Let’s bring an end to “slow death by PowerPoint”

SleepingWe’ve all heard the phrase “death by PowerPoint”. Still, many presenters are guilty of subjecting their audiences to the painful torture of seemingly endless streams of text and chart-filled screens that wander in what feels like an aimless drudging through a mountain of information. Ulgh!

Audience members are left panicking when they realize that they have used all of their discreet–and not so discreet—tools for staying awake. If they’re lucky, they’re watching the presentation on the web where they can shift their attention to their email, Facebook or Pinterest.

Most of us can recall a time when we were in the audience of such a presentation. While harder to admit, most of us can probably recall a time when we said, “I don’t expect you to be able to read the detail on this slide, but I want to make the point that…”

Do you recall witnessing a really outstanding presentation? There are a lot of great examples out there. Check out TED Talks, Pecha Kucha presentations and Ignite events. What do the great presentations have in common? I’ve picked out five tips that will put you on the path to better presentations.

Get clear about the purpose of your presentation!

Why does it matter, anyway?

Be thoughtful about the answer to this question and translate that purpose into clear objectives for your presentation. Does finding your purpose seem kind-of nebulous? Then ask yourself, what’s the point? To translate the purpose into presentation objectives, consider how your audience members will be changed after witnessing your presentation? How will they be inspired? What will they know or be able to do differently if you are successful at meeting your objectives?

You do not have to explicitly display your objectives to your audience, but it may be helpful to them to see what you expect them to get out of the presentation. At the very least, you need to be clear about what you expect them to get out of it. Remind yourself throughout the development of your presentation to consider what’s in it for them? Focusing on your purpose and on your audience will make your presentation worthwhile for all involved.

Make your presentation visually interesting.

johnmedina_brain_rightJohn Medina, brain scientist (developmental molecular biologist) and best-selling author of Brain Rules makes a great case for why we need to make our presentations more visually interesting. He says that our brains are incapable of multitasking, we do not pay attention to boring things and vision trumps all other senses. (He says a bunch of other interesting and immediately applicable things in his book. I highly recommend it!)

Think about how this applies to the traditional deadly PowerPoint:

  • If we are presenting slides with lots of text and are saying something different than exactly what is on the screen, then our audience is forced to focus either on what we are saying or on what they are reading…they’re going to miss something.
  • If we are reading exactly what is on the screen, we are boring our audience to death. They are not able to pay attention and…they’re going to miss something.
  • If we are not stimulating their visual sense and helping them to “picture” what we are describing, then we are relying on less reliable senses to convey the point and…they’re going to miss something.

Please forgive my gross oversimplification of his points and trust that your presentations need to have way fewer words and more compelling visuals.
Presentation_Zen-Design_BookI came across a very useful tip from professional designer and communicator Garr Reynolds. He suggested that presenters take all of the text on their PowerPoint slides and move it down to the presenter’s Notes section. That’s really where all of that text belongs. (I love this idea—I remind myself to do this each time I create a presentation.) Next, consider the very brief statement, headline or even a powerful word that you can combine with an equally high quality image to tell your story visually.

This can start even before your presentation does. What is your audience seeing or hearing if they arrive to a presentation a few minutes before it begins? Consider playing music (good music, hopefully) and displaying a revolving slide sequence presenting interesting, helpful, or entertaining tidbits.

Recognize when material is better suited for a handout than a PowerPoint slide! This seems to be the culprit behind text heavy slides—we feel that the information is of critical importance and, so, we have to put it on the slide. Consider, instead, designing a great presentation that is accompanied by an informational handout.

By the way, if you have great presentation slides, they likely do not fit the bill for a stand-alone presentation! Many people (uh hemm) distribute their presentation slides following a presentation even though the deck simply does not tell the full story. In the absence of your live narration, you need to design your presentation to tell the story for you. Reynolds created a presentation on Medina’s book that provides an excellent example of this talent while instructing viewers on how to develop excellent presentations. I think you’ll also find these Top Ten Slide Tips from Reynolds to be very helpful.

Embrace storytelling.

Resist treating your presentations like an oral exam testing your knowledge of every detail on the topic. Think back to your purpose and focus on the point. Present the most important lessons that support your core message and will be valued by your audience. As mentioned previously, save the details for the follow-up handout or link. In their best-selling book, the Heath brothers assert that keeping it simple and focusing on the core will make your message more memorable.

Medina, Reynolds, the Heath brothers and probably many more professional designers and speakers will tell you that, in order to make your message memorable, it is important to consider what makes a great story and to practice storytelling. This tip has a little bit more to do with delivery than with your slides—although your slides will certainly prop up your story. What makes a great story? Medina might say it is one that grabs your attention and shifts gears every ten minutes or so to keep the audience hooked. Reynolds may remind you to use type, color and space and to craft your narrative in a way that grabs your audience’s attention and guides them through your story. Together with the Heath brothers, they would all likely urge you to tap into your audience’s emotions. If they care about what you’re presenting, you’ll have their attention.

Make it personal.

Along the lines of making your message “sticky”, consider how you can personalize the presentation by inviting your audience to get to know you. One technique to help participants to know you is to show a range of emotions. Yes, I said show emotion! It’s okay to be vulnerable and to share something of yourself personally. This can be as simple as personally addressing the point you are making: “_____ was a real eye opener for me…”.

On inspirational leaders, Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Inspire your audience into action by sharing your passion with them. “I am particularly passionate about this point because…” or “This is what drives me…” or “Here’s why I care about this…”. The Heath brothers urge us to tell stories that people will care about. This is what will stick with people. Consider weaving your core message into a personal story that your audience can relate to.

Interact with your audience.

To piggy back on personalizing the presentation, consider how to engage your audience members by interacting with them—get to know them personally. Talk live or use chat, polls, even rhetorical questions to interact with members of your audience and/or with another presenter (interviewer or subject matter expert).

A simple tip for getting to know your audience (beyond the preparation for the session involving how you promote the presentation, who is invited, reviewing registration lists in advance, and the like) is to simply inquire during the session. Make time for introductions if you can. Take note of your audience members’ names and their stations in the business or project. What might make your topic relevant to them? Address attendees by name or refer to them by name and thread them into your relevant story.


I hope that you will put these tips to the test. Establishing your purpose, focusing on your core message, replacing your text with high quality images and telling a story that your audience will care about will transform your presentations in a big way. No more killer PowerPoint presentations! Give it a try! And tell us what tips you have for improving presentations (comment below).

This entry was posted in Customer Relations by Stephenie Buehrle. Bookmark the permalink.

About Stephenie Buehrle

Stephenie is the “solutions” expert on the policyIQ team. With RGP since 2004, she designs and develops solutions that capitalize on the best practices of the hundreds of companies that she has touched, while tailoring each configuration to meet the unique needs of each client. Before joining RGP and the policyIQ team, Stephenie enjoyed working as an independent consultant in the non-profit sector. Stephenie also previously performed analyst services for a major brewer ranging from roles in biological and chemical services to analytical roles in business process improvement and innovation. Stephenie quips that she still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, but hopes to spend her days helping others (companies, individuals, and communities) to realize their full potential.

2 thoughts on “Let’s bring an end to “slow death by PowerPoint”

  1. Great points all, Stephanie. The next life we save from certain PowerPoint death could our own. And a special thanks for the link to John Medina’s book. A fascinating and easy read that lends even further credibility to your your blog lesson du jour.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you, Robert! I am glad that you found this piece worthwhile. I am a big fan of John Medina and Garr Reynolds and happy to share their great work with others.

      Thank you for reading!

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