We’ve all experienced it and, let’s admit it, we’ve all done it: we have ALL created ineffective PowerPoint presentations at one time or another. And despite our best efforts to forge ahead, we have all been victims (and, some of us, perpetrators!) of “Death by PowerPoint”. Over the next two weeks, I will share three tips for maximizing the impact of your PowerPoint presentations while keeping “Death by PowerPoint” at bay. Here are the first two:
Tip #1: Words before Slides
One of the simplest ways to maximize the impact of your PowerPoint presentations is to write down what you want to say before you create or select your slides. Though this sounds like a “no-brainer”, most people, particularly those pressed for time, typically do not do it. All too often, presenters will create their slides while (or worse, before) they decide what to say. We have all seen the evidence of this live—whether it’s the presenter who reads their slides verbatim; the presenter who repeatedly tells the audience to “ignore the details” on slides; or the presenter who attempts the land speed record for slide advancement to finish their presentation on time—these are all evidence that the slides, rather than the presenter, designed the presentation.
So, what method for capturing your plan is best? That really depends on the type of presentation and how you like to organize your thoughts. For example, you could write an outline, or draw a flow chart, or talk through what you plan to say, jotting down notes as you speak. You could also use a design template, such as this one created by Jean-luc Doumond, an engineer who trains people about effective technical communication.
Whatever method you choose, just get it down (on paper or your screen!)
Doing so will lessen the likelihood of your presentation including cluttered, unnecessary, or supernumerary slides, which I’ll tackle next.
Tip #2: Less Is More
When most people are asked to define “Death by PowerPoint” they will usually give examples of presentations that contain text-heavy slides, overly-complicated diagrams, or simply too many slides. Though much of that can be minimized in the planning process (see Tip #1), there are some simple techniques you can use to ensure your message does not get lost during your presentation. Each of these follow a simple principle: Less is More. Why? In many cases, presenters lose the audience’s attention not because of their presentation style, but because they are asking the audience to do too much to pay attention. In the world of PowerPoint, this usually involves requiring the audience to assimilate both written text and spoken words simultaneously, which research shows can overload working memory, often at the expense of retention. If you are not immediately familiar with this effect: try reading a book and listening to a conversation at the same time. Not so easy, right? Keeping that in mind, here are ways to keep true to the “Less is More” principle while designing your PowerPoint presentations.
One Message Per slide
If there is only one thing you do to adhere to the “Less is More” principle, then do this: one message per slide. Sounds simple, but what does it really mean? It means figuring out the point or the purpose of the slide and then designing (or selecting) a slide for that purpose. Ask yourself “What is the point of knowing this?” and “What do I want the audience to come away with?” and then construct the slide (even a headline) from the answers to those questions. If you do not do this, you will be in danger of including unnecessary slides or ones that confuse more than educate.
Less Text More Meaning
Keeping with the one message per slide guideline, another way to maximize the impact of your PowerPoint presentations is to use text sparingly and purposefully, so that it is adding value rather than distracting your audience. This does not mean creating
- Lacking meaning
- Thus, impact
Rather, it means using text to convey messages and enhance images. Not only will this help your audience maintain attention, it will also help them better understand the content of your presentation. For example:
Avoid making your audience listen and read simultaneously. As mentioned above, doing so causes cognitive overload, hampering both your audience’s attention and their retention of information. In the simplest, most direct terms, do not make slides that look like these:
- Pair your speech with images, using text to highlight what you have said or, when relevant, highlight the key parts of the image.
- Create handouts when you expect your audience to read significant amounts of text or are presenting complicated or text-heavy diagrams. When appropriate, give the audience time to read or review the handout.
- Rethink bullets. Always ask yourself: who are these bullets for—me or the audience? If the bullets are for your audience (i.e. the information is best conveyed in a list), then keep the bullets. However, if the bullets are really for you, better approaches are to:
- Offload text into the notes section and redesign your slide(s)
- Separate the bullets onto separate slides, each with an accompanying visual
- Group related bullets (think of the message!) and put those groups on separate slides
- Reorganize the information visually, as outlined in the next sections
Use text not just to convey information, but to demonstrate how information is organized. Remember: the purpose of a presentation is not to tell your audience what you know; it is to help your audience understand what you understand. The easiest way into your understanding of a topic or concept is to show your audience how the information is organized, and not just what the information is. To accomplish this, you can:
- Use SmartArt to present processes, hierarchies, categories, and relationships.
- Use tables to show comparisons or reorganize information in a more digestible format.
- Use charts to summarize and compare data.
- Draw live, when appropriate. It slows you down and allows the audience to participate as well.
Use images that suit your audience’s needs. For example, unnecessarily text-heavy or complicated diagrams are difficult enough to quickly digest without being told by a well-meaning presenter that the “details aren’t important.” Better approaches are to:
- Locate or create more appropriate images
- Edit extraneous information from a complicated image
- Label the important parts of the image
- Break apart the image into parts and show each part separately
- Draw a more appropriate version during the presentation, explaining as you go
These last two options work really well for complex processes because they direct the attention of the audience to what is most important as the process unfolds.
Stay tuned for Part Two!
In the meantime, below are some helpful design resources (most links are in the post):
- Creating Effective Slides: Design, Construction and Use in Science Jean-luc Doumond (63 minute video outlining his methods for design)
- Death by PowerPoint (and how to fight it) (a SlideShare presentation with additional helpful tips)
- Effective Use of PowerPoint (helpful tips with a comparison of text-heavy, mixed, and image-heavy versions of the same presentation)
- How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint David JP Phillips (21 minute video outlining ways to improve presentation delivery and PowerPoint design)
- Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning (a review of research and theory, particularly helpful if you are designing visual media or distance learning modules)
- Reducing the Amount of Text on Your PowerPoint Slides (a simple method for transforming bullets)