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Personalizing PowerPoint

"Vision is the art of seeing the invisible."
- Jonathan Swift

Giving a PowerPoint presentation is like taking a large dog, say a Great Dane, for a walk. If the speaker is introverted, they’re hoping that the dog will be the only thing people notice. If the speaker is an extrovert they hope the Great Dane will add impact. Either way, what actually happens is that the dog sets the agenda for the walk, dragging the hapless presenter down the street.

It’s been said that PowerPoint lifts the floor of public speaking but it lowers the ceiling. Presenters love it, and the worst presenters love it most of all. The sad fact is the good presenters don’t use it any better, and they wind up looking merely average. As for the audiences? Most of them hate it. They groan and roll their eyes, but they demand it. Polls show that audiences give more credibility to the speakers with computer-projected slides than to those without. All those slick, shiny slides give the weakest data, the poorest argument a professional patina that dazzles and persuades. PowerPoint holds the business presentations market hostage the way the Yankees dominate major league baseball.

Why should this be so? One reason is stage fright . . . and the chief cause of stage fright is lack of preparation. With PowerPoint, speakers can allay fear in two ways: first, with a large colorful screen to hide behind; and second, by being forced to prepare on at least one level. Most PowerPoint presentations are organized and given a certain polish; they are laid out on a solid track that the speaker and audience can follow together. With an arsenal that includes animation, color templates, clip art, font choices, sound, video, internet access, and unlimited graphics options, even the most disorganized speakers feel they can deliver at least the basic information.

So why do audiences often loath these spectacles? Even speakers who use PowerPoint themselves, cringe when forced to sit through someone else’s offering. The problem arises when PowerPoint slides make up the entire presentation: wall-to-wall words, bullet points, charts and data without end. All of this projected at the same time a speaker, standing in the dark, reads it to the audience. The presenter’s entire script is thrown on the wall to admire as though it were an action film. When PowerPoint becomes a sort of Teleprompter, projected on a screen and then read aloud to an audience it can turn a roomful of MBA’s into a lynch mob.

How to fix this problem? Here are seven suggestions:

1. Turn the dang thing off: Push the ‘B’ key at regular intervals, let the screen go blank and step forward to address the audience personally. Even better, insert a “buffer” slide – blank, between each of your few important illustrative slides. Go to your paper notes instead. Establish contact. Tell them a story. Notice as you do, the sigh of relief that will issue from your listeners.

2. Trim the content: Three to five strong, valid points are all most audiences are capable of absorbing in one sitting. Present the crucial information and cut everything else. Put the cuttings in a handout, white paper or article, but resist the impulse to inflict every last iota of information on your audience.

3. Simplify the language: Get rid of jargon. Written language tends to use complex, compound words - spoken conversation is more simple and direct - and much easier to understand. Consider these events ‘talks’ rather than ‘articles.’ Use repetition and various ways of illustrating the same point.

4. Give them pictures: Find graphic ways to express the essential points you need to make. Graphs, drawings, diagrams, photos, video clips, etc., are visual expressions that work well projected onto a screen. Words are abstract intellectual expressions that work best on paper and spoken aloud.

5. Take the time to PRACTICE: Lack of time is the most frequent excuse for this whole sorry pattern. The exec is too busy, so she has her assistant create some slides and then all she has to do is read them off. And if she makes time in her schedule what does she do with it? She spends it fiddling with the slides, making them twinkle, instead of practicing her delivery.

6. Make it flexible: Give yourself the option of showing a wide variety of graphics if the need arises. Make your presentation capable of answering the audience’s questions. Have an assistant who can switch to any of your slides on request. This lets you jump over un-needed material and adjust to the listener’s needs.

7. One input at a time: Let the audience either read the text slide or listen to your speech, but don’t ask them to do both at once. If it’s a graphic, give them a moment to absorb it before you begin explaining. As with comedy, PowerPoint presenting requires a good sense of timing.

The plain fact is that PowerPoint cannot create rapport. It’s a strictly passive form of communication. There is no closing of the loop, no feedback possible; it does not respond well to the immediate concerns of the humans in the audience. It is indifferent and unrelenting. That is why audiences feel so overwhelmed and helpless under a PowerPoint barrage. There is no way to affect the thing as it is normally used these days.

But it’s still a powerful tool with great potential and in the right hands it can deliver results better than any other audio-visual aid for speakers. The solution is to become stronger with the human element of the presentation and find new ways to tap the strengths of the software to support and illustrate the communication. The new tablet-style laptop computers which can display hand drawn diagrams in real time could give PowerPoint a flip-chart capability, for instance. Anything that makes the program more responsive in the moment like the ability to select only a few from a great number of slides, or to include video, or web pages are all points in its favor.

Mark Sanborn, past president of the National Speakers Association says “Audiences do not want information. They already have more information than they can possibly deal with. What they want from us (speakers) is insight.” PowerPoint is the ultimate information tool but it often squeezes out the process that leads to insight, to meaning. So long as audiences are made up of people, it will always remain for the person at the front to pay attention to them, make adjustments when their interest flags and return to the process of communication. The essential element of all communication must be human rapport. That’s the only way to re-raise the ceiling of business presentations.