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Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…

Tom Salinsky writes...

 Some things which the worst presenters do seem baffling at first, until you remember that people don’t like being looked-at, and then suddenly they seem sane again. People adopt behaviour which is comfortable, sometimes even after having been told repeatedly it isn’t effective.

One very common strategy, which affects presentations from the moment the writing starts until the second that you leave the platform, is to take a PowerPoint-first approach. Now, pretty much any presentations coach will tell you that Death By PowerPoint is not an effective strategy. Here are some quotes which I found in about sixty seconds by typing “presentation tips” into Google.

  • “Slides with words on are of limited value. If you seem to have a lot you may find you are showing your audience your speaker notes!” –
  • “The audience isn’t there to read your slides, they are there to listen to you present.” –
  • “Do not torture your audience by putting a lengthy document in tiny print on an overhead and reading it out to them.” –
  • “Please remember to never, ever turn your back on the audience and read text from the slide word for word.” –
  • “Include 4-5 points per slide” –

So, pretty much everyone knows that you aren’t supposed to fill your PowerPoint slides with text and then stand in front of the audience and read those slides out. The question which seems to be less often asked is – if everyone knows this, why does it still happen so frequently? The answer is partly the problem outlined above, and partly that most people don’t understand how PowerPoint slides can be used effectively. They don’t have a sense of when they are redundant, when they are an asset, when they are essential.

Very prescriptive tips like “include 4-5 points per slide” or “Use 1-2 slides per minute of your presentation” I think are wildly unhelpful. How can that advice be applicable for every presentation now delivered or yet to be written? I spent some time recently coaching a team of architects to help them to improve their win-rate at formal pitches (it worked!). In a thirty-minute pitch, about twenty minutes would be taken up by the lead architect talking the client through the proposed building. This could require around forty slides, each showing a different aspect of the building, or a different angle. Click, click, click. The slides really were the presentation; the visuals were essential to communicate the firm’s vision of the project. On the other hand, when the MD opened the presentation and talked about the company history and how they proposed to manage the financing and so on, I gave him one slide with his name on it, because what was important here was that he looked supremely in control of the interaction, and no slide would have added any relevant detail or would have helped the audience’s understanding in any way.

Both of these are slightly extreme examples. More typically, PowerPoint slides have two key uses, and many presentations can be enhanced by careful use of them.

  • To act as “signposts” letting the audience know where they are within the presentation and to emphasise key points
  • To display information which is better communicated visually, such as a graph.

Other uses are certainly possible (smart, attractively-designed slides can subtly enhance your reputation for example) but these two uses are key. Regrettably, PowerPoint presentations are not usually designed with the needs of the audience in mind. Most people write their presentations directly into PowerPoint, so that what the audience sees, as the Impact Factory tells us, is the speaker’s notes. Terrible presenters then laboriously read these notes out, almost word-for-word, which is excruciating. Bad presenters talk around the points on the slide, but at best this confuses the audience who are reading one thing and hearing another, slightly different version of the same thing. At worst, it seems as if there are two totally independent presentations taking place, one visual and one auditory. Having slides which are just pictures from a copyright-free photo library while you talk (a picture of a waiter while you talk about customer service, that kind of thing) only emphasises this impression.

You need to recognise that the slides are not there to do your job for you. More than that, you need to understand that by writing the slides first you create the task of “designing a suitable audio commentary for this slide show”. But that puts the cart before the horse. I tell my workshop attendees: keep away from PowerPoint until you’ve decided what it is you want to say. Then you can decide which words, phrases, quotations, images, diagrams or logos would be appropriate to illustrate it, punctuate and help your audience keep on track. Dare to make the presentation about you, and let the slides move in to the background.

Exception to the usual rule – when quoting someone else, put the whole quotation up on the screen and read it out word-for-word. This emphasises that these are not your words. Presenters who read everything off the screen may be subconsciously trying to distance themselves from the presentation and so move out of the spotlight. But briefly distancing yourself in this way is perfectly appropriate if you are quoting someone else.


March 10th, 2014 - This post has no comments. - Tags: ,

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