The Uses and Abuses of PowerPoint

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For the sake of this article, I refer to the most commonly used presentation software but there are other tools available, such as Powtoon, which is free, works best with Google Drive, and claims that PowerPoint software is “so twentieth century.”

Perhaps you’ve heard about the book titled “Death by PowerPoint: How to Avoid Killing Your Presentation and Sucking the Life Out of Your Audience” (click image on left to learn more). Key contributors to killing your audience (and not in the way comedians use the term) include confusing graphics, slides with too much text and speakers whose idea of a good presentation is to read 40 slides out loud.

As a professional public speaker, executive coach, and researcher, I attend many conference events and business meetings. It’s obvious that today’s audiences expect speakers to use PowerPoint to convey their main points visually. You don’t really have a choice. Alas, not everyone is so tech-savvy, and I’ve learned a great deal from observing how people use and abuse PowerPoint.

I’ll review the uses and abuses of PowerPoint and provide 10 strategies to help you confidently produce PowerPoint presentations that enhance your delivery style without detracting from a conversational tone and your ability to connect with people.

WOMEN IN BUSINESS AND LEADERSHIP ROLES NEED TO MASTER POWERPOINT

More women will be advancing into leadership roles that, in turn, will require delivering presentations at professional conferences or to business groups. I believe this will occur because – Now Hear This! – women are more educated than men and educated people advance faster in life and work. Did you know about these gender shifts?

  • Of the class of 2013-2014, women were awarded more than half of the bachelor’s degrees (57.1%), master’s degrees (59.9%), and doctorate degrees (51.8%).
  • In that same class, women earned almost half (49.1%) of all professional degrees in medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine and law.
  • In 2015, women held 51.5% of all management, professional, and related occupations and 43.6% of the subcategories of management, business, and financial operations occupations.

I want to point out that women speakers must push against stereotypes in the minds of listeners, particularly given sexist assumptions about women’s innate incompetence in math, science, engineering, and computers. For this reason, it’s important for women speakers to show that they’re comfortable with technology and, as one example, have mastered PowerPoint as a tool. No self-deprecating remarks allowed if you lose your power cord or the technology isn’t compatible. Follow my advice and you’ll be prepared for anything!

POSITIVE USES OF POWER POINT

PowerPoint makes it easy to present a speaker’s ideas and maintain eye contact with a large audience by simply advancing slides with a keystroke, eliminating the need for handouts. There’s much to say in favor of using PowerPoint. A well-organized slideshow aligns visual images with the oral presentation and enhances the content, making it easy to “show,” not tell. Utilizing the templates and layouts included with the software can produce attractive and professional-looking slides. You can make your presentation more impactful by adding things like animation (to demonstrate how to do something) or embedding a video to add gravitas to your content. You can break up text with headers and bullet points to ensure listeners follow your logic as you advance through your presentation and build one idea upon another. Words, names, or acronyms that are difficult to pronounce can appear on the screen for clarification.

ABUSES OF POWERPOINT

Producing a slideshow that works effectively isn’t as easy as it looks. People wrongly believe they can throw something together because the templates and design layouts will organize their key points into an attractive presentation. They fool themselves into thinking there’s a structure (but if the logic isn’t there, a pretty format doesn’t matter).

Reticent speakers use PowerPoint as a crutch to hide behind. The university professor uses it for lecture notes instead of being a dynamic interpreter of facts and figures. PowerPoint can become an end in itself. We see this with Techies who might dazzle an audience with whiz-bang animation effects but fail to communicate their main points effectively. As a result, their presentation isn’t memorable and doesn’t lead anywhere.

With all this in mind, here are some suggestions for being more effective when you plan to use PowerPoint with your next presentation or speech.

#1: PREPARE AN OUTLINE

PowerPoint is merely a tool to express ideas, opinions, proposals, and updates. You wouldn’t write a three-page memo without first preparing an outline of your key message points. It’s the same for using PowerPoint; i.e. preparation is key. What is your overarching main point? What sub points will allow you to dive deeper into your topic? Take the following steps when preparing: (1) determine the structure of the presentation, (2) add content to fill-in the structure and, (3) design the content to be visually interesting in a way that enhances your words. When I start working on a presentation, I put all my notes into a folder. I can then easily reference miscellaneous resources such as articles, research, memos, cartoons and personal jottings that enhance my presentation.

