Originally published with Forbes Coaches Council, February 2019.
Death by PowerPoint. Or as Dilbert put it: “PowerPoint poisoning.” It’s software that is so despised that it has been banished by Amazon and banned from military strategy meetings.
It’s easy to hate on PowerPoint. After all, it’s often the single common denominator between all the boring presentations and too-long meetings we have to endure during our workdays. But is it really PowerPoint’s fault? Or is it our own?
PowerPoint actually can be a powerful tool. After all, not everyone absorbs information the same way. Some people will hear your key points when you speak them, but others will remember them more clearly if they see those key points as well — if a strong, simple, clear graphic illustrates and makes visual the key point. When your audience is likely to only remember a fraction of what you tell them, why not increase the odds that they’ll remember the most important details?
The key is to use PowerPoint strategically. The following five tips can help.
1. Know your message first. If you find that your first step in getting ready for a presentation is to pull together old slides, colleagues’ slides and whatever new ones you need to make it cohere, you’ve already lost control of your presentation. Your message — what you want to say and how — should dictate how your slides come together, not the other way around.
2. Even if you can’t control the slides, remember that you control the narrative. If you have a proscribed deck (generally, for compliance reasons) or a strict template, your message should still come through clearly. Find out what you can change (sometimes just a simple switch in order does wonders) and acknowledge busy or overwhelming slides. Verbally draw attention to key details, and be clear about the purpose of each slide.
3. Use a whiteboard or blank piece of paper before you even launch PowerPoint. Write down your goal. List the key points that support that goal. Add in the benefits and risks. Describe (concisely) the arc of your story and how each key point fits in. Create the roadmap of your presentation, and you are more than halfway done with creating your slide deck. (You might even be able to use those old slides now that you’ve put purpose behind your choice.)
4. Aesthetics are important (but only if the ideas are sound). Yes, pay attention to white space, color and imagery. Check for consistency. This is important because we all know that colleague who lives to find a typo or an outdated logo. But make sure that your slides are strong, clear, concise distillations of your message first, because even the most beautiful deck can’t hide a muddled message.
5. Your deck should require one thing: you. If you’ve ever seen a slide deck that doubled as a handout, you’ve seen a slide deck that is overly busy, complicated and incredibly distracting. That’s because it’s been designed to be read, and if your audience is reading, they aren’t listening to you. Any audience member should be able to look at a slide and immediately recognize what they are looking at. In other words, the graph should be simple and clearly labeled, the key point should be easy to find and bullet points should be concise, take up only one line and, generally, not be a complete sentence.
You, the speaker, should give the audience the bigger picture and explain the slide more fully.
If your audience needs more detail or a stand-alone document, either create a separate handout or put more detailed slides into back-up, which can then be emailed around. Don’t leave your audience wondering why they had to gather in a stuffy conference room to hear you read aloud something they could more quickly and efficiently read themselves.
PowerPoint doesn’t have to drag down your presentation. It can make it better, more accessible and more memorable. But you have to take the time to prepare first. Then you can craft a PowerPoint presentation that brings your message to life.
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