9 steps to avoiding death by powerpoint

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3 October 2019
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

9 steps to avoiding Death by Powerpoint

Since its release all the way back in 1987, PowerPoint has transformed and defined how we give presentations. If you’ve been asked to give a report in a meeting, a speech at a conference or a pitch to a potential client, chances are you’ve used PowerPoint.

The wonderful thing about PowerPoint is that it’s very easy to create attractive and professional looking presentations. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to create presentations that negatively affect the rest of your performance. We’ve all had to sit through terrible PowerPoint presentations: where someone just stands there blandly reading off the screen, the design is simply dull, and the animations are verging on silly. You don’t take anything in because your brain switched off long ago, along with everyone else in the audience.

To stop you from ever making the same mistakes, we’ve put together a series of steps to make sure your PowerPoint presentations are always clear, effective and professional looking.

(Editor’s note: There are several other similar programs – such as Apple’s ‘Keynote’ – that do the same thing. However, the term ‘PowerPoint’ has become so ubiquitous and synonymous with digital presentation software, that we’re going to use the term in this article. If you use one of the other programs, these rules will apply to you too.)


1. PowerPoint is not just a visual aid

Great presentations tell an engaging, memorable story which leads an audience through the content. This should always be your aim when creating your PowerPoint slides, regardless of what or how you’re presenting. Therefore, the primary role of your slides is to assist you in getting your information across.

The initial goal shouldn’t be to have pretty pictures or interesting text (although we’re going to discuss both of these), but to create whatever’s needed to get your key messages across. Your audience should be looking at and listening to you, not staring at the screen, so make sure you’re the centre of attention.


2. PowerPoint is not compulsory

In fact, you don’t have to use it at all. Many people believe that when they’re asked to create a presentation it automatically means they have to create a deck of PowerPoint slides, but this is often unnecessary. There are many other options which can be equally, or more, effective. Sometimes simply talking is enough, or referring to a handout can be easier and less distracting.

For those times you do decide to use PowerPoint, a useful trick is pressing the ‘B’ key to turn the screen black (pressing it again returns to where you were). Switching the screen off during a presentation can eliminate any distractions and keeps your audience focused on you, rather than staring at the slides.

Never feel obligated to have something on screen at all times. What you have to say should speak for itself. Remember, you are the presentation – not the slides.


3. PowerPoint is not a magic wand

Just because you create a good-looking set of slides, doesn’t mean the presentation’s going to be good. Rather than thinking about how the slides should look, start by thinking about your content, what you need to say and the key points your audience should know by the end. By doing this, you can be confident your presentation will go well, because you prioritised properly.


4. Avoid the ‘documentation as presentation’ syndrome

Your presentation should not be a leave-behind document. If someone can get a full understanding of your presentation from just your slides, without hearing you speak, then they have far too much in them. Your slides aren’t supposed to be an independent document – they’re an accompaniment to you, not the other way around.

If you do need a leave-behind or a handout, then create a new document for this purpose. It should complement your PowerPoint slides, but not merely repeat them word for word. They’re different mediums and should be treated as such. One option is to create an appendix to your slide deck with additional information that are not used when you present.


5. One slide, one idea

Even if you only have a few words on screen, you still need to be careful not to overload your audience with too many ideas at once. A good rule is to only present one idea or concept per slide, because if the screen sits unchanged for too long, it’s easier to zone out. But, if you change slides more often then you’ll keep even those with the shortest attention spans more engaged. This is even more important when presenting virtually.

Before starting with PowerPoint, break down your content into its individual points. There are no upper or lower limits to how many slides you should have, and it should always be tailored to match what you’re saying and your own personal style.


6. Reduce and Simplify

Professor Alan Baddeley of the University of York discovered that our minds can only remember three or four ‘chunks’ of information from a presentation, and when they’re overloaded, they will randomly select which things to remember. So, consider how much you really need to say and then keep your message simple and clear.

Presenting information as simple bullet points, rather than an intimidating block of text can also help. Any text on screen should act as a guide for you, and a signpost to your audience, of what you’re talking about. When an audience is faced with written and spoken information at the same time, it can be distracting, and they struggle to process either. Speaking directly to your audience, and developing each bullet point on screen, will make your presentation much more effective than asking your audience to read a paragraph of text along with you. Your slides should reflect what you’re talking about, not the specific words you’re saying.


7. Making text visual

Bullet points are a good place to start, but PowerPoint offers far more versatility than just this. Consider how to make things look more interesting and more visually appealing for your audience. Text boxes and flow charts can help make your slides more exciting, breaking up some of the monotony that can plague longer presentations.

Which of these two slides would you rather have to stare at?

Process Flow Stages basic


Process Flow Stages chart

They say exactly the same thing, but the second one is much clearer and holds your attention better, especially if it’s towards the end of an hour-long presentation and everyone’s already thinking about lunch.

Equally, studies have shown that retention of information after a meeting is six times greater when information is presented visually and orally, rather than just by the spoken word alone. An easy to understand graph is much easier for your audience than listening to a long list of figures. Therefore, when possible, you should use graphs and diagrams when discussing data and other numerical or statistical information.


8. Use progressive reveals and builds

Another tip for not overwhelming your audience is to reveal information gradually. Each slide may only have one idea, but if that idea has multiple points to it, then this can often still be too much at once. Putting just one bullet point or image on screen, talking about it, and then building upon it with the next bullet point in the list can be very effective.

Be consistent in your method of reveals, and do not overuse them. In some situations, they can add value and increase interest and engagement, but in other places they can distract the audience while they sit waiting for the end of a quote or statistic.

Furthermore, be careful when using PowerPoint animations. Having text swoop in from the side or dissolving in may sound fun, but they can easily end up being annoying, juvenile, or feeling like you haven’t taken it seriously. If you feel animations are genuinely needed, keep them simple.


9. Use quality images

Just like with the charts and graphs, images can increase impact and aid recall. In his book, ‘Syntactic Theory of Visual Communication’, Paul Martin Lester explains that “we are becoming a visually mediated society. For many, understanding of the world is being accomplished… by reading images.”

Using images to illustrate a point, such as a photo of smiling people when discussing customer satisfaction rates, or an hourglass representing response times, brings the presentation to life. When used well, they also make your PowerPoint slides feel more professional and finished. Be mindful that your images should be good quality, relevant and shouldn’t undermine the tone of the presentation.

Also, putting in too many images can make your slides feel cluttered. Aim for, at most, one image per idea. Just like only putting one idea in each slide, the aim is to highlight your points in different ways not to overwhelm your audience and overshadow your words.

For more tips on Presentation Skills, take a look at our courses.