Skillset New Zealand Blog

Ideas to help your team develop personally and professionally.

Audience abuse

Well, all right, you may have seen worse - this is, after all, the era of PowerPoint audience-abuse - but here's my experience from yesterday.

Picture this. We were sitting in a lecture theatre. Directly in front of us was a very large screen, at least 3 metres by 5 metres, covering most of the facing wall. It was brightly lit up with a slide of the outside of our theatre. We could focus on little else. Off to the left, in a dark corner, was one micro-lamp (on a lecturn) above the presenter's speech notes, reflecting enough light off the page for us to just make out his face. Huge bright screen, tiny bulb in a dark corner - the only sources of light. He talked about agriculture. The slide showed us the theatre - for the entire presentation.

Not one thing the presenter said had anything to do with the slide. Zero connection. 

Worse. Think about how we humans take in messages from a presenter. It's well established that two thirds of us respond to visual stimuli more than any other stimulus. Less than a third respond best to sound.  It was difficult for almost all of us to pay attention to the presenter's message. It was hard work.

Why it was a lesson for all modern presenters

Now, to the point - for all of us who do have relevant PowerPoint slides, but over-rely on them, turning our audiences into hypnotised chickens. Do you want your message to sink in?

Only show a picture on the screen when it specifically illustrates the point you're making right now. Then turn it off!

How? To turn the screen off but keep PowerPoint alive, create what I call a sleep slide. It's a slide that's all black. (Yes, just black, though it helps to insert a small mark in one corner so you can recognize it yourself.) Make the black sleep slide your number 1 slide and return to it (1, enter) when the relevant slide you're showing stops being relevant. So, you'll show nothing.

Yes, now the audience will turn and look at you.

Get over it. People sell ideas better than pictures. Wall-to-wall PowerPoint is audience-abuse and it kills the impact of your message.  Surely a no-brainer.

For more on how to work with a sleep slide, see my blog Insert a sleep slide


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

It was 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 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.