Powerpoint and other popular presentation software can be a powerful communication tool if used properly. Yet time after time and meeting after meeting people are committing presentation sins so bad they are sure to put even the best audience to sleep.
I have been in many meetings like this and a few popular sins rear their ugly head almost every time. Here is my top five list that I’ve had the pleasure of sitting through.
1. The Cram. People with a lot of information tend to cram this data on one slide for everyone to see. Instead of giving us the main points, every last bit of data is listed bullet point after bullet point. Since this data will not fit with the usual font size, they end up making the font very tiny. I’ve seen slides with 10 or 12 bullet points and line after line of text. Text this small can be overwhelming to read and it is very hard on the eyes.
Jerry Weissman, in his book Presenting to Win calls this the “Presentation as Document Syndrome.” When presenters fail to distinguish between a document and a presentation, they will take their most densely populated document right into Powerpoint. It may have highly detailed tables and charts along with very crowded text. While this may work well in a document, it fails miserably on the screen.
2. Speed Reader. When a presenter has a lot of detailed bullet points, they will invariably stand back and read each slide to you. For some reason they think that you couldn’t possibly read the text so they read it for you. Line after line, point after point.
If they have a lot of slides they will speed up and read faster. It’s like a chapter out of Evelyn Wood’s Reading Dynamics speed reading course. As author Cliff Atkinson points out in his book, Beyond Bullet Points, the most common audience response to this situation is…
“If you are just going to read me the slides, why do I need to be here? Just e-mail them to me!”
Showing and reading text filled bullet points undermines the purpose of presentations. People attend presentations to learn about a subject as it is explained by another person. When you read the bullet points, the slide is doing the talking… not you.
3. Cookie Cutter. Powerpoint comes with a limited set of backgrounds and text fonts. Most of the presentations that I sit through use one of these backgrounds and the accompanying stock text. If you have seen one, you’ve seen them all. The thin white Verdana font against a blue background is readable… but boring.
Some presenters try to get around this by using every available font in different sizes and colors. This hodge podge will certainly liven things up for one slide but will be agonizing to view slide after slide. Your mind likes a sense of uniformity and too many fonts can be agonizing.
The rule here is… if it is built in to Powerpoint, your audience has probably seen it before. Invest in some creative Powerpoint templates to overcome this template familiarity syndrome.
4. The Wow Factor. In an attempt to make hundreds of bullet points more interesting, many presenters try to liven things up with animation. They will have each bullet point fly in from the side or bounce in from the bottom. To wake you up from your slumber they will even add sound effects as the text ricochets off the side of the slide.
The effect of this is frustration on your part. You can’t read ahead and you have to wait for each line to tediously find its way to a stopping point so you can finally read it. This can really be a problem if the presenter gets behind. To move ahead they will blast through line after line of text. You couldn’t read it if you wanted too.
Subtle animations can be effective, but the rule here is… a little goes a long ways.
5. Using Powerpoint At All. I’ve been involved with public speaking through an organization called Toastmasters for over 10 years. I’ve seen numerous speeches and some incredibly compelling presentations. I have also seen some of these presentations ruined by the ineffective use of Powerpoint. Sitting through a presentation where the presenter is not comfortable with the software and doesn’t know how to control the slides can be agonizing to watch.
Powerpoint should enhance your presentation, not take center stage. You should be the center of attention. When used properly, a visual slideshow can give clarity and comprehension to your message. The rule of thumb here is simple, if Powerpoint will not enhance your message or if you are not comfortable with it… don’t use it.
These are some of the common mistakes I’ve seen over the years. I’ve made many of them myself and have learned the hard way that a professional presentation is not as easy as it looks. Toastmasters has been a great help in practicing the art of presentation. If you need help with your presentations, find a Toastmasters club nearby and visit sometime.
In a following segment we’ll focus on the presentation itself. We’ll talk about removing the bullet points, adding pictures, and preparing a memorable presentation that inspires and motivates.