Effective PowerPoint Presentations

PowerPoint is now as much a part of office life as water coolers are.

Ever since digital projectors started appearing in board rooms, almost everyone seems to think that taking a few words from their talk, sticking them in bullet points, then adding some irrelevant clip-art, is going to win you a standing ovation.

Sadly, PowerPoint presentations are now a major cause of frustration for audiences, who desperately try to stay awake, as they notice the words “Slide 14 of 324” in the corner of the screen.

Indeed, some people are so against PowerPoint that they suggest ditching it altogether. Some offices have banned it, demanding that their employees go to the effort of making speeches with handouts.

However, often the reasons behind this backlash are simply that they’ve sat through one to many terrible presentations – and are blaming the tool. There are ways to use PowerPoint effectively, but they are generally not practiced.

Here is some advice for using PowerPoint successfully.

Think of making a speech

The best presentations are actually speeches, with PowerPoint used to add supporting visual elements. When people are asked to make a speech, they spend far longer preparing than if they were asked to make a PowerPoint presentation.

People get into the false sense that they don’t need to rehearse a PowerPoint presentation, because the words of their presentation are on the screen if they forget what they are doing.

Hence the reason that many people spend most of their time actually talking to the screen. They’re using it as an auto-cue.

Take turns with audience’s attention

Don’t expect your audience to pay attention to you and the screen at the same time.

When you are talking, and the subject you are on is not related to what is on the slide, switch the screen to black. You can do this by pressing the “B” key on your keyboard.

Conversely, when you put up a new slide, give them a few seconds to look at it before you start speaking.

Why? Researchers at the University of New South Wales have shown that the brain finds it very difficult to process information in both text and audio format at the same time. If you put a sentence on the screen for people to read, then you start to read it out, the two streams of information overload the brain. Therefore, when you think you are helping your audience by reading out what is on the screen, you are doing the opposite.

If you want to see this now, go and watch a DVD with the English subtitles on. Read the words as the actors are saying them, and notice how tiring it gets.

Try not to use words

If you must use PowerPoint, use it as a visual aid – not a visual alternative of your presentation for people who can’t hear you.

The aim of having slides is to show people something that you can’t describe. Don’t waste ten minutes describing a new building, when a few photos will do. Don’t list the past six-months sales figures, when a simple graph with a trend-line will do.

In general, don’t use sentences and paragraphs of text in PowerPoint slides. It’s difficult to read from a screen, and you would be better handing out full-notes for them to read later.

Apply the Reverse Blink Test to your graphs and slides – can they get the point of the slide in a fraction of a second, or do they need to peer at it for 30 seconds to work out what is going on?

Use contrasting colours. Don’t use a light blue font on a light green background. Black text on a white background is the easiest, but there are some colourful alternatives.

Please note: although this article refers to “PowerPoint” throughout, the advice could apply to any slide presentation software – not just Microsoft’s. Since the majority of people refer to this type of software as “PowerPoint,” regardless of the actual software they use, I decided to stick to the Infogineering Principle that “if a standard exists, use it.” The same applies to alternatives such as Apple’s Keynote, or OpenOffice.org’s Impress.

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