If you have worked in an office in the Western world in the past 25 years, you will probably have sat through a PowerPoint presentation. But there's a problem. They're often boring, writes presentation expert Max Atkinson.
In the past 25 years, I've asked hundreds of people how many PowerPoint presentations they've seen that came across as really inspiring and enthusiastic.
Most struggle to come up with a single example, and the most optimistic answer I've heard was "two".
So what are the main problems?
SCREENS ARE MAGNETS FOR EVERYONE'S EYES
Beware of anyone who says that they're "just going to talk to some slides" - because that's exactly what they'll do - without realising that they're spending most of their time with their backs to the audience.
Even Barack Obama needs an autocue on occasion
Yet eye contact plays such a fundamental part in holding an audience's attention that even as brilliant a speaker as Barack Obama depends on an autocue to simulate it.
So remember that the more slides you have and the more there is on each slide, the more distracting it will it be for the audience - whereas the fewer and simpler the slides are, the easier it will be to keep them listening.
READING AND LISTENING DISTRACTS AUDIENCES
If there's nothing but text on the screen, people will try to read and listen at the same time - and won't succeed in doing either very well.
If the print is too small to read, they'll get irritated at being expected to do the impossible. Nor does it help when speakers say "as you can see", or the equally annoying "you probably won't be able to read this".
SLIDES SHOULDN'T JUST BE NOTES
Few speakers are willing to open their mouths until they have their first slide safely in place. But all too often the slides are verbal crutches for the speaker, not visual aids for the audience.
Some presentations prove somewhat less than gripping
Projecting one slide after another might make it look as though you've prepared the presentation. But if you haven't planned exactly what you're going to say, you'll have to ad lib and, if you start rambling, the audience will switch off.
To avoid this requires careful planning. Do this before thinking about slides and you won't need as many of them - and the ones that you do decide to use are more likely to help to clarify things for the audience, rather than just remind you of what to say next.
You think bullet points make information more digestible? Think again. A dozen slides with five bullet points on each assumes that people are mentally capable of taking in a list of 60 points. If it's a 30-minute presentation, that's a rate of two-per-minute.
This looks a fairly interesting visual aid
This highlights the biggest problem with slide-based presentations, which is that speakers mistakenly think that they can get far more information across than is actually possible in a presentation. At the heart of this is a widespread failure to appreciate that speaking and listening are fundamentally different from writing and reading.
In fact, the invention of writing was arguably the most important landmark in the history of information technology. Before writing, the amount of information that could be passed on to others was severely limited by what could be communicated in purely oral form (ie not much). But the ability to write meant that vast amounts of knowledge could be communicated at previously unimagined levels of detail.
The trouble is that PowerPoint makes it so easy to put detailed written and numerical information on slides that it leads presenters into the mistaken belief that all the detail will be successfully transmitted through the air into the brains of the audience.
THE BULLET POINT PROBLEM
A Microsoft executive recently said that one of the best PowerPoint presentations he'd ever heard had no slides with bullet points on them. This didn't surprise me at all, because we've known for years that audiences don't much like wordy slides and don't find them as helpful as pictorial visual aids.
What does surprise me is that so many of the program's standard templates invite users to produce lists of bullet points, when the program's main benefits lie in the creation of images. If more presenters took advantage of that, inspiring PowerPoint presentations might become the norm, rather than the exception.
