Yes, PowerPoint has its uses for presentations in events, but it is limited, and there are other creative options that could help you pack a bit more punch into your presentations.
If you are a nervous speaker or presenter then you might use PowerPoint as a crutch to get you through your content. If you want to ruin a live presentation to communicate a pile of factual information then use lots of slides, charts and bullets in PowerPoint. If you have a lot more information to deliver than you can edit down to a few simple messages then use a deck of PowerPoint slides to make you feel like you have done your job. If you like to involve your audience through submission or if you think that talking at people is actually going to have any impact on what they do then go for it – PowerPoint will be your friend.
If, however, you would like to ensure your talk or presentation has an impact, creates change and enables people to work or think in different ways; if you want to inspire others, enable them to understand ideas rather than details; then PowerPoint is your enemy. Having spent 20 years helping speakers with their presentations at events, my advice is that you should use it as a last resort. Maybe as a way of structuring some simple headlines or images around which you will then talk with passion and conviction.
Sadly, PowerPoint is the first port of call for 90% of the worlds’ business leaders and managers. How many times do you see the familiar looking slide decks scroll up at a conference or meeting or on someone’s a laptop in the train or in a coffee shop? Many business managers use PowerPoint in the same way that your dullest school teacher would have used an overhead projector, or your least favourite uncle would present pictures of his canal holiday; slide after slide, lock gate after lock gate!
By talking at an audience from the front there is the deluded assumption that the information has now been communicated or even ‘cascaded’. ‘Surely now I have finished my 50 slide presentation everyone understands it, believes it and is inspired as a result.’ We all know this isn’t true because most of us have been in that darkened conference room…maybe some of us have even been that PowerPoint soldier at the front too.
The reality is that slick doesn’t make a presentation good, sexy doesn’t make it credible and full doesn’t make it complete. Our first advice when coaching or helping presenters is to step back from the slides and think about their communication as a 20 minute conversation. We advise them to try to have that conversation with a colleague or coach and get them to write the essence of it down on a bit of paper, on a tablecloth, on the wall – anywhere rather than into some slides.
The listener needs to probe into exactly what the key things that the presenter wants their audience to remember, understand and change. Keep distilling, keep asking until you are sure that the essence is clear. Why not embrace some old school technology to do this? Write the presentation points down on a piece of A4, one page per thought. Lay the A4s out around the desk and then reshuffle them into a running order with a clear beginning, middle and end.
Using the boardroom table to lay out a presentation.
Once you’ve done this you have your key messages. There will be too many, so reduce them again. Ideally by the time you are finished there will be no more than 12 pieces of paper on the table.
Now you can build and think about what ideas, examples or illustrations would help bring these to life. You may (only now) want to use some PowerPoint slides to do this. Or alternatively you may want to use some boards, pictures, video clips or even an interview with (wait for it…) a human being. A combination of six to ten slides works quite well with other illustrations as long as they contain no more than headlines.
Don’t be tempted to cram your slides with lots of information in a reduced text size. Just summarise in simple phrases the key messages that you wrote down originally. If you need some prompts to present from then they are better kept on A5 cards than on your slides. Don’t make the cardinal sin of using PowerPoint as your speaker notes as you will end up just reading them, and the audience will wish that you’d stayed at home and just emailed them the deck.
Think of each of your six to 10 key points in terms of mini stories with beginnings, middles and ends. If possible, actually tell stories. Make those stories real, amusing and even self deprecating (if it makes your point real). Certainly make them relevant to your audience. Think about your audience. Three times. The message is for them. How do they best receive information? Don’t worry about the fact that there will be a bit of a rough edge in there. A PowerPoint saturated audience will lap up your reality.
The best presentations are not actually the slick ones. Unless you are a naturally gifted orator or stand up comedian they are also not side splittingly funny. It’s hard to communicate business messages at the best of times, but making them into a stand up routine can backfire badly. However, a dose of humour and the odd mistake enables the audience to relate to the natural delivery of your messages and for them to have meaning.
Unless you have a load of charts and figures the slides you will use should just include a few images and some very simple statements. If your messages rely on charts then think again about presenting them in PowerPoint. Instead, hand them out, use templates, break the audience into small groups at tables and get them to fill in the blanks, to interact with your data and content, to have discussions – even make it a bit of a competitive task or test out of it. Stay away from the complex charts on screen which your audience may be able to see (hopefully) but certainly can’t get involved with.
Think of turning your content into a series of experiences or interactions which could be filmed (talking heads style) or even delivered live by colleagues or possibly actors. We all have the technology in our pockets through mobile devices to create video or audio content, which is certainly more engaging than PowerPoint slides. Use tools such as iMovie to build these clips into a meaningful story, or get one of the more tech savvy types in the office to help you. Everyone loves to help make a movie, even if it’s only about your new strategic direction. One the benefits of YouTtube is that it has lowered audience expectations and helpfully reduced the need for high production values for film.
Use the physical space within which you are presenting to tell your stories. We’ve graffitied walls in warehouses and workshops, lined offices with paper and drawn the stories and ideas, walked delegates around A1 posters in a conference space, even filmed a set of post cards that were under the audiences seats and that, when put together, completed the narrative of the presentation. The trick is to get the audience involved, as all the best shows do.
The Olympics Opening and Closing ceremonies were great examples where the audience was actually involved in creating the experience and therefore felt very much part of it. This is memorable, this is lasting. I was lucky enough to be at the Opening and I can remember how I felt and what I thought at every stage. What I can’t remember, however, are the key points from the PowerPoint heavy, headline speech at an industry conference I went to last week.
But if you must use some form of slide technology some of the more formal alternatives to PowerPoint are as follows. Remember, they too come with the same health warning. A deck of slides, no matter how slick the format, can never replace the simplicity of a few clear messages and some well told and simply illustrated stories.
One of the best known PowerPoint alternatives is Keynote which can be bought as a stand-alone product, or as part of Apple’s iWork productivity suite. Like PowerPoint, it is intuitive and easy to use and creates nice looking presentations.
Another is Google Docs’ presentations model which has recently been updated to make it more compatible with Microsoft Office. Google Docs offers a wealth of templates and presentation creation tools that are easy to jump in and get started with, animations and slide transitions to make your presentation interesting to watch, and even collaborative presentation editing with other people on your team
And finally there is Prezi which is free and takes presentations in a different direction, away from static slides on a screen or projector with text on them. Even the animations and transitions available in other slideshow applications pale in comparison to Prezi’s ‘zooming user interface,’ which puts entire slides in motion and focuses heavily on images, graphics, and motion to draw attention to text.
But at the end of the day these options are still just flashy presentation formats which are no substitute for the rich and relevant reality of telling good stories, clearly with the minimum of aid and the maximum of power. None of the great speakers in history (or the present) from Mandela to Churchill, from Clinton to TED from JC to Dr ML King use(d) anything other than stories in our minds to make their messages understood. They didn’t need to add the ‘Power’ to their Point and nor should you. Think again. Take out some paper. Map it out. Distill it. Rehearse and fly PowerPoint free. Be different. Be real.