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Getting PowerPoint right: How to avoid presentation hell

29th Oct 2009
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PowerPoint celebrated its 25th birthday recently, but the likes of Seth Godin - and countless meeting attendees - are unimpressed with its use. To right these wrongs, John Stokdyk provides a comprehensive guide to presenting with PowerPoint.

PowerPoint celebrated its 25th birthday only a few weeks ago, and yet there was little popping of champagne corks. In fact, it only served to herald another round of criticism aimed at users of the software package.

This is all fairly old news, and these kinds of attacks have been delivered before, and delivered better. Seth Godin's 2007 blog post Really bad PowerPoint, for instance, argues: "PowerPoint was developed by engineers as a tool to help them communicate with the marketing department - and vice versa." PowerPoint allows very dense verbal communication and as companies get faster and faster, it provides a way to communicate ideas from one group to another. "PowerPoint could be the most powerful tool on your computer. But it's not," Godin argues. The reason?. "Countless innovations fail because their champions use PowerPoint the way Microsoft wants them to, instead of the right way."

I asked members of sister site - what better place could you go for advice on standing up in a room and communicating with a group of people than an online community of thousands and thousands of experienced trainers? - and trawled the site's archives to document the definitive way to make a presentation. Thanks to all concerned for their entertaining and enlightening contributions.
1. Make the presenter the focus of the presentation rather than the slides
Back in 2006, Abi Manifold summarised one of the key principles in using PowerPoint: it should be a support tool only. "Memorable delivery comes from your ability to captivate and engage. So even if your slides could win international design awards - it's up to you to add the real spark!"
More advice along the same lines came from former CBS television director Jerry Weissman via The author of a book called 'The Power Presenter', Weissman cooked up the concept of "graphics synchronization" to describe how presenters should integrate their body language with their narrative and slide presentation. "The slides exist only as support for the presenter," he explains. "In television news broadcasts the graphics are composed of only a simple headline and a thematic image, allowing the news anchor to provide the details and add value."
2. Preparation - avoid death by PowerPoint
"The problem a lot of people have stems right from the start of their preparation - they are not clear with themselves at the outset what the point is they want to put across," Jack Downton told our fellow sister site
"When preparing the presentation I start on paper to define a robust and logical structure using Mind Maps - then build relevant slides around it. I've found that going straight into PowerPoint results in me having a presentation that looks beautiful, but is badly structured..." Abi Manifold, who also suggested rehearsing your presentation with a colleague first to get feedback, and trying it out in the room where you'll be delivering it.
3. Make sure your slides are visible and legible
Use the same screen resolution to create and deliver the presentation - check how the slides appear on the delivery system.
Keep the font size generous and favour text towards the top of your slides. Bulleted text items should be no smaller than 22 points and the title should be no smaller than 28 points.
4. Be succinct - keep it simple, stupid (KISS)
"Don't put anymore information on the slide than you would print on the front of a T-shirt. Presumably most of the audience can read so don't read it at them..." Jonathan Senior, Sharp End Training
5. Use PowerPoint masters and templates - with care
PowerPoint includes a set of layout guides to help you create slides quickly and keep the format consistent throughout the presentation. When using the same slide type on consecutive slides, never change the width of the placeholders or move them horizontally on different slides. If you want an object to repeat on every slide such as a logo or other graphic, place it on the master, advises Nici Aldridge of A2Z Training: "The audience will notice if the logo jumps from side to side as you move between slides." The master slide can be opened via the View-Master menu option in PowerPoint 2003 and on the View tab/Presentation Views group in PowerPoint 2007.
"If you are one of several people presenting, be very careful if you use PowerPoint and any of the in-built templates. You wouldn't want to turn up to a party wearing the same dress as someone else," warns Simon Hurst of The Knowledge Base.
If you develop your own design, apply the same colour scheme to your whole presentation by choosing Format, then Apply Design Template. Marble, for instance, works well as a background for conservative audiences. Also keep in mind how you use slide transitions; choose Dissolve over flashier effects.
6. Mix it up!
PowerPoint is great - but do use a mix of different delivery media - slides, handouts, getting them to write on flipchart or present back to you, pictures, diagrams they 'fill in'. Variety is the spice of life (and training). If you can substitute any slide for something interactive - do it. Having more interactivity than slides will win you points, and keep them awake.
If you are going to be one of the fillings in a 'death by PowerPoint' sandwich, consider avoiding a standard presentation package at all and using some other method. Simon Hurst, 2008
7. Give them something to remember you by
Create a written "leave-behind", advises Seth Godin. "When you start your presentation, tell the audience that you're going to give them all the details of your presentation after it's over, and they don't have to write down everything you say... The document is the proof that helps the intellectuals in your audience accept the idea that you've sold them on emotionally. Don't hand out the written stuff at the beginning! If you do, people will read the memo while you're talking and ignore you. Instead, your goal is to get them to sit back, trust you and take in the emotional and intellectual points of your presentation." Seth Godin
