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PowerPoint is Not a Children’s Story Book: 5 Ways to Improve your PowerPoint Presentations

At some point in the last ten years, many corporate, academic and military leaders decided that the people they present to are no smarter than three year olds. Why else would they use PowerPoint the way they do?

When I was little, I sat on my parent's lap and looked at drawings and words as they read to me. Soon, I could read them myself. As I grew older, the books became bigger and the pictures became smaller. Soon, the books had no pictures at all. Over the last three years, and somewhat back into college, this process reversed itself; the majority of my Army training, meetings and briefings I attend consist of a PowerPoint presentation where the presenter projects a slide with writing on it, sometimes a picture, and then reads it to the crowd verbatim.

When did we become kids again?

When I ask presenters about this, the defense is always the same, “Well, I expand upon the slides.” Anyone who has sat through multiple presentations knows that presenters rarely "expand" upon the slides but simply rephrase the sentence or add one more sentence of detail. The best PowerPoint presentations rely on pictures, graphs or knowledge, not text. The spoken word conveys much more than the written PowerPoint.

I am not against PowerPoint. But we often forget PowerPoint's purpose: to assist an oral speech. It is a tool and, when used well, it is a powerful tool. When I think of the best presentations that use PowerPoint, they are always from our Battalion Intelligence officers. They have to use maps and graphics to tell their stories. As a result, they must use the slide to convey visual information and their words to tell the story of the speech. The effect is powerful and one I call the "documentary" style. The "documentary" style uses visuals aids to assist the presentation; in the "storybook" style the slides are the presentation. So, let’s move away from reading slides as if our listeners were little children.

Here are 5 tips to tell if you are giving a "storybook" PowerPoint presentation or a "documentary" presentation.

1. Font size. If you use a font smaller than 18 your audience cannot read it. Thus, you have to read it to them. The more writing on the page the less likely you are to have a documentary presentation.

2. Timing. After you prepare your slides, read through them as if you were presenting. (I would say, time yourself when you rehearse your presentation but I know how little rehearsals are conducted in both the Army and throughout the world.) If for every minute you read the slide you have less than four minutes of extra material, then you are probably giving a "storybook" presentation.

3. Body Position. Do you face your audience or do you face the projection of your slides? In a "documentary" approach, you will face your audience to tell them your speech. In a "storybook" presentation you have to face the slides so you can read them yourself. If your slides are printed off in front of you, then do you spend most of your time looking down or looking out at the audience? A presentation is all about the audience and a presenter should always face them and project to them.

4. Putting too much on one slide. This is a vital corollary to point number 1 and the documentary approach. Cramming tons of numbers and excel spreadsheets on a PowerPoint take away from the presenter. This makes it very likely that you will have to read the numbers to the audience.

5. Borrowed not created. If you didn't make the presentation yourself, you cannot expand upon it enough. The Army, for example, loves to share PowerPoints and have units use them to train. This creates situations destined for the "storybook" approach. If a trainer didn't make the slides, how can he give a speech on them? Instead, he will read the slides to the crowd.

three comments

This article sounds eerily like every Command & Staff meeting I’ve ever been to. That is up until the last few we’ve had. Those have been short, sweet, and to the point. A much greater improvement over the past year or so.

Joey- Last few as in starting in August or last few as in starting in March?

Mike, last few as in starting in August. Although now Earl is gone and Eric Strange has replaced him.