Yes, today we have to take on the Crusher of Hopes… the Destroyer of Worlds… the Dementor of Business Meetings… I am of course talking about PowerPoint.
Just like the Dementors from Harry Potter, PowerPoint can literally suck the life force out of people, leaving those who have experienced it as hollow shells of their former selves. Why is this? What is it about PowerPoint that makes it so easy to misuse? And, more importantly, how can we use it more effectively?
Worst Case Scenario
Have you ever been to a conference which starts like this: someone takes the “clicker” (with which they will advance their slides), hits the button and a full page CV appears in bullet point format on the screen behind them? And then they, you guessed it, read it line by painful line…
This is my Worst Case Scenario for a presentation. I know that the speaker has never learnt how to present well and so paying attention to them is going to be hard work!
So what’s gone wrong here? Yes, this is the “slides of text” approach (or the “voorlees feest”, see my earlier article). But this is wrong for a reason most people don’t realise.
Sure, the subject is not interesting. In another previous article I mentioned what people want to know from a presentation: “what’s in it for me?” To be brutally honest, most people don’t care about your CV. What you’ve achieved is nothing like as important to them as how good your presentation will be for them. And, yes, the “slide of text” is an immediate distraction: people can choose to read the text or listen to the speaker. But not both. So the audience will often read the text (which they can do in half the time it takes the speaker to read it out loud) and then they switch off until the next slide. Finally, it is more fun to watch paint dry than to see a grown up read out bullet points to other grown ups.
So, it’s irrelevant, a distraction and it’s dull. But that’s not the worst of it. What makes it far worse is this: it removes the mystery. Stay with me here, this is really important. Think about your favourite television programme. What makes it so good? It’s that your hero is in an impossible situation and you wonder how they will ever get out of it. Or a murder mystery book where the reader is wondering until almost the last page: whodunnit?
A mystery captures attention because the viewer, reader or audience is desperate to know how it will be resolved.
But PowerPoint used in this way destroys the mystery. If I can see for myself at a glance what the speaker will say for the next couple of minutes, I will read the slide and then switch off until the next slide. And if this pattern is continued, eventually I won’t switch on again until the presentation is done. This is fatal for your talk: your content can be amazing but, if people aren’t listening, your content is irrelevant.
Or take the slide that often follows the “CV slide” at conferences: the “table of contents” slide. If a CV slide is bad, in that your audience will switch off until it’s finished, the table of contents slide is far worse! If your audience decide (rightly or wrongly) that, based on your contents slide, your talk won’t be interesting for them, that’s their attention gone for the rest of your presentation!
So how should you use PowerPoint? In a word, “sparingly”. Don’t use it unless you really have to! PowerPoint is great for showing a powerful image. And if you do, show one image at a time, not a screenful of multiple postage stamp sized pictures that the audience need a telescope to see clearly. Fill the screen with one great image, and no text. PowerPoint is also great for a chart or diagram. (Yes, sometimes these are unavoidable. But if they are explained well to your audience, they can make a powerful point.)
But DON’T use PowerPoint as your speaker notes! Instead, add your speaker notes to PowerPoint Presenter View so that only you see them. Let the audience hear your content from you – that is far more engaging – than reading it from your slides. Remove PowerPoint whenever you don’t need it. At our recent TEDxEindhoven event, some speakers added “black” (ie blank) slides to their presentation, to display when they wanted to make an important point. This was so that, if they were speaking, the audience would focus on them and not on the screen.
Similarly, if someone asks a question and the current slide is a distraction (a different topic), reach out your hand to the laptop and press the B button. B is for “black” – the colour your screen will go (or W for “white”). Oh, and on a Dutch version of Windows, use Z. 🙂 Of course, most clickers have a button which can make the slides switch off or on which saves you walking over to the laptop.
Finally, remember that the audience is there to hear you. The slides are just a help, a prop. (Actually, real props are great to add to a presentation – but that’s a separate topic!) Keep the slides only for when you really need them. The rest of the time, let the audience hear, and see, you.
-Mark Robinson is a senior software engineer at TMC. In addition, he has his own business, Mark Robinson Training, via which he gives workshops, presentations and coaching to help people communicate more effectively to groups. With his engineering background, he is particularly suited to supporting the international, technology community of Eindhoven. He has spoken at TEDxEindhoven in 2016 and is now a TEDxEindhoven speaker coach. –