Do an Internet search for the phrase “death by PowerPoint” and you’ll come across a host of videos and slides depicting the most egregious infractions by PowerPoint users. Charts that look like a maze of squiggles and bubbles. Slides filled to bursting with tiny text. An overload of bullet points. A riot of clashing fonts and colors.
It’s funny — until you think about the inattention, boredom, and lack of engagement among the meeting audiences who are subjected to this sort of thing.
Going back more than a decade, it’s been reported regularly that more than 30 million PowerPoint presentations are being created each year. Who knows where that number would stand if they updated the count today? But while PowerPoint seems as ubiquitous as ever, trotted out for everything from four-person confabs to arena-sized keynotes, there are fresh presentation strategies that can help your speakers enhance their message and connect with your audience. New digital tools, innovative approaches, and good, old-fashioned storytelling skills are all starting to filter onto the stage.
But to use those methods, speakers sometimes must overcome the mindset — in themselves, in planners, even in audiences — that PowerPoint is the least complicated and hence most desirable option. “People should go beyond PowerPoint because it’s really a mediocre commodity, but it’s been inflated in importance because corporate America virtually requires that people have slides,” said Rick Altman, director of the annual Presentation Summit, which is focused on improved methods of engaging audiences, and author of Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck and How You Can Make Them Better. “People make the mistake of saying the slides are the presentation when you are the presentation.”
IS IT TIME TO BAN POWERPOINT?
Microsoft launched PowerPoint as a slideshow presentation tool in 1990. Since then, it has infiltrated offices, boardrooms, schools, and conference halls — just about anywhere someone might give a presentation, small or large. While use of PowerPoint is almost universal at this point, there’s been a mighty backlash against it.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has eliminated the heavy use of PowerPoint from company meetings. There’s been much debate about an overreliance on PowerPoint by leaders in the U.S. military and efforts to ban or limit its use within various departments. Even some conferences have taken up the idea. In 2012, Meetings and Events Australia (MEA), whose annual conference attracts about 900 attendees, banned what it called “bad PowerPoint” as well as the traditional use of the technology. “The bullet-point model was created in the pre-digital era, when there was a shortage of expert information. It was worth flying somewhere to hear that kind of speech,” Linda Gaunt, MEA’s CEO, said in a statement when the ban was first instituted. “Now the web is full of expert presentations you can watch in your own time and location, so meetings need to provide something beyond that.”
Speakers at MEA’s conference now receive a tutorial on what is acceptable and unacceptable, including a letter from Gaunt that calls for presentations that are “simpler, more emotive, and more human than delegates normally see.” MEA includes a list of banned PowerPoint techniques, including bullet points, flowcharts, template backgrounds, clip art, and reading directly from the screen.
Learn More: See HaikuDeck in Action
According to a 2013 survey by Dave Paradi, a consultant and presentation expert who runs ThinkOutsideTheSlide.com, information overload, unclear visuals, and small text are some of the most common annoyances caused by PowerPoint slides. Seventy-two percent of nearly 700 respondents from around the world said a speaker reading the slides to the audience was annoying, while 50 percent of those surveyed said unreadably small text was a pet peeve, and 48 percent ranked slides with full sentences instead of bullet points as annoying. “From a conference or organizational perspective,” said Paradi, whose books include Present It So They Get It, “instead of saying you shouldn’t use PowerPoint, it’s more constructive to think about how you can use this tool more effectively.”
‘THE STAKES ARE HIGHER NOW’
With all this negativity toward the most common presentation tool out there, what’s a speaker or planner to do? Nancy Duarte, the CEO of presentation training company Duarte and author of Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences, says you need to focus on using slides as slides, not as “slide documents.” “Three-quarters of the slides out there are not really slides,” she said, “but they are slide docs that have dense information on them, and those are reviled.”
Presenters need to make sure their slides are visual aids and not reports transcribed to the screen. “The communicator should be the star,” Duarte said. “To do that, we have to completely change our mindset.”
There are many options beyond PowerPoint to help do that. Keynote, for example, is Apple’s answer to PowerPoint, with many of the same features, but users often say it more seamlessly incorporates video into presentations and has superior visuals. ScrollMotion is a platform that permits interactivity of data and includes a calculator that can change graphics on the fly. SlideRocket, which is transitioning into a platform called ClearSlide, promises a more collaborative presentation experience, including slide sharing and updating among team members, and includes analytics to track how many people are viewing and sharing the slides. And emaze, a cloud-based digital slide creator tool, permits access from a variety of devices and provides design templates.
Duarte said that she’s particularly impressed with Haiku Deck presentation software because it mandates good design, forcing presenters to focus on cinematic visuals and highlight concepts while restricting the number of words allowed on a slide. Adam Tratt, the co-founder and CEO of Haiku Deck, launched in 2012, said the product arose from the troubles he and his partner experienced trying to create impactful entrepreneurial pitch presentations using PowerPoint. “We are both pretty smart guys and I used to work at Microsoft. We were good at using PowerPoint,” Tratt said. “But that didn’t make us good designers.”
Presenters need to make sure their slides are visual aids and not reports transcribed to the screen.
Tratt and his team wanted to “create a tool that would make it impossible for the [user] to create something no less than stunningly beautiful.” They sat down with a stack of design books and came up with some general best practices for presentations, then made them standard in Haiku Deck. The tool limits the number of words on a slide and emphasizes the use of a single powerful image per slide, providing a sophisticated search engine that allows users to hunt through the 40 million Creative Commons images on the Internet — meaning they’re licensed to the public for free use, preventing copyright infringement. Haiku Deck also provides consistent formatting, with 16 designer-approved themes for users to choose from that are carried throughout a presentation. “Most presentation tools let [users] pick whatever font they like,” Tratt said, “giving them enough rope to hang themselves with.”
