• emilysoltanoff

The First Commandment of PowerPoint: Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Audience

A friend (OK, she is an apocryphal friend, a composite of several clients) told me this story:

It was a week before her first big talk. She had a pretty clear idea of what she was going to say. OK, actually she had no idea. But she had broad strokes here and deep knowledge there. She could talk about her topic to anyone. People considered her to be not only an expert, but engaging and animated. She was confident that when the lights went out and she walked out onto the stage that it would all come together. Somehow. Or maybe it wouldn’t come together. At all. How was she supposed to put twenty years of knowledge and know-how into a 20-minute talk anyway? What if her mind went blank and her mouth turned dry and silence resonated through an auditorium of her colleagues and peers and those others—the ones whose socks she really wanted to knock off? Suddenly a week didn’t feel like enough time to plan the talk. That night she dreamt that she came out onto the stage naked. She had no notes, no idea what to say. With gasps from the audience she fled with only her passport and headed to the airport.

My apocryphal friend woke up and took a long hot shower to wash away the bad dream and because she thinks best in the shower. That's when it came to her: PowerPoint! She poured herself some coffee, opened a new presentation, and starting typing out everything she knew. Her thoughts lined themselves up tidily in bullet points and sub-points and sub-sub points and it all started to look so coherent and real to her. Magically, the more text she put on a slide the smaller the text got so that it always fit. By lunch time she had thirty slides and 400 bullet points. By dinner the bullet points could no longer be counted. But she felt so much better. She slept well that night.

The next day, she had an inspiration. She found a funny drawing on the web that had a little something to do with her topic. Sort of. Anyway, it was definitely cute. And there was a cat involved. A picture’s worth a thousand words, right? (Not that she was going to cut a thousand—or any—words.) There was a little note on the site—something about copyright—but, do people really pay attention to that? She made a screen grab, hit “insert picture” and—so cool!—the image appeared on her slide. She had to make it a lot smaller and stick it up in a corner so that it wouldn’t get in the way of any bullet points. But that was OK, because it got a little less fuzzy when it was really, really tiny. She also found a bar chart with seventy-five bars showing the ups and downs of something or other over some amount of time. It would take a lot of explaining—once she understood it—but “Boy,” she thought “it is so complicated that it’ll really be impressive.” Insert picture! While she was at it, she changed the background color of every slide to orange and the type to yellow. Her favorite colors!

On the third day, she was feeling so confident that when she stumbled upon the animation tool in PowerPoint she went for it. She had every text box float up into place and bounce three times. She set every slide to transition into the next by way of a somersault. So fun! That night she dreamed not of gasps of horror but gasps of delight and a standing ovation.

Two days out from the talk she realized that she could practice and time her talk right in PowerPoint. The 20-minute presentation came in at…two hours and 37 minutes. Problem. She practiced talking faster.

In the end she had bouncy, somersaulting slides that most people couldn’t read. Those who could, raced through the bullet points then tuned her out until the next slide somersaulted in. They squinted at the bar chart. “Why,” she wondered, “do so many people have their heads down on their arms?” Instead of brimming with confidence she felt as if she was just reading bullet points. Because actually she was just reading bullet points. And reading them very, very quickly. In the end there were no gasps of delight. There was no standing ovation. No socks were knocked off. There was polite applause, though to be fair the applause grew louder when the moderator announced that lunch would now be served. At least she was wearing clothes.

You do not want that to be your story.

But why did it happen? Why did PowerPoint—which seemed like it would help her—turn into the monster that ate her speech, undermined her message, and turned an engaging person into a zombie? It’s because she broke the first rule of good PowerPoints: “Do not bore your audience by presenting a document that is essentially your notes. Therein lies damnation.”

Don’t ditch PowerPoint. Learn to use it differently. Once you do, PowerPoint will enhance your message, show you at your best, and make your points clearly, beautifully, and effectively. It will work hard for you.

Watch this space to learn how to avoid damnation (while also keeping your notes, by the way) and turn your slide deck or webinar into a powerful marketing tool.