applied tips : february 2008

microsoft powerpoint : improving your presentation (part one)

Creating a slideshow isn't so much about using PowerPoint, it's more about properly conveying your message and (on occasion) convincing your audience to agree with it.  Unfortunately, many people create slideshows without little thought to this basic concept.

This article, which will stretch into three pieces over the coming months, will help you rethink the way you use PowerPoint and focus on the content and your audience rather than the application you're using.  We will discuss specifics about the content you are creating, what your goal is, and who the audience is.  We'll talk about slide content, animation, consistency, and the best ways to use photos and diagrams.  Then we'll discuss the delivery of the presentation and talk about the number one fear: public speaking.

Why PowerPoint?

Before we get into the details of putting together an amazing presentation, some thought should be given as to why we use presentation software at all.  Some of the world's best speakers don't use it, and some of the worst presentations we've seen made heavy use of it.  Why does it exist?

The simple answer is that PowerPoint is just a tool to help the presenter.  It's not the presentation.  If it were, we wouldn't need the speaker because you could just email it to everyone and stay at home. 

As a tool, PowerPoint can help the presenter:

A poor presentation (and we've all seen them) does not do any of these things very well.  Instead, it takes the place of the presenter or acts like a teleprompter.  The speaker uses it as a crutch, not a tool, and the impact is lost.  Too much information is conveyed, and often poorly, and the slides are a waste.

But with a well-designed presentation the speaker can still be the focus of a presentation, pointing to the slides which supplement his or her ideas with reinforcing information.

The Purpose of a Presentation

We all know that our presentations serve some kind of purpose, but how often do we actually express what it is?  This step, the first in your journey to an effective presentation, is no doubt the most important.

Just as a business needs a mission statement, your presentation needs a purpose.  Why are you doing a presentation?  Here are some sample purposes for a presentation:

While your purpose doesn't need to be written down, you must specifically consider what it is.  And if there's multiple people or stakeholders, make sure everyone agrees on its purpose.  Everything else that you do from this point forward -- from selecting content and photos to the actual delivery -- will be based on this important decision.

Your Audience

After deciding the purpose, formally decide on who your audience is.  This is more than just a simple demographic of age, gender, or income.  This is about your audience's expectations, biases, emotions, needs, and wants.

Like any sales pitch or marketing piece, a lot of thought goes into who is receiving the message.  Your presentation should be no different.  You want to customize every piece of the presentation to your expected audience (sometimes, that means developing different presentations for different audiences). 

Here are some questions to ponder about your audience:

The photos that you choose, the data that you display, and the topics you discuss should all be based on your audience and achieve the purpose of your presentation.

The Benefit

In many presentations, you're asking your audience to make a decision in your favor: you want them to approve your budget, to purchase your services, or to follow your new procedure.  You need to ask yourself, and later convey, what the benefit is to the audience for doing what you're asking them to do.

As any advertising person will tell you, benefits should never be confused with features.  If you are selling a clock, the feature is that it has an alarm which can be set to any radio station.  But the benefit is that the owner can wake up to their favorite music or news headlines, feeling relaxed and refreshed, and make it to work with plenty of time to stop for coffee.  Audiences want to hear the benefits, not the features, to your proposal.

Many times we think that the benefit is pretty obvious and we leave it out: "if employees don't follow this safety procedure they will be hurt and/or fired."  That doesn't mean we should omit it from our presentation, though.

Organizing the Outline

Organization is key when creating the slides of a presentation.  Your ideas must follow a logical order and take the audience from one to the other without distraction.  You've decided what your objective is, who is going to hear it, and what the benefit is -- and now you can take that and build a road-map to making it all happen.

Determine early on what the steps down that road are going to look like.  What are the major ideas that you're going to communicate?  If you're proving a concept, perhaps you are providing supporting data.  If you're conveying information, then decide the logical order in which to do it.  Build your ideas on top of each other so they are easy to follow.  Don't be afraid to rearrange your slides frequently until you get them just right.

Just like the chapters of a book, a long presentation should be broken into smaller pieces to help the audience form cohesive ideas and digest all the information they are receiving.  Be sure to use obvious separations between these ideas, grouping them together so that the audience knows we're switching tracks.  You might even have a special slide layout for "chapter headings" to call attention to your new concept.

Another important concept when preparing your outline, and later in the delivery, is the adage:

"Tell them what you're gonna tell them,
tell them,
then tell them what you just told them."

In essence, you want to create slides at the beginning and end of your presentation that focus on the key points (your objective and audience benefit) of your presentation.  This isn't the same as an agenda or table of contents, but it's close.  You want to hammer in your objective and the audience benefit as often as you can.

In closing for this section is a quick side note:  don't save the "zinger" for the end.  If you've got a piece of data, a critical point, or some amazing photo that will sell your idea better than anything else in your presentation, don't wait until the very end to delivery it.  There's a few disputable psychological reasons for this, but the number one reason is in case your presentation is cut short -- or if the decision maker has to leave early.

Coming Next...

Next month, the second part of this article will focus on the content you use in your slides.  I'll discuss effective use of words, animation, photos, charts, and how those elements will all come together to make your presentation hit that objective while delivering the audience benefit.

The third and final part of this article will discuss the delivery of the presentation.  It will cover topics usually found in public speaking classes, but with an emphasis on slideshows and technology.  See you next month!

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