8. Using graphics - KISS
"There are times when a graphic can put a message across much more easily than words. Charts are easier to remember than raw statistics, flowcharts than written procedures. You can always pass on the more detailed information to your audience in the form of a handout," advises Nici Aldridge, but she adds that any imagery should be there to enhance your message. "Graphics should be relevant to the slide, otherwise you risk changing the audience's focus away from your point. Be wary of standard clipart. Some images have been around for a long time, and your audience may have grown weary of seeing them."
If you introduce a slide containing detailed or unusual graphics, allow the audience sufficient time to take in the visuals prior to commencing your narrative.
Try and avoid all the PowerPoint clichés - particularly endless text-build slides. I tend to use a completely blank background with a heading and relevant picture - and the occasional visual pun (such as a raincoat for when you mention a Mac).
9. Make your graphics move!
To animate an existing chart, select it and choose Slide Show, then Custom Animation. On the Chart Effects tab, choose the kind of animation you want from the drop-down list on the left.
In PowerPoint 2007 there are some fantastic new diagrams included within the Insert, SmartArt section. Using custom animation, you can bring up the Effect options and the SmartArt animation tab will allow you to animate each element of your diagram separately. If you insert an item of clip art and then Ungroup it, this should break it down into its constituent elements. You can then animate them all and set each animation to begin "After previous" - and appear from a different direction if you really want. When you start the animation your picture should be built up an element at a time. It also gives you the opportunity to say, in your best Australian accent: "Can you guess what it is yet?" But be warned, if there are lots of elements and you choose too slow an animation, your coup de PowerPoint could meet with synchronised snoring.
Nici Aldridge suggests the following simple technique to animate the background for large blocks of text on a title slide:
  • Add your text, in the background colour so that it is hidden
  • Add six or nine rectangles three across and two or three deep, sized and positioned to fill the slide, in a different fill colour from the background
  • Position the rectangles behind the text
  • Animate the rectangles to appear one after another, top left, followed by bottom right, and so on, using the Slide Show-Custom Animation command in PowerPoint 2003 or in the Animations tab menu in PowerPoint 2007. When your animation runs, the text remains static but is displayed as the coloured boxes appear behind it in jigsaw fashion.
Use flashy graphics and transitions with care - if you emphasise everything, you emphasise nothing. Remember, it's a presentation, not a three-ring circus.
10. Putting sound files into presentations
The easiest way to record sound to include within an animation is by using the built-in Sound Recorder in Windows XP. Find it by following this menu sequence: Start-All programs-Accessories-Entertainment-Soundrecorder.
There is a detailed article on Creating Powerpoint presentations with embedded audio files by Andrew MacGregor of the University of Illinois' Technology Support Group.
11. Know your way around the presentation tools you use
Learning the many PowerPoint keyboard shortcuts can be useful, advises IT trainer Simon Hurst. For example if you suddenly notice the appearance of the slide of recently-departed senior management pension figures which should have been hidden, 'B' to go immediately to a blank screen can be vital... Setting the PowerPoint options not to use the right click for the pop-up menu can also be very useful for navigating backwards as well as forwards if you're using a remote mouse.
If you need to swap between your presentation and other applications, you can either add action buttons to your presentation that will take you directly to those applications, or it may be more straightforward to just open up the required applications before launching your presentation and then use Alt+Tab to navigate to the other applications and then back to the running presentation. If you do exit your presentation entirely, the keyboard shortcut F5 restarts the show from the beginning whereas Shift+F5 starts from the current slide. So there really is no need to inflict a lightning reprise of your first 37 slides on your audience.
Now watch our series of videos further exploring PowerPoint best practice:

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Replies (3)

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By bobwhosmiles
03rd Nov 2009 23:09

This is a great article - especially agree with keeping slide text to a minimum and not reading it verbatim to the audience. I've sat through so many presentations where I've had every line on  screen read to me in a monotonous voice.

One more tip - use a remote and do it subtly. It distracts from the flow if you have to keep going up to your laptop and advancing the slides. Nothing is slicker than a presenter who appears to be working with automatic/timed slide advances and animations. You can do this with a remote control (which comes with most projectors these days) or if you have a smartphone (e.g. Nokia N95 / N96, iPhone etc), you can download an app for the phone and one that sits on the laptop and using wi-fi or bluetooth control the presentations from the phone's buttons/touch screen, held discreetly.

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By Becky Midgley
04th Nov 2009 10:43

That's a great additional tip, thanks.  And very pleased you enjoyed the article.

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By Neil Davey
04th Nov 2009 12:16

Glad you found the article to be of use Bob - and watch this space as we'll shortly be posting a series of three video guides to further help you get the most out of PowerPoint.

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