Forget PowerPoint! How to Deliver Awesome Presentations

Temptation


There’s nothing worse than falling asleep during a presentation…

This time, I’m going to stay awake. So far, so good… I’m following what he’s saying… But I wonder why the text on the screen looks really black, when the area around the slide looks kind of grey? It’s just the colour of the screen so it should look the same. I mean you can’t project more black. Must be a contrast thing. Aren’t brains weird? Wait a minute, what was he saying? Now my eyelids are getting heavy…

If you’ve ever had that feeling of jerking awake as your head falls off your shoulders, you’ll know there’s nothing much worse than trying to stay awake during a dull presentation. Everyone behind you has noticed your head making small circles and slow-bouncing nods — but no matter how hard you try, you just can’t stay awake. You’re a bear hit with a tranquilizer dart — you can fight it, but after a few wobbly steps you’re going down. You just have to hope you don’t start drooling or let out any inadvertent snorts as you wake up.

Come to think of it, there is one thing that’s worse. It’s far worse to be the one delivering a bad presentation.

A half-hour talk given to an audience of 20 uses up 10 hours of other people’s time. There’s no reason in the world not to make it awesome. Here’s how you can stop draining people with your presentations and start delivering awesome ones.

Forget PowerPoint

Martin Luther King didn’t need ihaveadream.ppt, nor did Abraham Lincoln run around at Gettysburg looking for a USB drive to transfer his file to another computer. 99% of the time, PowerPoint just isn’t necessary.

Okay…PowerPoint can be useful in some circumstances, but it’s usually misused. Just having the information presented doesn’t mean it goes into the audience’s anesthetised brain, and covering all the points doesn’t mean you’ve communicated them.

So many presentations are built from PowerPoint from the very start, but structuring a presentation around slides affects how you communicate. Making slides your focus of attention is a terrible way to do it.

Forget PowerPoint- at least until you’ve planned what you’re going to talk about — then (and only where necessary) use a few slides to support what you say, rather than planning what you say around your slides.

Just watch a TED talk or two; unless it’s someone from National Geographic speaking, there are usually hardly any slides at all.

Speak to an Audience of One

If you had to explain your work to just one person, it’d just be weird to prepare a PowerPoint slide for everything you have to say. You’d be disconnected from the person you were speaking to. So why do you need it in order to communicate effectively with a larger group?

Slides deflect attention from you as the speaker, weakening (rather than reinforcing) what you actually say. Sure, you need to find your voice — especially if you’re nervous — so you might want to prepare a presentation with all the bells, whistles and animations you can cram in. But if you have something important to say, just say it, as you would with an audience of one. Then the bells, whistles and animations are just window dressing.

The Three-Minute Rule

If you only had 3 minutes to make your point (and then people could choose to leave) what would you say? If you want to give awesome presentations, this is where you should start.

In fact, you probably have less than three minutes to really get people’s attention — and it’s certainly true that once you lose their attention, it’s almost impossible to get it back.

After your three-minute opener, you can then go into some of the detail. Hold back some information during the presentation, and think of it as a way of stimulating the audience’s appetite rather than force-feeding them.

The Test

The ultimate test of whether you’ve given an awesome presentation is whether the audience asks you any questions at the end. It means they are interested in the details, and you can give them exactly what they tell you they want — rather than what you think they want.

If nobody asks a question, it doesn’t mean that they understood everything you’ve said. It means nobody cared about it.

(Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 generic license.)


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I write the Three Month Thesis website, and teach students how to work awesomely on their thesis.
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Discussion

  1. Scott Hampton on the 16th March

    You’re right: you don’t NEED PowerPoint to make a good presentation. I either use Apple’s Keynote or nothing at all, usually going for nothing at all.

    I am a volunteer minister and led services for a year and a half without slides. There has been animated dialogue after because the topics were presented as you described: briefly, impactive, and enticing. The follow up questions proved that.

    Do you prepare for one the same way you prepare for 20? I find that I have to make adjustments for the audience size. I can be more intimate in a smaller setting, but have to be engaging with a larger crowd…

    Thanks for the article. It was refreshing.
    Scott

    • James Hayton on the 17th March

      yes, the size of audience does make a difference… if you have one or two people they’re more likely to interact directly with you during the talk… BUT most people over adjust for a large audience and hide behind powerpoint!

