When it comes to delivering a great presentation, focus on performance not PowerPoint

Slides and visual aids have their place, but they are often used in the completely wrong way.

By Lorcan Nyhan Head of Careers, Communications Clinic

POWERPOINT CAN BE a useful communications tool, but it’s phenomenally misused. And it’s often given significantly more time, effort and energy than it’s worth.

Slides and visual aids have their place in the workplace. At times they can help increase audience focus and understanding, they can help illustrate and explain key points and they can help an audience follow elements of a presentation.

But they rarely do any of these things well – because they are used in the completely wrong way, for the totally wrong reasons.

PowerPoint itself is not the villain here. The technology is fine and functional. The fault lies with the user, the presenter. When a DIY enthusiast electrocutes themselves by intercepting a wire while putting up a shelve, you don’t blame the drill, you blame the user. So when a speaker delivers a monotonous and mind-numbing presentation, you shouldn’t blame the software, you should blame the person.

Slides

Numerous studies have shown that poor use of PowerPoint can actually distort an audiences understanding of a presentation. A study by the University of New South Wales found that showing an audience a slide containing the text of the same words that are being spoken aloud significantly reduces audience comprehension of the presentation.

This means that when slides are full of detailed, bullet-pointed sentences they end up distracting audiences when they should be there to help them. Asking an audience to multitask is a sure fire way to ensure that nothing from a presentation is understood, remembered or acted upon.

In a similar vein, extensive research on PowerPoint by Edward Tufte, Professor of Information and Communication Systems Design at Yale, found that PowerPoint decks are often overly presenter friendly.

Slides designed to be useful to the presenter will never be welcomed by an audience. And yet, this is the most common use of PowerPoint I see. Presenters using their slides as their notes, relying on text heavy slides as an autocue and as a safety net in the case of forgetting a word.

This turns a presentation into a mismatched and ill-judged duet between the presenter and the slide deck. Partners delivering a poor performance together.

Effective presenters take the role of the lead singer – with the slides there merely to amplify their points. They take centre stage and demand the focus and attention, delivering the message more clearly and with greater impact.

Flow

Added to these issues, PowerPoint also takes too much time, energy and focus. When you start with your slides instead of your points, you can destroy the flow of your entire presentation.

Beginning with a slide means you’re not starting with the audience, not starting with the communication objective and not starting with the essential points to be made. And when you spend most of time perfecting your slides, you’re not focusing on illustrating those points with examples and stories or on practicing and polishing your verbal delivery.

All of these are monumentally more important than what is on a projector behind you.

Therefore, the most essential piece of advice on how to use PowerPoint effectively is this – create the slide deck at the very end of your preparation process. Work out the verbal bit first.

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Only after you have planned and practiced the verbal element of the presentation can you design slides that aren’t needed as notes or prompts for the presenter. And only then can you answer they key question; what could I put on a slide that would be of actual use to my audience?

There are two scenarios when a visual aid or slide can be helpful to an audience.

The first is when you want to help them remember a key point you will be stressing for a significant period of time. You should treat these slides like an impactful billboard ad. They need limited words, plenty of white space, big bold text and one key message as the central focus.

The second is when you feel a graph or image can illustrate a point more vividly than a story or explanation. You should always be able answer why the audience absolutely needs slides like these. What is it designed to achieve that you couldn’t make them visualise or understand yourself? Why is this the best format to deliver that point or message?

Visual aids have a place in communication. But that place is at end of your preparation.

Focus on your audience, your key points and your delivery and then, and only then, on your slides.

Lorcan Nyhan is a senior consultant and the head of careers at The Communications Clinic and a regular contributor to Fora. 

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