In our line of work, many of us spend a fair amount of time on our feet communicating with an audience - facilitating a game cell, moderating in the conference center, briefing a sponsor, leading a workshop, etc. Often these activities involve the use of visual media, more often than not PowerPoint, but also white boards, Post-It notes, butcher block, i2 Text Chart, smart boards, etc. The intent of using visual media is to make our presentation, our message, more impactful or to help audiences see and understand information in a more effective manner. We’ve been visually communicating since the first prehistoric painting on a cave wall.
And yet too often the modern default is to build a heavily text-bulleted PowerPoint brief which actually detracts from the effectiveness of the presentation (as your audience cannot listen and read at the same time) – in fact, it’s no longer a presentation, but rather a projected document, or ‘slideocument.’ These are often introduced with the words, “I know you can’t read this but (I’m going to show it to you anyway)”, or “I’ll let you read this on your own (but I’m going to keep talking at you while you try).” There’s a reason there’s no project function in Microsoft Word.
Decrying the tyranny of PowerPoint is nothing new, yet we seem powerless to do anything about it, or rather, unwilling. In her book, Slide:ology, Nancy Duarte outlines the basics of graphic and visual design intended to improve the effectiveness of presentations using software like PowerPoint or Keynote such that its use enlightens the audience rather than being a crutch for the presenter (or ‘PowerPoint as Teleprompter’).
Duarte challenges what has become the standard PowerPoint format – repetitive logos (why actually do we need the command patch on every slide?), fussy backgrounds, mismatched clipart, dense text, sub-sub-sub bullets, random color use, distracting animation – and in its place offers techniques to develop visuals that add clarity and impact to the speaker’s message.
It’s not easy to break the bullet habit, and many of my own presentations could benefit from a visual make-over; but here’s a simple way to revise a PowerPoint brief:
1. Pull just about all text into the speaker's notes. If it’s that important that your audience has something to read, then take the time to flesh out your speaker notes as a Word document handout.
2. Make any remaining images as big as possible. If it’s worth putting on a slide, it’s worth having the audience be able to see it.
3. Ask if the big image really adds any value. This tends to eliminate cute clipart.
4. If there's nothing left on the slide, that’s OK. This is your cue to fade to white (or black), i.e. have a blank screen. There's no reason there has to be something on the screen 100% of the time.
If you end up with all blank slides, then what purpose was PowerPoint actually serving?
War gaming can produce powerful insights, but PowerPoint can kill that message when used badly. We owe it to our sponsors to present our findings in the most informative, persuasive manner possible, using the right tool, the right way, for the right message.
While death and taxes may be inevitable, death by PowerPoint is not.