Skillset New Zealand Blog

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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. 



Let's get one thing out of the way. This method has nothing to do with stringing wall-to-wall slides together and using them to prompt you. I'm going to assume that the screen is blank unless your words need specific visual support. In other words: this will be about how to organize your thoughts swiftly for an effective presentation.

Here's the essence:

  1. Write a purpose statement.
  2. Write your key messages as the subheadings (what must be said).
  3. List supporting detail under each key message - in order of importance.

Follow me through this simplified, fictional example. 

You're an IT Manager. You're about to present to the board, to recommend what your research reveals as the best replacement for the computer hardware and network system.  The existing system is obsolete. It's low spec, it's slow, it can't handle modern demands, particularly security. In one year, outage frequency has doubled, maintence costs have tripled. Your proposed new system would have cutting edge specs, including world standard security. It would be designed and installed by Compak Solutions, which has a reputation for reliability. Although the cost is high - $7 million - it will pay for itself within 3 years. Compak will guarantee maintenance and future-proofing for the next 4 years.

1.  Write a purpose statement (first words after the greeting)

I want to recommend a replacement for our obsolete computer system.

Note that it's not a 'talk-about' title (e.g. 'I want to talk about the computer system'). Instead, it's why you're really there, your real purpose, what you really want to achieve with the audience: make a recommendation.

2.  Write your key messages as the subheadings

What must be said. Here are three likely ones you might choose:

We're at crisis point now  / The new system will fit our needs / It would pay for itself in 3 years

Note how dynamic those subheadings are.  How different from the usual way with neutral subheadings (which, in this example, might have been Background / Proposed system / What's ahead, or the standard What / Why / How structure. 

3.  List supporting detail under each - in order of importance

There's a bonus to listing in order of importance. If you turn up with your 30 minute presentation and the chair tells you you've now only got 3 minutes, it's very easy to drop the bottom points in each list. You will still have a dynamic, effective presentation.

Any worries about identifying the key messages? Here's a tip. Imagine that your audience is standing up and about to walk and you have to blurt out what they really must know in a just a few short words. Chances are you'll get your key messages right there.

Have fun. Organise to grab and hold their attention.