Reverse the PowerPoint Death Spiral to Mediocrity! Now!

PowerPoint Imagine a product that is so successful that many people start hating it, to the point of blaming intellectual decline and other social problems on its very ubiquity. Welcome to PowerPoint.

The expression “Death by PowerPoint” generates about (sic) 4,220,000 results via Google, with myriad links to horrible examples of PowerPoint presentations and surveys that rehearse the damage PowerPoint can cause to thinking minds. “PowerPoint Poisoning” gives nearly 1,000,000 Google results, not bad for a contrived phrase. Who knows, maybe PowerPoint Death Spiral to Mediocrity will now surge up the Google ratings charts.

If a speaker pushes insights and information into you via your eyes as well is your ears, what can go wrong? Top public speaking coaches advocate the judicious use of visual aids to make a point memorable. Recently in Vienna I saw an Irish seismologist use a slinky spring to show different earthquake vibrations. Superb.

The problem lies in the very ease of PowerPoint technology. Your speaking time-slot is always limited. But what if the length of your presentation is infinite? Easy. Fill up slide after slide with everything you have to say on any subject. Before you know it, the speaker is supporting the slides and not the other way round. And if you are a dull or unwilling speaker that’s not a bug – it’s a feature, or even the feature.

This stokes another anxiety – what if I leave something out and then later something goes wrong? They’ll say they ‘weren’t told’. I might get into trouble. I might be sued. Err on the safe side. Use the presentation as lecture notes. Cram in all possible information, however marginal.

The ease of the technology also allows a speaker to produce a great mass of material then ‘mix ‘n’ match’ slides for any possible presentation. This accelerates inconsistency of format within slides and between slides. Fonts vary, spacing and layouts vary. The audience feels the mess and misses the message.

Stylistic inconsistencies and underlying psychological insecurities (and/or sheer idleness) on the part of speakers accelerate across the business world. That creates one more bad effect. What if I give by far the best presentation at that event? Maybe people will think I’m arrogant or too clever? Hmm. Tone it down a bit. Why take risks?

And lo! A positive feedback loop develops. Presentation skills get sucked into a vicious death spiral to mediocrity and querulous secondrateitude. Presentations get worse, so speakers get worse, so presentations get worse.

Audiences get worse. All round the world people hear ‘boring!’ when they know that PowerPoint is going to be used. Out come the smartphones: “I can sit here all day away from the office messing around on Facebook and Twitter, and glance at the stupid PowerPoint slide printouts on the way home.”

Can we turn things round – create a great presentation that supports a great speaker? Yes we can.

First, push all detail aside. Identify the two or three basic things you want the recipient to know/learn and understand/remember. If you don’t know what they are, why should your audience? Build the structure of an accompanying presentation around those core messages.

Make sure that every slide has no more than (say) 12 words on it. Or even fewer. A slide has to be seen, not read. Much better three short, easily accessible slides than one long confused one.

Strip out everything that is not needed – smart-ass animations, bullet-points, most punctuation. Less is more.

Add as many lively pictures as possible as if you were using examples to talk to a smart aunt. Don’t stick teensy pictures like postage stamps on slides because someone has told you to use pictures. Make each picture fill one slide completely, with no words. That adds dramatic impact and interest.

Rummage around on YouTube for short amusing videos that illustrate a key point. Video clips in presentations (especially if they are funny or unexpected) bring abrupt changes of rhythm, capturing audience attention. Check that everything will work perfectly when that video slide appears. If you are not 150% sure it is working, cut it out – there’s nothing worse than the technology faltering and the speaker looking stupid.

Finally, make sure that ‘signposts’ in your presentation are clear and strong – those key moments when you lead the audience from one key message to the next one. People will be pleased and flattered that you have helped them through it all sensibly.

Yes, business-people. You can deliver strong, punchy, rewarding presentations that people will love. They’ll love you too. PowerPoint can help you do it.

The good news is that your presentation skills quickly can be transformed with the right technique.

The bad news? That takes some commitment and (hardest of all) self-awareness.

It’s like the best lightbulb joke:

How many New York psychoanalysts does it take to change a lightbulb?

One. But the lightbulb really has to want to change.

Charles Crawford Charles Crawford served as FCO speechwriter in the 1980s and then as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw before leaving the UK Foreign Service in 2007 to start a new career as speechwriter, communications consultant and mediator. He can be reached via his website or @CharlesCrawford

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