Make sure you are the centre of attention when presenting

HERE’S a statistic for you: according to Microsoft, 30m PowerPoint presentations are made every day. You are probably thinking one of two things now. Either that this is a wonderful thing, and it means that clear, concise information is being conveyed all over the planet as we speak. Or you imagine a horrible hell of confusing and meaningless slides flashing before your eyes, signifying absolutely nothing.

PowerPoint divides people. A Yale professor and expert in the visual presentation of data called Edward Tufte says that it “routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content”, making us less efficient. Nasa uses PowerPoint for its communication and Tufte claims that this contributed to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, which led to the deaths of seven astronauts. But then again, if Nasa uses it, can it really be so useless?

“PowerPoint is a technology, just like the wheel is. We wouldn’t say that the wheel was good or bad, we’d ask how humans use it,” says Clive Holtham, professor of information management at Cass Business School. “The problem is much less to do with PowerPoint than humans.”

The use of bulletpoints is one of the major flaws of computerised presentations. In the old days before audio-visual presentation, people wrote out reports – risks were spelled out in full sentences and people saw, read and digested the report before the meeting, whose main purpose was discussion. Bulletpoints make it far easier to hide problems – whether deliberately or not, says Holtham.

Technology is seductive, but if it is used badly it can make presentations less clear and more complicated. Don’t underestimate the power of the human voice to persuade, says Holtham. “It worked well for many millennia. Even in the modern era, Churchill or Kennedy or Martin Luther King could inform and persuade in a few minutes purely by voice. Of course they had trained and honed their skills.” Remember that you are the persuader, and the computer is just a tool.

The key to a good presentation is to have a narrative, and use technology to clarify or stress points in that narrative. To aid this, Holtham says that he has started experimenting with a system called Pecha Kucha, which uses 20 slides timed to change every 20 seconds. This limits presentations to six minutes 40 seconds, and also means you need to think of a presentation as a story. “It requires vastly more preparation and planning, indeed choreography, so that it becomes virtually a performance rather than a boring lecture. There is very little need for words on the screen. There needs to be a very strong storyline,” says Holtham.

Dave Paradi, author of 102 Tips to Communicate More Effectively Using PowerPoint, agrees that it is all about the story. “By first deciding how you will move the audience from where they are now to where you want them to be at the end of the presentation, you dramatically cut the time spent creating slides,” he says. “A good structure to your message makes it clear what supporting visuals you need.”

He says that you should never read out your slides: “Make your presentation a conversation instead of a reading a report.” Using a black slide focuses attention away from the screen and on to you. “There is no rule that says you must always have a slide showing when you are speaking. When you want to focus the audience on a key point or example you are sharing, use a black slide so there is nothing to distract the audience. They will listen more intently to what you are saying,” he says.

The unloved bulletpoint should also be avoided, and replaced by visuals such as graphs that have more visual impact. A good slide has three things: 1) a headline that summarises the key message of the slide; 2) a visual that summarizes the key message of the slide; and 3) a visual that illustrates the point.

You should select colours that have enough contrast. Paradi suggests using www.ColourContrastCalculator.com to test them. Also use a sans-serif font that is seen easily, such as Arial or Calibri in 24 point or larger. Most importantly, though, remember two things. Firstly, that you are telling a story. And secondly, that what you have to say is more important than your slides, no matter how pretty.