For this post in my series about making better presentations, we’ll turn to PowerPoint. PowerPoint! mocked, vilified, hated all over the place, yet still the leading presentation tool. How can we make the thing work to strengthen our speeches, rather than narcotizing our audiences?
There are many books, slideshows (naturally), and videos about using PowerPoint effectively. Here I want to share what I’ve seen from my experiences as speaker and audience member. First I’ll touch on making slides, then on using them. After that is Presentation Zen, not using PZ, and some miscellaneous thoughts.
Caveats: I’m not going to address other presentation technologies in this post. I’m also not going to explore the best ways of starting to prepare for a talk; here I assume readers are already in the midst of getting materials and thoughts together. Apple users, when I say PowerPoint you can infer I’m also talking about Keynote. I’m not going to give technical details about using the PowerPoint editor. No time for pechakucha here.
If I could give you only one piece of advice, it’s to remember that your slidestack serves your argument, not the other way around. People come to a presentation to hear you speak, not to watch a slideshow. What they experience is a synthesis of speech and image, a fast dance between spoken word and projected light. You must have that organizing synthesis or dance routine in your mind throughout, so that people experience and remember something greater than 47 PowerPoint images and 46 clicks. If you don’t, people will fall asleep. At best.
Your argument – your narrative, your story, your pitch, your ideas, content, brooding, whatever – is the essential thing. The slides enhance your essential argument. They amplify it and render it easier to understand. Make and use slides accordingly.
Onward to tips and practices:
When creating a PowerPoint slide, imagine you are in the audience. Imagine in particular that you are sitting in the back room of the venue, and that your eyesight isn’t perfect. Do not think of your audience as perched in front of your computer, staring into a lovely screen from inches away with 20-20 vision (when they might be reading the presentation on SlideShare, later on, they can deal with your fine slide-making by assuming it was for a live audience). If you bear that last row in mind, it means you must embiggen your text. Please, please make sure your slide text is huge enough for that back row non-Argus to perceive. When it comes to images and video, ditto. Make sure they are big and clear enough for someone other than yourself to make out.
(For more on images and text, see “Zen” below)
As you build and edit slides you need to control for time limitations. I usually assume about one slide per minute, based on my personal style and years of practice. So a half-hour presentation slot caps my stack at 30 slides, more or less. Check your own practice to determine your own rate. The point here is to make sure the audience gets the best out of each slide. Too little time and they miss out; too much time and they get bored. When presenting check your audience for reactions at this level. You will start to sense how much time they need for your individual slides.
More on that slide timing issue: we can choose from a pretty wide range of time to spend on individual slides. For an extreme example, Larry Lessig sometimes uses a slide to represent a single word in a sentence (“however”), clicking on it for a couple of seconds. In contrast, I saw Elliot Masie give a 40-minute talk from a single slide. So how much time should we spend on a single slide?
This question is partly a matter of personal style, a combination of your approach to images (do you love lingering on them?) and your presentation manner (manic or relaxed?). The choice is also about what you’d like the audience to do. Dwelling on a single slide should focus their attention on its contents, so you might do this when you have an especially meaningful image (or graph, or chart, or stack of points) for them to take away. Speeding along is good for giving the audience a sense of building momentum and urgency.
Now, on to the whole slidestack.
For your first slide or two make sure you address the venue. Note the location and hosting organization, plus the date. This is a slight but symbolically useful way to ground your presentation, making is less like a canned talk. Try to include an intriguing and/or entertaining image for when that slide is projected before your talk.
At the end of your stack I strongly recommend accomplishing two final tasks. One or more slides should give credit to the source of whatever content you’ve used, especially images. A link to a web page stuffed with credits will do. Another slide or two should link to your own information: a home page (you really should have one), a Twitter handle, email if you’re giving it out, a logo or other image illustrating your work. Personally I dislike seeing a logo reiterated throughout a slidestack, as it seems ridiculously redundant, but I know some institutions can mandate this. A final slide should do the trick instead.
Working with slides
How can we best use PowerPoint once we’re on stage and those images are projected?
Speak as if you have an argument or story independent or the slides (and don’t you?). The slides serve your purpose, not the other way around. Thinking this way enables you to speak with greater assurance and flexibility.
Speak through clicks. Don’t pause while clicking, but use your spoken words to make the transition. Again, the slides serve your ideas.
Talk around the content of a single slide. Once a new slide appears you have no obligation to start saying the words it contains. You don’t even have to read all of the text. Speak to your purpose, addressing the slide, but incorporating it into your larger framework.
Things not to do: please avoid reading a whole slide out loud. The only exceptions for this I’ve found are when there’s a quote that people really need to think through, and if the speaker can read it well. (Yes, I’m working up a post about voice) Use your voice instead to work around the slide’s text, giving us context and connections between the text items. If you need to read in order to speak confidently, read from text the audience can’t see, such as the notes frame in PowerPoint, or a separate device, or even from paper.
