Monday 27 January 2020

Gina London: Six ways you can prevent 'Death by PowerPoint'

Meeting Room with White Screen Ready for a Presentation
Meeting Room with White Screen Ready for a Presentation

Gina London

As the taxi turns onto Congress Street toward my hotel, I look out the window and see the state capitol. "Wow. The building looks just like Washington's capitol where I used to work," I remark. "Yeah," agrees my driver. "But ours is bigger."

Ah yes, if you haven't guessed by now, I'm spending the week in Austin. In Texas. Where everything is bigger than anywhere else. The reason I'm deep in the heart of Texas is because I'm hosting a two-day conference put on by one of my favourite clients, CompTIA, the world's leading technology association. Over a thousand IT professionals are here to learn the latest on cybersecurity, IoT, the Cloud and an array of other tech topics.

There are dozens of speakers with dozens of slide presentations. Many slide decks support and add to the spoken words of the presenter. Yet some, sadly, are still made in such a way as to distract and detract from the presenter's message. If 'Death by PowerPoint' is a cliché and we should know better, why are there those who still insist on killing us? Maybe you're not killing your audience, but if you're putting them to sleep, you're not connecting.

So, I'm enlisting the insights of my taxi driver, along with expert advice from Adam Tratt, chief executive of Haiku Deck, to help you make your next presentation look as brilliant as you sound. Incidentally, Haiku Deck is an alternative platform to PowerPoint I find extremely beautiful and easy-to-use (and which is not paying me to recommend it).

There are a few other alternatives I've tried, like Emaze and Prezi and those I haven't like Apple Keynote and Visme. Whatever you use to create your visual content, here's a list of Dos and Don'ts. Let's start with the one from my Texan taxi driver.

1 Do think big: If you want to be as proud of your next slide deck as he clearly was of his city's capitol building, then thinking big is a good start. Make your pictures bigger. Consider stretching an image across the entire screen and put your words over it. Make your words big too. Go for the largest font size you can. When you aim for impact, you'll zap your audience out of their anticipated boredom.

2 Do keep it simple: Problems occur when you try to cram too much on a single slide. An organisation once sent me a deck to present from that, as they put it, was great "because there are only eight slides." But each of those slides was filled with about a hundred bullet points. That's not great. That's overcomplicated. I knew my audience wouldn't be listening to me. They would be reading ahead over my shoulder. By adding more slides - with just one point each - I could better control the room. This is the basic principle of Haiku Deck. Adam explains it this way: "The number one mistake presenters make is creating 'text wall of death' slides. Your audience has the choice of either listening to the words coming out of your mouth or they can read your slides. Limiting the number of words you put on the screen is a critical success factor."

3 Do make two versions: In cases where you may feel compelled to create an in-depth, information-heavy slide deck, like to capital investors or a prospective employer, I encourage clients to go ahead and make it. But, also make a shorter, more visual version and use this for your actual presentation. After you're finished, hand out your longer version as a take-home for your audience to review and reflect upon.

Now to some don'ts:

1 Don't use over-detailed charts: A few years ago, the US Army produced a PowerPoint slide to try to explain the situation in Afghanistan. The slide was such a mind-boggling, spaghetti tangle that one general quipped: "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war." If you create a chart depicting your company's quarterly financials which you can't easily understand yourself, better to simply bullet-point a few takeaways in your slide deck and hand out the financial charts as supplements to study - after you finish speaking.

2 Don't read your slides: How many times have you seen a presenter take to the stage only to turn away from the audience to stand and read verbatim what's typed on the screen? Nobody comes to a presentation to hear a book on tape. Instead, try making many slides with a single picture or a single word to help prompt you what to say next.

3 Don't forget the emotion: Too many presenters fail to create an emotional response from their listeners because they're not using slides to help them tell stories. Adam emphasises, "Science shows that when presenters tell stories and make information more relatable, their audience is more likely to engage and remember. Spend time focusing on why your idea is important and why your audience should care. Once you've done that, the 'what' part of the presentation carries greater significance."

Like my conference in Austin, people still come together face-to-face, because we're human beings who like to engage socially. In-person business presentations are here to stay. Adam points out: "Live music didn't go away with recorded music. Live theatre didn't go away with the coming of film and TV. There's something soulful about being together to share ideas in real life."

And since we're sharing about real life, I researched it, and yes, Austin's capitol building is indeed bigger than the one in Washington -but it's not the biggest in the US. That honour belongs to Louisiana. Somebody tell my driver.


How do you make your presentation slides? Let Gina know in care of Gina London is a former CNN anchor and international campaign strategist who is now a director with Fuzion Communications. She serves as media commentator, emcee and corporate consultant. @TheGinaLondon

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