Powerpoint as a verb: Bad. Powerpoint as a noun: Acceptable. Discuss.

Attending a couple recent conferences I concluded that, rather than enhancing communication, Powerpoint impedes it in sometimes-fatal ways. When I started writing this post, it was going to have a series of tips on how to make better Powerpoints. Then I thought I was going to ask you to abandon it completely. Now, though, I just want you to stop using Powerpoint as a verb and instead use it as a noun.

The presentations have overwhelmed the content; no, they have usurped it. They have become the very purpose of the session: I Powerpoint therefore I am.

Powerpoint makes people with little artistic ability think they are artists. Hey, they chose a colorful background and a creative font! They used dissolves. They found a cute caricature; never mind the fact that they had to revise their script to rationalize the picture. They Powerpointed!

Public speaking is story telling. Your objective is to make the audience believe or feel or do something. Even if you are presenting mind-numbingly dry technical information, you still want them to at least exclaim “Aha!” at the end of your talk, if not write you a check.

Because it’s a story, a presentation needs an arc: A beginning, a crisis, a dénouement and a conclusion. Powerpoint slides trudge along at the same tedious pace, sabotaging the rhythmic changes and drama that make your story compelling. Nobody ever complained that a speaker was too entertaining.

And while we’re talking about drama, why are you standing off to the side of the room hiding behind a podium while that projection screen hogs the spotlight? You are the star. Don’t share the honor. Any actor will tell you that downstage center is the place to be.

I think the problem is that, as speakers plan their presentations, they start not from the story but from the Powerpoint. They do Powerpoint, not persuasion. If you’ll promise me that you’ll knock it off and write your story first, I might allow you to use Powerpoint as a noun: As a tool to deliver images that explain, expand and enhance your story.

You don’t need a fancy template. You don’t need a continuous stream of slides. Maybe you only need three or four images that you call up when a picture really will replace a thousand words.

That’s easier said than done, because relevant, evocative images are hard or expensive to create. If you want to take viewers’ breath away when they see the scope of your factory, you’re going to need a photo. Shot from a helicopter. If you’re going to show illustrations – maps, artists’ renderings, site plans – they have to be well-executed to begin with because, if they’re bad, they’ll be worse when they’re 10 feet tall instead of 10 inches. One dramatic pie chart is better than a dozen wishy washy ones and those created in Excel look like it. What story does the picture tell that words cannot? Is it therefore obvious that slides with words on them are equally limiting and pretty much useless?

Here’s a parenthetical reason to use Powerpoint as a noun: Murphy, who correctly said that, if anything can go wrong, it will. The projector bulb burns out, the technician shows up with an immobilizing hangover, your computer rewards your optimism with a blue screen of death, the lights in the room either can’t be dimmed enough for slides to show up or is so dim that you can’t see your notes. If you were planning to Powerpoint (verb), you’re dead. If you were planning to Powerpoint (noun) the show will go on.

For grins, here’s a site with some examples of spectacularly bad Powerpoint slides.

 

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5 Comments

  1. Reply

    Excellent! When I served as an education director, I sometimes told session leaders (I tried to never call them “presenters” or “speakers” unless they were truly general session keynote speakers) that they might not have PowerPoint capability. What would they do if they just had a flip chart? Or no visual aids?

    I’d add as well that too many “presenters” think they need words on their PPTs because they’ll also use them as handouts. If we help them to understand that handouts serve a different function entirely, then sometimes they’re gifted with an “a-ha” moment that results in a better session for everyone.

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