The Sun Also Shines on PowerPoint

I grew up in the world of yellow pads and plastic overheads. I even recall broken chalk and eraser-monitors. Now, apparently I need to make a confession. I use PowerPoint–even though it has been getting a bad rap. In last week’s New York Times Elisabeth Bumiller looked at the prevalence of perplexing PowerPoint presentations in the US military and wondered if they were a necessary evil.

In response, David Silverman, from the Harvard Business Review, took a more pragmatic stance. Sure, he argued, PowerPoint’s can waste time and be annoying, but they can also be a helpful tool. He points to Steve Jobs short-and-simple slides and says they are effective for making a sales pitch, but not hard-hitting enough for an audience that demands the slides before a presentation.  Silverman makes a case for the specialized presentation. He thinks PowerPoints need to be molded in the image of the audience’s desires.

Fair enough. But Silverman’s argument requires that PowerPoint authors exercise a degree of common sense. Sometimes that’s the last thing you have when you are preparing for a big presentation. The argument runs parallel to Strunk and White’s call to cut unnecessary words. It’s perfectly rational advice, but when you have a deadline and 10 pages to fill, you will be no more rational than Romeo when he bumps into Juliet.

PowerPoints are made too complicated or too simple when the presenter is confused, unsure, overconfident, or nervous. It sounds simple, but the most important thing you can do before creating a deck of slides is knowing exactly what needs to get said, how quickly it needs to be said, and why it needs to be said. It’s easy to start making slides that lose focus, go on tangents, and become over filled when you lack a direction.

Before you make your presentation ask the organizers of the meeting or key participants in the expected audience to tell you what they need to hear and why. Don’t be afraid to ask multiple times. It will save everyone time and it ensures that you are zoned in on the message rather than endless asides and figures no one cares to see for the 10th time.

Keeping the thesis of the presentation in mind is more important than pretty charts, flashing graphics, and great color combinations. Make an outline of what needs to get said before you start playing with PowerPoint’s animation tools or SmartArt graphics. If this can be done, presenters won’t panic and make overly complicated slides or won’t under-prepare and create sloppy presentations. It will automatically help you shape a talk that would make both Bumiller and Silverman happy.

I must admit, i have a huge collection of PowerPoint presentations. The trick is how to use them to tell my story. In that task, is the essential rule: use PowerPoints to keep the story moving, but if you don’t have a story to tell, don’t bother. PowerPoints are an addendum to your tale. You can try to engage them with the aesthetics of illustrations and design, but most importantly, engage them with the logic of what you have to say. PowerPoints can’t engage, you have to engage.

Ultimately, you have to figure out the direction of your PowerPoint. Make sure you use it to present facts and ideas in ways that a memorandum, traditional lecture, or an email cannot. PowerPoint’s function is to bridge lectures with text, images, sound and video. Not every presentation demands PowerPoint and not every PowerPoint deserves the attention of an audience. PowerPoints shouldn’t be viewed as a necessary evil–they should just be considered a helpful tool. If they fail at helping you present your ideas or getting your point across than drop it, move on, and spare your future audience yawn-inducing slides. Give a slide-less talk or write a memo instead.

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