Max Atkinson is the author of Speech-making & Presentation Made Easy.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I've made and sat through tons of Powerpoint presentations and I have to admit that even my own can be pretty boring. To be honest I've only really used it as a way to illustrate a point or make an audience laugh (or get there attention halfway through in some other way). This was a trick I learned when I sat in on a presentation by a Microsoft employee back in 1996, who started his presentation with "It's Tuesday morning and I'm hungover, how about you?" because we'd all been taken on a jolly the night before! That was the best presentation, the worst was a civil servant who talked us through 30 odd slides of pie charts. Ouch. Matt Saunders, Bristol
I give school talks (pupils aged 11-18) on behalf of various campaign groups and use PPT as the basis of the talk - but I certainly don't use it in the standard "corporate" way. To start with, I NEVER use bullet points. And most of the slides will have just a single image covering the screen, or a sequence of images whilst I'm talking, or just a few words, and also embedded video clips. This all helps to really break it up - words, images, video, and I *never* look at the screen (I'm supposed to already know what's on there!), my focus is always on the audience (it could be a single class or an entire year group)... I get really positive feedback about the presentations because they are definitely not standard PPT. Make it rich visually and break it up so it's not the same old text thing over and over, and most importantly - know your subject and talk to your audience, don't read slides. Richard J Deboo, London
Thank goodness for this article! I conduct English 'trainings' (as they are amusingly called in German) at SAP, among my other activities. For years now, I have been trying to persuade people that presentations are not the easy way out when one attempts to inform people about something. The onus is on the presenter to do the work, not on the PowerPoint slides. Also, I have told them again and again that 'less is more'. 'Don't pack your slides full of text, or complex illustrations' is another maxim. Perhaps this article will finally make clear to people that presenting is a much different art than writing an essay. Many thanks! D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany
I'm a student at one of the most "prestigious" technology institutes in my country, and yet, in my 3 years of study, I've never come across an interesting Powerpoint presentation. All of my professors, with only one rare exception, try to cram as much text as possible into as few slides as possible. And most of my colleagues consider that as the norm while preparing slideshows of their own. Sad. Ashwin, Chennai, India
People use Powerpoint often for the wrong reasons where a quick simple explanation would suffice, it is draw out into death by slide show. Some do it purely as a way of validating their own importance. If an organisation is downsizing people grab there Powerpoint slides like a life raft of self worth. Emma, Talke, Staffs
The main problem with Powerpoint is that it makes the guys in the office think they are suddenly great typists / presenters / orators. 99% of the time there is no secretarial editing of the content and they all think that what they have to say is absolutely riveting. It isn't. Give the boys toys and they will play. Janey, Yorks UK
I read this while avoiding to do a Powerpoint presentation..... Sal, london
The real problem is that there are just too many presentations in all aspects of life today. Most of us sit through presentations at work just because it is somebody's "turn" to talk. Then what can be said in 2 minutes takes a 15-minute presentation - not to mention the time consumed in preparing it in the first place. Have we lost the ability simply to say-your piece, without making a visual representation of it? School pupils often use Power Point in projects where the articulate spoken word would be a valued communication skill. Speech conveys passion that a visual slide presentation could not. Would Martin Luther King have declared "I have a dream" as effectively in the context of a Power Point illustration? Ian Wilkinson, Hitchin
I agree in huge part. But is it really true that creative, uncommon, full of technical tips presentation doesn't help listeners with understanding topic and keeping listening? Rafa?, Warsaw, Poland
And now I'm seeing these hybrid documents that are effectively reports, but in Powerpoint format. You get these a lot from business consultants. In reality, they're too lazy to write a proper report so they stuff a load of text onto an existing presentation as a substitute. These things don't work as either presentations or reports. Dave, Brighton, England
Very interesting this critical assessment. I would encourage the academic community, so eager to use this software every time they have to convey their papers, to read this insightful note. Andres, Pavia, Italy
Problem is, starting in school, and heading through college, and university, doing a talk has always meant 99% of people reading nervously from a script. With that kind of education background on presentation skills is it surprising that most presentations are millions of slides from which the presenter reads. People need to be taught to present with no slides and no notes, perhaps limit them to three diagrams. Teach the core skills. Andy Evan
Am I the only one to have counted all the words on slide 8 and found it to be a perfectly average slide? DaveJ, London, UK
