How To Not Give A Tedious, Terrible PowerPoint Presentation

ImageI realize that the title of this piece promises more than it may, in fact, deliver. Reading this will not warranty you against giving a bad presentation. It might help though.

Here are a few things I have learned over the years, done by me and by other presenters - some good, some not so good, and some disastrous. However, each person is different, and different things work better for some folks than others. Your mileage may vary.

This is about the substance and style of your presentation. For issues of technology, go here.

Relax. It's not that bad
There are a lot of "rules" here, but many good presentations and good presenters break one or more of them. If you know your topic, and you care about that topic, and you can convey that enthusiasm to your audience, you'll probably do fine, even if you break a rule or two.

Make a Point
You can have one or multiple points to make, but try to present some insights about your topic that your audience may not have considered. Do not just say "Here is a thing", but try to say "And here is why that thing is interesting, and here's what that thing says about a broader issue and relates to other things"

Be Passionate
Care about your topic as much as it is possible to care about your topic. Your enthusiasm for what you are saying is the key to engaging your audience. This works best if you are presenting on a topic that is near and dear to you, when the passion should flow naturally. If you are presenting the next fiscal year spending projections, do your best to convey some enthusiasm, or at least your sense of why it's important, to your audience - but don't be phony or forced about it, as that will always backfire.

Look at your audience
Do not bury your head in your script or stare at the computer screen on your podium. Make the human connection by paying attention to your audience. If you ignore them, they will ignore you.

Do Not Read From a Script
Your notes should remind you of the sequence of key points, and help you recall names, dates and anything else that might vanish from your memory under the stress of public speaking, but the ability to speak in a natural voice, with natural intonation and pacing, is very important, and the voice you assume when reading from a script is most likely the opposite of that - and it will make it difficult to look at your audience.

I realize that this is where I and many of my fellow presenters part company. I also understand that for people who aren't comfortable with public speaking, a script can be a life line. I would however, encourage you to try to wean yourself away from it, to make your presentation a conversation (albeit one sided) and not a recitation. If you can make that leap, it really will make for a better presentation.

Speak Like An Interesting Person
Vary your speech. Speak clearly, distinctly but with a sense of energy (not too fast, not too slow) Do not speak in a monotone, whisper or mumble. Do not sound like you are reciting a liturgy. Vary your volume and get a bit louder on the key points - not too much louder. Your audience and your A/V tech will thank you for keeping your volume within a reasonable spectrum.

This is not an unnatural way of speaking for most people. Speak like you are talking to one person, in your living room, about a thing that matters a lot to you.
Do Not Turn Your Head to Read From the Screen
Arrange to have a monitor facing you so you can tell where you are. The only exception is when you use a laser pointer or (if that's all you have) your hand to point at a thing to say "See, this is the thing that's important in this picture". You never have to point at text with a laser pointer.

Do Not Fill Your Slides With Text
Almost everyone knows this, and yet so many people do it anyway (and then apologize - if you know it's wrong, why are you doing it?). I suggest having a few "Bullet Points" whose only purpose is to announce "I'm talking about this now" and perhaps encapsulate the key point you will make at that moment.

Do Not Read Your Text
Your audience can read your slides as well as you can. You can repeat the key points listed there, but then you need to expound on them and add useful detail and insight which is not on the slides.

Use Images When Appropriate
If your presentation is essentially a slide show (e.g. "A review of African Tribal Masks" or "Art Deco Architecture in New Zealand")then that's pretty straight forward. If your presentation is more conceptual, then you will need to be more careful in your selections. Clip art is usually a bad choice. Animated GIFs are ALWAYS a bad choice. An image that helps illustrate your point is always helpful. An amusing and somehow relevant image can be good if used judiciously. If an image will not enhance the point you're making, make it without an image.

Beware of Sound and Video
Sound and video can be awesome tools if they are immediately relevant to the point you want to make. (e.g. "See how the dancer dances. That's the thing I'm saying about how dancers dance this dance"). If they are extraneous, don't do it. If you aren't good at handling sound and video, and you don't have a clever person to do it for you, avoid it, as you will probably screw it up.

