The Fine Art of a Proper Powerpoint

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These days, I almost always speak without notes of any kind, much less a Powerpoint.  No, I am not in one of the legions of people who think that Powerpoint is the tool of the devil--it can be an incredibly effective tool.  But it can also become a terrible crutch.  Consultants often start using it the way that beginning cooks use cajun spice powders--too much of it, for everything.  A friend whose department was taken over by two refugees from AT Kearney reported that one of the former consultants walked up behind her as she was preparing a five-bullet to-do list for the woman who was covering for her while she went on vacation.


"What are you doing?" asked Mr. Manager.

"I am preparing a five-bullet to-do list for the woman who is covering for me while I go on vacation," she explained.

He pondered this.  He nodded slowly.  He mused some more.  Then, finally, the pronouncement:

"That's great.  Just put it in a deck and cc: me on the email."

Yes, she spent an additional half-hour putting her to-do list into Powerpoint.  It probably took her a little longer than strictly necessary because she made sure to choose a tastefully showy slide theme and use all the animated gifs and fly-in transitions she could fit into five short slides.

He loved it.

But non-consultants are even worse, as Mark Kleiman points out in his notes to presenters at academic conferences:

1. Most of the audience either has a Ph.D. or is about to get one. 2. It is extremely hard to get a doctorate without finishing college.

3. Colleges rarely accept students without high school diplomas.

4. Before graduating from high school it is necessary to pass the third grade.

5. Passing the third grade requires being able to read.

6. Therefore, almost all of your audience knows how to read.

7. That makes it completely unnecessary - not to say outrageously annoying - to read your f*cking slides out loud. Slides should complement, not duplicate, your verbal presentation.
Stop snickering, business people; you're almost as bad.  And, no, it is not an excuse that you made the type on your slides too small for most of the audience to read.

Used correctly, Powerpoint is a great tool.  It allows you to present data quite powerfully.  It allows you to make visual jokes that give the audience some probably much-needed comic relief.  It allows you to present a modest amount of text without forcing the audience to listen to you describe what a column of pro's and cons sounds like.  

The problem is, Powerpoint is almost never used correctly.  It's usually used as lecture notes.  If you must have these, they go on index cards, spread across the podium.  They do not go on the screen because if they did, why the hell didn't you just email the presentation to the audience and let them read it in a comfy chair?

I've seen a lot of presentations by this phase in my life, and while there are a lot of things that make for better Powerpoints, the most important is this:  at all times, you should be looking at the audience, not at the screen.  There are only two times you are allowed to look at the screen:

1.  When there is a slide transition, so you can make sure you're on the right slide
2.  When you are pointing to something on the screen with a laser pointer or whatever.

That's it.  The rest of the time, look at your audience.

What? That's too hard?  That's not because it's impossible to give a talk that way; it's because you're doing it wrong.  I know, that's really harsh, and it's going to make some people angry who have difficulty talking without reading aloud.  I'm really sympathetic--every time I get up in front of a group of two hundred people who are planning to listen to me talk for an hour and a half, my heart quails.  But this sort of thing is the reason that most of the talks given in the world are terrible.  It's time we all gave each other some tough love.

In general, if you are not looking at your audience more than 90% of the time (really, I'd say 95%, but let's be generous), then two things are almost always true.  First, you didn't prepare enough--you are not intimately familiar with your notes or slides.  And second, you are not giving a good talk, and your audience wishes it would stop.  Listening to people read from their notes or their slides is considerably less interesting than listening to a five-year-old read from "My Pet Goat"--at least the five-year old is really trying.

Your notes and slides are something you glance at to orient yourself in the flow of the material ("What comes next?  Right: the reorganization of the Chinese steel industry.)  They should not be the material.  The material is in your head.  

Look, the reason someone asked you to give a talk is probably that you know a lot about the subject.  We hope that means that you find the subject exciting.  That's the important thing to communicate to the audience--your excitement.  It is much less important that you give them a 100% orderly and complete rendition of the 1935 court challenge to the National Industrial Recovery Act, and much more important that you tell them what you think about it and why this matters.    If there is a lot of material to cover, put it in the slides, or give people handouts--they love browsing while you talk.  If there are little confusions, they will get cleared up in Q&A (provided your moderator shuts down the speeches, as they should).  

The reason that it doesn't matter whether you are perfectly complete and orderly is that people aren't going to remember your whole talk.  They are going to remember whether you got them interested in the subject--whether you convinced them it matters.  They are going to remember the general flow--did it have massive, ugly logical holes, or make confusing references to facts not in evidence?--and one or two facts.  And they are going to remember anything you said that was engaging or funny--which you are much more likely to do if you are relaxed and looking at them, than if you are staring at the screen, or the seven sheets of 8.5X11 that you brought.

Staring at the audience has another benefit--you can tell if you're losing them.  When your talk is having impact, people get quiet--they're looking at you.  When people are bored or confused, you can see it, and either explain yourself better, or say, "I could talk about this all day, but you guys look like you're ready to gang rush the stage, so let's move on to a really important aspect of this, which is . . . "

But if you're looking at them, you're much less likely to lose them; we pay attention to people who make eye contact.  If you get nervous looking out at all those faces, remember one thing: they're rooting for you.  Yes, even most of the obnoxious teenagers. They want to hear a good talk; they don't want to sit there and be bored for an hour.  And because most people are nice, most people would like to find out that you're capable of giving a good talk.  You've got a lot of goodwill out there.  Build it up; don't squander it by engaging with your slides instead of the people.

Most people do give bad speeches.  But most people can give good speeches.  And they can certainly give better speeches if they remember the most important thing: you're giving the talk for the audience, not your slides.  So the audience is what you should be paying attention to.

The slides, after all, have probably already heard this talk before.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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