If Dante were writing the Divine Comedy today, he would undoubtedly update his description of the ninth circle of Hell. Because we all know what Satan is doing to torture all the poor souls trapped there for eternity.
He’s showing them a PowerPoint presentation.
It’s way too long. Its slides contain long paragraphs of plain text. He’s reading the text, verbatim, from the slide, as if the screen were a teleprompter. And he’s thoughtfully given you a document that has each slide printed, full-size, so you can read it all yourself.
So everyone is leafing through the handout, reading ahead. They’re not really paying any attention to Satan – after all, they’re confused. Do they read the paper they’ve been given? Do they look at the speaker? Do they look at the presentation on screen?
And it’s very sad because, by all accounts, Satan can be a wonderful, even mesmerizing, speaker.
But then, that’s what makes it Hell.
So how do they use PowerPoint in Heaven? There are those who say they don’t, and that’s what makes it Heaven. But that’s being too dismissive of something that can be, when used properly, a very useful tool.
The difference between Heaven and Hell, in this case, is not only how PowerPoint is used, but why.
Does Your Point Need Power?
Are you giving a speech that’s meant to rally, inspire or engage people? Are you a good speaker? Are you (or do you have) a good speechwriter?
Then you probably don’t need a PowerPoint. Presidents don’t use them for inaugural speeches or state of the union addresses (although arguably some should). Martin Luther King didn’t need AV support for his “I Have a Dream” speech. And in case you wonder if a PowerPoint would have enhanced Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, you can judge for yourself here.
PowerPoint is the “power tool” of speechcraft. If you want more beautiful and meaningful one-of-a-kind work, you’re more likely to get it from a skilled craftsperson using hand tools only. Power tools are more suited to mass production.
The best test for whether or not you should use PowerPoint is a series of questions:
Is there something my audience needs to see? Do I need audiovisual aids? Would I show them pictures? Will they need to look at charts and graphs? Would I feel, while giving this presentation, like I should be drawing on a board so they can take notes, grasp a difficult concept or have a diagram? Would there be anything in my PowerPoint besides words that I’ll be saying?
If the answer to all of these questions is “no,” you don’t need a PowerPoint. You just need a well-written speech and a good speaker. A PowerPoint will actually detract from, rather than enhance, your presentation.
If, on the other hand, you’re going to want to show pictures of your factory, a portfolio of your work or a visual reminder of your process, PowerPoint is a great way to do it. It’s also a great way to take people through a large amount of data, or walk them through the contents of a long and complicated document – such as a plan. As long as that information is broken down into nice, bite-sized chunks.
Not everybody is a good speaker. You might need to carry the same message to multiple groups, and you’ll need multiple speakers – whose speechifying abilities vary.
This is the time for mass production: PowerPoint can help you enforce consistency of your message regardless of the speaking ability of your speakers.
In the agency business, we see this most commonly in sales and educational presentations we prepare for clients. There is a backbone of core information – the key points that must be made. And the speakers are allowed to improvise off that backbone as their ability, their comfort level and their audience requires.
The Multi-Media Experience
The other great application for PowerPoint is, unfortunately, the one that’s least-often used: as a multi-media tool to enhance an overall presentation.
Photos, film clips or highlights to introduce a speaker. A series of videotaped customer testimonials to help make the case. A series of photos, titles and music to open the presentation and reinforce the company brand. PowerPoint can actually be a very heavenly multi-media tool when it’s used for good and not for evil.
Seven Deadly Sins
There are dozens of informative sites and blogs that offer pointers on good and evil … er, right and wrong things to do in creating an effective PowerPoint presentation (one of my favorites is here). But here are the seven deadly sins that will land you in PowerPoint Hell:
1. Too much text. It’s tempting to use the presentation as your TelePrompTer, put your entire presentation on it, and simply read it. But your audience can read to themselves faster than you can read out loud to them. So they’re finishing the slide when you’re still a quarter of the way through … and not listening to you at all. The less they can read, the better; the best use of a slide is no text at all, but a picture that underscores your words.
2. Too much crap. Like all Microsoft programs, PowerPoint comes with all kinds of bells and whistles. There are dozens of transition effects, scores of ways to make text and photos appear and disappear, and, of course, 75 or 100 fonts. Effects are like serrano peppers: a little, used well, will add a little energy to the dish. Dump in too many and the heat overpowers the flavor and makes it hotter than … well, you know.
3. Too much, period. PowerPoint is a great way to present data and key points. But too many people believe that, because they’re putting them on a dozen PowerPoint slides, they’ll get people to remember 30 or 40 “key points.”
Remember, the name of the program is PowerPoint. Singular. You want them to come away from the presentation remembering one key point. Each slide should be one element to support the main point. If you haven’t honed your message to one key point yet, you’re not ready to present.
4. Too little design. The flip side, of course, is a dish that’s too bland. Nothing says “I’m just going through the motions” like a white background with black Times Roman … or one of the old, boring Microsoft templates. Your best bet is always something that’s designed especially for your audience or your organization – especially if it helps reinforce your brand identity.
5. Bad design. No matter what, avoid the temptation to use the Microsoft clip art that comes with the programs. People have seen it – and slept through it – a million times already. Find illustrations or photography that are imaginative and exciting.
6. Too small. That P&L statement that looks great in 10-point type on an 8.5 x 11 page in front of you? It’s not going to be readable on a PowerPoint slide … unless you have each person in the audience come up to the screen and look at it. If you can’t read it on your monitor from across the room, don’t put it in the presentation.
7. Handout redundancy. If your handouts are merely the same thing you’re projecting on the screen, you really don’t need one or the other. If you want your audience to look at the screen and listen to you, don’t give them a handout; distribute it as a take-away after the presentation. If you want them to read ahead and not pay attention to you, give them the presentation as a handout. Just don’t be surprised when they finish slide 30 while you’re still reading slide 10. Oh, and remember to wake them when you’re done.
Stay away from those deadly sins, and there’s a good chance you can avoid PowerPoint Hell. And if you need any help with absolution, you know whom to call.