I’m really into conspiracy theories. It’s endlessly entertaining to think about the reasons why a group of people might collude to make something happen or cover something up. Did Oswald act alone? How does Target know to send me a coupon for shampoo just as my shampoo is running low? Does the Illuminati really exist and is Jay-Z in it? (My daughter says no way on the Illuminati thing, but we both think something squirrely is going on with Target).
Joking aside, I’ve thought a lot about the number #1 presentation mistake we make, why we keep making it, and why it seems impossible to stop. Naturally, this led to the development of an extensive conspiracy theory which I plan to summarize below. Thanks in advance for indulging me.
Here’s our #1 mistake: using the terms “PowerPoint” and “presentation” interchangeably and thus perpetuating the myth that PowerPoint slides are a presentation.
Who’s been conspiring to keep this going? Almost all presenters everywhere. That’s right, we’ve all been in on it. But the jig is up; I’m calling us out. Too many people have slipped into comas whilst being read 16 point bulleted lists with additional sub-points. We really must disband the group.
These are the top five reasons I believe we keep pretending PowerPoint slides are a presentation:
#1 It takes very little time to type a bunch of text onto slides, and then stand up and read them verbatim as though the screen is a teleprompter. Our time is increasingly limited, and giving presentations is likely only a small component of our jobs. So it’s easier to pretend that reading text we’ve typed on a screen is delivering a presentation. Frankly, we’ve got a lot to do. If we go this route, we can even copy and paste the text and still have time to squeeze in a lunch break.
#2 We do what we see, and what we’ve seen (for the most part) are other presenters reading text from screens. Others are doing it, so we keep doing it. We all recognize it’s a mediocre approach, but we continue to accept it because it’s the norm. We just want to fit in after all.
#3 Most presenters receive little or no formal training about how to create a presentation and how to use slide design programs (like PowerPoint) properly. We tend to limit formal instruction on presentations to “Public Speaking 101”. Public Speaking 101 consists of things like making eye contact, watching your body language, smiling, and ironing your skirt. You have to really dig for information about how to plan and deliver an effective presentation, and formal learning opportunities are limited. Presenters are usually content-experts, but not typically experts in giving presentations about their content.
#4 Conference organizers ask us to do it the wrong way. Conference organizers, we love you. You are doing a phenomenal job. We thank you for asking us to speak at your conference, and we are so honored. We just have one favor. Please stop asking us to email you our presentations ahead of time so that printed copies can be made for the participants. This puts presenters in the position of creating slides that are meaningful in handout form, which inevitably leads to creating slides that are text-based. There’s just no way around this. So we pretend once again that slides are a presentation and proceed accordingly.
#5 We don’t understand the importance of editing. Presenters are usually quite excited about their content. They are experts in their field, and there’s so much they’d like others to know. However, presenters hit huge snags when they attempt to say too much. Transferring large amounts of information during a presentation is an unrealistic goal. When we set our sights on it, we find ourselves cramming text on slides and reducing the font size to the point that we end up saying things like “I’m sorry, I know you probably can’t see this” to the audience members as we point to the screen and then read from it.
Now that you’ve allowed me to explain my theory, I’d like to offer some practical strategies you can use to fix this mistake. We hope it’s something you’ll consider doing, because this is a big deal. It’s not like when people say that Miracle Whip is the same thing as mayonnaise. Acting like slides are a presentation could actually be harmful to your credibility and core mission. Although - for the record - saying Miracle Whip is mayonnaise might get you in trouble with some people.
#1 Have a defining moment. Ideally we’ll agree on the basic definition of a presentation. The definition can vary somewhat, but essentially what we are going for is...a presentation is a speaker plus any aids used to illustrate the key points of said speaker. Aids could be slides, videos, hands-on activities, etc. Understand these aids are not meant to replace you. One way to tell if you are missing the mark is if someone else could deliver your presentation if they have a copy of your slides.
#2 Only agree to give a presentation if you can commit the time to planning, and rehearsal. Relying too heavily on text-based slides is often the result of a lack of time. It’s not unrealistic to plan 20 hours of prep time for a 45 minute presentation. Changing the status quo for presentations means that you’ll be spending more time on the prep end, but it also means a far greater return on investment. Plan on planning time!
#3 Don’t open PowerPoint or Keynote until you’ve mapped out your plan. Start with a piece of paper or some sticky notes. Write down your goal, key points, and some ideas about how you plan to illustrate them. Put them in order. Once you have an outline you can begin the design process. When you start out in a slide design program, it’s too tempting to use the slide area as your note area. Who can resist? There are pre-loaded templates that you can just type right into.
#4 Learn more about PowerPoint or Keynote features. There are many robust programs that can help you create compelling visual slide decks. Slides are meant to reinforce a message, not duplicate it. Use the slide area to make abstract ideas concrete through charts, graphs, images, videos, etc. If you can dream it you can probably do it in PowerPoint, Keynote, or with similar programs. And if you need notes, that’s ok. However the notes should not appear on the screen. Keep the notes in the presenter’s view only. The ideal slide deck you’d use in a great presentation would likely have little or no meaning without your narration. Having this base understanding sets the stage for you to be really successful as a presenter and slide deck designer. Keep checking our blog. We’ll be sharing many slide deck design tips in weeks to come.
#5 Go through a vetting process. Not everything is a presentation. Sometimes it’s better to send a report. The graphic below may help!
#6 Be courageous. It takes courage to do things differently. When a conference organizer calls to request your presentation via email so that copies can be made, politely explain why that wouldn’t be very helpful for the participants. Be proud when you stand up to deliver your presentation at 3:00 PM that is full of images, analogies, and stories even when all the speakers before you read text from the screen. Remember that the audience will thank you, and that the other presenters will likely wish they’d done it your way. They’ll want to join the new conspiracy group: the one that is conspiring to preventing audience members from taking naps and writing grocery lists during presentations.