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How to Escape PowerPoint Purgatory

by Guest on October 15, 2012

You are ushered into a semi dark room, the screen before you glows ominously and you can feel your shoulders slump involuntarily as you shuffle sideways to your seat. The first slide is produced with multiple rows of tiny text, followed by a complex diagram with colour that is burnt onto your retina and bullet point by bullet point, you begin to slowly succumb to ‘Death by PowerPoint’.


This scenario is reproduced daily in boardrooms, training rooms and conferences all over Australia. At best it is annoying and may induce prolonged somnolence, at worst it causes cognitive overload and reduces information retention.
PowerPoint was introduced as part of the Microsoft Office package over 21 years ago and it revolutionised the way we deliver presentations. We no longer need the hand written overheads or to spend up to $8 per slide to have them professionally produced. PowerPoint provides us the software to prepare our own slides quickly and easily with the only cost being our time.

Slowly, slide by slide PowerPoint took over our presentations and changed the way we communicate. These days when you ask someone to give a talk the first thing they do is open their laptop and start punching away at slides. But is using PowerPoint the best way to communicate our message?

One of the first people to openly criticise PowerPoint was Edward Tufte, an American statistician and Professor Emeritus of statistics, information design, interface design, and political economy at Yale University. In his article ‘The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching out corrupts within’ Tufte states that “Slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations” and that
“Popular PowerPoint templates usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning” He goes on to criticise the PowerPoint presentations by NASA engineers suggesting that their ambiguity contributed to the events that lead to the Columbia Disaster.

Professor John Sweller from the University of NSW conducted his own research. He quizzed students after talking to them about a particular subject; he then repeated the experiment including text on a PowerPoint slide and found that the subjects achieved a lower score. His conclusions were that showing text on a screen and talking to the audience simultaneously produces cognitive overload. He concludes with a strong statement “the use of PowerPoint has been a disaster, it should be ditched”

So where does that leave us? Do we ban PowerPoint presentations altogether as Scott McNealy the Chairman of Sun Microsystems famously did in 1997?
PowerPoint however does have its supporters. Other schools of thought suggest it is the user and not the tool that is the problem. Richard E Mayer Professor of psychology at the University of California suggests that the use of PowerPoint with pictures can be effective as people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. Cliff Atkinson in his book ‘Beyond Bullet Points’ (Published by Microsoft Press) believes in the power of stories and that by applying a three step process: script, storyboard and production, you can go beyond bullet points and produce engaging and memorable presentations.

Lucy Thompson a Microsoft Office Specialist Master Instructor, says the problem lies in the fact that we try and make PowerPoint be all things to all people. “The slides are used as a teleprompter, visual aid as well as a handout. A lot of problems would be rectified by using PowerPoint as a visual tool only, providing a handout and creating your own notes as a prompt for your presentation.”
From my experience in facilitating workshops on presenting with PowerPoint I find that there are two main challenges. The first challenge is that people fear presenting and because they are not confident in their material they use PowerPoint as a teleprompter or crutch. The second challenge is information overload. This occurs when presenters don’t know what is important so they put everything up on the slide in an attempt to cover all bases.
Both these problems can be overcome by getting back to basics and following these simple steps.

10 ways to beat PowerPoint into submission

Start with the basics
1. Set your objectives – What do you want your audience to do say think or feel as a result of this presentation?

2. Research your audience – what is it they need/want to know about this topic?

3. Develop your topic – use mind mapping to flesh out your topic delete everything that is not relevant to your objective or audience.

4. Structure your presentation – Develop an introduction, cover 3 main points in the body and conclude with a summary and a call to action.

5. Decide what is the best way for delivering your message? – Do I need to use PowerPoint? Would a workshop, discussion or role-play work best?

…then focus on your delivery

6. Stories sell facts tell – Include anecdotes, metaphors and stories so people can visualise your message.

7. Reduce text – never use text when a graph or photo will do

8. Reduce slides – With every slide ask your self ‘is this adding to or detracting from my message?’

9. Passionate people persuade – ensure you take centre stage and allow your passion to show

10. Use the ‘B’ key frequently – By blacking out the screen you bring the focus back onto you and the audience which encourages interaction and reflection.

So be brave… get your PowerPoint slides back to what they should be – a visual tool only. Step out from behind the screen, take a big breath, smile and engage your audience – after all they have come to see you the speaker not the PowerPoint computer show.

Sharon Ferrier

This article has been printed in the Australian Institute of Training and Development magazine Training and Development in Australia as well as issue four of RTO Management
Sharon Ferrier, through her business ‘Persuasive Presentations’ consults to organisations and individuals who have a need to improve their communication, presentation skills and confidence in public speaking. Her ‘Escaping PowerPoint Purgatory’ workshops run for either a full or half day and can be tailored to meet your teams needs.

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