Topic: Nuts and Bolts article on PowerPoint
Date: June 11, 2001
Approximate length: 950 words
Don’t Make Your Speakers Use PowerPoint
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Nuts and Bolts
Don’t Make Your Speakers Use PowerPoint
It’s an insidious trend: Conference sponsors and meeting planners insisting that speakers create their presentations using a specific software product, namely PowerPoint.
Why is mandating use of PowerPoint by your speakers bad? For several reasons.
First, dictating format and software takes the focus away from where it should be -- the content, message, and audience -- and puts it on the technology. It’s like telling a writer, “I don’t care how good the piece is as long as it’s in Word 7.”
Second, it encourages a conformity that can rob speakers and presentations of their individuality. Tell me you haven’t thought more than once that all PowerPoint presentations look alike after awhile.
Third, it’s boring. So many bad presentations have been prepared with PowerPoint, I believe the very use of the medium itself can be a signal to some audience members that says, “Prepared to be bored.”
Fourth, it renders many speakers ineffective or at least less effective. When the speaker is focusing on his clicker, keyboard, or computer screen, he is not focusing on -- or interacting with -- his audience, a key requisite for a successful talk.
Fifth, it locks the speaker into the prepared slides, reducing spontaneity, ad libbing, and the valuable ability to adjust the presentation in response to audience reaction and interest -- another requisite for a successful talk.
Sixth, it can literally put the audience to sleep. What’s the first step in preparing an audience to view a PowerPoint presentation? To dim the lights -- an action proven to induce drowsiness in humans.
What should be done? As a meeting planner, you get your best results from speakers when you create a speaking environment in which they can give you their best performance.
Here are my suggestions for creating such an environment in the computer age:
Don’t require PowerPoint. If the speaker wants to use PowerPoint, fine. If he doesn’t, also fine. Never force a speaker to use a format or medium he doesn’t like or is uncomfortable with. It will compromise his performance and effectiveness significantly.
Don’t require visuals at all. Does this surprise you? The fact is, many subjects -- telephone skills, for instance -- do not lend themselves to charts, graphics, tables, and other PowerPoint-type visuals. If you force every speaker to use visuals -- even those whose subjects don’t require it -- you’ll get that dreaded beast: A PowerPoint presentation created just because someone said the presenter had to have one. You know the type: Full of word slides and lists of bullets that contribute nothing to clarity.
Check out your speakers in advance. See them live or watch their videos. Talk to clients who have hired them. Convince yourself that they’re pros. Then leave them alone and let them do their job. Don’t hire a trained surgeon, then tell him what surgical instrument to use on your brain during the operation.
Avoid the uniformity trap. PowerPoint presentations suffer from sameness, which is the first cousin of dullness. Audiences crave freshness and difference.
Avoid the handout trap. A key advantage of PowerPoint is the ability to easily turn slides into hard-copy handouts. The trouble is, most of these slide printouts, removed from the speech itself, are cryptic when viewed in isolation if not totally meaningless. If the world could communicate effectively with just diagrams and bullets, sentences would never have been invented.
* First, don’t have the projector on all the time. Use PowerPoint selectively, not throughout the entire presentation.
When there’s a valuable picture to show, show it. When you’re through with it, turn off the projector and turn the lights back on. The brightness rouses the audience out of their darkness-induced stupor. In a darkened room, it’s too easy to close your eyes and nod off a bit.
* Second, use visuals only when they communicate more effectively than words. If you are talking about quality, having the word “Quality” on screen adds little to your point. On the other hand, if you want to explain what an aardvark looks like, there are no words that can do it as effectively as simply showing a picture.
* Third, consider adding other media as supplements or even alternatives to PowerPoint. When I taught telephone selling, the sound of a ringing telephone and a prop -- a toy telephone -- engaged the trainees in a way computer slides could not.
* Fourth, design your presentation so that, if there is a problem with the computer equipment, you can go on without it. There’s nothing more embarrassing than to see a speaker fall apart because he can’t find the right slide. Use visuals as an enhancement, not a crutch.
Am I a dinosaur or a curmudgeon, to rail against PowerPoint in this manner? Perhaps. I don’t own a laptop computer, wireless phone, pager, Palm Pilot, or PDA.
But one thing I have learned in 20 years of teaching and giving presentations: The best presenters have conversations with their audiences. If you believe you need to have a computer running to have an effective conversation, maybe that’s a premise you want to rethink.
About the author:
Robert W. Bly is the author of 50 books including Getting Started as a Speaker, Trainer, or Seminar Consultant (John Wiley & Sons). He has given seminars for dozens of organizations including IBM, Thoroughbred Software, Arco Chemicals, International Tile Exposition, Haht Software, and Cambridge Technology Partners. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on the Web at www.bly.com.