Death by PowerPoint – What they didn’t teach at Business School!

I give and receive a lot of presentations in my work and in my experience the expression “death by Powerpoint” is over-used and often unfair. Well-structured presentations given clearly and with enthusiasm by a knowledgeable and engaging speaker are still one of the best ways to share ideas, create momentum in an organisation and to stimulate debate. However, too many presentations are not well structured nor well delivered and there really is no excuse.

I was lucky enough recenty to participate in a conference of some of the most senior marketers in a leading global blue-chip brand (I’ll spare their blushes by not naming them here). Each market was invited to give a short presentation to summarise the key drivers of their marketing activity for the year. Unfortunately the two hours, which had to extend into the lunch break and turned into three, was the closest I have come to “death by Powerpoint” in my career. I don’t blame the presenters – too many senior leaders have never had proper presentations skills training, but as marketers I would have hoped some of the key principles of good presenting might have been more evident.

So, with no apologies to those who have heard all this before, here are a few simple tips, actually, consider them golden rules of good presenting. Never, ever try to deliver a presentation that does not obey them, unless, of course, you are hoping your audience will not remember a single word you say.

1. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes

Ask yourself what are the three key things you want them to remember when they leave the room (don’t bother with more than three, they won’t remember them all anyway). Why should they care about what you are saying? And, what kind of frame of mind are they likely to be in? What came before you on the agenda, what time of day is it, are they likely to be hungry, or tired? Plan what you say to make it as easy as possible for your audience to listen to you and remember your key messages. If you don’t, they won’t.

2. Keep your content focused on your key messages

Remember, you can only have a maximum of three of these, so be clear what they are. By all means include context or background, or summary and concluding slides, but ONLY if they help the audience understand and retain your key messages. Don’t be tempted to tell them how difficult and complicated this all is or to try to make your work look more impressive by showing off how much background research you’ve done: the point is to make it easy for them, even if it isn’t for you.

3. One idea per slide, few words, many pictures

Powerpoint, or any other visual aid software, are presentation aids, not word processors. You can sometimes use them to create standalone documents for reading or circulation without a presentation but you should never use these to project whist you are speaking.

Create separate visual aid slides to support your talk. The slide’s headline should state simply in plain language the idea or claim you are making – one idea per slide. You can then use bullet points to substantiate this underneath, but never more than six. Do not write whole sentences or, God forbid, paragraphs, just a few words in large type to jog your memory and help the audience follow along. Ideally, they will walk out with a memorable mental image of the slide in their mind. If they are trying to read four paragraphs of type 12 text whilst you are talking, you will lose them.

Remember too, a picture is worth a thousand words; a million probably.

4. Be entertaining and tell stories

Humans are designed to learn from experience and there are chemical reactions in the brain triggered by humour and by storytelling. We can process and retain a number of facts, and some well-placed ones can add credibility and impact to an argument, but stories will sit with your audience for much longer. Don’t be tempted to write the story on the slide: a one-word bullet or image will help the audience remember it much better, but don’t be shy about telling the story as a story. Entertain them, draw them in, paint them a mental picture they will carry with them when they leave.

Jokes are great if you can carry them off and they are really funny (and relevant to the point you are making, of course), but a good story is better still, even if it doesn’t have a punchline. Moving or surprising stories can have more impact than a good joke. If you leave your audience feeling engaged by what you said, chances are they will be more likely to remember it later. Don’t be afraid to try this, it works!

And that really is it. It’s not so very hard. We are all naturally good at communicating, if we weren’t we wouldn’t get very far in life at all. Crikey, most children do it brilliantly so what happens when we grow up? Communicating in a business context is exactly the same as in a social one, but with a bit more preparation needed. So, in the 21st century, when we are surrounded by examples of great communicators and when we consumer more communications than ever before, there really is no excuse not to do it well, or at the very least, better.



This is a reprint of an article published by the renowned Public Speaker, Louise Fowler



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