Don’t read out all organizing tools on slides. That means you don’t need to speak a numerical sequence (“First, this… Second, that…”). Assume your audience can read digits on a screen.
Speaking of which, avoid saying transitions that aren’t based on narrative. That means shunning “moving on”, “our next topic”, “we’re almost done”. If you structure your entire presentation on a handful of points – which is a good thing to do – you can refer to that structure briefly. Instead, it’s better to describe the connections in terms of content: “The second point is more urgent than the first”, “Our third topic stems naturally from the challenge of the second”, “But what happened to the opposition while this was going on?” and so on. If you can speak a transition in a humorous way that doesn’t undercut your argument, do so, but sparingly.
Look away from the slide as much as possible. You really should be making eye contact with the audience whenever possible. A quick glance at your slide should be enough to remind you of where you are in the talk. Use a second screen if needed, such as a handheld device or PC mounted below the audience from the speaker’s perspective.
Doing Presentation Zen style
If you haven’t heard of the presentation Zen school, you’ve probably seen it in action without the label. This essentially involves each slide showing one (1) image, preferably filling the whole screen. The slide may have no text at all, or at most a single sentence, even a sentence fragment. All or nearly all of what the speaker says does not appear on the slide.
Why does this work? First, well-chosen images function as eye candy. We’d much rather stare at a good picture than a stack of bullet points. Second, various researchers claim that people retain more from images than text. Third, an image-centric approach might be well suited for an image-drenched culture.
Presentation Zen also enables some of what I mention above. Since there are no or few words, you actually have to speak on your own. PZ forces you to be independent of slide-reading, which is an excellent discipline.
So give this a try. Find rich images to anchor individual points of your argument. I’m fond of the Flickr Creative Commons archive, where hundreds of millions (!) of photos await your PowerPoint pleasure. Making your own images is also a great idea.
Not doing Presentation Zen style
If Presentation Zen is so awesome, why not use it all the time? After all, we’ve all experienced plenty of non-PZ talks. Indeed, that’s still most of them.
Because it’s hard and different. People don’t like changing up presentation techniques, usually.
More to the point, because sometimes you need to impress people with content other than lovely photos and your voice. To begin with, there are many visual representations of content that are not pretty stacks of rocks on a beach. Charts, graphs, infographics, and maps require some explication from the presenter, far more than a nice photograph. They are akin to a text-filled slide in many ways, and address a vast number of needs.
Moreover, text is still enormously powerful. Start off with a well-chosen quotation, one which requires time to grapple with.
You can read that out loud over a picture sans text, but giving the audience the opportunity to mull it over, perhaps while you read it, is also very powerful.
We can go further and embrace full-text slides, because many people still expect them, and that matters. Defying your audience is an excellent way to shake them up and get their attention… done well. Done incorrectly, it appalls and loses people. There’s much to be said for giving people what they expect.
Above all, text works because it can communicate information in a non-narcoleptic fashion. Hence the unkillability of email and txting, not to mention, well, writing. Watch audience members looking at a good text-filled slide. You may see them reading carefully, taking in the words. The trick to doing this is not to overwhelm the poor slide with too many words.
How much text? I try to keep myself to one title, one header, and three bullet points, max. I boost the font so that these fill up almost all space (32-80 point), allowing just enough negative space to allow legibility. Sometimes I’ll set up two columns with three points apiece (maximum) to emphasize contrasting sets. I try to avoid complete sentence and use fragments, phrases, or single words. Sometimes I’ll add an image if it’s germane, but not so that it makes the text hard to make out.
Once more, remember not to read these all out loud, but to talk around them, welding them to your overarching purpose.
Further PowerPoint thoughts
It’s instructive to realize that for all of the PowerPoint hate out there, people continue to rely on it very heavily. I rarely see Prezi in the presentation wilds, for example, and more rarely still see people speaking without slides. Keynote basically acts just like PowerPoint, an unusual case of an Apple product not making itself clearly different (compare iMovie and Windows Moviemaker, for example). I like to present from a wiki page, and can’t think of the last time I saw someone doing that. No, PowerPoint remains the presentation tool.
A practical tip: if you’re lucky and/or good at presentations, you’ll get to offer them again. One way to save your sanity is to make an archive of your PowerPoints, preferably in a special directory (mine’s called “PPT Hub”), so you can find them quickly. You can save individual instances, while maintaining a generic copy of the best version. Further, I sometimes get asked to mix together certain themes, so I save PowerPoint modules. For example, every futures scenario I build has its own short (4-10 slides) file. When I need to bring them together, I simply copy and paste, remixing into something else.
I don’t have time here to dive into visual design and layout of individual slides. Color contrasts, font types, etc. are another topic.
That’s enough for today. Good ppt is a deep, deep subject. What works for you that I haven’t mentioned?