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PowerPoints that don’t suck

May 25, 2011

The ubiquitous ‘PowerPoint’ program seems to invite abuse from even the most well-meaning of presenters.

One of the reasons is that content which should live comfortably on a palm card, ends up on a projector. Ah, remember palm cards? They’re of the same vintage as library catalogue cards – I know, because catalogue cards were a handy, pre-cut option when preparing speeches.  

Anyway, when palm cards went the way of microfiche machines, it left an unfortunate legacy. People now use PowerPoint to help themselves deliver a speech, not as a visual aid for their audience. This is fundamentally wrong, and it’s what leads to that painful condition known as ‘Death by PowerPoint’.

The key to preparing a slide deck is this: you want it to help your audience focus – not to be the focus. You don’t want the audience reading along or ahead, because that means they’re not concentrating on what you’re saying. 

Now, I don’t claim to be a PowerPoint guru (surely no-one would claim that, because they’d get stuck doing them). But I can list some of the most common slide-deck sins – and how to avoid them.

Slide Sin #1 – Forgetting about the ‘Speaking Notes’ section. This wonderful section gives you all the space in the world to write detailed speaking notes. Use it as a prompt, and keep your public slides clutter-free.

Slide Sin #2 – Baring it all too quickly. Perhaps you think adding animation is hard work (and it can be). However, revealing small blocks of text, or one idea at a time, is less distracting and gives you time to make your point. Just don’t go crazy with animations, and ensure the presenter is well-acquainted with where they appear.

Slide Sin #3Telling instead of showing. If you can use pictures, diagrams or graphs to communicate a point, then do so. Simply repeating what you are saying verbally, with long tracts of text, is annoying.

Slide Sin #4 – Making slides double as handouts. Some people want to provide a memory prompt – something the audience can keep for reference – so they design slides with lots of detail. But if you want handouts, design some, and share them afterwards. Don’t make your slides do double-duty – you’ll end up compromising them.

Slide Sin #5 – Crappy pictures – I’m all for using images, but make sure they’re decent. Low-res, poor-quality pics can bring down the tone of your presentation. Professional image libraries are low-cost, have a huge range, and don’t come with copyright question-marks.

In the end, you need to ask: are you designing your PowerPoint for your audience, or yourself? If you’re not sure, go down to Officeworks, buy yourself some catalogue cards, and get cracking on your palm cards.

NB: this post first appeared on I presented the key points to a client yesterday, and thought it was worth reviving.

I’d also like to add that I saw Obama speaking at the State Dinner hosted by Queen last night, and he had cracked out the palm cards for the occasion. Awesome.


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