Advice for focused PowerPoint presentations

10 suggestions from Bill Wilhelmi for Microsoft Powerpoint users.

As a PowerPoint user in the corporate culture for several years, I've found the following guidelines helpful:
  • What’s the point? Identify and highlight the essential information in your presentation. Don’t let it get buried in bulleted lists and hundreds of slides. Ask yourself: Could someone watching this presentation come away with a clear sense of the concept I’m presenting? If you’re not sure, take another look at your PowerPoint presentation.
  • Tell a story. It’s far easier, especially in technical presentations, to lay out a series of detailed slides as if you were writing a computer manual. However, a good story always captures people’s attention and leaves them with a clearer understanding of your topic. Even the most mundane subject can be organized into a story. I like to use the following formula:
    1. Attention grabber
    2. Topic introduction (thesis)
    3. Three main subtopics
    4. Expansion on the three subtopics
    a. Introduction
    b. Supporting points
    c. Summary
    5. Summarization of the three subtopics in support of the thesis
    6. Conclusion
  • Keep bullet points short. Focus on key words that will resonate with the listener. Don’t include long sentences and paragraphs in bulleted items. If you must feature a quote, do so in a single slide.
  • A picture is worth a thousand bullet points. Consider each slide and see if a picture might better represent its concept. If all you have is slide after slide of bullet points, you may want to avoid using PowerPoint altogether. While I don’t think that bullet points should never be used, you’ll likely slay your audience if that’s all you use.
  • Examine your graphics. Are your graphics well designed? (If you know a graphic designer, get his or her opinion.) Also, ensure the graphics convey the correct message. Are they too busy? Are charts too complicated? You might consider dropping unessential data from the charts. Will someone looking at your graphics understand them? Make sure that they do.
  • Limit your use of transitions. I've seen amateurs get carried away with the variety of transitions and animations available in PowerPoint. The type of transition you use depends on the audience and your own tastes. If, for example, you’re making a presentation to a group of lawyers or accountants, limit yourself to simple transitions. If you’re making a presentation to a room of commercial artists, you may hold their interest by using more creative transitions.
  • Select one transition and use it consistently. It’s annoying to the audience when transitions behave differently with every slide and bullet point. Don’t make your transitions a distraction. Remember their function: to seamlessly move from one slide or idea to the next.
  • Become a stern editor. Cut unnecessary slides. If you create handouts, each slide or two creates another handout page. Your audience will be carting these around and filing them (or piling them on their desks). Respect your audience and limit the number of pages they need to store.
  • Include notes with your PPT file. Your PowerPoint file may live on for several years. For example, many conferences publish proceedings as PowerPoint files. If your file might be subject to an extended life, pictures or bullet points may not tell the whole story.
  • Practice your presentation. With all the demands that corporate culture places on your time, you may not always have time to practice the presentation. However, practicing it will give you a sense of timing and help you measure its flow and logical organization.

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