Death by PowerPoint: grant your audience a reprieve

PowerPoint gets a pretty poor press but, as a regular user, I take the view that, as a mere tool, it is only as clever and effective as the person deploying it.

I’m a fan of PowerPoint because it allows me to project a lot of pictures and a few words that aid my audience’s understanding and retention of the material I am presenting and give them something to look at other than me. It is also ridiculously easy to use.

In the wrong hands, I admit that PowerPoint can be a deadly weapon, laden with inappropriately detailed information, to which the presenter provides a – usually poorly synced – soundtrack.

If you want to spare your audience Death by PowerPoint, here is what to avoid in terms of slide design:

Great slabs of text in full sentences. This is not a visual aid for an audience – it’s a script for a lazy, unimaginative presenter. There are three ways you can present such a slide – each of them equally unsatisfactory:

  • Pause to allow the audience to read it – but if they are just reading slides what do they need you for? You could have saved time and money by cancelling the meeting and distributing a document they could read in their own time, at their own pace;
  • Read it out yourself – but because reading speed is roughly twice as fast as talking speed, your audience will be on sentence 4 by the time you’re on sentence 2 and very irritated by having to wait for you to catch up;
  • Paraphrase what’s on the slide – but your audience will have to decide whether to listen to you or read the slide. They can’t do both at the same time because listening and reading use competing sensory channels.

Long lists of bullet points. This is just a slightly abbreviated script and a real turn-off for audiences, who groan inwardly at the certainty that you will feel the need to talk through the whole list. If you have to use lists of bullet points it’s best to ‘build’ them so the audience can focus on one at a time. Alternatively you could show the whole list, highlight the one you want to talk about and just briefly summarise the rest.

Lots of different fonts and colours, with whizzy animations and transitions. These might make you feel creative but special effects can be irritating and distracting for audiences and should be used only when they clearly reflect and support your content.

Intricate visuals. Use charts, diagrams and illustrations only when they simplify and clarify what you are trying to say rather than making it more complicated.

Finally, don’t fall into the trap of thinking there always has to be something on the screen. When you really want your audience just to listen to you, hit the ‘b’ button to make the screen go black (or ‘w’ for white). Simply repeat the move when you need to display the screen again.

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