Tag Archives: PowerPoint

I’m Fed Up with Boring Presentations

In a world that expects the wit of Jimmy Fallon, the wisdom of a TED talk and the visual stimulation of Snapchat, giving a PowerPoint presentation with complicated graphs and bullet points sheds about as much light as a birthday candle in a coal mine. If you can’t give a straightforward, dynamic and passionate presentation you should stay home because you are wasting your time and turning everyone in the audience against you.

And don’t give me that crap about the need to cite references and give detailed explanations.

A video of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explaining quantum computing went viral.  He did it in 35 seconds. A few days later a university professor said on CBC radio that Trudeau did a pretty good job.

You probably already know the difference between a great and a horrible presentation. It’s the difference between being held hostage for 20 minutes at a boring meeting versus 40 minutes of thoughtful bliss as a speaker paints evocative words and ideas that make you forget about checking your cell phone. It’s passion, not a 20 data point chart that gets you excited.

A presentation is not a peer-reviewed paper. It is not a university thesis. It is not an engineering stress test report. It is not a learned legal opinion. A presentation is a conversation and an exchange of ideas between you and an audience. If the presentation is done well, it will entice the audience to seek out and discover more about the topic.

Most importantly though, a presentation is not a document. If you are printing out your slides to leave behind as a hand-out you’re doing it wrong. Think about this: If people can read the printout (in about five minutes) and get what your point is then why the hell did they spend 20 minutes listening to you?

When you’re speaking, the only thing on a screen behind you should be a visual that supports what you’re saying. If there are words on the screen, the audience will read them and stop listening to you. Several studies have shown that comprehension and retention plummet if you put words on a screen and then read them to your audience.

Professor John Sweller has been studying teaching methods for more than a dozen years and says that when the audience has its attention split between what you say and what they read they are less likely to remember anything. Professor Richard Mayer reached a similar conclusion; that listening to spoken narration without text on a screen increases understanding by 79%.

Stories will always be more compelling than a chart of facts and figures. Just ask any kid at bedtime.


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Time for Presentation Resolutions

Even though we officially celebrate the arrival of a new calendar year at midnight on December 31st, the day after Labour Day has always felt like a new year to me. It stems, of course, from that “back to school” feeling when books and teachers and friends were all shiny and new.

I’ve been out of school for decades but that New Year feeling persists and I also see it in many of my clients. August is a big vacation month but when September rolls around it’s time to get back to business. In the coming week four clients have booked sessions to tune up their presentation skills.

It got me thinking that maybe now would be a good time for some Presentation New Year’s Resolutions;

  1. I resolve to use no more than 20 PowerPoint slides in a 20 minute presentation,
  2. I resolve that at least half my slides will be visuals with no more than five words,
  3. I resolve to tell a story instead of spewing a stream of facts,
  4. I resolve to be more concerned with my audience than my own nervousness,
  5. I resolve to have passion and energy every time I speak.

If you follow those five resolutions, you’ll have a great New Year and your presentations will be more persuasive.

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Take One Step

There’s a growing awareness that PowerPoint is a badly used tool for the most part. But even though my clients, and those who take my course on public speaking, might concede that PowerPoint is bad, they often still insist that they have to use it.

Some say it is part of a corporate culture or that conferences they attend will expect a slide deck for the binders. A few say their bosses demand PowerPoint, though I have never encountered a Senior VP or CEO who holds such a view. Some people try to tell me that their presentation is so complicated that it needs a bevy of bullets to help them get the message across. To them I cite several studies that show comprehension goes down when an audience is forced to read words and listen to them at the same time.

I suspect the real reason people resist ditching PowerPoint is because it’s harder to stand in front of an audience and perform – much safer and secure to hide behind a podium and have people stare at a screen. The most effective presenters, however, are often what Garr Reynolds calls “naked presenters”, meaning they can speak as effectively with or without the support of a slide deck.

So my challenge to those who are addicted to a large digital slide deck is to take one step at a time on your road to presentation recovery. Start with one of the following;

  • Eliminate some of your slides, each time you practice. If you have 30 slides, get down to 20, if you have 20 get down to 10.
  • Limit your bullet points to a maximum of three per slide.
  • Replace one bullet point slide with a large visual.
  • Take out all non-essential text and information from graphics and charts. Use them only to show trends and comparisons rather than detailed data.
  • Go analogue. Start your next presentation by writing the points you wish to make on cards or post-it notes . Once you have an outline you can turn on PowerPoint and look for ways to illustrate your points rather than stuffing your ideas into a PowerPoint screen
  • Create a separate handout document. If you plan on leaving a copy of your PowerPoint you will fill it with too much detail and ruin your presentation.

Any one of those things will make your presentation better. Take one step and get comfortable with it and then go back and take another.

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Pay Attention to Your Audience, You May Be Presenting Before You Know It

I was called to a meeting this week with a Board Chair, a CEO, and a Senior VP. My role, I thought, was to be a resource and to answer any questions that might come up. That’s not the way things turned out.

I hadn’t prepared a presentation, I had no PowerPoint, but I was required to present a persuasive and intelligent argument. My credibility was suddenly put on the line. Here’s how I got through it.

First of all, I had already been assessing my “audience”, which was made up of all the other people in the room, from the moment I had walked into the office. This was a no-nonsense crowd with a lot on their plate. They would not want to feel that their time was being wasted.

