Stop Death By PowerPoint – Make Your Presentations "suck" Less

Death By Powerpoint

They say that at any one moment there are approximately 1,000,000 presentations going on, and if you consider that over 50% of them suck, that’s a lot of unhappy, bored people out there.  All that hard work you put into that Powerpoint deck,  that time spent editing, preparing your “talking points” – the angst you felt in the time leading up to “the event” where you just hoped, prayed even, that your presentation would not “suck”. And then it does suck. Or maybe “suck” is too strong a word – but your audience, just didn’t get the message.   Yet another case of Death By Powerpoint.


So the fact is Powerpoint has been around for a while and yet presentations really aren’t getting much better.  People still complain about bad presentations they have been to, and what they disliked most about them.  You hear it all the time:

…the presentation was too long.
…I can’t believe how many slides there were.
…those slides were way too complicated.
…I didn’t understand what the point really was!
…I tried to focus and figure it out – but after a while, I just tuned out.
…so what did you need from me – was I just supposed to listen? Or was there a point?

Harsh, I know.  But unfortunately some of this feedback does not make its way to the presenter and, quite often, it’s the “technical folks” (like in IT, Engineering, etc.) who seem to run into this challenge a lot.  And at the end of the presentations, you get that clapping of hands, or token “Good Presentation” – when really, they’re just happy you’re done! After all, that’s just the way {IT, Engineering, etc.} folks are – they’re so detail oriented! But we love ‘em…..

The truth is, the issue is more widespread than just “an IT thing”, though we in IT have been known to give, well rather “thick” presentations.  Just look at the some of the king of “GeekDom’s” best work:

Bill Gates Poor Presentation

Bill Gates – Brilliant Mind – But he's no Steve Jobs

Yes, we are just copying those (many of us) looked up to.  I can think back to many a “developers” conference and those stacks of “powerpoint decks” jam packed full of code, and flow charts, animations, transitions, lists of bullet point best practice recommendation.   Talk about information density.

But that’s what it was all about – these presentations were all about delivering to an audience that wanted,needed, craved detail.  We soaked it all up – that’s what we came for after all!!!

Presentation Zen

Enter a book that has “changed the way I plan and develop my presentations”.  PresentationZen by Garr Reynolds.  Not only is the book an excellent read, it is visually stunning.  Garr Reynolds has a ton of great resources on his web site and also has the support of key thought leaders in the presentation space such as Guy Kawasaki who’s blog How To Change The World is on my “must read” blog list.  I will tell you some of the techniques and tips I am using to try and “suck less”:

My Top Presentation Do’s and Don’ts

1. Plan Offline – I used to sit in front of powerpoint and “lay out” the framework of my presentation from scratch.  Now I use pen, pencil, paper – whiteboards are a favourite of mine as well.  One tip I learned from presentationzen was to use post-its.  It’s a natural way of laying out your key points and thoughts, and makes it easier to move things around and map out your “flow” without having to deal with “technology” in the way.  Try it, you’ll like it!

2. Frame The Event – I like to answer a number of questions about “the event” to help provide context and set up some “boundaries” for the planning process.  I like to use a different colour of marker or post-it so that these thoughts stand out from the main content.  Ask yourself questions like:

How much time do you have?
Who are you presenting to? Why are you presenting?
What are their expectations? What are your expectations of them?
What are the 3-4 key messages you want to convey?
Are there any preconceived notions or misinformation you need to clarify?
What time of the day will it be – should I bring coffee?

3. Never give out Handouts In Advance – I once thought this was a great idea.  Allow folks to take notes on the slides – accomodate those who might have trouble reading the presentation.  WRONG.  I have learned that you don’t want your audience reading your presentation, or thumbing ahead…you want them listening to YOU.  That’s why you are there and the value you bring.  Your presentation should be an engaging story – you need to be working the room, scanning your audience – looking for those signs that they are engaged, and for cues that may cause you to either change pace, or change gears, if you feel your point is not being conveyed.

4. Keep the slides simple – limit the noise! – There is a much quoted 1-7-7 rule.

  • Only 1 key point per slide
  • Only 7 lines of text (maximum)
  • Only 7 words per line (maximum)

5.  Don’t ever read your slides – at worst you want your audience to read your slides and at best you don’t want them to have to read very much at all.  They need to be listening to you – you should be weaving a story, ensuring that your key points are being made and that your audience is engaged.  In presentationzen, one key point that is frequently repeated is that pictures are retained longer than words.  Ideally a high quality picture (not clipart) coupled with a key message, will serve as a powerful backdrop to your storytelling and help ensure people remember what you were saying, long after the presentation is over.  Below are samples of two slides that made use of a metaphor (water) as the basis for a theme that was used across the “canvas” of the presentation to convey, in this case, the project charter for a key initiative in a “non traditional” fashion – that appealed to a broad audience.

Pictures Trump Words

We Need Information To Make Decisions

Review the resources above – leave some comments letting others know techniques you have used to improve your presentations, and make them “suck less”.  This is journey of lifelong learning, and one worth embarking on, as success professionally is partially contingent on your proficiency in communication! Speak to us!!!

Thanks for reading…hope it was worth your time.  BTW, I still “suck” but try to “suck less” with each presentation.  Feedback welcome!

Liked this post? Browse through all my posts here. Thanks…Pedro

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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