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The Power (or Misuse) of PowerPoint

Technology is a wonderful thing. Most of the time. In the field of visual aids, the development of PowerPoint and other computer-aided graphics programs allow you to create powerful visual aids yourself, without having to depend on IT professionals to create them for you. Like any technical advance, however, programs such as PowerPoint don't solve every problem. Many presenters now rely on a computer program for success or to give them an excuse for failure. You can NEVER rely on a visual aid to make or break your presentation. It is not the slide, the animation, or the bells and whistles that spell success—it's the individual who is speaking.

One of the problems with using presentation software is that everyone else is using it too. In an article in an issue of Business 2.0 called "Ban it Now! Friends Don't Let Friends Use PowerPoint," author Thomas Stewart wrote that conference organizers will often offer to transfer your overhead transparencies to PowerPoint because they "want a uniform look."

"Why in the world would you want a uniform look?" says Stewart, who, as a presenter himself, also has to listen to a lot of other presentations. "They're all the same. One speaker finishes, his last slide saying thank you and giving his e-mail address. There is applause. The lights go up, he unplugs his laptop and leave the podium, the emcee introduces the next speaker. She walks up, mumbles inconsequentially while she plugs in her laptop. The lights dim and she shows her first slide. It reads good morning. This starts at eight, goes to 12, resumes at one, and ends at five."

So why use PowerPoint or any other presentation software? Because, done right, it can help your presentation be effective and professional. PowerPoint can be used for four different kinds of presentations:

  1. Overhead transparencies: You can use this program to create transparencies that are used with an overhead projector. If you don't have a color printer, you can save your work on a disk, take it to a printing center (either in-house or outside), and have color overheads printed.

  2. 35mm slides: Most commercial copy centers can convert PowerPoint presentations to 35mm slides if that's what you need for your presentation.

  3. Computer-driven slide shows: This is the most common use of presentation programs, where they are presented via a laptop computer. This is the most effective use of a presentation program, because it allows you to add movement and even sound to your presentation.

  4. Web slide shows: You can turn your PowerPoint presentation into a Website; this is particularly useful when you are using the presentation for distance-learning classes.

Some presenters seem to think that a slide is a slide is a slide, and that simply having computer-generated slides makes the presentation interesting. The audience knows better. Here are some tips for making your PowerPoint slides most effective:

  • Take your audience into account. To whom are you speaking? What impression do you want them to get from your presentation? If you want a serious, professional presentation, be sure your slides reflect that image. Don't use bright colors or playful graphics. On the other hand, if you're doing a presentation to a group of children, or you're speaking on a fun topic, do use brighter colors and lots of pictures.

  • Consider the space. Where will you be speaking? If it's in a large hall or auditorium, use simple backgrounds and the largest fonts you can provide. Don't include too much detail; if you want to augment what you have on the slides, provide it in a handout.

  • Be constrained with your use of bulleted lists. Because this is the easiest type of slide to create, presenters tend to go overboard, using too many in a row with too much information on each one. NEVER put more than three bullets on a slide. And keep your bulleted items as short and succinct as possible.

  • Choose your fonts wisely. Fancy fonts may seem creative, but they are often hard to read. Make sure the font you choose is large enough to be read from the back of the hall (especially if it's long and narrow). Don't use more than two fonts on any one slide. And generally speaking, use a sans-serif font for titles, and a serif font for text.

  • Choose your titles wisely to gain maximum interest. Most slides should have a title. For example, if you're giving a talk describing the progression of an illness and you show various diagrams and pie charts for each stage. Each one should have a title such as "Stage 1: The Infection," "Stage 2: The Onset," "Stage 3: The Symptoms," and so on. However, if you're using pictures, as I do in my presentations, you don't always need them. You can let the pictures speak for themselves.

  • Use caution when inserting clip art or other graphics. An appropriate graphic can add punch and pizzazz to your presentation, but don't let it take away from your message. Think about all those television commercials people talk about for weeks—but can't remember what they were advertising. If people walk away from your presentation saying, "Boy, those graphics were great!" you have not fulfilled your purpose.

It's your purpose that counts, of course. That's why you should NEVER start designing your presentation by designing your slides first. By the end of my workshops, most participants end up eliminating at least half the slides they have created. Begin with a sheet of paper or a blank computer screen and start outlining what you want to say. Get the content first, and add the graphics later.

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