presentation one that your audience will love and, crucially, impact their lives for the better?

Do a search for presentation and PowerPoint and 138, 000 000 results will appear including a fair number of How to’s and How Not to’s. How is it then that still so many terrible presentations occur every minute of the day? And, more to the point (pun intended!), how can you make your next presentation one that stands out from the glut of ‘Death By PowerPoint‘?!

I offer three things to remember. Using them will probably require a rewiring in your mind (that’s ok; at Powerchange – the company that I’m a partner with – we help people like you to do that all the time!); the willingness to step back from what you’ve always done and do something different. I think that you’ll be pleasantly surprised and most of all delighted in the outcomes. For certain, the ones that really matter: your audience, will definitely appreciate the outcome.

1. Keep it simple (KIS)

No doubt you’ve heard that expression before. If you have the chances are presenters have too. So, how is it that KIS goes ‘out of the window’? How often have you experienced presenters give us dozens and dozens of slides, mind-blowingly complex graphs, an over abundance of text and text and graphic animations? It confuses, baffles and generally leads to a ‘switching off’ by the audience. That is the last thing that you want to happen.

What to do:

Keep the design simple, use a font size of 60 pt at least, remove all bullet points and use as few words as possible replacing them with as good a quality image as you can.

By keeping the design simple you remove distractions. Your presentation is meant to be a backdrop that supports you while you present. Removing distractions allows the audience to concentrate on what matters most: your words.

A font size of 60 pt at least forces you to reduce the number of words on the slide.

Some of the best presentations that I have seen have very few words on the slide if any.

Apple’s amazing presentations that started with the iPod and have continued to this day with the launch of the latest iPad use very few words if any on a slide.

There has been significant research into the area of what is known as Cognitive Overload in recent years. Cognitive Overload occurs when both the visual and the auditory cortex parts of the brain are called into action at the same time for a significant amount of time. For example when a slide is dense with text/bullet points and the speaker is also speaking both parts of the cortex receive too much stimulation leading to ‘switching off’. You can read about the research by Chris Atherton by clicking here. There are, in fact, two types of cognitive load: intrinsic (how difficult something is to grasp) and extraneous (factors around us that challenge our abilities to learn and improve). In summary, the advice is to display very little text (low stimulation to the visual cortex) and use quality imagery while speaking clearly (high stimulation of the auditory cortex). I also recommend blanking the slide altogether on occasion and just speaking. The fewer ‘distractions‘ on the slide the lower the extraneous overload will become.

We now understand that the brain must convert text to an image to understand it. No wonder ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. A quality image can do more to engage and influence an audience then text ever will. Just ask an advertising company! The visual stimulation of the image vastly outweighs the text.

I also recommend removing all bullet points from a presentation unless it is your specific intention to list, although even then a more effective way might be to simply give a handout! Microsoft itself has references to materials such as Cliff Atkinson’s book as well as on its own site: http://bit.ly/MicrosoftBeyondBulletPoints

There is neurological evidence to support the notion that bullet points hinder us in presentations actively encouraging the mind to switch off. Dr Gregory Berns wrote in Iconoclast that: “The brain is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat,” and will do anything to avoid wasting energy. When slides resemble documents or “slideuments”, as they have become known we inhibit learning. Remember, we are presenting not producing a handout. Seth Godin goes further: “The minute you put bullets on the screen you are announcing, ‘Write this down, but don’t really pay attention to it now.’ People don’t take notes when they go to the opera.” (‘Nine Steps to PowerPoint Magic’, Oct 6, 2008.)page2image23384


And as for the above. Which would you rather see on a PowerPoint slide: the image or the text explaining the image? Yes, so would your audience!

1.Tell them the facts/the story while you;
2.Display with them the image and;
3.If necessary give them a handout at the end of your presentation to take away

2. You are presenting

There’s no getting away from it; PowerPoint isn’t the presenter; you are. Yet, all too often PowerPoint is the presenter and all the ‘presenter’ is doing is reading the slides and pressing a button to move onwards.

What to do:

Cognitive Overload, as explained earlier, means that there should be little on the slide and lots from your mouth. You are doing the talking so always talk to your audience, never read your slide and remember who the presenter is: it’s you!

3. Practise, practise, and practise some more!

There’s once more no getting away from it: you must practise your presentation. Ideally, until you can present it without the presentation software at all! But we don’t live in an ideal world and so must make the best use of PowerPoint as we can.

What to do:

My suggestion is to practise until you know at least what the coming slide is roughly going to show (another reason for few if any words and the use of quality illustrations and images on slides).

Don Hutson (an American Football Receiver) said this:
“For every pass I caught in a game I caught a thousand in practice.”

In Summary:

There is nothing wrong whatsoever with having notes. The issue occurs when your notes are presented to your audience. Keep your slides lean and focus on your presentation style.
I have recently written a blogpost that references within it the difference between conversation and presentation. Our school council members are being trained (Summer 2012) to recognise the differences between conversation and presentation. You can read my post here (at point 8 in the post). There are crucial differences between conversation and presentation and we put ourselves at a huge disadvantage if we fail to recognise the differences.

To finish with I’d like to show you the slide that I am using for a presentation to couples who are getting married. First, is the slide showing what the audience will see:

Below, are my notes that I will expand upon:


Developing our friendship

1. Friends confide in each other

No secrets

2. Friends talk to each other

Importance of meal times and other times together

3. Friends have fun together

Shared experiences lead to shared memories and shared conversations


I have a great deal to say while the slide displays the photo of the couple in the background. But that’s the point: While I am speaking the PowerPoint is displaying one, delightful photo. Simply replacing text with photos would make presentations so much more enjoyable to attend. After all, how did you respond seeing the photo?…

If you must use PowerPoint using the three-point guide above will help your presentation to be remembered for all the right reasons. Let me know how you get on! Can I help you not only assemble a stand-out-from-the-crowd presentation but coach you through presenting it confidently and with self-assurance? Contact me for a free, informal 15 minute chat.