If you are using them because they're cool, but they don't actually convey any useful information, don't do it. Pointless gimmicks only distract and confuse.

Obscure PowerPoint Features are Obscure for a Reason
PowerPoint has the ability to do a lot of cool special effects, swipes, sounds etc. Resist the temptation to use them. Keep your presentation simple and focus on the content. Technical stunts are a distraction and can be downright annoying.

The stuff that you should do with PowerPoint is fairly easy to do. The stuff that's hard is almost never worth doing.

Use a Wireless Clicker
I really like wireless clickers, since they give me total control over the pacing of the show, and allow me to move away from my computer. Most also include the ever-useful laser pointer.

Of course, you don't always have to do it yourself, and there is a certain gravitas in telling your lackey "Next slide please", but I don't really care for it if I can avoid it.

The Podium
I don't like podiums. I like a wireless mic (hand held, lavalier or head-mounted TED fashion), or one with a long cord, so I can step out from behind that obstruction and face my audience. I like to pace.

Note to pacers: don't stand in front of your slides.

Not everyone is like me, and it is entirely possible to give an excellent presentation from behind a podium, as long as you do the other things right. I would simply suggest that you consider the option of roving, if that works with your personal style.

Note to podium speakers: if you have a mic on a fixed mount, you will become inaudible if you turn your head to look at your slides.

Humor
A light tone is usually a good thing, provided your audience will accept a light tone. Most presentations will benefit from clever banter (if you can do clever under pressure). I recall one presentation where the already lively and engaging speaker at a medical conference referred to the lab rats as her "little furry friends". It set a light tone for a heavy subject, and worked very well with that audience.

In my Army days, I occasionally briefed a General's staff. Humor was something reserved for those above my pay grade, so I stuck to the facts.

Today, in less life-or-death circumstances, I always try to maintain a light tone, look for humor and irony in my topic and incorporate it into the flow.

What I never do is stop the presentation to tell a formal setup+punchline joke. Those seldom work and are prone to fail if done by someone who lacks the necessary instincts to do them well. If you want to set a light tone, it works better if you can make that an intrinsic part of your presentation rather than a digression.

This goes double for Dilbert cartoons. Stop the madness!

If your jokes don't get a laugh, STOP TRYING and get back to your point. Use humor to put your audience at ease and not as a way of coping with your own nervousness. Nervous humor makes your audience nervous.

The bottom line is if humor comes easily to you, and you have good instincts, use it. If it doesn't, or if your audience may not appreciate it, stick to the facts.

Timing
You nearly always have a time constraint on your presentation. Get a clear idea from the hosts what your ACTUAL time is, including time for any announcements, introductions, passing periods etc. Be realistic about what will fit and rehearse it for time before hand if at all possible. Include all video and other media in this rehearsal. If you don't have enough time, decide what the essentials are, and don't be afraid to trim down to those essentials if you must. It's best to make that decision before you do your presentation, instead of when you get the 5 minute warning and realize you have at least another half hour of stuff to go through.

If you finish a little early, there's more time for questions. Try not to finish a lot early though.

PowerPoint Slides as "Deliverables"
There is a strong tendency these days to regard the slides, without your riveting narration, as a complete product. I don't have to hear you yammer on, I'll just read your slides and learn everything I need to know. This often forces the presenter to cram too much text into his/her slides and works against a presentation that plays well with an audience.

If you are in that environment, then you do what you have to do. There's no point in telling the people who pay your salary that they are compromising your art. Try to limit your text to key points and do your best to find a happy medium between putting everything on the slides and having a compelling, lively conversation with your audience. The oft-ignored "Notes" feature on PowerPoint is an excellent way of including information without overloading your slides.

Do your job and collect your paycheck.

Then, when you are asked by the Funicular Society to present on your life-long passion: Funicular Railways of Peru, you can finally do a presentation as it should be done, free of such tiresome compromises.

See also: "Persistent PowerPoint Presentation Problems" (the tech side)