How to Depend on Powerpoint Less (from someone who depends on it way too much)

For the Power Point came not to be served, but to serve. – Microsoft 3:16

So I’m technically an investment banker, that is to say that I’m a junior-level investment banker, that is to say that I am a Power Point bitch who spends countless hours trying to come up with novel ways to say nothing, but with charts!  And graphs!  And bullets!

As I’m sure most of you who regularly use Power Point can relate, presentations often quickly turn into extensive hierarchies of bullets, sub bullets, and footnotes with verbosity that would make Dickens call you a pretentious prick (not to mention being in 6 point font to fit everything on a page).

Even more pressing, I’m sure even more of you have sat through such presentations and struggled to (a) read the all of the text as presented (b) synthesize those points with the droning of the presenter (c) stay awake.

I mean, in a nutshell, these things are god awful.  Yet everyone does them!  Here are some ways to improve your presentations to mitigate distractions, improve retention, and palliate the inevitable suffering of being stuck in a conference room full of passive aggressive corporate stereotypes (you know Bob?  Bob from accounts receivable?  Funny tie Bob is what they call him?  Remember?  He wore the tie of Sylvester the Cat getting hit with a mallet by Tweety Bird last week?).

Disclaimer:  in many professional settings, presentations are deliberately verbose and ornate so that they can double as a source of reference or information in the future independent of a presenter (that’s definitely the case in finance).  These tips (obviously) don’t apply to such situations but instead are intended for presentations that are unlikely to be referenced in the future, such as class presentations (for students) or internal meetings (for work).

Never (Ever (Ever)) Read Off Your Slides

Here’s a surprise:  I would bet my right arm that 99% of the people regularly exposed to Power Point presentations are literate.  Like, they can read without having to sound the words out aloud (despite how intellectually inferior you would like to believe your colleagues are) and even without you reading to them.

Reading off of your slides is duplicative, a waste of time, and insulting to the intelligence of those in the room; instead of reading bullet-by-bullet, it would be much efficient to send them the presentation and ask for questions/comments by e-mail.  Which I’m pretty sure most people would prefer but I digress.

Limit the Words on the Page

If it takes you longer than 30 seconds to read every word on a slide, it’s probably too long.  Why is that?  Because people are going to be too busy reading what’s on the slide to listen to you fail yet another attempt to segue to the next discussion topic with a lame joke about the weather or the shitty coffee or whatever.

Bullets should be very general headlines/summaries that are supplemented, in detail, by your speech.  This will help synthesize the information, improve comprehension, and keep the focus on you instead of on the misspelling on the third bullet (a puppy is vivisected every time you don’t hit F7 to spell check).

Know Your Presentation

This goes back to reading off your slides; you should never have to look at your presentation unless you’re drawing someone’s attention to a point on a chart, table, etc.  If you limit your bullets to general themes/headlines, it will force you to know the progression of the presentation and the points you want to make (i.e. you will know it better).  Knowing = confidence = trust = yay for you.

More Charts, Less Words

Something you can’t easily express through speaking is data.  This is Power Point’s forte: charts, graphs, and tables.  This was the original purpose before we got bogged down with writing epic novels in animated bullet form.  If your presentation is data-heavy, charts aren’t ever really a bad idea (as long as you keep them simple, see the next topic), as it allows your audience to see the evidence leading to your conclusions and assertions.  No bullets necessary.

Keep it Simple

You’re the expert.  Unless the purpose of the presentation is you describing the various technical dynamics of whatever it is that you’re discussing, focus on boiling down complex ideas and conclusions into simple nuggets that everyone can easily understand.  If someone really wants to know the mental gymnastics required to arrive at your conclusion, they will ask in the Q&A.  Being able to answer a technical question spontaneously builds credibility that isn’t necessarily as apparent when baked into the rest of your presentation (people are more likely to wake up during the Q&A, from my experience).

When in doubt, remember this Goldman Sachs Elevator tweet:  Keep it simple. Like “plants eat sun and shit air” simple.

Let me reiterate:  this won’t always work for everyone.  As a matter of fact, I would get fired if I tried to limit my slides to general bullets. Ultimately, you need to balance creating an informative and durable slide deck with a meaningful presentation.  Just keep in mind that Power Point is there as a guide to tie together your ultimate message and not a script.


Title Photo Credit: flickr