  2. torben on the 16th March

    true story !
    i made a lot of experience ( not conscious) with unprepared short presentation and tried to fix that with speaking, because i believed that if i am assured enough it will work and be able to make my audience psyched as me.

    thanks for this article

  3. Pawel on the 16th March

    Hello

    1 week ago I had an interview for the Job I really wanted. I passed it and got asked to attend the second one. I had to prepare a 5min presentation. I had good subject so I fired up a Powerpoint and started working on the presentation. I worked on it for 4 days (2hrs a day) and on the last day just before interview I decided not to use it.

    I felt that I would have to change my way of thinking and what I wanted to say to match what was on the slides. It felt unnatural.

    So I trusted my speech skills. I’ve been very nervous (English is not my first language).

    Guess what!!

    I got the Job :)

    Thanks for this post, could write this few days ago though… :)

    • James Hayton on the 17th March

      Well I wrote it over a week ago… but it takes time to go through the editorial queue. Maybe you could have a word with Mike….

      Congratulations on getting the job!

  4. Evan on the 16th March

    Spot on dude..was never a fan of presentations that rely on too much text in the slides.. thats why its called a visual aid. its not supposed to be the focus of the presentation :P

  5. TraffficColeman on the 16th March

    People ears are open and ready to absorb..so don’t bore them with crap..but make that effort to deliver in a timely manner..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  6. Laura Foley on the 16th March

    As a professional PowerPoint designer (yes, there is such a thing, but we are woefully underused) I really enjoy these types of conversations about ditching PowerPoint altogether and relying on charisma, interesting information, and command of the topic to give a great presentation. I like to treat the decks I work on as backdrops to the presenter, offering motion and video to support his message. If somebody can understand the whole message by reading a presenter’s slides, he’s wasting everyone’s time.

  7. Eric on the 16th March

    I absolutely agree with you whole article. People make power point slides to read to their audience. Don’t read your slides to me, I can read. You slides should support your talk, not the other way around. I also love the point about questions afterward. You know your talk targeted the audience well when you get lots of questions. Thanks for the article!

  8. Jarod Billingslea on the 16th March

    There are people who are visual learners, though. There are people who need notes as well, and these people and the others require notes as a necessity most of the time. So, you can’t just omit presentations.

    Just the other day I went to a workshop, and the representatives that were speaking most of the time had people writing notes mainly off of the powerpoint.

    Without the powerpoint you’ll be speaking to individuals all day long trying to assist them in writing their notes. You’ll be doing this one by one, and you’ll eventually get tired of speaking about the same thing again. Worst part about not having a powerpower, also, is you’ll most likely forget about what you were even TALKING about, if people continue to hold up time!

    So, no. I don’t agree with this at all. Having no powerpoint is suicide!

    • James Hayton on the 17th March

      “PowerPoint can be useful in some circumstances, but it’s usually misused”.

      If what you really want are notes, why not provide prepared notes rather than PowerPoint then?

      Plus, if you are talking all day, you SHOULD be interacting with people, that’s a training course, not a presentation

      It’s interesting that you brought up forgetting what you were talking about. A lot of people use the slides as a visual clue for themselves, and again, my point is still valid, If that’s what you need, then use cue cards!

  9. Bojan on the 17th March

    When it’s down to presentations I highly recommend for everyone to look up to Steve Jobs.

    That style of presentations is what amuses people and educates them at the same time. There is just enough of humor to make you laugh, it keeps you entertained, while giving you the maximum amount of information.

    And what about his slides? It keeps between 6-7 pictures, without any words on them.

    Keep it minimalistic, make your words shine trough and reach your audience.

  10. Andrew Tagg on the 17th March

    As a doctor I often have to give presentations to junior staff and find that I spend more time internally critiquing other peoples presentations that I am forced to sit through. I find it a waste of time sitting through yet another PowerPoint presentation using a blue background and yellow text where the presenter just reads out the words on his/her slides. I would be better served by a handout and five minutes to read it through.

    So to combat this I make sure I just use my slides as a background, with images to drive discussion and as few words as possible. I then make my presentations available via DropBo at the end of the talk. Hopefully by not having everything on screen I make my audience think and thus remember a little more as well as make the experience more interactive.

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