End the PowerPoint Plague: How to Master Your Presentations
There is a PowerPoint plague spread by presenters who know how to use the program but who don’t know how to effectively employ PowerPoint to communicate their ideas. Because PowerPoint is a relatively easy-to-learn, ubiquitous program, they assume it gives them license to create graphic-intense slides without learning how to correctly conceptualize their ideas into clear, communicative visuals. They assume that tossing words, sometimes too many words, into a pretty template will magically give their ideas potency, and the audience will understand and buy into their concept. They assume that PowerPoint’s features—bullets, templates, built-in charts—will somehow transform their ideas into a brilliant, heart-pounding presentation.
And these presenters end up giving another bad PowerPoint presentation to another bored and confused audience. These bad presentations add up and reflect poorly on the presenter and their organization.
On April, 26, 2010, The New York Times published “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint” by Elisabeth Bumiller. This eye-opening article by Bumiller and contributing reporter, Helene Cooper, uncovered the improper use of PowerPoint by the government and the associated costs to the audience (and taxpayers).
Bumiller reported that after seeing a PowerPoint slide meant to depict the complexity of the American military strategy in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal commented, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” Below is that slide.
Bumiller agrees that if the intent was “to portray the complexity of American military strategy," the author succeeded. However, the general’s comment shed light on two critical issues regarding this graphic:
According to the article, military commanders have serious concerns that PowerPoint “stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.” In addition, a lot of officers waste too much time creating slides:
- The author’s agenda was too obvious and potentially disrespectful to the general and those attending the debrief. The graphic focused on what the author wanted to say and not what the audience wanted to learn. If the author’s intent was to persuade the audience buy into his or her opinion, this graphic failed.
- The author did not know how to properly use PowerPoint or conceptualize their ideas into a graphic; therefore, he or she probably assumed this graphic would be effective.
The issue does not end with the U.S. Special Operations Command. Readers commented on the article and shared stories of misuse, wasted effort, and lost money thanks to PowerPoint. Below are some reader comments:
Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.
“I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens,” Lieutenant Nuxoll told the Web site. Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”
I work for the DoD, the time and effort spent on these presentations by layers of highly paid people is unreal.
—Posted on the New York Times blog on April 27th, 2010 at 9:01 am
It's not just in the military. I am an engineer working for a Fortune 100 company and a dark joke among my coworkers is how much time is spent on “PowerPoint Engineering.” While it has some good uses, much more often preparing these presentations takes too much time away from doing actual work.
—Posted on the New York Times blog on April 26th, 2010 at 10:47 pm
And I am as guilty as any of the people mentioned in the article: I just counted over 300 PowerPoint files in my laptop documents folder, all of them authored by me during a four-year period, and most of them perfectly capable of hypnotizing chickens, not to mention customers and colleagues.
—Posted on the New York Times blog on April 27th, 2010 at 8:45 am
I agree with Bumiller, there is an epidemic of PowerPoint misuse, but the problem isn’t with the software. As with any communication tool, PowerPoint requires training (or experience with insightful feedback) and smarter tools. Users must know how best to employ PowerPoint as a communication medium and convey their ideas in a clear and compelling way. Most users type bullets on a slide and add bad graphics. The outcome is what we see everyday.
The problem is not the tool; it’s the way it’s used. .... Its people without imagination or that have never seen another way to work that force everything into eight bullet points and think that is the solution.
—Posted on the New York Times blog on April 27th, 2010 at 8:57 am
The key is to learn an approach that leverages PowerPoint’s strengths using a repeatable, proven process to develop clear, communicative, and (often) compelling presentations. The methodology must be simple to learn (intuitive) and retain. Unfortunately, the vast majority of PowerPoint training only teaches presenters how to use the software’s features. Far more important is learning what to present and how best to present it.
Effective presentation training significantly reduces lost time (or, as with the military, lost lives), affects the presenter’s compensation, and saves or makes an organization thousands if not millions of dollars. It never ceases to amaze me when an organization is unwilling to invest in training for a tool that is used everyday to communicate in every way to almost everyone. However, with the mindset that anyone can do it and the lack of options available, I begin to understand why we live with bad presentations.
First, we need to understand that PowerPoint works best as visual tool. The presenter should be the focus and the slide should support him or her. The slide helps the audience understand and retain the information .
The speaker or presenter is the “star”; the PowerPoints (or other visuals) are merely aids. This relationship too often becomes reversed, with presenters merely reading slides—in business, not just the military.
—Posted on the New York Times blog on April 26th, 2010 at 10:49 pm
I’m not advocating that presenters avoid text. On the contrary, presenters should know how to combine the two. The combination of graphics and words has a communicative power that neither singularly possesses. Visually communicating ideas, concepts, information, and solutions should be the intent versus an afterthought. Proper visual communication, using text to clarify, is one of the most powerful ways to share information.
