Rethinking Slides: The Purpose of PowerPoint

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Last night, my professor gave our class directions for next week’s group presentations on a specific communication theory.  He said he wanted us to focus on clarity of ideas as opposed to presentation “glitz,” and he asked that we keep things simple and avoid a whirling, swirling Prezi.  When my group came together to discuss our theory and how we might present it to our classmates, I asked, “Can we NOT use a PowerPoint?”  By the reaction I got, you would have thought I asked my group members to put their hands into a wood chipper.

Undeterred by a little pushback, I suggested we avoid going the death-by-PowerPoint route and stick to a handout instead.  It took me getting approval from the professor before the group agreed.  I thought to myself… Since when did “PowerPoint” become synonymous with “presentation?”  And since when did suggesting we ditch the slideshow software become an outlandish suggestion?

Last week, I wrote “3 Reasons To Ditch Your PowerPoint Slides” based on an NPR article I’d read.  Last night, I realized we need to take an even further step back and examine the purpose of PowerPoint.

Death By PowerPoint

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The goal of a presentation is to share an idea with a group of people.  Sometimes, slides are a great way to reinforce that message visually.  Most of the time, slides aren’t necessary.  First, we must decide if we even need slides to communicate our message.  We can ask ourselves these questions:  What is my message?  What does my audience need to know about my message?  How can I effectively get my message to my audience?  Why does my message matter to my audience?  Would visual aids help an audience “see” my message?  If so, what kind of visual aids would be best?

Most PowerPoint slides don’t contain visuals to support the message – they contain the message itself.  If you skip these questions and open up PowerPoint, you are typing in notes.  PowerPoint isn’t a container for notes… It was originally created to be a visual aid.  A visual aid is defined as something you look at in order to make a concept easier to understand (Source).  A visual aid should be visual.  Text-heavy slides are just the opposite of visual; in fact, text-heavy slides are just your presentation notes written down.  Don’t display your notes… Your notes are for you.  Your audience doesn’t need to read your notes.  Your audience needs visual stimulation through actual visuals.

Molecular biologist John Medina studies the brain and names vision as our dominant sense.  He says, “Toss your PowerPoint presentations. It’s text-based (nearly 40 words per slide), with six hierarchical levels of chapters and subheads—all words. Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effects of images” (Source).  Consider the picture superiority effect:

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So, if audience’s brains are attracted to visually-driven information, and if PowerPoint slides were originally designed to be visual, why aren’t we using the medium properly?

Guy Kawasaki interviewed presentation expert Garr Reynolds on this very topic.  Reynolds says, “We can make effective presentations with even older versions of PowerPoint—often by ignoring most of the features. Ultimately it comes down to us and our skills and our content. Each case is different, and some of the best presentations include not a single slide. In the end it is about knowing your material deeply and designing visuals that augment and amplify your spoken message” (Source).

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Think about how you feel when you sit in a room and watch PowerPoint after PowerPoint after PowerPoint filled with bullets.  After a few minutes, you’re tired, you’re bored, you’d rather be doing something else.  If your audience isn’t paying attention and would rather be doing something else, you haven’t done your job as the presenter.  Your job is to engage your audience, to inform but to entertain them, to get them excited about a particular topic, to motivate them, to persuade them… If your audience feels nothing but apathy and boredom, your presentation was a waste of everyone’s time.

Most importantly, if your audience has your entire message written down, they don’t need you!  Take a look at this PowerPoint called, hilariously enough, “Giving Good Presentations.”  Since I can read this information from start to finish, I don’t need anyone to read it for me.  I don’t need to go to a lecture hall, a conference room, or a TED convention to have this stuff read aloud for me.  That means this isn’t a presentation – it’s a document.  Anything with a bunch of text on it is a document – it’s not a slide.

Turning your document into a slideshow is easy and effective.  Instead of displaying your notes, use visually-driven slides dominated by images.  Doing so means your job as a presenter is no longer obsolete – your audience needs YOU to connect the dots and to explain each slide.  Garr Reynolds shows you some before and after slides here to get you started moving in the right direction.

Reynolds gives us one final thought, “PowerPoint and Keynote are both pretty simple tools, but there has been too much focus on the tools themselves. If people want to learn how to make better slides they should study good books on graphic design and visual communication to improve their visual literacy” (Source).

How do YOU convince people to rethink PowerPoint and to understand the purpose of a slideshow?