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#2: CREATE VISUAL COHERENCE

Your brand should drive the visual design. If you work for a company or an agency, they will typically provide you with a logo to use on the slides. If you’re a solo entrepreneur, you’ll still want to showcase your brand throughout the slideshow. At the very least, choose a color scheme that reflects you. If you don’t have one, visit http://paletton.com and play with different color combinations to create a fresh look. Just make sure it works the same across different types of media. A color that looks good on your laptop screen may not project well at a conference. Pink or lilac might look great to you but not be readable to the audience. Stay away from red/green, brown/green, blue/black, blue/purple combinations. Instead, aim for a high contrast between background and text. Also, don’t use bright background colors that will strain your audience’s eyes.

When it comes to your copy, size matters. You need to use font sizes between 28-48 points in order to make headlines standout and a font no smaller than 24 points for bullets and body copy. Legibility is also essential. Make sure you find a clean looking font – some fonts are easier to read than others (e.g., Times Roman). All CAPS should be used for headlines and section titles only, not in paragraphs.

#3: HAVE A LOGICAL FLOW

Organize your information clearly and simply so people can follow your logic. Make it so simple that people can quote you in the morning. The slides can convey your ideas in five ways:

  1. Designed by Freepik

    Chronologically (a sequence or steps)

  2. Spatially (how things relate to one another in space)
  3. The pros and the cons of taking action
  4. A list of solutions to a stated problem
  5. A range of topics related to a common theme such as “Five Reasons to Buy Vs Rent”

As you present each slide, verbally discuss each element so that listeners understand your point. Keep it uncomplicated, using only 1-2 images per slide. Too many visuals will complicate your message. Ask yourself: is this slide enhancing my main point and increasing the listeners’ understanding?

#4: LIMIT THE NUMBER OF SLIDES

Elaborate on the subject of each slide and explain what it means. The slides need to be purposeful and help explain your points. During your run-through, ask yourself: Do I really need this slide? Your goal should be no more than one slide per minute.

In a longer conference presentation, plan to have a strategic change every 10 minutes to help keep the audience engaged. You could stimulate some audience interaction by asking a provocative question. You could show the famous “Nine Dot Puzzle” on the screen and ask audience members to solve the puzzle with a partner. You can also press “B” on your keyboard to blacken your screen and present the next segment in your presentation using a different medium, such as writing on a whiteboard or demonstrating how to do something. Every change keeps your audience engaged.

Slides can serve various functions You can include a humorous slide that makes the point immediately; for instance, visualize the answer to the question of whether a dog looks like its owner or vice versa by showing dogs and owners. A slide can bridge to an anecdote ripped from the headlines. A slide can show versus tell using film clips. For example, if I wanted to make the point that communicators rely on their senses of sight or hearing, I could play an excerpt of a documentary about Helen Keller’s speaking style

So, do you want your listeners to remember you, the speaker and the point of your interesting, engaging presentation, or to remember there were too many unrelated and purposeless slides that left them dizzy and confused?

#5: USE DIVIDERS

Remember that readers have a yellow highlighter to capture key points in a book or article but listeners need help in following your logic. Section divider slides will help break up content into memorable chunks. The divider slide could be a catchy phrase in CAPS, a stunning or thought-provoking visual aid that is ambiguous, or a photograph from a compelling human-interest story. Here is an example of a provocative quote that could be used to introduce a section of a presentation about “Views of Leadership”:

You can also use a series of photographs, each with a stunning but ambiguous image. Once the audience sees it and becomes perplexed, you can then go on to explain what it means literally or metaphorically. Here’s one example. Imagine how you might use it to make a point:

Photo courtesy of pngtree

# 6: VISUALIZE COMPARISONS

Have you ever seen someone embed an Excel spreadsheet into a PowerPoint slide and then try and explain one tiny data point that is impossible to read when projected on the screen? This can be the moment the speaker loses the audience, as in “Death by PowerPoint!” Words are great for explanations and storytelling but to compare and contrast, numbers, graphs and pie charts are better for showing relationships, comparisons, and change. Bold colors on a pie chart can make it clear which product line is most profitable or if a specific clinical service has significantly higher costs when compared to other services.

