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Posted: October 22, 2012

Dodging death by PowerPoint

"Goody! Another slide!" said nobody, ever

Dawn Bjork Buzbee

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Death by PowerPoint.” People acknowledge it, laugh about it, and hate it when they are in an audience, but many continue to be guilty of doing it themselves.

During PowerPoint and presentation skills training, I often ask participants for the top PowerPoint sins they hate seeing. The guilty behaviors almost always include the usual suspects: reading bullet slides to the audience…word for word; flat narrative with no interaction; slides with text that is too small, too hard to read, or with bad contrast; and other equally awful ways which cause an audience to disengage and to spend the rest of the meeting checking email on their phones.

How can presenters avoid “Death by PowerPoint” and other presentation sins?

1). Establish the presentation goal or objective and target this throughout the preparation of your presentation. One sure way to create a bored audience is to have them wondering “What’s the point?” or “Why do I care?”

2). Plan out your presentation first. Write it, diagram it on a whiteboard, create an outline, build a mind map or choose another useful way to organize what you want to present and how you want to do it. You should have no more than 3-5 main ideas in any one presentation. Then look to see where you can add PowerPoint to reinforce the message. Keep in mind, a slide deck isn’t a presentation and your presentation doesn’t have to be delivered exclusively with PowerPoint. Move detailed content to a place where your audience members can actually benefit from the reference: a handout or resource manual, your organization Intranet, or a website. Make sure the flow and structure of your plan includes clear, logical sections for each key topic.

3). Add graphics, rather than bullet points, wherever possible. When words are necessary, it’s OK to use them, but avoid paragraphs. A bullet or a text box should be no longer than 2 lines so it is easy to read and the presenter (hopefully) avoids the temptation to read everything on the slide.

4). Avoid too many “bells and whistles” (like different font colors, sizes or styles, excessive animation, busy charts, etc.). The focus needs to be on the information, not the slide. Take advantage of the Slide Master feature in PowerPoint to build a consistent look and feel to a presentation.

5). Practice running the slide show so you are comfortable with timing and flow. Although PowerPoint includes a Rehearse Timings feature, I just set a digital timer and practice the presentation multiple times to make sure the content fits the available timeframe. Build in time for questions and possible technical glitches and adjust your content as needed.

6). Learn the PowerPoint keyboard shortcuts you can use while delivering a slide show. To get a quick look at shortcuts and tips, run a slide show and press the F1 function key for a pop-up list. Some of my favorites are the left and right arrow keys to easily move to the next or previous slides without the mouse. Also try the “B” key which will turn your screen black (B for black) while you are in the Slide Show view. Use this when you want to change topics and take the focus away from the current slide—great for adding facilitation and more discussions. Tip: press the “B” key again to restore the display of the current slide.

7). Create a list of all slides – I print out the presentation with the Handouts feature. Then, just jot down the slide number next to each slide. This helps you skip slides if time is an issue, or to jump back and forth on the slide deck as needed to address audience questions or interests. Move to a specific slide during a presentation by typing the slide number then [Enter]. For instance, to go to slide 8, type 8 and then press [Enter]—it’s that easy! Much better than escaping out of the presentation (as many presenters do) only to fumble around looking for the specific slide. This trick only works successfully if you have invested the time to plan and create an organized presentation (see steps 1 and 2 above) where you can skip ahead without confusing your audience.

Keep in mind, with PowerPoint presentations, less is more. Trust me: Rarely, if ever, have audience members said, “Oh goody, another slide!”

Dawn Bjork Buzbee is The Software Pro® and a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) as well as a certified Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) Master Instructor, certified Microsoft Applications Specialist (MCAS) Instructor, and a certified Microsoft Office expert. Dawn shares smart and easy ways to effectively use software through her work as a speaker, trainer, consultant, and author of 6 books. Discover more software tips, tricks, tactics, and techniques at www.SoftwarePro.com . Contact Dawn at Dawn@SoftwarePro.com  or (303) 699-6868.

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Readers Respond

Thanks for the feedback, Julie. You are right, "Presentation Zen" by Garr Reynolds is a great book with lots of excellent ideas and examples. Another valuable resource is "Beyond Bullet Points" by Cliff Atkinson. They both point out that stories and ideas are much more powerful than dry bullet slides. Unfortunately, many of the subject matter experts (SMEs) and presenters who really need to change their presentations aren't the ones seeking to improve their presentation skills and methods. By Dawn Bjork Buzbee on 2012 10 22
I haven't been killed by powerpoint yet, but have received a few mind-numbing blows. There's an awesome book out called "Presentation Zen" that shows you how to correct a lot of those mistakes and make your slides really pop. Great article, Dawn! By Julie Hansen on 2012 10 22
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