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“We defy you to stay awake and engaged”, calls out the screen, those colourful rectangles of light on the wall, squaring up to the audience.  A challenge has been laid down.  With the dimming of lights and throat clearing comes the all too familiar battle-cry of “DEATH BY POWERPOINT”.

August 2009 sees Powerpoint celebrate its 25th birthday.  But if we are all in agreement that so many crimes of presentation have been committed in the name of Powerpoint, then why has it stayed around so long?

The secret in its longevity lies in the naïve reason for its conception.  Intended to help the audience understand the speaker better it treated the symptoms rather than the disease.  Rather than allowing poor presentation skills to be identified and dealt with, Powerpoint presented a solution that would allow speakers to hide behind it and yet still know that the key points were conveyed to the audience.  This trend has continued for a quarter of a century with many presenters using it as a crutch rather than a tool.

The problem lies in how Powerpoint shifts the focus of engagement from human-to-human to human-to-projector screen.  The best presenters recognise the importance of eye contact and interaction.  These are the brave few… the SAS of the presentation world… that do not use Powerpoint presentations at all.  The inspiring speakers of our time more often than not prefer auto-cue to Powerpoint (if they need help at all).  Those not blessed with enormous media budgets tend to just rely on a few notes and good preparation.  The common theme, however, is that both methods allow them to maximise on eye-contact with their audience.  This not only keeps focus on the speaker but allows their own passion and interest to be passed on to those listening.

So how should Powerpoint be used? Does it have any uses?  Used imaginatively Powerpoint can support a presentation and add real value to both the content and the presentation of a speech.  It can be used to emphasise points or help to explain things through the use of diagrams or pictures.  Developments in media tools mean that it can even be used to include audio and video clips, thereby providing stimulating diversity within a presentation.

But all of this takes planning and practice… and that’s where we came in.  By using Powerpoint as a crutch to list notes and bullet points you highlight your lack of preparation.  This moves attention from you to the projector screen and you’ve lost your eye-contact.  The audience might as well, at this point, just take the print-out you’ve provided and run, rather than sitting through it all.

Some tips for getting the most out of Powerpoint

  1. Beware of talking to your slides – Eye-contact is key.  The first rule is never to talk to the slides.  You must talk to the audience.  Your aim must always be to maximise on human-to-human communication, not human-to-projector screen.
  2. Less is more – The more slides you have and the more there is on each slide the more tempted you will be to talk to the slides and the more tempted the audience will be to read them rather than listen to you.  The fewer and simpler the slides are, the easier it will be to keep the audience listening.
  3. Don’t give them a voice – If you only put text up there then people will have to choose between reading and listening.  You can’t do one without switching off the other… and there is always the worry that if they switch off listening then they won’t switch it back on!  Don’t give them the option and certainly don’t direct them to read whilst you stand there silent.  Use your slides to back up things you are already saying but don’t give them a voice of their own.
  4. Slides not notes – If you refuse to start until the first slide is in place and you keep on rattling through pages of bullet points on the screen then people will start to think that you don’t really know your stuff.  Preparation is key.  Work out what you want to say first, prepare it, and then work out what slides you need to support you.  They must be an aid to the audience, not to you.
  5. Too much – A dozen slides with five bullet points on each assumes that your audience is mentally capable of taking in 60 points.  This highlights one of the biggest problems that Powerpoint causes. – speakers thinking that they can use it to get more information across that then time allows.  Try to stick to a maximum of one key point for every two minutes of your presentation (you won’t manage it but it’s a good thing to aim for).  If you need to convey more than that then put it some supplementary notes.
  6. 1/3 off sale – A good rule of thumb is to sense-check at the end of your preparation period.  If you have prepared properly and only afterwards set out the slides (to help the audience, remember, not you) then you should be ok.  To check, however, go back through and aim to reduce the quantity by 1/3.  It’ll get you challenging why you need things and the benefit of including them.
  7. Preparation is key – You really can’t beat a run-through.  You might feel that you’re just too busy… that you can wing it… but really very few people can get away with this.  It’s normally only when you do a dummy run that you find things you want to change… and you don’t want that to be when you are standing in front of an audience!
  8. The best slide shows havePictures, movies, sound clips, jokes, blank space.  Clever use of Powerpoint is really thinking about how the medium can help you to get your message across.  If you don’t think they will “get it” when you tell them a fact then there is a fair chance that writing it up on a screen won’t make any difference.  What you can do, however, is use the screen to prompt interest and intrigue.  A cleverly chosen image or clip can help to engender a sense of interest in what’s coming next… if used tactically, Powerpoint can really generate interest in what you are about to say next.
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