Thanks for this thought-provoking article. Powerpoints have infected teaching too, and I've seen kids eyes glaze over as a result with my early efforts and attempts to bring my lessons into the 21st century. As suggested in the article, I'm pleased to say I now use them primarily to show visual images as part of my media and film teaching and agree that the simpler the better. I tend to reserve the bullet pointed ones for a quick intro to topics which they can print off as handouts to use as revision notes. There are some truly terrible ones doing the rounds though - the kids are less than complimentary about them, especially when they've sat through one in every lesson that day... Why should kids find Powerpoints any less boring and difficult to take in than staff? Elspeth, Helston
I couldn't agree less. Max should come and see one of my presentations. I speak regularly on fin de siecle Viennese art and music, and often have 60-90 slides to illustrate my talk, including paintings, music, references, designs and, by the way, text. It depends how creative one wants to be. There are some great tools in PowerPoint that enable me to provide a visually interesting talk, usually for 45-60 minutes, which almost becomes cinematic or performance in its essence. Certainly I have never been accused of being boring, nor informational - quite the opposite, in fact. PowerPoint can be a challenge, but with colour, movement and sound - few fall asleep. Raymond Coffer, Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London
The biggest problem I find is the number of people who do Powerpoint karaoke- where they essentially read out the bullet points on the screen. Thoroughly unhelpful and very boring. Kirsten, Wandsworth, London
Twenty years ago I gave maybe three seminars a day on computing topics using transparencies. Several of us noticed that we got the most engagement when we drew pictures as we went along (despite our drafting skills). Stephen Maudsley, Bristol UK
I am not defending rubbish PowerPoints, but reading and listening is easily possible - I am partially deaf and depend on written components of presentations to follow - it is much worse trying to struggle to listen to decipher speech. TV subtitling is vital for following films and rather than detract from the picture, they help and are easily taken in automatically. Good summary handouts help but I agree that too many PowerPoint presentations and presenters are rubbish - particularly those with the speaker turning round to read the screen, having impossibly small print and too much on any one screen at once - and no pictures.... etc. M, Bristol
Your point regarding bullet points is plain wrong. You are assuming that each item in the list is a distinct and separate point. A good presentation with a half a dozen slides of points should portray half a dozen actual points, the five or so items on each slide should be there as reinforcement or examples. For instance a single slide may be able considerations taken when planning a project, the main point of the slide is to reaffirm that this action took place and point to a few examples of what was considered, not to go into detail about each consideration. One slide, one point. Ieuan, Port Talbot
Any presentation software should only be used as a tool and not relied upon too heavily in presentation situations. Effective delivery is down to planning, suitable communication techniques and practice. Don't produce your presentation in PowerPoint first. Plan the structure and detail then summarise points on slides, using suitable images and graphics to explain and reinforce your points and use the White-out / Blank-out functions to take attention away from the slides when required. Frank MacCarthy, London
I recently got sent a 80 slide presentation - I looked through the first couple in detail and then skimmed the rest. It described a proposal for a large piece of work worth £26m. The author asked me what I thought of it a couple of days later so I had to lie and say it was great. I spoke to a number of other people about it and all said they'd either skimmed it or not bothered reading it. Now the project is going ahead based on the presentation that nobody has read. Adrian, Telford
The worst Powerpoint presentation I ever sat through was in my second year at University. It was about the theory of Fascism and lasted two hours without a break. Plus, it had over 70 slides. Each slide was packed with information and it was impossible to keep up. I have never been so bored or learnt less. Thankfully, the lecturer posted the notes on the university site, so we could actually read them! Nicola, Manchester
The art of oration is fast becoming a lost art. The best "presentations" are when someone stands up and talks to you, without the use of aids at all. Did Winston Churchill or Lloyd George use slides (I don't think so). To be able to stand up, command an audience, get your point across and to be memorable and entertaining are things that you rarely see today. Powerpoint should be illegal - ban it immediately! Paul Brandwood, Taunton, UK
Watch any of Dave Gorman's presentations to see it done properly. John Paradise, Devizes, Wiltshire
Great article - but you didn't mention clip-art cliches. If I see one more "detective bending over looking at something with a comedy-size magnifying glass" or "6 people round a boardroom table having a meeting", I'm going to go nuts. John Bratby, Southampton
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