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3 Reasons To Ditch Your PowerPoint Slides

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PowerPoint and Keynote slides are often so terrible that ditching them completely would go a long way in helping presenters connect with audiences.  I was taking a lazy Sunday nap and read an article on NPR called “Physicists, Generals, and CEOs Agree: Ditch The PowerPoint.”  The article makes three fascinating points on why we should get rid of those slides completely:

PowerPoint gets in the way of discussion

A team of physicists banned PowerPoint and forced presenters to use a whiteboard instead.  In their experience, people who used PowerPoint slides were tethered to those slides, and when it came time for group discussion, presenters couldn’t move beyond their slides (Source).  After watching thousands of presentations, I’ve come to the realization that unless presenters learn how to properly use Keynote or PowerPoint, they should ditch the slideshow completely.  In my class, students present team “Mini Discussions” with the goal of informing us about a particular topic and engaging us in a class activity.  I’ve banned slides for this presentation, and I’ve found that we can have a more natural, human conversation in class on each Mini Discussion topic.

PowerPoint is boring

Molecular biologist John Medina has released a series of Brain Rules books.  Medina tells us that the brain can’t pay attention to boring things.  According to his website, “What we pay attention to is profoundly influenced by memory. Our previous experience predicts where we should pay attention. Whether in school or in business, these differences can greatly affect how an audience perceives a given presentation” (Source).

Author Alan Yu’s interview subjects agree.  John Paul Chou, a physics professor at Rutgers, believes that “the main advantage of forgoing PowerPoint is that it forces both the speaker and the listener to pay attention.  With PowerPoint, he says, it’s ‘easier to let your mind go on autopilot and you start to lose focus more easily'” (Source).

I agree.  I’ve been in dozens of meetings, leadership trainings, and board retreats where as soon as the presenter flipped on the PowerPoint, everyone in the audience tuned out.  Since we’ve seen so many bad presentations with slides, our brains are comfortable shutting down as soon as we see the slideshow.  In many cases, the material was important and could have been interesting.

You can tell if your slideshow presentation went over well, and this lead us back to the first point of the NPR article.  If you give your presentation and no one has any questions, you sucked.  If you present your slides and no one has a single thing to offer, to contribute, to discuss, to ask, or to say when you’re finished, your presentation was bad.

PowerPoint is lazy

John Paul Chou of Rutgers “says the problem is simply that ‘we’re so used to giving PowerPoint [presentations] that we forget there are other means of communicating'” (Source).  Consider this: BusinessWeek estimates “350 PowerPoint presentations are given each second across the globe” (Source).  That’s an estimated 30 million PowerPoints every day.  How many of those 30 million presentations actually needed slides?  PowerPoint is the lazy way out, and its purpose is hazy.  Why did those presenters even use slides in the first place?  Could he or she have gone without the slide medium completely?  Could the presenter have done something different?

We also see people use PowerPoint as their speaking notes.  Instead of using the medium properly, a presenter will type all of his/her main points on the slide.  This is lazy.  World-renowned presentation experts Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds tell us that speaking notes belong to the presenter only, and PowerPoint slides should visually reinforce the content.  John Medina explains why: “Vision trumps all other senses.  We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.  Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time” (Source).

Take a look at Nancy Duarte’s “How To Create Better Visual Presentations”

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Learn more about all things effective slide design here.  In the meantime, like NPR’s experts, Medina also suggests we ditch PowerPoint.  He says, “Toss your PowerPoint presentations. It’s text-based (nearly 40 words per slide), with six hierarchical levels of chapters and subheads—all words. Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effects of images. Burn your current PowerPoint presentations” (Source).

What are additional reasons why presenters should ditch those PowerPoint slides?

Design Tip of the Day: Stop With The Faceless Alien Creatures

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Dear Presenters,

It has come to my attention that a horror worse than 1990s clip art lurks among presenters today.  This horror appears in over 90% of slideshows that I see, and it is not only hideous but also terrifying and just plain weird.  That horror, Dear Presenter, is…

THE FACELESS ALIEN CREATURE!

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You can find the faceless alien creature doing almost any task: teaching, jumping, writing, skydiving… As you can see from the images above and below, you can also find the faceless alien creature joining with others to hold gigantic puzzle pieces and putting them together AND joining hands around the globe and enormous arrows to promote recycling.  Yeah… I just threw up.

Despite the faceless alien creature’s activity, one thing is always the same.  The faceless alien creature is completely nude, appears in one color from head-to-toe, and, of course, does not have a face.  If you are presenting to people with clothes on, with natural human pigmentation, and with faces, I’m not sure how faceless alien creatures connect…  But you probably didn’t think about connection, Dear Presenter, because faceless alien creatures come from a hasty Google search of things like “collaboration” and “academic integrity.”  If you’re too busy to create an audience-centered slideshow with audience-centered images, I’m not sure why you were asked to present in the first place.  You sound pretty selfish.

