Death by PowerPoint

One of the most memorable presentations I ever attended was at once both a highly engaging talk about archeometry and a parody of bad presentations. (In case you didn’t know, archeometry is the application of scientific methods to archeology.) The speaker, a chemist, displayed an extensive table showing the chemical analyses of several potsherds on the screen.  The table had so many entries that you had no idea which ones he was talking about. And of course the numbers were too small to read. The speaker then deliberately defocused the projector so that everything was too blurry anyway. That addition of insult to injury was classic death by PowerPoint.

The need to maintain [the audience’s] attention affects the type and amount of information you can present. Complex or detailed information does not lend itself to oral presentation. Stick with the basic concepts and let people read about the details in your paper.–Darwin and Detwiler

Conveying highly technical information in an oral presentation is difficult at best. The audience has perhaps 20 or 30 seconds to absorb the information on each slide. If they miss anything you want to build on later, they won’t understand the rest of the talk. And if you lose their attention, you won’t get it back. How do you avoid death by PowerPoint?

Planning your talk: think first, then do

Technical presentations often require a handout of material related to the presentation. If your audience will receive continuing education units for attending, the handout is part of the documentation they need to submit to their state licensing board. Too often speakers just provide a printout of their slides. But the handout could be both a useful tool for you and a real help to your audience.

If you’re presenting your paper at a conference, the paper itself can be the handout. Otherwise, you should prepare the handout before your slides. Either way, the handout is the basis for your presentation. That way you can develop an outline of the material, flesh out the key points, and include some graphs and tables if you like. If you have definitions or equations, you can include them as well.

Once you’ve organized the written material the way you want it, you can select what you want to focus on for your talk. You don’t need to cover all of the material in your handout. And don’t just copy your graphs and tables. Remember, people can look at the details when they get home. So just pick out the high points and leave out everything else. That way your graphics can be simple and bold enough to make your point clearly. Your tables can be just a couple of rows and columns–not every detail. And you don’t need to include dozens of equations, either–one or two at most, and only if they really matter.

By focusing on just the main points, you’ll be able to limit the number of your slides, too. That will help you keep your presentation within the allotted time. Focusing will help you avoid death by PowerPoint.

Designing your slides

audience viewing a too-busy slide shows death by PowerPoint in action
Keep your slides simple so your audience can read them. This slide has way too much text. Shutterstock image.

Keep each slide simple so the audience knows what to focus on. They can read faster than you can (or should) talk, so they’ll get ahead of you if there’s too much information on one slide.

In the same vein, avoid “busyness”. That is, delete extraneous details, company logos, and wordy text. They’ll just distract your audience from your main point. You should be familiar enough with what you want to say that you don’t need the slides as a prompt. The words are there for your audience, not you.

That said, if you’re not a native speaker of the language of your presentation, you may need a few more words on the screen. When you’re nervous, it’s easy to forget key words. And if you have an accent, your audience may need to read what they don’t hear accurately. Either way, you may want a few more slides for the additional words.

Make your slides easy to read. That means choosing colors that contrast well (even for the color-blind). It also means using a large enough type font so that people in the back of the room can read them.

Another way to help your audience focus on the main points is to sum them up at the end. The old formula of “Tell them what you’re going to tell them; then tell them; then tell them what you told them,” may be a cliché, but it has some truth to it. They won’t remember everything you said, but they’ll remember the key takeaways if you make them memorable.

Know your audience

Just as in written communication, you need to keep your audience in mind as you prepare your talk. Who are they–in terms of age, sex, nationality, and ethnic background? What kind of education and experience do they have? Are they familiar with your topic, or is it completely new to them? What do they want from your presentation? What do you want them to take away from it? Do they already know you, or do you need to introduce yourself?

Some speakers like to use humor to build rapport with their audience, or to hold their attention. Humor can be highly effective–or utterly disastrous. This is one reason why you need to know your audience. Humor is closely tied to language, culture, and individual experience. The more diverse the demographics, the more difficult it will be to find something everyone can relate to. For example, if your audience includes millennials, they’re too young to remember the 1980s.

For a diverse audience, cuteness usually works better than cleverness. One speaker I know is extremely witty–and highly entertaining for those of us who “get” his humor. But when I look around the room, I see only a few people laughing with us. They’re not offended; they just don’t see what’s so funny.

Avoid using “humor” that divides or denigrates. That includes ethnic jokes, anything to do with religion or politics, and anything that puts anyone down. And never talk down to your audience. You want them with you, not against you.

Holding their attention

Aside from tight focus on your topic and judicious use of humor, how else can you hold the attention of your audience?

Variety is a great way to avoid death by PowerPoint. Instead of having slide after slide full of text, break it up with interesting visuals. Graphs, photos, and simple line drawings can all help.

When they work, video clips are also interesting. To increase your chances that they will work, use your own laptop if you can. Before you give your presentation, verify that everything is working as it’s set up in the room you’ll be speaking in. And be prepared in case it doesn’t work. That is, know what you’re going to say to convey the same information if it doesn’t come off as planned.

Vary the pitch and speed of your voice, too. You want to sound as if you care about your subject matter, and about your audience. If you don’t sound interested in your topic, you can’t expect to keep your listeners interested, either.

Another way to get their attention is to tell stories. People of all ages and all cultures love stories, especially ones they can relate to. If you can come up with something brief and relevant, it could be very effective. In a technical context, case studies fulfill this function nicely–and give your audience some practical information they’ll appreciate.

For small audiences only

If your audience is relatively small–fewer than 100 or so people–you could get them to talk. Ask them a question related to your topic, or solicit questions from them. For example, in a recent classroom lecture to the senior design students, I had them get together with their design teams to figure out how they were going to approach the ethical factors analysis for their projects. After they’d had a chance to work through it, I asked whether any of the teams had had a hard time coming up with something meaningful for all five factors (economic, environmental, social, cultural, and global). Then we talked through how they might do it. If your talk is being recorded, either provide the audience with microphones or repeat what they say into your microphone. That way both questions and responses will be recorded.

Another approach that works well with smaller audiences is the object lesson. That is, use a physical object to illustrate your point. For example, a colleague and I once used a soccer ball to show how an air void might look under a microscope. Another speaker used different kinds of candy bars to illustrate the difference between plastic- and drying shrinkage in concrete. He then distributed “fun-sized” candy bars to his audience. If you want to try this, be sure to rehearse the object lesson thoroughly so you can do it smoothly. Also, your object needs to be large enough that someone in the back row can see it.

A “killer” talk or death by PowerPoint?

We’ve all experienced death by PowerPoint–the monotone speaker; the endless, overly busy text slides; the interminable droning; the text that’s too small to read; the graphs with so much detail you can’t distinguish anything; the tables of data. Technical presentations don’t have to be like this. Instead, they can be interesting and informative–even memorable.

What makes it work? Start with your written material. Select what you want to focus on. Get rid of extraneous details. Make your graphics simple, bold, and easy to read. Vary your visuals and your vocal expression. Use humor with care. Tell stories. If you have a small enough audience, consider getting them to participate. And whatever you do, don’t drone on beyond the allotted time.