Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Using PowerPoint Effectively or Keeping Satan at Bay

As I promised yesterday, today's entry is about using PowerPoint more effectively. And I use PowerPoint as  a generic term for all presentation aids. If you haven't read yesterday's entry ("PowerPoint is Satan") you probably should to give this some context.

One  caveat: I am not an expert in PowerPoint design. I am an expert in public speaking. The suggestions I offer here are meant for the occasional speaker who feels that s/he is expected to--or feels obligated to--use PowerPoint and doesn't want to use it poorly. Because, as I mentioned yesterday, using it poorly ruins otherwise excellent or at least effective presentations.

First, use PowerPoint as a visual aid, not as your speaking notes, This is the mistake made most often.by speakers. They feel the need to put every idea they are going to say on PowerPoint. Then, worse, they use it to speak from, essentially reading lots of bullets to us and putting us to sleep. If your PowerPoint slideshow has everything you are going to say on it, please just email them to me. I can read them, get all your info and save the time and expense of travelling to hear you read your slides to me.

Instead think of them as visual aides. If there is something you would like me to SEE, get a photograph of it and insert it on a slide. The first speaker I wrote of yesterday was old school. She had lots of "props" in the form of brochures, photographs, and even a white pine sapling, These all could have been inserted onto slides and freed her to talk about what she wanted, not what her PowerPoint told her she had to talk about (which she didn't do anyway because it was too much to cover in her available time frame). Instead she held up brochures that we could barely see and waxed poetic about how beautifully designed they were.

A colleague of mine, Howard Miller, whose brilliance is a model for all public speakers has a PowerPoint "lecture" that I have since stolen and incorporate into my own public speaking course. He simply repeats the phrase "Fewer words, more pictures" as many times as there are students in the class (typically 25). I've taken to doing the same, except that after the twenty-fifth "fewer words, more pictures" I say "Now I think what Miller is trying to say, is that your PowerPoint should have fewer words and more pictures" . (Of course invariably a student will subsequently ask "Can we have pictures on our PowerPoint?" but alas that is a different blog entry on listening for a different day). Use PowerPoint to show us cool or meaningful stuff, not as a repository for every idea in your speech.

A second suggestion is to rehearse your talk aloud WITH your PowerPoint. Get in the rhythm of when your slide changes will occur. Identify those parts of the speech that might call for a visual for which you don't yet have one, and most importantly put reminders--highlighted--to switch slides, etc., on your speaking notes. We've all seen the speaker who forgets to switch slides and then has to play catch-up as they feverishly fly through slide after slide that related to something they have already finished speaking about. A little rehearsal goes a long way. This was the problem of the second speaker. His talk did not match up with his slides. There was a total disconnect, so we got to hear him talk about stuff and then whip through slides saying "I already covered this" a dozen times.

A third suggestion. If you must use text, use it sparingly. No full sentences (unless it is a direct quote--hopefully a short one--which you are ethically obligated to read as a means of accurately quoting the person. Having us visually read it along with you is not a terrible thing in this case). Use a key word or phrase, if you must, to help identify the talking point for your audience, but give us the idea itself in your own words. If I can read your PowerPoint and understand everything in your presentation, I don't need you. You have too much information on your slides. And in the name of all things Holy, PLEASE do not stand there reading your slides to us. This was the unforgivable sin of the third speaker--okay, I forgive her, but it has taken me a few days to get over it.

Whether it's text or data, please remember to KISS (Keep It Simple Speaker). A slide should momentarily grab our attention and communicate something quickly. If I have to spend more than a second or three reading, deciphering, analyzing or figuring it out, guess what? That is time I am not listening to you. So make your slides capable of being taken in in an instant, so our attention can quickly return to where it belongs...on what you are saying.

Finally...and I feel like I'm just beginning to scratch the surface of PowerPoint sins, but...keep your focus on the audience, not the screen. The fourth speaker on Saturday literally turned her back to the audience and spoke to the screen for the vast majority of her presentation, She was guilty of all of the things mentioned above, but this was the most dreadful. You are the show, not the screen. Bask in it! How often in life do we get everyone to shut up and just listen to what we have to say? Enjoy the moment, engage your audience. Don't hide from them by putting all your attention on the screen.

She also appeared to be seeing these slides for the first time, As she herself would have to read the bullet, think about it for a moment and then try to explain it (unfortunately this explanation took the form of mumbling in the opposite direction of the audience so we could not hear what she said). Avoid having someone else design your PowerPoint Slides for you, but if you must, at the very least get familiar with them, rehearse with them, edit them if you are not comfortable with them. Make them work for you, not against you.

So those are the ideas I would have shared with the four bright, well informed, likable speakers I saw Saturday. Their presentations could have been so good, but for their use of PowerPoint. Still, there are a thousand more ideas for using PowerPoint brilliantly. When I need ideas I look to people like Alex Rister or the Six Minutes site. These folks eat, drink, sleep and breathe slide design. I strongly encourage you to read their work.

As for me, I'm just a simple speech coach trying to do his small part to keep Satan at bay.

Be well, and speak well.

And as always, thanks for reading!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.