How to present with PowerPoint for maximum impact

Perform to impress

Are you a slide-reader? Does PowerPoint tear your gaze away from the room and force you to stare backwards at the wall behind you?

Go on, admit it. I bet you spend far too long looking your slide deck and not enough time connecting with your audience. I’m sure you’ve attended numerous Death by PowerPoint meetings and presentations. So why inflict that on others?

Happens to the best of us? Actually it doesn’t.

Today I’d like to focus on how to present with PowerPoint without making it the centre of your talk, and how to leverage your slides without hosting a dull and dreary event.

A simple image says so much

First things first. Put your slides to work. Visual aids are supposed to do what they say on the tin: illustrate a message to help people understand it. We are all aware that this doesn’t always happen.

It often seems de rigueur to overpopulate each slide with of reams of text and loads of pictures – even though this does nothing but confuse your audience visually. A slide deck should never be used as an aide memoire, yet many people – even very, very senior people – fall into this trap. Please don’t place yourself among that crowd.

A single, powerful image stays with us much longer than dry facts and figures. That’s why newspapers print stimulating photos under their headlines. Think of the first moon landing…the Twin Towers…the World Cup…the Royal wedding…the first African American President…any other significant event. The pictures support the words and add flavour and depth.

It really isn’t rocket science. When you present with PowerPoint, using a single, clear image with one effective message helps people to understand new concepts and improves their recall. It also helps to get your audience on-side.

Basic, well designed diagrams and flow charts can collate and simplify information. Coloured graphs and charts can help illustrate numerical data and showcase trends. Pictures, photos and videos grab the imagination. Maps pinpoint the area you are discussing. Relevant cartoons and humorous photos entertain. Take your pick. But keep it simple. Stick to one image per slide and never, ever combine graphs, bullet points and pictures.

Text free – a breath of fresh air

When people view a complex slide, their first reaction is to wonder what it is about and then try to determine its meaning. Your audience will  do this ‘calculation’ while you are speaking. While they are trying to understand the visuals, they won’t hear a word you say. This is obviously detrimental to your message.

Visuals always take precedence over audio. Audiences cannot multitask. So when faced with a choice between focusing visually on a slide and listening to you talk, the slide wins hands down every time.

If the slide contains a single, simple image, they will glance at it and revert to you. If there is text on the slide they will finish reading while you are still labouring through the first point. That means you will lag far behind in the information you’re providing. The audience will already know what is coming up and will get bored waiting.

With text-packed slides, you are more likely to fall into the dreadful practice of reading to your audience. They will inevitably groan – if not out loud, then certainly to themselves. They will be completely justified. Reading slides is not giving a presentation. It is a waste of time both for presenter and audience.

If you plan to present with PowerPoint and pack your slides with text, you might as well send out the deck beforehand and not bother turning up on the day. Who wants to waste their time listening to something they already know? Business is busy and time is precious.

Keep all slides as text free as possible. Use highly abbreviated bullet points if you must use words, but do yourself a massive favour and avoid full sentences.

Make those bullets hit home

If you absolutely insist on including text, the rule of thumb is to have no more than four bullet points per slide, with no more than four words per bullet point. This is the four-by-four rule. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that’s a maximum of 16 words per slide.

Sounds unachievable? Give it a go. You may end up with many more slides than you normally use, but they will be slides that work as opposed to slides that don’t.

Crossing into design for a teensy moment… While some people put a full stop at the end of each bullet point, this is not compulsory. You just need to be consistent with your use (or lack of use) of full stops, as well as with the length, icon and colour of each point.

Smooth your delivery

Many senior leaders find that delivering a talk is easier and smoother with the use of physical cue cards as a memory jogger to support an image-rich slide deck. Each cue card should contain the relevant bullet points for just one element of the presentation.

Cue cards can be instrumental in reminding you of what comes next. Have a quick glance at your notes, remember what you want to say, and avoid the problem of reading and sounding stilted.

PowerPoint lovers can substitute cue cards with the notes section of PowerPoint, but however you want to play this, do follow the four-by-four rule, with no more than 16 words per card. Have the words in large font so they are easy to see at a glance.

As a safety net, number each card in case you drop them all. You really don’t want to scrabble around on the floor picking up cards while trying to find your place again – and believe me, that’s happened to more than one person I know.

Focus on the audience so they can focus on you

Visual aids, however brilliant, are for your audience, not for you. They can significantly detract from your performance if you keep looking at them. Slides and cue cards can be a presenter’s worst distraction. If you don’t use them properly, you can find yourself staring at a screen behind you, or gazing down at the card in your hands, drawn to your place of focus as if it were the most important thing in the world.

To present with PowerPoint effectively and turn your talk into an authoritative, memorable occasion, you need to maintain eye contact with your audience. Look at them at all times while speaking. When you come to the end of a point, glance at your cue card/PowerPoint notes in silence to remind yourself of the next point, and don’t start speaking until you are facing the audience again. There is no point talking to the wall behind you (the audience won’t hear you). There is no point talking down at a cue card in your hands (they still won’t hear you).

Whenever your mouth is moving, your eyes should be on your audience. If you look at them, they will look at you. Only then can you achieve a spark of human connection that might sell your message.

It is important to practice your talk well before the event – partly to avoid using visual aids as an excuse to look away from the audience. The better you know your content, the better you will be able to deliver it while maintaining that all-important eye contact.

Slides are not the only visual aids

Shock horror – you don’t have to present with Powerpoint or even with Prezi. I hear you gulp, but slide-free presentations are the way of the future for the successful executive, and they really should be the way of the present, too.

Physical props are a great alternative (and/or addition) to slide decks in a talk, but their potential is often overlooked. It takes a smidgeon of creativity to incorporate three dimensional objects into a presentation, but it is well worth the effort when you get it right. Your speech will become memorable for all the best reasons.

So…when you discuss the latest widget, make sure everyone in the audience has a widget to play with. When you talk about sales material, make sure your brochures are freely available in the room. When you explain a new piece of kit, bring it along so people can see, hear and feel what you mean.

Think laterally as well. What can you use to demonstrate your point? It doesn’t have to be exact. Analogy is great.

For example, to demonstrate a new software system you might want to peel an orange to show how the segments fit neatly together in one rounded package. Or place an old mobile phone next to the newest, snazziest smartphone to illustrate the difference between the basic software package currently in use, and the super-duper all singing, all dancing software that you advocate instead.

Sit back, relax, enjoy, succeed

There are many ways to swing a cat (don’t take that literally) and many ways to illustrate a talk. Regardless of the visual aids you choose, the most important thing is your message and framing it effectively to convey the benefits to your audience. Enjoy the process of explaining and triggering that ‘aha’ moment in those around you.

If you’re unsure how to achieve this, or you’d like support with anything I’ve said here, please get in touch and I’ll be happy to help.