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It could’ve been so different. Powerpoint - a handsome young prince - came to us in the late eighties, full of promise for a presentation revolution. “Could I help you with your presentations please?” it asked. We enthusiastically accepted. It was like a fairytale. No longer would presenters be forced to stumble through their presentations without support; no longer would they have to prop up their arguments with words alone. No - Powerpoint the saviour was here and so too were cutting-edge visuals and the opportunity for more memorable, more powerful public speaking.
It could’ve been happily ever after. We could have been so happy together.
Except that it really wasn’t a fairytale. Decades later, the handsome prince Powerpoint has turned into the disillusioned mid-career guy Powerpoint, constantly called upon to do the same boring task day in, day out. Slide after slide of bullet points and text are the norm, with the occasional clipart to jazz things up. Long ago Powerpoint forgot how to inspire or how to rally his people around him.
With an estimated 30 million Powerpoint presentations being created every day (or so Microsoft say and I’m not planning to test them on that), it’s little surprise that Powerpoint fatigue has set in. And we blame the technology. We exclaim “Oh no! Not more death by Powerpoint!” as if it’s the poison that’s the real criminal in the murder mystery.
The truth is, it’s the users, not the technology that are to blame. Powerpoint still has the potential to be the handsome, inspiring prince if we use it well. Here's how....
Strategy A: Avoid the usual Powerpoint pitfalls
1. The desert
The dessert is page after page of dry bullet points on your slides. This is a trap speakers often fall into when they have a lot of information to convey and not much time to prepare, or not much confidence in their speaking abilities - "At least if I mess up, they'll still get the message because it's on my Powerpoint" . The problem is, that the audience largely won't get your message. As soon as the brain sees something it thinks it's seen before it stereotypes and concentrates less.
It's totally possible (as I'm sure you'll testify) to be sat through hours of public speaking, staring at a Powerpoint screen, apparently listening and then leave the room having no idea what that was all about. If this is your audience leaving without understanding your message, you may as well not have bothered going to the trouble.
I love this comment on a BBC article commemorating 25 years of powerpoint: “I've made and sat through tons of Powerpoint presentations and I have to admit that even my own can be pretty boring” Matt Saunders, Bristol. Says it all really. If you’re not inspired, or at least enthused by your Powerpoint presentation, how can you expect anyone else to be?
2. The 'Cheap n' nasty'
Nobody wants to represent themselves, their topic or their business as cheap and nasty, do they? Well, why then would you pick one of the pre-designed Powerpoint templates? At best they are stylistic cliches at at worst, they make your tummy feel funny from looking at them.
Your choice of visual aids directly affects - and sometimes even is your audience's perception of you as a speaker. So choose your brand image wisely.
In the iSomething age, we tend to go for clarity and simplicity, so choose colour schemes that help your audience to see your message, rather than dressing up your message in peacock feathers.
"But all I ever wanted was to make life easier for you!" cries Powerpoint. The inexperienced presenter smiles. The audience frown.
Overload slides are where a speaker proudly presents “Here’s everything I know on a page.” Overload can come from too much writing, or an over-complex diagram. Remember: 1) it doesn’t cost anything to put in extra slides 2) most of us only have one mouth, so we can only talk about one message at a time. Break down your message into bite sized chunks which appear in stages on the screen.
Anything less than 24-sized font is horrifying to an audience, so if your words don’t fit on the screen at that size or larger, that’s a message to you to cut back on the number of words in each slide. If you want to keep your message fresh, resolve to keep your slides to a 10-word maximum.
4. My notes, on a screen
The final Powerpoint pitfall is to write up everything you want to say about your subject and read it out. Perfect for the nervous, forgetful speaker. And perfect for tormenting your audience.
We’ve developed a social myth that an audience will think you a better speaker if you don’t have any notes. This may hold true for professional speakers who deliver the same speech hundreds of times, but if you're not being paid 5k per hour, I wouldn't let it worry you. If you don’t know your content and need to read from your PowerPoint presentation, either prepare more, or keep your notes with you.
Strategy B: Change your mindset
It's not enough to avoid doing harm with Powerpoint. If Powerpoint is to become a loyal and useful companion, you need to challenge yourself to use it in a different way to what seems normal, or even professional. Trust me, nobody really likes 'professional' anyway, not in listening to public speakers. They want authentic, real speakers - more on that here. Here's what you can do differently:
1. Think Inspiration
Facebook was so successful because people just love to see pictures. Images evoke emotions and emotions help to create memorable moments in your public speaking.
Rather than a page full of bullet points, think:1) What is the broadest, most inspiring message behind my content?2) What image could represent that?
7 inspiring images, versus 7 bullet point slides makes a world of difference. And this is not only for 'motivational' or conceptual messages - add a few key words or facts to the image and you can skillfully show your audience factual messages too.
2. Tell Stories
Powerpoint can be an ugly, efficient affair, or it can be sensitive and evocative. Use images to talk around, to tell stories from. Here, Powerpoint finally finds a legitimate use. When we're telling stories about our holidays, for example, it's always great to see pictures, so if you do the same with your presentations you really start to enhance your key message.
A word of warning - think carefully about your images. Make sure they're inspirational, rather than difficult to see. And... as much as you may have been inspired by the birth of your first child, there are some personal pictures no audience needs to suffer.
3. Make it your own
The first time I showed my Powerpoint doodles to a room full of accountants, I must admit I was nervous. I wasn't sure if cartoons would cut it with a business audience. I almost went online to source some free photographs instead. But I stuck with it and my Powerpoint was widely regarded as the best the group had ever seen.
So, add your own personality to your Powerpoint. Take risks. If I can get away with using my own doodles, so can you (it's easy, just draw and scan). Personality is what 29.9 million Powerpoints lack and it's exactly what your audience - who, I remind you, are real people - crave.
Get your personality in there.
4. Only use your slides when you need them
A Powerpoint draws the audience’s attention away from you and onto the screen. It’s something to stare at. Whilst it may feel better having your audience stare at the screen, than to stare at you, if you want to influence them, you’ll need their eye contact. So, don’t have them staring at the screen constantly. If you press “B” on your computer whilst your presentation’s running the screen will go black (don’t worry, just press “B” again to get your slides back). It’s amazing what happens when you do this - your audience will be pulled out of their Powerpoint trance and back to reality.
5. Use notes!
As Powerpoint is no longer your notes on a screen, you may well need notes to help you remember what you're going to say. No problem, especially if this is a presentation you're doing for the first time. In fact, I know a great piece of technology that helps you organise your notes into nice neat bullet points with titles at the top of each page and a different for each topic. It's called Powerpoint. This is a good use for Powerpoint, but it's not what your audience need to see on screen.
6. Enjoy yourself
As with any presentation, or any public speaking in general, the speaker who enjoys themselves will be more confident, more entertaining and more memorable. Don't take the suggestions here as hard-and-fast rules which might make you stiff or nervous about what you're saying. Create Powerpoint slides that you feel good about and that support you should you feel stuck.
Let the noble Powerpoint prince gallop through the countryside once more!
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