“PowerPoint makes us stupid.” So said Marine Gen. James Mattis. That’s not any more true by itself than “Cupcakes make us fat” or “Beer makes ugly people attractive.” Used properly, it’s a useful tool to help an audience visualize information and remember a presentation. Used indiscriminately, it’s worse than Rain Man giving a TED Talk.
Those born before 1980 or so remember overhead projectors. If someone needed a visual aid for a presentation, one had to carefully write or print each slide onto a special sheet of transparent plastic, which was blown up onto a screen by a 50-pound steampunk contraption. That plastic was expensive and hard to work with, so speakers only put visuals in a presentation if they were absolutely essential. They were hard to read if there was too much information on one page, so speakers put only a few key bullets on each one. Diligent speakers spent their preparation time making notes that they could speak to intelligently.
Then came PowerPoint. Just as digital photography and camera phones freed everyone’s inner bad food photographer, PowerPoint unleashed everyone’s inner blowhard. Now anyone with a computer and a projector can make a spectacularly bad presentation with very little effort, while still feeling as if they’ve actually accomplished something.
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But, just as digital photography helped some good photographers become great because they used it properly, PowerPoint can help a speaker’s audience visualize and retain key points. PowerPoint is the nuclear power of presentations. Used well, it’s a powerful tool for good. Used poorly, it becomes part of the Axis of Boredom. Speakers just have to keep some limitations in mind.
Make your brief drive your PowerPoint, not your PowerPoint drive your brief.
Way too often, when someone is assigned to give a class or a brief, the first thing they do is go to their computer and start hacking away at slides. Remember that your brief is the end product, not your slides. The slides are supposed to be there to support your presentation, not the other way around. Don’t be the trained monkey who’s only there to click the slides.
Your audience can read just as well as you.
If you’re just going to look at the screen and read slides, you’re not adding any value to your presentation. You could have saved everyone’s time and given them printed handouts instead of speaking to them. You have also wasted 3.8 billion years of evolution, because you’ve shown that you could be replaced by a $50 printer. Unless your name is Kim Kardashian, no one wants to spend an hour looking at your ass. Reading your slides guarantees that is all they’re going to see, in more ways than one.
Keep it simple, stupid.
Not every point you make verbally needs to be duplicated on the screen. That only makes you more prone to reading. Plus, your audience is tuning out on what you’re saying in order to concentrate on what they see. The only things that need to be on slides are things that need to be seen and not heard, things like maps, graphs, and your presentation’s “money shots.” That’s it.
Cat pictures are for the Internet, not your brief.
Everyone has YouTube at home. They probably have it in their pockets, for that matter. Just because you can put a ton of videos and pictures in your presentation doesn’t mean you should. Having collegehumor.com bookmarked on your iPad does not make you master of the Internet. Save the videos and production flourishes for a single relevant attention-getter or for points that can only be made with visuals.
For the love of God, take it easy with the laser pointer.
Unless you’re presenting to an audience in the SuperDome, you probably don’t need a laser to point at your slides. Whipping your laser pointer around like Luke Skywalker channeling Zorro only makes your audience fear for retinal burns. Use an extendable pointer, your hand, a ruler, a sharpened stick, or anything else instead…even a baseball bat, if you truly want rapt attention. This will force you to use your hands for emphasis, not for flailing.
Leave the effects and Clipart at home.
Your idea isn’t more or less valid because it zoomed in and did a cartwheel from the side of the screen with a crashing sound effect. If that’s what you think will keep your audience’s attention, you’ve got bigger problems. If a cartoon stick-figure man sticking his finger at your point is necessary to identify it, you don’t have a point.
Use old fashioned notecards.
My high school speech teacher made us give five-minute presentations with only the notes on a single notecard, which she checked beforehand to ensure that it had no more than ten words on it — just reminders to keep the presentation on track. While probably a bit extreme, the spirit of this approach is valid for any presentation. Unless you have a teleprompter to give the illusion of looking at your audience while reading, your eyes need to be mostly on your audience, not your notes, and certainly not at your screen.
Of course, this requires you to…
Practice your presentation.
How many presentations have you seen where the slides are amazing, but the presenter is not? Too often, presenters spend hours making sure every font is perfect and that the icons are the perfect shade of cornflower blue, but neglect to set the time aside to actually run through what they’re going to say, much less practice their presentation. No one cares about your font. Unless it’s Comic Sans, because Comic Sans is only for church bulletins and bad Christmas newsletters. That aside, your audience would greatly prefer a great presentation and bad slides than a bad presentation and great slides. Unless you’re on a high-level military staff, but that’s another dysfunction entirely.
As Spiderman learned, “With great power comes great responsibility.” PowerPoint and other slide presentation programs certainly beat the hell out of slaving over plastic slides with a marker, but that doesn’t mean speakers need to beat the hell out of their audiences instead. If Lincoln could change history with 272 spoken words at Gettysburg, any competent person can certainly brief a weekly status update without 20 slides plus backups.