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Dear Presenter, I’m sure you might argue that there aren’t enough hours in the day to find good images or that you’re too busy to care about pretty slides.  I’d ask you to count the number of people in your audience and to ask how much overall time those people will be spending with you and your terrible presentation.  If you have 30 people in the audience listening to you for 30 minutes, that’s 900 total minutes you’re wasting with your hideous slides.  And if you don’t care after doing the math, I’d strongly suggest you find someone who DOES care to present instead of you.

If you do care, Dear Presenter, I have two simple tips for you: 1) Stop using tacky faceless alien creatures in your slideshow.  2)  Find images of real people.  Try Compfight.  It’s a winner.

I will leave you with one final thought, Dear Presenter.  Every time you use a faceless alien creature in your slides, a real faceless alien creature from outer space begins his journey to Earth to kill you.  You may be able to take on one or two, but if your number at this point is nearing 50, you might as well call it a day.

Sincerely,

Alex Rister

7 Rules for Creating Effective Slides

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Last month, I designed a new deck of slides to teach my students 7 key rules for creating effective slides.  I finally uploaded the deck to Slideshare:

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To learn about each rule in greater detail, see each rule’s specific post from January 2013.  Read rule number one: Slides Are Not Documents; rule number two: Apply The Picture Superiority Effect; rule number three: Slides Should Be Simple; rule number four: Slides Must Have Unity; rule number five: Display Data Clearly; rule number six: Use Multimedia Wisely; and rule number seven: Don’t Forget Your Audience.

What rules do you think are most important in slide design?

Visual Design: Don’t Forget Your Audience

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When I learned that I would have a few very special guests attending my visual design lecture this month, I redesigned my lesson plans.  While these lessons aren’t quite Slideshare-ready yet, I would like to share them with you over the next few days.  I promise to debut the new visual design Slideshare presentation before the end of January!

The new lessons focus on teaching my students 7 key rules for effective slide design.  Read rule number one: Slides Are Not Documents; rule number two: Apply The Picture Superiority Effect; rule number three: Slides Should Be Simple; rule number four: Slides Must Have Unity; rule number five: Display Data Clearly; and rule number six: Use Multimedia Wisely.  Today, we cover the seventh and final rule of effective slide design:

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Your presentation should be based upon the needs, wants, and hopes of your audience. Your slides should definitely take the crowd into consideration.  Additionally, you should spend enough time on your slideshow to honor and respect your audience.

Consider a 30 minute presentation in front of a crowd of 200 people.  Each of those 200 people are giving up 30 minutes of their lives to watch you present, so 6,000 collective minutes are at stake during your speech.  Is that time your audience will feel is wasted?

Creating slides should not be a race… Don’t speed through this important process.  Instead of rushing and hurrying to build a Keynote for your presentation, spend time storyboarding, carefully searching for the right images, and, most importantly, tweaking.

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Chiara Ojeda introduced me to the concept of “tweaking slides” because of her commitment to constantly improving, revising, and growing in this area.  Now, before I complete a deck or share new slides with my students, I always ask for her opinion.  Just as rehearsing your content helps your message and your delivery, asking for slide advice helps you design the best possible Keynote.

Nancy Duarte believes in the three-pronged presentation ecosystem.  Jim Endicott believes in the three-legged presentation stool.  If you hope to deliver a strong presentation, each of these three legs much be strong.  Spending more time creating and revising your slides will ensure that third visual design leg is just as powerful as content and delivery.

Visual Design: Use Multimedia Wisely

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When I learned that I would have a few very special guests attending my visual design lecture this month, I redesigned my lesson plans.  While these lessons aren’t quite Slideshare-ready yet, I would like to share them with you over the next few days.  I promise to debut the new visual design Slideshare presentation before the end of January!

The new lessons focus on teaching my students 7 key rules for effective slide design.  Read rule number one: Slides Are Not Documents; rule number two: Apply The Picture Superiority Effect; rule number three: Slides Should Be Simple; rule number four: Slides Must Have Unity; and rule number five: Display Data Clearly.  Today, we examine the sixth rule:

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I’ve noticed that if allowed, my students want to fill up a lot of speaking time with useless multimedia.  Audio and video must be used wisely, and every clip inserted into Keynote or PowerPoint should reinforce the speaker’s main idea.