Research at 3M Corporation concluded that we process visuals 60,000 times faster than text alone. (Imagine trying to verbally or textually explain an organizational chart or a map of a hostile city. Wouldn’t visuals be far more effective?) Other studies found that the human brain deciphers image elements simultaneously, while language is decoded in a linear, sequential manner taking more time to process.
People think using pictures. John Berger, media theorist, writes in his book Ways of Seeing (Penguin Books, 1972), “Seeing comes before words … The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” Dr. Lynell Burmark, Ph.D. Associate at the Thornburg Center for Professional Development and writer of several books and papers on visual literacy, said, “… unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about 7 bits of information (plus or minus 2). ... Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched.” Therefore, it is not surprising that it is much easier to show a circle than describe it.
Once PowerPoint users understand that the program works best as a visual tool, the next step is to teach what to say and how best to show it. The following graphic summarizes the process I recommend to create better presentations. First, PowerPoint users must know what specifically needs to be communicated—P.A.Q.S.
The single biggest problem people make when giving a presentation is that they put their text on the slide. That is, they include on the slide what they are actually saying. They read their bullet points. This is a huge mistake. To add to that mistake, they leave the text slide up while they’re talking, instead of changing to a slide of a provocative, inspiring or educational image.
—Posted on the New York Times blog on April 27th, 2010 at 11:33 am
Learn more about training.
After defining their P.A.Q.S., PowerPoint users should go to the next step and create their graphic using one of the four methods—L.A.Q.S. Most users cannot render communicative graphics so they use the tools at their disposal. They insert clip art, “SmartArt Grapics,” PowerPoint charts, old presentation graphics, or graphics illegally downloaded from the Internet. The resulting visuals derail the presentation because they are amateurish, dumbed-down, cliché, and forced to fit.
Sadly, graphics are used sparingly and, when used, are usually confusing, crude, or worthless.
The best case scenario is to use a graphics expert to render your concepts. However, we do not always have the luxury to hire graphic help. In that case, I recommend using a smart tool (a tool that forces the user to use best practices) to augment the graphic options PowerPoint offers. Here are the five I recommend:
- BizGraphics On Demand (http://www.bizgraphicsondemand.com) All but a few graphics are editable in PowerPoint. Shows users powerful ways to communicate information visually.
- PresentationLoad (http://www.presentationload.com) Many graphics are editable in PowerPoint.
- iStockPhoto.com (http://www.istockphoto.com) Graphics are not editable in PowerPoint. Best used to find supporting photographs, icons, and symbols.
- Dreamstime.com (http://www.dreamstime.com) Graphics are not editable in PowerPoint. Best used to find supporting photographs, icons, and symbols.
- Visio (http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/visio/default.aspx) Compatible with PowerPoint. Best for network architecture diagrams and other simple diagrams. Beware: This tool is misused the same way PowerPoint can be misused.
Is PowerPoint the enemy as Bumiller suggested? No. Presenters who improperly use the software are the enemy. But there is hope! We can neutralize these PowerPoint abusers by teaching them the proper techniques and how to use the proper tools to communicate their ideas. PowerPoint is most effective as a visual medium and, thanks to many innovative solutions, we never need to experience a bad presentation again. With proper training and access to supportive resources, anyone can create effective presentations that succinctly communicate their objectives and solve their audience’s problems—and maybe finally show us how to win the war.
Cool Information Graphics
In my web searches I have found several websites with interesting, educational, and persuasive information graphics. Here are a few well worth a click:
- Death and Taxes (Graphical representation of federal budget. A unique look at our national priorities, that fluctuate yearly, according to the wishes of the President, the power of Congress, and the will of the people.)
- Growth Explosions (Watch the growth of Walmart and Sam's Club.)
- US Supreme Court at a Glance (A Visual History of the Supreme Court of the United States)
- Music and Piracy (The Music Industry and Online Piracy, infographic by the numbers)
- DIY Infographic (Create your own infographic. No English required.)
- Color and Culture (A visualisation of the meanings of different colours in different cultures.)
- Celebrating Differences (A visual comparison of the cultural differences between Germans and Chinese.)
- Fire and Ice (A Visual Tour of What’s Hot or Not in the Universe)
Master PowerPoint: Attend the 2010 Presentation Summit
Do not miss the 2010 Presentation Summit (formerly PowerPoint Live) on October 17-20 in Pacific Beach, San Diego. This year the Presentation Summit heads to the West Coast to the picturesque Catamaran Resort Hotel, two blocks from the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, on a private bayside setting. Get information, insight, inspiration, and an amazing conference experience that you will remember forever.
The Presentation Summit is not a web conference and it is not a big trade show. It is a user conference where people attend in order to learn how to become better content creators, better presentation designers, better presenters, and better users of PowerPoint. They leave with a much broader and deeper understanding of the principles and best practices for presentation design, creation, and delivery.
Every detail about this conference is designed for and dedicated to the end user and his or her pursuits to become more capable, more creative, and more productive in the field of presentations.
I am happy to announce that I will be giving a seminar at this year's Presentation Summit. Do not wait until the conference is full, make your arrangements now!
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