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October 19, 2017

5 Ways to Avoid Death by PowerPoint Presentation

Bruce Murray

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If you've never heard the expression "Death by PowerPoint," take a look at the Grim Reaper's* slide, below. 

I'm sure you've been there. That presentation that never seems to end. The presenter going on and on… and on. You stopped listening half an hour ago. That's when you began paying more attention to the clock ticking slowly down to the end (which you hope is soon), than to the presentation itself.

Even PowerPoint itself has a bit of a bad rep these days. Many people see it as outdated and old-fashioned. But, the truth is, it's not PowerPoint that makes for a poor presentation. It's how we choose to use it.

5 Ways to Avoid Death by PowerPoint Presentation
* The Grim Reaper, in this case, is yours truly.

In this blog we'll explore five ways you can master PowerPoint. But first, take note: the key to a successful presentation is you! Visual aids like PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote, and others, are nothing more than window dressing.

1. Do Some Presentation Prep Work

A good presentation begins, not with slides, but with a pencil and paper. Research your audience's background, interests and capabilities. What do they already know, for instance, and what can they learn from you?

You also need to plan and outline a compelling story that both engages people and delivers your message. Like all good stories it must have a beginning, middle, and end. Heroes and villains can help to pique interest. And the story should be relatable to your audience, in terms of tone, the language you use (for example, jargon and acronyms) and the slide images you choose.

2. Set the Right Tone and End on a High Note

You have no more than 30 seconds to secure your audience's attention. So, what attention-grabbing opener will you use?

Visual communications expert Curtis Newbold suggests "a fascinating quote; an alarming or surprising statistic; asking your audience a question; telling a relevant and funny joke… an imaginary scenario; or a demonstration."

Your audience will not remember more than a handful of key points. But, if detail is crucial, include it in a handout that they can read later. Try to focus on three or four supporting statements for each of your key points. And craft a powerful ending that reinforces the relevance that your perspective has to their careers and lives.

It can be easy to focus most of your time on creating your slides. However, as Newbold reminds us, you always need to keep the bigger picture in mind, and you should always be building your story toward a finale. As he explains: "Be sure that each component of the middle progresses towards a clear and meaningful end."

3. Create Sleek and Stylish Slides

Once you have your story down, you can start to design your slides.

Before you do, it's important to think about the practicalities. Will they, for instance, be displayed Widescreen with a 16:9 ratio? Or Standard with 4:3? This might seem like a small detail, but it can make a huge difference in terms of visual impact.

If the room is bright, create slides with a light background and dark text. Conversely, if the room is dark, dark slides with bright images and text will work best.

Consistency is also important. Each slide heading should have the same font, font size and placement on the page. Use no more than two fonts, or your presentation may look messy. And choose your font style carefully. Serif typefaces, like Times New Roman, are fine in books, but slides look best with a sleek sans-serif font.

At all costs, avoid using bad art, stock photos, default slide templates, and pointless animations. These can cheapen your message and often look amateurish.

That said, you can break any of these rules for dramatic emphasis – but take care when you do, and never do it more than once or twice!

4. Get Your Audience to Focus

The most important thing is to grab your audience's attention straight away – and then maintain it! You want your audience to go away having learned something. So, make it as easy as possible for people to grasp your message "from the off"!

In his Ted Talk, entitled "How to Avoid Death by Powerpoint," professional training and coaching expert David JP Phillips recommends that presenters focus on one key message per slide, and include no more than six objects (or lines) on each. Any more than this, he argues, and you will increase the time that it takes for people to "see" (and digest) information by 500 percent.

5 Ways to Avoid Death by PowerPoint Presentation
Steve Jobs inspired a generation with his sleek and simple presentations.

Use contrast to direct your audience's attention where you want it. People naturally focus on moving objects, larger text, and strong contrasts. They are also drawn to signaling colors, like red, orange and yellow. So, bear these factors in mind when you come to design your slides.

5. It's All About You!

Finally, remember that, ultimately, it's you that the audience should be paying attention to, not your slides!

PowerPoint can be used to create great visual aids, but the success of your presentation is determined by the way you deliver them. So, tell your story with a confident, compelling physical presence, and master it by rehearsing it 10 to 15 times.

After all, what would you do if your monitor stopped working? If you've rehearsed adequately, this will be nothing more than an inconvenience. Well-rehearsed presenters will also be sure to keep at bay the first symptom of Death by PowerPoint – being a speaker who has to read his or her own slides.

Good posture and body language can also help to get the audience's attention firmly fixed on you, and can hide nervousness or insecurity. Make sure that you stand with your feet apart and your shoulders squared, facing the audience. Keep your head held high, but avoid becoming too relaxed or rigid. Use hand gestures, especially to emphasize key points. And, as communication e-zine The Total Communicator suggests, "Engage one person at a time, focusing long enough to complete a natural phrase and watch it sink in."

Moving around the room can also create positive energy. Though you should try to avoid blocking people's view of your slides if you do this.

If your presentation goes beyond 10-15 minutes, remind your audience what's been said so far. Help them to understand, at every step along the way, what is happening and what the information or data means.

Finally, there's nothing more awkward for you or the audience than when people aren't sure of when to clap, or when the presentation ends. So, leave on a clear and final note. Clarify to your audience how your presentation is relevant to them and how it can help them. Make your finale memorable by leaving people with one last anecdote or example. Or use a powerful statistic or quote that sums up your findings.


Do you have any top tips for giving great presentations? How do you avoid "Death by PowerPoint"? Share your top presentation tips in the comments section, below.


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