How NOT to use PowerPoint: 6 ways to better presentations

My friend Shel Horowitz shared a very funny video on Facebook last week called “Life After Death by Powerpoint – 2010.” In it, former high-tech engineer turned comedian Don McMillan gives a side-splitting and spot-on breakdown on where many PowerPoint users go wrong…in some cases, horribly wrong.

This guy is guilty of a cardinal sin of PowerPoint: far too many words on one slide. (Flickr slide: Some rights reserved by mafflong)

• Too many words. The fastest way to send your audience into a coma is to fill your PowerPoint slides with words. Do not put your whole speech onto PowerPoint and then read it from there. Although your audience may not groan aloud when you start presenting slide after slide filled with full sentences, believe me, they are groaning inside. And because you’re reading the slides, you’ll lose all connection with the audience. Reading from slides is no better than reading word for word from your script; both are deadly sins for presenters.

Instead, reinforce your key messages with bullet points. And by “key messages” I mean your very most important points. Not every idea that comes out of your mouth is worthy of putting on a slide. Use short bullet points and don’t use too many of them per slide. I’d recommend three to four short bullet points per slide.

• When it comes to fonts, size does matter. How large is the room you’re going to be presenting in? Will people in the back row be able to read your slides? Nothing is more annoying than to be sitting through a presentation without being able to see what’s on the slides. I think most people who use tiny, unreadable font sizes are doing so in an effort to cram as much information on each slide as possible, thus abusing my first point above (and abusing their audience as well). Don’t make this mistake.

• Overuse of graphs. As McMillan very humorously illustrates in his video, there is such a thing as too many graphs. After a while – and a short while at that – they start to become meaningless. Just because you can make a graph, doesn’t mean you should. Breaking up a series of graphs with some slides with bullet points may help break the monotony, but overall, limit the number of graphs you present to those that are truly meaningful and important.

• More isn’t necessarily better. I cringe when I get some PowerPoint presentations sent to me that have 50 or 60 slides. Seriously, folks, unless you’re doing something as serious as making a presentation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on how to invade another country, there is no reason to put that much detail into any PowerPoint presentation!

Having to click on the next slide every 30 seconds takes away your concentration from your audience, which is where it belongs.

• Proofread, proofread, proofread. This is my personal bugaboo. I get to see a lot of PowerPoint presentations that my clients send me to provide background information on topics I’m writing about for them. Time after time, I come across typos in PowerPoint decks I know they’ve been showing to their clients or other audiences. If you take time to create a great PowerPoint presentation, the least you can do is proofread it carefully. Have someone who hasn’t seen it a thousand times like you have proofread it for you. They are more apt to catch errors than you are.

• Switch things up now and then. It’s refreshing now and then when a presenter relies on old-fashioned media like flip charts. Not every presentation requires a PowerPoint deck. Sometimes less really is more. When you’re not dependent on technology, you can often inter-relate with your audience better.

Sometimes as I listen to a presentation, I find myself wishing the speaker had put as much effort into the actual content of their speech that they did into creating a fancy, whiz-bang PowerPoint presentation! Don’t be that person who makes your audience think such thoughts.

2 comments

  1. Maff Long says:

    Lot's of good points, but I'd disagree on putting a limit on the number of slides.
    Using more allows you to put less on each slide!
    I'd suggest your recommendation of 4 bullet-points per slide is too many. Just make one point per slide. That way the audience can glance at the slide and shift their focus back to you.
    If you have more bullet points per slide – your audience will be looking at the next point before you have finished talking about the first.
    If the new slides support your point (visually is best – keep the word count down) then they will not distract – unless you make them distracting, like having animated slides, or shocking images!

    • JeanneYocum says:

      Thanks for your comment, Maff. I think a lot of this depends on the content of your presentation. In some cases, if you are going to be talking about a point for three or four minutes or longer, then one point per slide works. But if you're going to only be saying a sentence or two more about a point than what is already on the slides, having one point per slide means that you're going to be clicking through slides at a fairly rapid pace. For your audience, this turns it into sort of a tennis match where they're heads are moving back and forth all the time…which, I contend, isn't good for holding their attention.

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