Prezi is another alternative presentation tool that can be very effective, according to Steve Hargadon, founder of both Classroom 2.0, a collaborative website for teachers, and The Learning Revolution, a large, virtual education conference that last year had 100,000 attendee logins and more than 900 presentations, which took place using Blackboard Collaborate, an interactive presentation platform. In recent years, Hargadon said, he’s seen more presenters use Prezi, which permits them to zoom in from a bird’s-eye view of a topic or image to a close-up to demonstrate concepts. But while Prezi has its benefits, Hargadon has also seen it used in a way that provides “more glitz than value.”
In the end, most Learning Revolution presenters still use PowerPoint — but Hargadon is seeing a trend toward “the better speakers just using images without a lot of words.” Taking that concept even further, some speakers are using no slides at all. “The idea of the narrative,” Hargadon said, “is increasingly making sense to people.”
That may be in part due to the enormous influence of TEDTalks, the 18-minute presentations that are heavy on slide images and narratives. Although many TED presenters use PowerPoint, most have few words on their slides, Altman noted. And TEDTalks, which are known for the preparation that speakers put into them, similarly have prompted people to take more time preparing for their own presentations — and created a more savvy audience among the general population, said Duarte, whose company often works with TED presenters to hone their message. “The stakes are higher now,” she said. A boring presentation causes “the audience to be pissed. They feel [like] ‘You didn’t care enough about me to make this talk worth my time.’”
NOT SO FAST
But even if you want to get outside the PowerPoint box, you still might find yourself confronting formidable technical issues. Gabe Zichermann, the chairman of GSummit, an annual conference focused on gamification, lets speakers use other types of presentation software in breakout sessions, but for main-stage presentations, he’ll accept only PowerPoint or Keynote. “It’s not worth the extra overhead,” he said. “Other solutions are very difficult to produce.”
Dean Sipe, the staff manager for marketing at wireless technology company Qualcomm, said his company gets creative with presentations, but has to be prepared to troubleshoot when using them at conferences that might not be ready for anything beyond standard, text-heavy slides. While the bulk of Qualcomm’s presentations use PowerPoint, the focus is on creative design. Qualcomm uses Keynote when presenters plan to incorporate full-motion video or animation. Sometimes Qualcomm feels comfortable with an event’s on-site audiovisual team, but it’s not unusual for the company to add to the AV equipment list, including making sure a Mac computer is available. And sometimes Qualcomm may send its own technical staff to oversee the process. “The flip side to stepping beyond PowerPoint,” Sipe said, “is the increased level of support required to make sure everything goes smoothly for your speaker.”
For a top-tier presentation, such as a keynote at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas or at Qualcomm’s own Uplinq developer conference, which attracts more than 2,000 people, presenters will use Watchout — a technology that can transmit images and video to huge screens, creating what Sipe calls a “wall of video.” The presentation is constantly flowing and evolving, never stopping on one particular static image. “The effect is a panorama-type experience,” Sipe said. “We can have these huge moments that are very dynamic.”
Sometimes the visuals don’t involve technology at all, Sipe said. For CES 2013, Qualcomm wanted to transform the room where a presentation by then-Chairman and CEO Paul E. Jacobs took place, and created huge versions of abstract shapes representing important company values like ingenuity, exploration, and innovation that hung from the ceiling. “So much of what was going on in that room was digital,” Sipe said, “but then we had a physical thing that people could look up and see moving gently over their seats.”
At the PopTech conference, which brings together innovators from a variety of fields, including science, technology, and public health, in Maine every year, organizers embrace new ways of presenting. Cost can be a factor in prohibiting or limiting the use of some platforms, according to Leetha Filderman, PopTech’s president, but often it just takes a technical crew that is creative and open to new ways of doing things. “We love speakers who say they don’t want to use PowerPoint,” Filderman said. “We have speakers that use all kinds of visual techniques that move away from slide presentations and often involve unique or emerging technologies.”
But even with all these shining new presentation technologies available, you shouldn’t automatically discard PowerPoint. Paradi, the presentation expert, says PowerPoint is really just a vehicle, and the blame for boring, confusing, and repetitive presentations falls on the person who didn’t know how to use it well. “Many articles on this topic are blaming the tool — PowerPoint — for the way people use it,” Paradi said. “We have seen people use this tool poorly for so long, there’s this groupthink that it must be the tool’s fault.”
Even with all these shining new presentation technologies available, you shouldn’t automatically discard PowerPoint.
The real problem, he said, is that people have never really been trained on how to use PowerPoint effectively. To begin planning a PowerPoint presentation, he said, you should start your brainstorming outside the presentation software, so an outline of the subject matter exists before visuals come into play. “Often, people haven’t really thought about their message,” he said.
Zichermann said he follows PowerPoint rules outlined by design guru Guy Kawasaki, former adviser to the Motorola business unit at Google and chief evangelist at Apple, now the chief evangelist at Canva, an online graphic-design service. Kawasaki’s governing principles around PowerPoint boil down to 10/20/30: 10 slides, 20 minutes of presentation, and a minimum 30-point font. Still, when Zichermann hears people talk about banning PowerPoint, he senses “a real attempt to get speakers to focus on the quality of their craft rather than on the visuals,” he said. “That’s not really anti-PowerPoint sentiment. It’s more ‘make sure you’re good at giving this talk and don’t depend on
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