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Dice with death by presentation

Dice with death by presentation

PowerPoint is a ubiquitous presence. Yet stand-out presentations are few and far between. It needn't be this way.

When a crime is committed, the perpetrator is punished, but when the presenter commits the crime with PowerPoint, it is the audience who is punished. We are punished every time we sit through a poorly designed presentation, with odd colours, a surfeit of corporate logos and hard-to-read text disjointed by bullet points. We then go on to commit the same crime ourselves, with the same poorly designed presentations. As well as punishing our audiences, we also fail to achieve our aim, which is to inform and persuade.

The PowerPoint presentation is a ubiquitous presence in meetings, workshops and conferences. Yet stand-out presentations are few and far between. It does not have to be that way. Here are some simple tips to keep you on the PowerPoint straight and narrow.

Banish bullet points. A list of bullet points is the most widely used format in presentations, and the least useful for information transfer.

One reason for this is that complex ideas rarely break down into six or so sequential segments. Bullet points do not show relationships among items. And they are often overloaded with words, making them hard to read or understand.

Instead, use shapes - ovals or rectangles with one or two words in each - to show important ideas and relationships.

Use pictures and diagrams. A good graphic will hold the audience's attention much more than a clutter of words, and will be remembered long after the words are forgotten. If you tell an interesting story around the picture, so much the better.

Lose the logos. A presentation is a series of displays, each conveying an idea. The aim of each display is to communicate with the audience, but many displays become cluttered by corporate logos and the corporate "look" - to the extent that more than a third of the space does not change from slide to slide.

The information is usually lost in the corporate clutter. Presenters should use a plain colour instead. Put the corporate logo on the title slide and the last slide. If you must include the logo on each slide, use a reduced version in one corner.

Avoid "death by PowerPoint". This deadly phenomenon is when there are so many displays in a presentation that the audience feels like killing itself rather than endure yet another slide.

A good rule of thumb is to plan for at least two minutes per slide - which means a 30-minute presentation has at most 15 slides. Two minutes is sufficient to explain and digest the important idea in the slide. If the idea is not important enough to spend two minutes on, delete it.

Handouts are out. It is common practice to supply handouts, printed as three slides to a page with lines for notes next to them. Do not bother. The slides are too small to see well; no one makes notes; and most of these end up in the recycling bin. Instead, give a web address where the audience can download a PDF version.

The focus of your presentation should be on you and the story you are telling. This means engaging your audience, and using the presentation as an aid, not as an end in itself. You know this is a problem when people fail to attend and just ask for the slides - now you are no longer presenting but simply acting as a page-turner for a document on screen.

This leads to the question: Do you need a PowerPoint presentation at all? There is a big difference between a page-turner and a presenter. The presenter is a persuader, a convincer, a storyteller; the page-turner is often a monotone drone.

Ask yourself whether your story needs multiple slides with text. Your audience can read, but it can also listen. Maybe the visuals are just four or five well-chosen images around which you weave your story. Maybe it is just one diagram that illustrates the relationships you describe.

A picture may be worth 1000 words but 1000 words in a picture is a guaranteed way to lose your audience.

Three executives share their PowerPoint tips

Bob Adhar

Chief executive, data protection company Randtronics

As someone presenting almost every day to a wide range of groups from 500-person industry conferences to one-on-ones with customers, PowerPoint is a regular feature of these meetings.

But not always, because not everyone responds well to PowerPoint presentations. I limit the points on the slides to one or two. I try to use the minimum number of slides and minimum amount of time to convey my message. Everyone hates overly long presentations that run out of time. I make the effort to customise my presentation to the allotted time, and allow time for questions. If I'm given 30 minutes, I usually only present for 15 minutes. The cardinal error is reading out the content of slides. I aim to make my spoken word add value to the slides.

Andrew Staite

Managing director, executive search firm Staite Henningsen Klein

Larger audiences, greater formality and detailed facts play well for PowerPoint, whereas smaller gatherings and anecdotal subject matter play better without it. Often I present to small groups in a boardroom environment and PowerPoint can be too formal and structured. Flying without the "safety net" of PowerPoint tends to promote discussion and audience involvement. If I'm presenting to a larger group and trying to get key points across, PowerPoint is a great tool to catch people's attention and reinforce the main messages. With so many features these days, you can incorporate catchy graphics, videos or quotes to drive the message home and also keep people interested during longer presentations. A PowerPoint presentation should have short, punchy bullet points and, depending on the audience, eye-catching graphics. It should never have a large amount of text and the presenter should ­­­never read from the presentation.

Andrew Field

Chief financial officer, ASX-listed internet services company Melbourne IT

I use PowerPoint for more formal presentations. If I am presenting to a group of analysts or investors, I would use PowerPoint to give my presentation structure and to reinforce key messages. If I am speaking in a more casual environment, I don't use PowerPoint. If I am presenting an update at one of our monthly staff briefings, I would be more likely to speak off the cuff. Less is more and I don't read from the slides. I prefer to keep the text on the slide succinct then talk to the slide in more detail when I am presenting. I also like to use simple diagrams and examples as trigger points for discussion. It is important to outline the structure of your presentation upfront and to conclude with a strong summary.

Dr Robert Lake is the principal of Brisbane performance management consultancy NovumAVI.

Fairfax Business Media

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