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Humanizing PowerPoint

Cliff Atkinson inspires me every time he writes about how to use PowerPoint to engage rather than lecture to audiences. While PowerPoint is, for too many people, one of the things that is broken in their work, it doesn't have to be.
Written by Marc Orchant, Contributor on

Cliff Atkinson inspires me every time he writes about how to use PowerPoint to engage rather than lecture to audiences. While PowerPoint is, for too many people, one of the things that is broken in their work, it doesn't have to be. Cliff's blog, Beyond Bullets, provides some excellent ideas and techniques to get you thinking about PowerPoint as a storytelling tool rather than a sleep aid.

Cliff has also written a book titled Beyond Bullet Points that I think should be on the desk of everyone who uses PowerPoint on any kind of a regular basis. He teaches you how to approach building a great presentation in much the same way you would develop a film - start with the story and do the production only after you have a compelling tale to tell with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. If your normal approach to creating a presentation is to open a new PowerPoint file and begin typing in bullet points,  Cliff will literally turn your world (and your effectiveness as a presenter) upside down.

In a post today, he talks about how using a Tablet PC to deliver his presentations has provided a new dimension in engagement with his audiences. Having used the same techniques he discusses, I can assure you that his experience is not unique. I do much the same thing when building mind maps with a group. There's an incredible sense of participation and ownership transferred to every person who sees their contribution to the conversation appear in handwritten form on the screen.

Three other big thinkers who always inspire me have contributed excellent suggestions about how to work with this much-maligned application. Tom Peters is a PowerPoint master and freely shares his slide decks (some of which he works on right up until minutes before he makes his presentation) on his blog. The post-Re-imagine TP is a PowerPoint artist.

Guy Kawasaki, the iconic Apple evangelist turned VC, recently began blogging and has already posted some sage advice about how to present properly. While Guy uses Keynote, Apple's presentation tool, the principles he shares are every bit as applicable for PowerPoint users (or cavemen presenting on a rock wall for that matter).

Seth Godin wrote the book on PowerPoint - literally. His Really Bad PowerPoint was one of, if not the, best-selling ebook on Amazon.com and cost under two bucks. The ebook is apparently no longer available although Seth did offer it as a premium if you bought one of his books some time ago. Cliff Atkinson interviewed Seth about Really Bad PowerPoint and you'll get the key concepts from their great conversation.

Here are my three best PowerPoint tips:

  1. Use a meaningful visual element on every slide - pictures have power. Try to maintain a 50%-50% balance between text and graphics. I usually manage to do quite a bit better. The best presentations I've delivered, according to the audience (the only people whose opinion matters), have contained 80% images. Pulling this off well is based on tip #2.
  2. Know your material - don't memorize it. If you recite something from memory, not only can you end up sounding like an automaton, if you get interrupted (hey, it happens) you're lost. Ask yourself this question: "Could I continue to deliver my presentation if the power went out?"
  3. Engage the audience - and that doesn't mean open with a joke. Jokes are fine, especially if they're topical. But really engaging the audience means getting the people in the room emotionally invested in the topic you're speaking about. Solicit stories from participants and then work off of what they share. This also requires mastery of tip #2 as well as the ability to keep the participant you've engaged from stealing your position as speaker. Set ground rules like "in two sentences, tell me about..." Sometimes planting a "ringer" to get things going and define the format of the engagement can be a great help if you plan to use this conversational technique.
Finally, always make a conscious decision about whether or not PowerPoint is appropriate for your presentation. I have often seen a speaker get their biggest round of applause when they announce that they don't have any PowerPoint slides. The dynamic in the room changes whenever this happens. I almost always see people sit up and lean forward in their chairs (the best possible body language you can generate from your audience) as soon as this statement is made.
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