Sometimes, my students throw video clips into Keynote that have little to nothing to do with their presentation topic.  When I question those students on why the video was included, I hear things like, “Because the video was cool!” or “Because I knew my audience would laugh at the video clip.”  If you’re using multimedia just because you believe it is funny or interesting, you should not use it in your slideshow.  The goal of multimedia is to support a main idea in your presentation.  Just as you would use research and source material in your speech, multimedia should be integrated seamlessly.  Video clips should tie to the speech content, but the speaker should also work to explain those relationships, too.

Multimedia should also be short and to the point.  I suggest using the QuickTime tool inside the Inspector in Keynote to cut down your audio or video clips and to only show the most important parts.  If your audience wants to know more, you can share the link to the full version with them.  After all, inspiring your audience to look up more information about your topic is positive… Boring your audience to tears with too-long videos is not.

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The great thing about the QuickTime feature in the Inspector is that you don’t have to use any other program to cut down your multimedia… no iMovie, no FinalCut Pro.  The QuickTime tab allows you to adjust the “Start” and “Stop” times for your multimedia.

When it comes to making sure you are using multimedia wisely, ask yourself the following three questions:

1.  Is this audio or video clip directly related to my message?  How is this multimedia supporting or reinforcing my presentation’s content?

2.  Is this audio or video clip absolutely necessary?  What will my audience miss out on if I don’t include the multimedia?

3.  Can I cut down the audio or video?  What can I cut?  How much can I cut?

What other questions are important to ask when deciding whether or not to use multimedia?

Visual Design: Display Data Clearly

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When I learned that I would have a few very special guests attending my visual design lecture this month, I redesigned my lesson plans.  While these lessons aren’t quite Slideshare-ready yet, I would like to share them with you over the next few days.  I promise to debut the new visual design Slideshare presentation before the end of January!

The new lessons focus on teaching my students 7 key rules for effective slide design.  Read rule number one: Slides Are Not Documents; rule number two: Apply The Picture Superiority Effect; rule number three: Slides Should Be Simple; and rule number four: Slides Must Have Unity.  Today, we take a look at the fifth rule:

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We live in a data-saturated world.  Just as the results of a particular study can be muddled, slides containing data can be unclear.  The goal of presentation design is to display information, especially data, in a simple, clear, and easy-to-digest fashion.  Data must be clear in order for an audience to look at it, to process it, to digest it, and to remember it.

When we present to an audience, we may want to fill our slides with more data than they need so that – if they have a question – the question can be answered by sifting through mountains of data.  By doing this, our slides end up looking busy, confusing, and overwhelming…

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Ironically, the slide above is talking about engaging customers to cut through clutter… However, the slide is so busy and cluttered that the audience can’t process the main idea in three seconds.  Heck, I can’t even process the main idea in ten seconds.

Yes, we can give our audience all of this information.  However, when we’re speaking, we typically use the data to support one main point.  I suggest including only the relevant data to support that main point on your slides and then putting all of your research, tables, graphs, and charts in document form to hand out (or to distribute digitally via email/Dropbox/flash drive).  That way, your audience has all of the information in case they want to fact-check you, but your slides still remain clear and simple.

Sometimes, we display data effectively, but we use the premade charts in Keynote or PowerPoint.  Without changing the typeface or colors, we end up with a hideous data visualization like the one you see here:

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David McCandless says that data should be displayed with four principles in mind: 1) interestingness, 2) integrity, 3) form, and 4) function.  To learn more about his work, check out Information Is Beautiful or watch his TED Talk (one of my personal favorites) “The beauty of data visualization.”  McCandless believes in data, but he believes we should work to display it more clearly, effectively, and beautifully.

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The experts agree that data should meet the qualifications McCandless describes above. Garr Reynolds advises against slapping every piece of research on a single slide and expecting our audience to figure things out.  He says, “We must not make the mistake of thinking that our data can speak for itself, no matter how convincing, obvious, or strong it may seem to us” (Source).  He suggests we look to Hans Rosling (a man David McCandless describes as his “master”) to see how data should be displayed.

Phil Waknell gives some additional advice, “Some [main points in a presentation] will require tables of data. These do not go on slides. I would simply print those tables and give them to the investor at the appropriate time. It’s far easier to understand tables of data on paper rather than on a big screen. What is more, on the screen I could then put a simple graph which illustrates a key data point from the printed table. This helps me to guide the investor’s attention a little. However, if I only showed the simple graph, the investor would not have enough detail to trust what I’m saying” (Source).

How do you display data on your slides?  Is your data clear and simple?