Well, that’s actually not entirely true. PowerPoint itself is not the enemy of effective communication, but the way it’s used is.

Do your audiences stay awake?
Do your audiences stay awake?

Of course, PowerPoint is a tool and, like any other tool, it can be used for good or evil; effectively or ineffectively. The problem is more than just people using PowerPoint ineffectively, rather I think the problem is that PowerPoint begs to be used ineffectively. What do I mean? Well, look at virtually any PowerPoint presentation you see. The vast majority of them look basically the same, slide after slide after slide of bullet points. Essentially, an outline of the presentation projected on the screen. Sometimes it’s even worse, more often than I care to admit I see the actual (spoken) text of the presentation projected on the screen.

So what’s wrong with that? First is that it’s incredibly boring. It’s also distracting and not useful.

“But wait,” I hear you cry, “isn’t it useful and valuable to present information through multiple senses”

Yes! It absolutely is, when it’s done well. Each medium, each sense has ways in which it is best communicated with in the context of the presentation. Screen after screen of text confuses me, it doesn’t help me to know what’s important, and if all the content of the presentation is projected and why do I need you to stand there reading it to me. There is a better way. I’ll get to that shortly.

Remember, I said that PowerPoint begs to be used ineffectively. Open a new PowerPoint presentation, choose a template if you must (and most of them are mediocre at best) and what you get? The first default slide is the title page, that’s reasonable. Okay, now create another new slide, what you get? A bulleted list. An empty page asking to be filled with text.

In the earlier versions of PowerPoint it was even worse.  Trying to be helpful, Microsoft included an auto content Wizard. An automatic process for creating any type of presentation that you needed to give. The very idea that a few simple forms could create even the skeleton for most type of presentation you would give drives me crazy.

This was taken to it’s illogical, and extremely humorous extreme by Peter Norvig when he imagined (now rather famously) what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had used a PowerPoint auto content Wizard to create the Gettysburg Address.  You can see the results on his website http://norvig.com/Gettysburg/ Also very worth reading are his “making of” article and his article PowerPoint: shot with its own bullets.

There is another way!

PowerPoint can be an amazing tool to support a presentation when it’s used well. The key word is SUPPORT! The PowerPoint visuals should support the presentation that you were giving verbally. How can you do that effectively? Use the visual medium for what it does best: images.

Use the PowerPoint to punctuate what you’re saying with images, brief quotes, illustrations, backdrops and other things that help you to tell the story.

The story is the key

When you go to create a presentation, don’t open PowerPoint first! Start by laying out the story you want to tell. What is its beginning, middle, and end. Look for ways to create an emotional flow, and a payoff, and emotional reason for going along with you on the journey that you were inviting your audience to take. You may find that this is useful to do in an outline, or you may like mind mapping (which is how almost all of my presentations start), or you may work in narrative, or some other way. Whatever you do, lay out the story first.

Once that’s done, now you have a framework. Look for aspects of the story that are particularly important, now search for the visuals that either punctuate, demonstrate, or otherwise support those turns of the story. Where do you find them, lots of places — stay tuned for a post on that coming soon.

Now I think that there are times when that most effective “image” may be a few words. But it’s very, very few words.   In his e-book Really Bad PowerPoint and How To Avoid It, Seth Godin says “no more than six words on a slide. EVER.”  I think he’s got the right idea, although I’m not as militant about it as he is. I think there are a few situations where more than six words on a slide may make sense. Occasionally, I think putting the text of a longer quote on the screen can be effective. If you’re teaching a hands-on class, putting a list of instructions on the screen for the class to follow can work in some situations.  And very, very, very rarely a bulleted list may even be appropriate  to show a large variety of choices or something of that sort.

In my world, effectiveness comes from emotional engagement. As you create your presentation, whatever the topic, I believe there is nothing more important then finding a way for your audience to connect emotionally with the story you are telling.

What do you think?  I look forward to your comments.