Death by PowerPoint

In business, and in many other fields in life, it is hard to avoid being the victim of The Presentation. This activity normally involves someone standing at the front of the room and talking while showing some slides. Meanwhile the audience are counting the minutes of their life that they will never get back. The term “Death by PowerPoint” does commonly sum up the situation.

I rarely feel sorry for Microsoft, but I do think that this is a fine example of the old saying “A bad workman blames his tools” and the software is not [solely] to blame. I spend a lot of my time making presentations, so I have some strong views on this topic …

A few years back, I was invited to run a short class at a sales meeting on presentation techniques. I started the session by making a presentation during which I intentionally made lots of mistakes. The audience were tasked with taking notes to catalog my errors. There was much merriment, but some of the laughter was a little nervous. Many people found my fooling around amusing, but rather too familiar.

In my view there are generally three things that are wrong with presentations:

  1. Bad slides
  2. Bad delivery
  3. Wrong attitude

I will look at these in reverse order.

It is common to forget what a presentation is for. The sole purpose is to take some ideas/information out of one brain [the presenter’s] and lodge it into the brains of others [the audience]. There are numerous ways to achieve this and standing up talking with some slides is just one way. The slides are not compulsory. They may actually inhibit communication. It has become a common misconception that slides ARE the presentation, but this is a mistake. If it were true, then the presenter is adding nothing and the audience might as well just read the slides for themselves.

There are numerous mistakes made with the delivery of presentations, but an outstandingly common one is simply reading from the slides. The slides should be an accessory to help reinforce the message that you are delivering verbally. It is likely that the audience is able to read, so doing it for them is insulting. I commonly present to audiences for whom English is a second or third language. I have no way of knowing which subset of English is encompassed by their vocabulary. With that in mind, I do my best to verbally paraphrase any text on a slide to give them a second chance at comprehension. Often I will paraphrase again to give them a third shot. As English is my first [and, for all intents and purposes, only] language, I feel a responsibility to use it well.

As slides are just an accessory to communication, their design is important. Images are generally better than words. The old saying a that picture is worth a thousand words captures the concept well. Animations can bring a slide to life and help illustrate a point, but they can also be a distraction. If in doubt, skip the animation. Animating just because you can is plain stupid.

Sometimes a slide does need to contain text. They key thing to do here is keep it simple. A slide full of hard to read text will keep the audience busy reading it, during which time they are not listening to you. There are many guidelines to the construction of “bullet slides”. A good one is the “7×7 rule” – no more than 7 words on no more than 7 lines. That is certainly a good start. An old friend of mine suggested the “T-shirt rule”: do not put more words on a slide than you would put on a T-shirt [as they will get about the same amount of attention].

This is quite a big subject, one to which I am sure that I will return.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2012/02/23/death-by-powerpoint/