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How extraordinary that this wonderful tool - probably the best ever invented for presenters - has caused a decline in the quality of presentations. When PowerPoint first arrived, there were two reactions. Many presenters thought, excellent, now I don't have to be the centre of attention, and moved to the side of the room to provide commentary. Others thought, excellent, now I can impress everyone with whizz-bang electronic effects, and set about annoying their audiences. Many believe that using PowerPoint automatically makes them effective, when the reverse is usually true.

Something vital has been overlooked: that people are motivated by people, not by screen displays. Audiences are not swayed to action by facts, figures or light and sound technology, but by the myriad subtleties that go with a real person. You.

However, tools like PowerPoint are potent when used well... when used as a servant.... when summoned to illustrate a point or two, then dismissed. On and then off. In other words, when you re-claim the role of presenter. For many that's a big psychological step, but if you take it you can be both effective and impressive.

Here are a few key points:

Preparation

Be extremely selective. Identify the key points of your presentation, but then ask yourself, which of them, if any, will gain impact by using PowerPoint. Assume that you will be making the key points, supported now and then by PowerPoint.

When selecting, favour visual material over words. Favour photographs, charts, graphs and diagrams. Make them simple and uncluttered, eliminating anything that's not relevant to the point you’re going to make. Eliminate unnecessary marks and numbers on graph axes and charts—the screen version should usually be less detailed than the handout version. Resist having the company logo on every slide unless it is unobtrusive. Make printing large. Round out numbers to fit the context and the audience. (Example: 9.75% fits an audience of bankers. The same figure should be rounded to 10% if you're talking about truancy rates to parents.)

Be wary of screened words. Be especially wary of endless lists of bullet-pointed words because they are a fine way to put your audience into a terminal coma. But, of course, there are exceptions. Let’s assume that you absolutely must have a few slides devoted just to words. In that case:

Write in headlines. Write words as if they were newspaper headlines, so that you can then add value with your commentary. The single most annoying thing audiences report to me is presenters who write full, grammatically correct sentences for the screen, then read out every word the audience can see for itself. The only valid exception is when you want to give every word special emphasis, such as reading out a quote.

Pre-expose lists. Let them see the whole list for a moment before speaking about each part. Use Emphasis in Custom Animation to show the whole list in low colour contrast, then progressively show each point in high contrast as you go down the list. We humans have a strong need for “pre-exposure”, to get a sense of the whole before we can fully understand the part. For the same reason, many people are irritated by presenters who bring on bullet points one by one, with mystery blanks below.

Delivery

Be silent when you make a change on the screen. Yes, silence is a vital part of competent PowerPoint delivery. Eighty per cent of us are predominantly visual, which means that if you speak over a change on the screen, most cannot take in your words. For a small change, be silent for perhaps only a two second pause. For a big change such as a new very busy slide, you might be silent for five or more seconds, while the audience takes it in. Then speak. More on silence and pausing.

Here’s the other vital component:

Point your feet half way between the screen and the centre of the audience. In other words, stand side-on. It’s a subtle but powerful signal that the screen is the place to look. Why is that important? To avoid visual ambiguity. If you stay with your feet pointing at the audience your body is saying, look at me—so where is the audience meant to look? At you or the screen? Visual confusion wears away at the audience’s ability to focus on the message.

When there’s nothing on the screen, point your feet at the audience. The moment you put something on the screen point feet back to the position I’ve just described.

The feet? Yes, I know, it sounds unlikely. You may not believe it until you’ve tried it.

A few more tips

Talk to the screen as well as the audience. Sounds like heresy, doesn’t it? Normally, with visual aids like whiteboards and flip charts, we are supposed to talk to people, not objects. But PowerPoint is an exception as long as you follow the silence and feet rules I’ve just described. When you make a change on the screen, then turn your body and look at it with the audience, you have effectively, in visual terms, joined the audience. Yes, deliver most of your words to the audience, but deliver some to the screen.

However, when you stride right up to the screen to point at something, you’re back to visual aid basics, delivering words only to the audience. Point with your hand, turn your head to the audience, speak. It’s a rhythm. Point, turn, speak.

Use the letter B on your keyboard for brief departures from what’s on the screen. B for black. Then B again to return to the picture. Never keep a picture of a parrot on the screen when the topic turns to the feeding of ferrets. That’s more ambiguity, and it produces the glazed expression that often precedes death by PowerPoint.

Go directly to any slide by pressing the number of the slide, then Enter. How often we’ve seen the opposite. The presenter is on slide 31, someone asks about the second slide, and so the presenter grinds all the way back through what we’ve already seen. Including animations! That’s insanity by PowerPoint.

Adopt laser light etiquette. It’s rude to have that laser point slashing across ceiling and walls. It’s rude to circle it wildly around an object. Instead, hold with two hands for steadiness, point, then switch on, then correct your aim. One steady, slow circle around the screen detail is acceptable. When finished, switch off before moving the pointer.

About Michael Brown

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Michael is a senior trainer with Skillset, based in Christchurch.

He is a leading authority on training in presentation and news media skills in New Zealand. He has special expertise in how to present emotionally charged topics to challenging audiences. Michael has trained thousands of New Zealanders and worked with people who speak on behalf of some of the country's largest organisations.

Michael is a prolific author and his books on speaking and working with the media are in their fourth editions.

Speaking Easy: how to speak to your audiences with confidence and authority

Media Easy: how to handle the news media with confidence and authority

One of Michael's books is about his family's adventures sailing in the Pacific.

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