Skillset New Zealand Blog

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It's the worst use of PowerPoint I've seen - so bad it was funny. 

It happened yesterday, at a lecture in a large auditorium.  An audience of around 200.

The auditorium was very dimly lit (someone had told the technician that it was to be a PowerPoint presentation). The presenter was off to one side of the stage with no lighting at all. And she was in front of black curtains. You could see her shape and outline, but not her expression, eyes or mouth. She was essentially speaking out of the dark. There was only one thing lit up in that auditorium: a huge screen, very bright, totally dominating the space and the audience.

Right away, I knew this presentation would be hard work. Add the other things that happened and it was like getting in a car with flat tyres.  Here's why. Here are some of the big DONT-DO-IT's of PowerPoint.

  • It was an effort to see the presenter. That automatically reduces the impact of the message, even if the PowerPoint is well designed.

It wasn't.

  • Each slide - a fixed image - occupied the screen between 5 and 10 minutes. Each one lost our visual interest within seconds. So we looked for the presenter. But we couldn't see her properly, so back to the bright, now boring screen.
  • Her words constantly strayed from the immediate message on the screen. Which means that our ears and eyes were getting different messages. That blurs focus. That fragments our thoughts. No wonder audiences slip into PowerPoint comas.
  • The PowerPoint never stopped. It was wall-to-wall. The presenter, like many others, thought that a presentation is PowerPoint, with voice thrown in. 
  • Her body language invited us to look at her (see the link PowerPoint Tip 1, just below) . But the screen was lit up with slides. Where were we supposed to look? That too is a mistake made by many others.

By many, many others. And there lies the tragedy behind that comically bad presentation. You would think, for example, that being able to see the presenter is a no-brainer. And yet, in that audience yesterday, not one person objected or asked for better lighting on the speaker. A whole generation has become so accustomed to bad PowerPoint that most of us think it's normal. The standard of presentations has plummeted since the arrival of PowerPoint, even though it's a wonderful tool when used well.

Enough on the negatives.

Would you like to know how to use PowerPoint well? Go to my blog series on PowerPoint. You might, for example, like to start with PowerPoint: How to use mindfulness to focus audience attention  OR PowerPoint Tip 1: The answer lies in the feet. OR  PowerPoint Tip 10: Insert a 'sleep slide'.   

FYI... I did get some value from the presentation. That's because I was so interested in the topic, I made myself put up with the PowerPoint roadblocks. It was a teeth-gritting effort. 

 

 

It's subtle. Your audiences will find your presentations unusually interesting - they just won't know why.

Wait. What's mindfulness?

It's a state of being fully present and engaged in the moment. In practice, in your presentation, that means you want your audience undistracted, focused on nothing but your message. Well of course you do. It's a no-brainer. 

The bad news is that for at least 20 years, presenters have been keeping slides on the screen after the topic has moved on. Often long after.

I don't get it. What's so wrong with that?

Plenty. Eighty percent of us are more drawn to visual stimulus than audio (or kinesthetic). So our eyes keep returning to the irrelevant material on the screen, while our ears are taking in a different message. Even a slight split between your words and the screen visuals splits the audience thoughts. That's mind-fragmentation. Little wonder that most of us cope by going into a semi-coma in PowerPoint presentations. Fully absorbing the message is next to impossible.

But it's an easy fix.

Only show a slide when it is directly and immediately relevant to what you're saying. 

When the audience looks at the screen with you, hearing directly relevant words, they come a step closer to mindfulness on your message. You can make that happen. You don't have to send your audience to mindfulness classes.  

But what if I don't have another slide to replace it for the next thing I say?

When you can't visually support your words, blank the screen. Prepare for it by making a slide that is completely black.

What? But everyone will stop looking at the screen! They'll turn their eyes and look at me!

You're onto it. Now your audience will get just one undistracted message, focused by your voice, your lips, your eyes, and your body language. Now your message is even closer to getting full impact. 

Are you saying we should get rid of PowerPoint altogether?

No. PowerPoint is a wonderful visual aid when used well - superb for visuals such as graphs and charts. I'm saying use it only when it hooks up with your lips. In my presentation skills workshops, I have seen, again and again, how effective it is to show a slide when it's relevant, then to turn it off when it isn't. I have also seen the audience relief at getting breaks from tiring, irrelevant slides. Why are they tiring? Precisely because they're irrelevant - the fragmentation of focus brings on stupour. 

But no one in my company/organisation breaks up the PowerPoint like that.

Unfortunately, you may be right. A whole generation of presenters has learned to weaken their impact by misusing visual aids.

Why? How did that happen?

When PowerPoint arrived, most presenters fell to their knees in gratitude because the audience didn't have to look at them. Visual aids were always supposed to give a message maximum impact, but that's only true when your voice and visuals don't interfere with each other.

Don't mistake me. You can and should expand on what the slide shows, adding spoken value. But don't keep the slide up too long, and the moment you start departing from the slide topic, get rid of it. Take back the room.

Yes, it takes courage to make the audience look at you now and then, but it's very good for your credibility and personal authority. The audience sees that you're putting yourself on the line for your message.

This black slide thing. Is it difficult?

No. Here's a hint to make it simple.  Make your black slide your number one slide. I call it the 'sleep slide' (it's the projector that takes a power nap, not the audience.) Everytime you want to go to it, press 1 Enter on your keyboard.  The next time you need a slide - say number 7 - press 7 Enter and it will jump there directly. Forwards or backwards, by-passing all the slides in between. For a fuller explanation, go PowerPoint Tip 10 - another blog on this website.

Give your message full impact. Show visuals only when directly relevant. And enjoy yourself when individuals say, afterwards, 'Interesting presentation. Your PowerPoint didn't put me to sleep. How did you do that?'