The six worst forms of PowerPoint abuse

Is it the TV’s fault if a programme is boring? Surely not! Is a drill to blame for a poorly hung picture? Hardly! So why is it that PowerPoint is so often forced to take the rap for the dull, uninspiring and unmemorable presentations delivered daily in meeting rooms, conference halls and lecture theatres across the land?

I believe that PowerPoint is a useful and versatile tool when used as designed – as a visual aid for audiences. But it is a lethal weapon in the hands of its growing legions of abusers, which is why we now face an insidious epidemic of ‘death by PowerPoint’.

Here is my list of the six worst sins against PowerPoint – and how to atone for them!

  1. Too many slides

I have lost count of the number of times I have worked with speakers who insist on presenting, say, 50 slides in 20 minutes and promise that they will ‘talk very fast’. It’s the very definition of a counter-productive approach. No one could possibly engage with such a speaker, follow their argument or remember it afterwards.

The rule of thumb is to allow about one minute per slide on average. But I would go further and say you should use as few slides as possible and cut them ruthlessly until you have a bare minimum that genuinely aid your audience’s understanding.

Go on, start now by deleting that superfluous one at the end. It may sound like a revolutionary idea but you don’t need a slide to help you say ‘Thank you – any questions?’

  1. Nothing but slides

If all you do is show one slide after another similar slide until you get to the end of your allotted time, you will have lost all but your most diehard fans along the way.

Listening is hard work, our minds wander a lot of the time and our attention span is limited. If you want to hold our attention you have got to do something surprising to grab it from the start (see my previous post on attention-grabbing) and then you need to re-engage it at intervals by doing something different – like asking a question, telling a story (without slides!), showing a video or getting the audience to do some group or individual work.

  1. Too much text

Few sights make my heart sink as fast as a PowerPoint slide densely laden with full sentences.

Even if you know what you are going to say, the temptation will be to turn your back on the audience and read out these sentences word by painful word.

This greatly reduces your impact as a presenter. It also confuses and frustrates your audience attention because it is physically impossible to read and listen at the same time.

The point is that if people can get all they need from your presentation by reading the slides, you should have emailed out the information on the slides and spared everyone the trouble of attending the meeting.

At most you should have single words or brief phrases on your slides, but pictures are far better because they aid understanding without competing with the words you speak.

  1. Endless bullet points

Bullet points are not so-named for nothing – they are among the deadliest weapons in the PowerPoint arsenal. Far from being an aid for the audience they are nothing but a prompt for lazy presenters, who tend to work through the list laboriously one by one.

My best advice is not to use bullets at all. If you need to present a list, either build it so the audience can focus on one point at a time without being tempted to read ahead, or show the list but then grey out the unimportant items and highlight the one you really want to talk about.

 Over-complex graphics

The rule with charts, graphs, diagrams and other graphics is that they should make things easier not harder to understand. If ever you find yourself tempted to apologise for the complexity of a graphic, think again and either simplify it or remove it completely.

  1. The PowerPoint paintbox

When PowerPoint first came in it was fun to experiment with all the colours and fonts, animations and clip art. Now it looks tired, tacky and old-hat. Best to keep your slide design uniform, disciplined and unshowy and save the fireworks for the main event – your performance.

Presenting is a performance art

If all this sounds like hard work, guess what, it is! Presenting is a performance art. And all performers need to invest in planning, preparation and rehearsal if they want to keep their audiences engaged and send them away inspired.

Used judiciously, in combination with other elements, PowerPoint can help you deliver a great performance. PowerPoint abuse, on the other hand, will leave you with empty seats, closed minds and a sullied reputation.

My offer to you

Clearsay works with senior executives in all sectors to develop and improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews, negotiations and critical meetings. For more information, return to the Home Page.

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