Visualizing a dynamic relationship is a key strategy for the persuasive presenter when pitching a new idea. Listeners resistant to change will be thinking “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Use graphs and charts to make it clear that something IS broken. These visual elements can help your audience visualize the downward spiral in a Profit and Loss statement or the expected returns on an investment.

#7: CHOOSE IMAGERY THAT IS INCLUSIVE AND DIVERSE

Text-only slides are the easiest to make but visuals keep your audience engaged with your material. Great templates can dress-up your presentation and are easy to use. Unfortunately, the default templates included with PowerPoint use images of men at the podium, supporting the concept that male leadership and the voice of authority is a male voice. Women speakers have to modify these templates or create original material that depicts demographically diverse images of women. A new company seeks to meet that need, providing PowerPoint “templates” for women speakers to use. These templates showcase images of women in business and professional life, rather than only as people in the audience or in conventional roles.

There are free images available online but better images are available for a nominal fee. Professional photographers charge for use of their images, such as the ones used in publications but sometimes it’s worth the price!

#8: TEST TO ENSURE ALL TECHNOLOGY SYSTEMS ARE COMPATIBLE

PowerPoint provides equal opportunities for both men and women to look incompetent. This can happen when a speaker builds the slideshow with outdated software that won’t display on a computer using a more recent version. Avoid nasty surprises, like incompatible hardware devices, lack of an extension cord when you need it most or a spotty Internet connection. The speaker who travels outside the office must test all their equipment well in advance to make sure all systems are a “go.” If a computer and projector are being provided for you, double check the equipment on the “day of”, or better yet, the day before you appear at the podium to ensure everything works as expected.

Photo courtesy of KelownaNow

#9: FACE THE AUDIENCE, NOT THE SCREEN

How often have you seen speakers turn their back to the audience to read what’s on the screen? You wouldn’t turn your back on a group you were addressing in a meeting or speaking to at a dinner, so why do it during a presentation? Communication is 93% non-verbal. Each time you turn away, you can’t use gestures or facial expressions to communicate. Most of us don’t have the benefit of the JonyTeleprompter, a system used by the President when delivering his speeches. While it appears he is speaking of-the-cuff, text is scrolling by on glass screens visible only to him. This allows him to use gestures and not be tethered to the podium.

Have your laptop in front of you so you can see what is shown on the screen behind you. Make sure your extension cord is long enough to reach an outlet or the podium set up allows the HDMI cord to be near the slide projector. You don’t want the audience to only see half of you or, in the case of short women, 2/3 of you! TED speakers use tiny microphones that act as headsets so they can move freely around the stage. Presenters appear to be speaking informally, without notes, when in actuality their remarks are displayed on a small screen at the base of the stage, unseen by the audience. You will need to determine to what degree you want or need to be limited by your PowerPoint. The ultimate goal is to excite your listeners – whether they are your staff, a board of directors, or a large auditorium. Make them feel as though you are sharing a brilliant idea that has just occurred to you!

# 10: END WITH A SUMMARY SLIDE:

Just as you need a great opening slide to grab the listeners’ attention, you should end with a summary of your main point or propose an action step. You could have a slide that reminds people about what action you want them to take. As an example, your final slide might read, “Tomorrow is the deadline to register to vote!”

In closing, I firmly believe that the best test of a successful presentation is the degree to which you’ve connected with your listeners. When you master PowerPoint software as a presenter’s tool, you will be seen, heard, and remembered for the big idea that is as unique as you are.

Lois Phillips, PhD. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to www.loisphillips.com. 

About the Author:

Lois Phillips is a dynamic public speaker whose clients say she “practices what she teaches.” Her academic background combines with executive experience to inform her training and coaching. Using principles gained from interviews with successful speakers and outlined in “Women Seen and Heard: Lessons Learned from Successful Speakers”she provides coaching and training to spokespersons, managers and executives. Dr. Phillips has a special interest in executive and professional development, strategic planning, and Board leadership. She has produced conferences on women’s leadership, moderated two television programs about the changing roles of women and men, and has delivered numerous keynote conference presentations. For many years she presented workshops to corporations on the subject of PREVENTING SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE after providing climate surveys of the corporate culture.

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