Avoiding "Death by PowerPoint"

By Corbin Ball, CSP, CMP, DES

We’ve all been there — sitting through computer presentations with endless screens of boring bulleted text. As we struggle to keep our eyes open, the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” comes to mind. Most of the time, however, it’s not the program that’s the problem but the way it’s being used that causes the trouble.


As a professional speaker, I use PowerPoint in nearly every presentation I give. I find visuals and embedded videos to be of great help, especially when discussing complex subjects. Visuals increase retention! I’ve learned through trial and error what seems to work. So, here are my suggestions for giving the most successful computer presentation programs:


1. Limit the number of words on each slide: 
Computer presentations should not be reading reports! Novice speakers will often fill each slide with multiple sentences out of fear of forgetting. Not only does it insult the audience to be read to, it draws the attention away from the speaker. Fifteen words should be the maximum on any slide. Only a few words or a phrase to emphasize or reinforce an idea are all that’s needed.


2. Use a bold, simple and large font:
I prefer Veranda or Arial (emboldened) fonts to ensure high screen legibility. Highway signs (designed for maximum visibility in cases where lives are on the line) use variations on these fonts. An average font size of 36 points is recommended (with a minimum size of 18 points) to allow for easy reading in the back of the room. Keep the fonts consistent throughout the presentation and use no more than two different font types.


3. Use transitions wisely:
You can always tell a new PowerPoint user who has just discovered slide transitions. The words fly in from every direction often with more sound effects than a Star Wars movie. Keep in mind that you and the ideas you’re presenting are the show – not what’s on the screen. Transitions can distract from the message. Use the basic transitions such as a dissolve or simple cuts. Other transitions may be used to subtly indicate that it’s a new topic. Slide build transitions can be used to help indicate direction (i.e. flow chat, graphs, etc.). For example, when using a line graph, a “wipe right” will subtly reinforce the direction of time helping the audience to read the graph. Judicious use of transitions should be used to help the audience know where you’re going, rather than distracting them.


4. Avoid stock templates: 
Stay away from the boring, standard background templates that everyone has seen. Instead, use a custom template to make your presentation look different right from the start. Many are downloadable for free from the Internet (go to www.google.com and search on the phrase: “PowerPoint templates”). However, use caution. There are many terrible templates out there! Avoid busy backgrounds or ones with hard-to-read fonts, or fonts with equal color density to the background. For example, bright green letters on bright red field not only look terrible, they’re very difficult to read, and nearly impossible to read for those with color blindness. The words should snap out from the background with a minimum of distractions.


5. Learn the important keyboard shortcuts:

There are many, but the two most helpful ones are:


>The “B” key: If the “B” key is pressed during the presentation, it will black out the screen – which is helpful when you’re talking about something that’s not on the screen. Screen images should always support the message. If they don’t, black out the screen and the audience will then focus more intently on the speaker. Pressing any key will restore the image.


>Numerical navigation: At times you’ll need to move non-sequentially from one slide to another portion of the presentation. This can be accomplished seamlessly by simply entering the slide number and then pressing the “Enter” key. For example, if you’re running short on time, you can jump to the later section of the program by entering the beginning slide number of that next section – it will look to the audience like you simply advanced to the next slide. Just remember to have those transition slide numbers handy.


6. Let the audience know where you’re going:
PowerPoint is great in helping audiences know where the speaker is in a program. Consider including an agenda (what will be covered); topic headers at the top of your slides; thematic clipart for each subject area; full screen titles to announce major presentation transitions; and a conclusions slide covering the key points. There’s a saying in speakers circles to “tell the audience what you are going to tell them – then tell them – then tell them what you told them” to help in audience retention. Computer presentations can assist greatly in this process. The more the speaker helps an audience know where he or she is going, the more they’ll remember.


7. Use a wireless advance mechanism: 

Do not be tethered to your computer. Use a small radio-frequency wireless advance mechanism. Most models simply plug into a USB port and many have additional features such as a built-in laser pointer. When presenting, the speaker should never have to walk over to the computer or ask someone else to advance the slides, so their full attention can be where it should be: on the audience!


8. Use pictures and graphs: 
The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words has never been more true than with computer presentations. Pictures and short videos add interest, they reinforce themes, they can add humor, and they can often can show in a few seconds what it would take minutes to explain verbally. However, avoid commonly used, cliché stock clipart graphics such as “screen bean characters.”


Computer presentations, when used properly, can substantially increase audience understanding and retention. When used improperly, they will cause eyes to roll back in heads. By using the above suggestions, your presentations will stand out, help you get your points across and increase retention in what you’ve presented

Corbin Ball, CMP, CSP, DES is a speaker and independent third-party consultant focusing on meetings technology. He is an inductee into the EIC 2018 Hall of Leaders.  With 20 years of experience running international citywide technology meetings, he now helps clients worldwide use technology to save time and improve productivity He can be contacted at his extensive web site Corbin Ball & Co. – Meetings Technology Headquarters and followed on www.twitter.com/corbinball

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