How to use to PowerPoint well

The FT has an interesting piece today about PowerPoint. “PowerPoint? Interesting?” We hear you say cynically. No, really. As the piece points out, the phrase “death by PowerPoint,” dates from 1996 but it also goes on to reveal that PowerPoint has been downloaded onto a billion computers around the world.

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Using PowerPoint well – something we teach in our presentation courses

Certainly this technology is a good way of arranging the structure of your presentation. In our presentation training courses and our speechwriting courses we use it with clients to help them to arrange their thoughts, arguments and recommendations in a logical order that is easy to take on board simply by moving the slides up and down in the left hand column. In some cases we’ve then persuaded them to actually dump the PowerPoint slides and deliver the presentation without it.

Watching a dull PowerPoint presentation is about as miserable, predictable and common an experience as enduring a rainy bank holiday.

So here are five ways to use PowerPoint properly and to make sure that your audience actually engages with what you’re telling them on those slides.

1. Don’t start with an introduction. 

“Good afternoon, my name is John Smith and I’m the regional marketing manager for XYZ. I’d like to talk to you today about CRM systems in a changing world…” OK, give me a nudge when it’s over, will you.

Whether you’re using PowerPoint, Prezi or a flipchart you’ve got to grab your audience’s attention from the off so make sure that the first thing that they see and how will surprise, amuse, intrigue, frighten, shock…just add your own emotion to the list. Your PowerPoint might start with a remarkable fact or statistic. It could be a short film. We recently helped the marketing director of a car company with a presentation. The PowerPoint featured a photograph of a young woman and my client introduced her to the audience – where she lived, where she shopped, how she managed her children and her job and what she likes doing at the weekend. He also mentioned that she was now going to be one of the most important people in their lives.

Just when the audience of salespeople were beginning to wonder what on earth the speaker was talking about he explained that this fictional young woman was the target audience for a new range of cars that the company was producing and that they’d be selling.

2. Use as few words as possible. 

As a speechwriter and copywriter, whether I’m writing a presentation, some marketing copy, a blog or an advertorial I’m constantly looking to cut out excess verbiage. As they say: “Good writing is not when you’ve added everything you want, it’s when you’ve taken away everything you can.”

Almost nowhere is this more obvious than with PowerPoint. Bullet points are fine but there should not be more than three of them. We can only take away a maximum of three messages, after all. Think of the wording on your slide as a newspaper or TV news headline. You don’t have to say the whole thing. You’re just looking to sum up your point or even hint at it.

3. Use images rather than words wherever possible.

A picture paints a thousand words, it’s often said and when you come to think about it so much of the language we use about understanding is visual, if you see what I mean. Do you get the picture? Is that clear?

So include a wide range of images. These could be quite literally what you’re talking about, such as a building, a person or a new product. Or they could be metaphors.  A stormy sky to describe risks and troubles ahead might be a cliché but you might be able to something more unusual and tangential. Again, surprising, intriguing or amusing your audience with visuals will help to make your PowerPoint presentation more memorable.

4. Include some stories.

Actually, include lots of stories. Whether you’re using a PowerPoint or simply talking to a group of people, stories engage the brain, illustrator point and help people to remember what you said. Human beings relate to human beings, not statistics and facts. Stories about people involve emotion and the part of the brain that handles emotion is closely connected to that which deals with memory. I’m not advocating an Oscar acceptance speech but add some emotion to your PowerPoint and you’ll make it more memorable.

We did a presentation for a leader in the construction industry. It was about the next generation of talent.  Three quarters of his PowerPoint was video and still images of young people. Not just clichéd library pictures but real photographs and video of real apprentices and trainees. We had great fun filming and photographing them on my iPhone.  They talked about how they had come into the industry, about their first day on the job, about what they liked and didn’t like and how their family and friends had reacted to their new careers. We filmed them on site and even got them to do video “selfies” of their working lives.

Having embedded these in the PowerPoint we then had slides making simple points about what the industry should and should not do to recruit and develop new talent based on what we’d just heard from these young people and their managers. Story > point, you see.

5. You’ve done your PowerPoint slides now think about what you’re going to say. 

All too often people assume that once they’ve written their PowerPoint most of their work is done.  On the contrary it’s just begun. You need to think about how your script amplifies and elaborates on what you’ve put on your slides.

Don’t just read out loud what you’re written on your slides and very importantly make sure that you’re not turning your back on your audience. Let people read and absorb the content of your PowerPoint and then speak.

The other essentials of public speaking that we teach our presentation skills workshops and courses apply. We always say PBS – Pause, Breathe, Smile before you speak. Take your time, vary your pace and tone, sweep the room with your eyes. Remember it’s your audience and not your PowerPoint that is the focus on your presentation.


Posted by Simon Brooke on at

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