I had been paying attention before I was called on to speak and noticed the way information was being presented and, most importantly, the degree of detail that seemed to be required.

There was a definite hierarchy in the room and I was certain that I was at the bottom of it so I watched the way others were interacting and how that interaction was being received. I needed to know how much I would be able to push back if that became necessary.

All of those things I did even though I didn’t think I would be making a presentation. Preparation allows us to be spontaneous and we should always be ready to present.

In my public speaking courses, students sometimes ask how to prepare for the impromptu speaking occasions when they are called upon to present information and haven’t had time to prepare.

Unfortunately, there is no formula that will work in every occasion. The key to success, though, is to pay attention and assume that you might have to talk at any time. Then you can quickly answer the three questions that form the basis of all successful presentations;

  1. Why am I giving this presentation?
  2. Who am I speaking to?
  3. What does that audience need to hear in order for me to be successful?

Those are the technical elements that come into play. But most people are afraid of public speaking and their performance reflects their discomfort. If you are called upon to speak when you least expect it, you must commit yourself to the task and that takes something that can’t be taught;


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Is Your Presentation Persuasive?

I had an interesting and lively discussion this week during an in-house training session for one of my clients. The firm does a lot of work for government and municipal bodies and some of the staff were uncomfortable at my notion that one of the goals of a good presentation should be to persuade the audience.

They argued that they deal in facts and their role is often to be objective, not to render an opinion. Now, my years as a journalist taught me all about the myth of objectivity. Even if we stick to facts over opinions, the selection of facts is still a subjective process. The best we can hope for is an accurate portrayal of both sides of an issue.

But even in a seemingly “information-only” presentation, I think you need to be persuasive. To begin with, your audience must believe that you know what the hell you’re talking about. Establishing your credibility is a form of persuasion.

The worst presentations are always the ones where the speakers appear to have no stake in the game. They recite boring statements or read PowerPoint bullets in a dispassionate monotone. That makes it hard for us to retain anything from the presentation but it also makes us wonder about the abilities of the presenter. It is no longer good enough to be a great widget maker you also have to be able to speak passionately about widgets. Look at Steve Jobs.

Every time we stand up to speak we create an opportunity. It may be to show how qualified we are or how well we’ve prepared the material or it may be to show that we are ready to take on new and more difficult challenges. By showing our commitment to the presentation we engage our audience and in doing so, we can be persuasive.

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Three Ways PowerPoint Makes You a Lousy Public Speaker

  1. A Screen is Not a Shield. Many people like PowerPoint because it draws attention away from them, shielding them from scrutiny. If you don’t want the attention, then don’t speak in public. A good presenter is dynamic and engages the audience. That means making eye contact and showing some passion for the topic. The whole idea of a speech (instead of a written report) is to make an emotional connection with people. A lousy public speaker is just a PowerPoint sound track.
  2. Bullets Kill People. Conventional wisdom holds that if you put up bullet points and then read them out loud people will remember them. In fact the opposite happens. Studies going back more than 10 years have found that, if words on a screen (or blackboard) are the same as words being spoken, retention will drop dramatically because the eye and the ear fight to process the information. Professor John Sweller of the University of New South Wales (among others) has done extensive research on the topic. Save your presentation, kill the bullets.
  3. PowerPoint is Not a Swiss Army Knife. Using PowerPoint as your notes and as a handout document as well as a visual aid to your speech means you are doing three things wrong. If you have to look at the screen to know what to say you lose credibility. A four page brochure-style handout will contain as much information as most 20-slide decks. It’s easier to read and it saves paper. Words on a screen are not a visual aid. Try using only pictures or diagrams and put your notes on index cards. That allows you the flexibility to linger on a slide or to move on quickly and the audience will still keep its primary focus on you. If your PowerPoint dominates, you’ll be a lousy public speaker.

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Is PowerPoint Part of Your Corporate Culture?

Last week I spent two days working with executives at a venture capital firm. They had asked for some presentation training because they realize that how you get a message across can be as important as the actual message.

When I work with people on their presentation skills I introduce some concepts that can be difficult to accept, particularly in a financial field. For example, several distinguished university researchers have found that when you put words on a screen and then read them, your audience is less likely to retain or understand the information. This is known as Cognitive Load Theory, although to the layman it is obviously counter-intuitive.

One of my clients last week challenged me on that point. He cited his experience in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom. Back then, he said, people came looking for money with thick multi-page business plans full of faulty assumptions. Today, he said, he didn’t have time to wade through such business plans. He felt that PowerPoint condensed some of that information.

I agreed but suggested he take it one step further with a more visual approach to the presentation and fewer slides.

He was surprised when I pointed out that the information on a 50-slide PowerPoint could be presented on both sides of two standard sheets of paper. I suggested that there should be a difference between what we put on a screen and what we leave behind as a handout.  In fact, Toyota has banned PowerPoint, not because they don’t like it but as a way to save money by reducing the cost of printer paper.

Despite my evidence, the client defended PowerPoint, saying it was part of his company’s “corporate culture”. He may be right. But more and more of North America’s top companies are changing from that culture to save money and make their communications more effective.

When we got into a practice session, though, the real reason my client was stuck on PowerPoint became obvious. He was using the bullet points on the screen as his notes.

I showed him a better way to make notes for his presentation, introduced a more graphic, visual approach to his PowerPoint and all of a sudden the corporate culture changed.


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