You present to communicate. Therefore, your audience needs to understand what you’re saying. When you speak, do you whisper so that your audience can’t hear you? Of course not! So, why create slides that your audience can’t figure out?
If your audience has a printed document in their hands and can pore over it for a while, you can put lots of text on it. That’s how books, reports, and handouts work.
But a slide is usually projected onto a screen, so it’s far away from the audience. And the slide is displayed for a short period of time. So, when you create slides, remember that they are a type of multimedia—more like a video than a document. So they need to be simpler.
How is a slide like a billboard?
Have you ever seen a billboard that had so much text on it that you couldn’t read it as you were driving by, and wondered, “What were they thinking?”
You’ve probably had the experience of logging onto a website where you had to type a CAPTCHA—those letters that are hard to read and frustrate automatic software from logging in. They’re meant to be hard to read for a reason!
If you use a slide that is so complex that your audience can’t read the text or understand the concept, they will ask, “What was that presenter thinking?”
The awful slides submitted to the InFocus "What Not to Present” contest are like CAPTCHAS or overly-busy billboards. You wonder if the presenter made them hard to understand on purpose! But it was probably just a lack of consideration. Or not thinking. Or not knowing how to communicate clearly in a presentation.
What most of these awful slides have in common is that they are not compassionate to the audience. They offer the promise of communicating, but then renege on that promise and instead offer only frustration and confusion.
Yes, sometimes you need to communicate complex concepts. But in a presentation, you need to find ways to communicate clearly. Clear doesn’t mean that your ideas become simplistic.
What’s so bad about these slides?
These slides have one thing in common—they contain too much STUFF! In fact, they are stuffed to the gills with text and graphics. Whether the text and graphics are crammed next to, or on top of, each other, the result is that the audience feels overwhelmed and overloaded. People tune out instead of tuning in. Communication suffers and no one learns or understands much.
What’s the solution?
If you’re a presenter and are including slides in your presentation, you need to learn to communicate differently. You may not have learned how. Most businesses don’t provide presentation skills training to their employees. (Hint: If you’re a CEO or a Training Manager, start offering such training soon!)
Again and again, businesses say that communication skills are the most important skills they want in their employees. For example, in a survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, companies ranked the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing as the most important of all the skills and abilities they rated. So, you would think that colleges would try to do a good job of training their students in communication skills—including presentation skills. But they do little. Worse, many professors lecture and use PowerPoint so poorly that they inadvertently set a bad example to their students. (Hint: If you’re a dean of faculty, start training professors soon!)
Presentation skills—the short version
The basics are pretty simple. If you follow these principles, your presentations will be light years ahead of your competitors’:
- Write down your goal—and stick to it: Decide what you want to achieve and leave out any points that don’t help you achieve your goal. This technique helps you avoid data overload and long-winded analyses.
- Put yourself in your audience’s shoes: Find out what the audience wants or needs to know and how much they already know. Then tailor your presentation accordingly. Don’t give generalists too much tech talk and don’t give techies generalities. Provide content the audience can actually use.
- Use the Tell ‘n’ ShowSM Method: This method is my name for principles based on the research of Michael Alley, who called it assertion-evidence. The title of the slide tells your point. The rest of the slide shows the point, with a photo, diagram, graph, table, or other graphic. When you stick to this method, your slides will be much simpler and clearer.
- Corollary 1: Put one point on a slide: When you use the Tell ‘n’ Show Method, only one point goes on a slide. You—and your audience—can focus on one point at a time and understanding soars. Feel free to use as many slides as you need. Covering 5 points on 5 slides doesn’t take any longer than covering 5 points on 1 slide—but your audience will thank you for it! Watch a video of a simple makeover from bulleted text to one point on a slide at http://ow.ly/4V2Fd.
- Corollary 2: Don’t use a slide if there isn’t anything to show: There’s no reason to put everything you say on a slide. It’s fine to just talk to the audience and let them listen to you. Good speakers do it all the time. Use a slide when you need a graphic to improve understanding.
- Corollary 3: Keep the graphics simple: As you can see from these examples of the worst slides, when slides get complicated, they become incomprehensible. So keep the graphics simple. Don’t put text on top of graphics and don’t put many graphics on a slide. If a graphic doesn’t actually help the audience understand or remember your point, leave it out. Finally, make sure text is legible!
Presentation skills—the long version
You can learn to create clear, high-impact slides, even if you aren’t a designer. The knowledge is available through a variety of resources, from free blogs through customized on-site training. Fully owning this knowledge and skill takes longer than just reading this blog post, but it’s worth the time.
Presentations drive business, whether through sales, in-house decisions, or training, so you can’t afford to let ineffective communication drag you down. I challenge you to learn presentation best practices and put them into effect— you will significantly raise your level of success!
Ellen is a PowerPoint MVP (Most Valuable Professional, a Microsoft award), one of only 37 in the world, and the author of several books and numerous articles on PowerPoint and presenting. She offers comprehensive training in presentation skills. She specializes in training employees to convert Death by PowerPoint to Life by PowerPoint and in showing non-designers how to create high-impact slides. Her well-known website at www.ellenfinkelstein.com offers many free resources, including PowerPoint tips, a blog, and the PowerPoint Tips Newsletter.