Having viewed many TED presentations, I had the mistaken belief that leaders were finally learning how to use PowerPoint (and other presentation tools) effectively. Recently, however, I’ve attended presentations by very smart people (doctors, lawyers, CPAs, professors, etc.), who are leaders in their organizations, who insist on putting as many words and numbers on a slide as possible. Because I want to hear what they have to say, I don’t read the slides. And, besides, I can’t read and understand that fast. Their slides become a distraction rather than a tool in helping me draw meaning from what they are saying. It would be better if they didn’t use PowerPoint at all.

You might wonder why I have returned to this topic from time to time in a blog devoted to Improving management and leadership. It is because PowerPoint (and other presentation software) has become a ubiquitous form of management communication in organizations. Garr Reynolds estimates that millions of presentations are given every day using some form of slideware. It is an important communication tool of managers. Yet, the messages are not getting across. I frequently hear from CEOs that their employees clam they didn’t know something that had been mentioned in an all-staff presentation, or that they didn’t realize its importance, or that they didn’t understand what it had to do with them. Apparently, PowerPoint slides are, in many cases, failing to communicate key messages.

The problem is that managers assume that if the technology lets them do it, they should.  If PowerPoint makes bullet points, animation, charts, and graphs easy to insert in slides, then that’s what they should do, and as much as possible. What they fail to realize is “the medium is the message.” A cluttered, incomprehensible slide creates the impression that the presenter is cluttered and incomprehensible.

Let me repeat the suggestions from Eleni Kalakos:

  1. Use very few slides.
  2. Use very little text.
  3. Use big, legible fonts and striking colors.
  4. Use one striking visual instead of text.
  5. Practice the presentation aloud - with props and technology - until it becomes second nature.
  6. Bring back-up notes on paper in case the technology goes kerflooey.
  7. Use one big, bold bar graph or pie chart instead of a slide full of numbers.
  8. Use the "B" key on the computer to temporarily blank out the screen to assure complete attention when making a crucial point.
  9. Ask for guidance and direction from a professional coach.
  10. Always - and above all - connect deeply with the audience, one human being to another.

Garr Reynolds also offers some excellent suggestions in his blog post, Top Ten Slide Tips. He demonstrates his suggestions with the following two slides.

BadSlide GoodSlide

These slides show the difference between slide clutter and slide
succinctness. Both are intended to communicate the same message about gender equality in Japan. Which would you rather see in a presentation? Which one are you more likely to remember?

Another reason why many speakers resort to putting as much as they can on slides (and then, horror of horrors, reading the slide to the audience) is that they don’t want to take the time and invest the energy needed to sort out the headlines. Effective use of slides requres identifying the story that you want to tell, thinking of a headline for it, and putting that message on the slide in a way that quickly communicates the idea, either through a few words, an attention-grabbing graphic, or both.

PowerPoint (and other slideware) can be a powerful tool for enhancing a speech or presentation. As with any tool, it should be used in the appropriate situations and in a manner that helps the audience learn. What are your suggestions for using PowerPoint effectively?