Some would have us believe that PowerPoint is inherently dangerous. No doubt, they make a compelling argument. One need not witness the lifelessness of more than a handful of moribund meetings, conferences, or classes where PowerPoint is being wielded to recognize that the threat of slaughtered interest and engagement is all too real.
What we need to keep in mind, however, is that it’s only when PowerPoint falls into the wrong hands that it becomes menacing. True, when that happens, the little clicker thing that advances the slides can become a weapon of mass monotony. But when used properly, it can advance engagement, understanding, and knowledge with every click.
In order to gain some insight into the proper handling of PowerPoint, I turned to Vikas Jhingran, a world champion public speaker and author of the book, “Emote: Using Emotions to Make Your Message Memorable.” Jhingran devoted an entire chapter of his book to the topic of how to present with PowerPoint, so I asked him what the keys are to an effective PowerPoint presentation. He explained the two main problems with PowerPoint:
The first is that PowerPoint, in general, is a very difficult tool to engage with emotionally. A lot of people don’t understand that, and therefore lose their audience. So you have to understand that the emotional connection they can have is with you, and then PowerPoint would be an aid that helps in that emotional dialogue. If you make PowerPoint the center of your presentation, then that emotional connection is lost. That is the key reason why we have so many PowerPoint presentations that fail to engage the audience, and fail to be effective.
The second problem, Jhingran said, is that people often don’t realize that PowerPoint isn’t a very good tool for conveying complex information:
With the structure and the way presentations work with PowerPoint, presenting complexity is very difficult. For that, you have to have a document—a Word document, or something that is more suited for conveying complex information. I see a lot of presentations where people try to do very complicated things with PowerPoint, and convey information that is far too complicated than is suited for a PowerPoint presentation.
Jhingran’s advice is to understand the limitations of text, and to present the information in layers:
Make sure you’re working with pictures and other avenues that allow for a much better exchange of emotion. Pictures, video, and graphics engage people emotionally a lot better than just text. The second thing I tell them is if you are conveying complex information, make sure you convey that information in a layered format. That means you add complexity step by step—you start with something very simple, and then layer information on that. That allows people to digest what you’re saying, and it gives them time to absorb the complexity. PowerPoint inherently will not help you with that, so you have to plan the presentation to be able to do that.
I came across another great resource with some helpful PowerPoint advice from Dr. Curtis Newbold on his The Visual Communication Guy website. Here’s an encapsulation of what I found to be Newbold’s five most useful PowerPoint tips:
- Avoid too much text, even in bullets. No matter how many times we hear that too much text in PowerPoint is bad, it seems like the message just isn’t getting through. Few people on this planet would admit to liking staring at text more than they like staring at pictures.
- Pay attention to contrast. Unless your goal is to give your audience a serious headache, don’t use dark colored text on dark backgrounds, or light colored text on light backgrounds. The more visual contrast, the more enjoyable your slides will be to look at.
- Don’t read your slides. Your PowerPoint slides should be used to supplement your presentation, not to serve as a crutch. Don’t assume that having all your content on the slides means you don’t have to practice. One of the most annoying, unprofessional, and overt demonstrations of presentation laziness is staring at the screen, reading your content to your audience.
- Stop animating stuff, just because you can. Creativity is a good thing. But making your text boxes swirl and dance on the screen isn’t creative. In fact, all that does is prove to your audience that you found the animation button and that you don’t know how to use it.
- Stretch yourself beyond clipart. The problem with clipart isn’t so much about the cutesy and tacky aura that it emits. The real problem is that presenters often use cheap clipart to make their presentation more visual without having any real purpose for each image.