When you hear the word “PowerPoint,” what comes to your mind? Many would say their thoughts include boring corporate events, long-winded presentations, and possible snoring. PowerPoint slide decks can be illustrative, dynamic visual aids, but they are more commonly designed in a way that prompts audiences to nap rather than engage. In fact, PowerPoint has such a bad reputation in some circles, the U.S. military leaders have spoken against it, claiming it “stifles discussion, critical thinking, and thoughtful decision-making.” (Actual slide below!)
While we can’t say if the generals are correct or incorrect, we do know PowerPoint slides can quickly go wrong if they are not designed with the audience in mind. There is a reason we have all heard the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” to describe the mental numbness that creeps up while sitting through a 50+-slide presentation. To avoid this feeling at meetings and to maximize participant engagement, it is crucial to create the slides for the audience rather than design them as a crutch for the meeting leader. A speaker’s or facilitator’s visual aid should be a beneficial addition to the content he/she presents, not a personal crutch.
So, how do you make sure your slides are engaging enough to hold the audience’s attention without distracting them from the key messages? Let’s talk about it.
One of the most common misconceptions about visual aids…especially PowerPoint slides…is that they should “tell your story with you.” This is absolutely false and causes writers to create large decks containing too-detailed, crowded slides that reiterate most points the meeting leader verbalizes. Visual aids should supplement the meeting leader’s story, not tell it. Also, it is every important to keep slides simple so that the meeting leader is not tempted to read them, which is a surefire way to bore the audience.
Here are some basic rules that will help PowerPoint writers avoid creating overwhelming slides:
- Avoid writing bullet points as full sentences.
- No more than five bullet points per slide.
- Each bullet point should have five words or less.
- Think of individual slides as conceptual billboards. How can each slide deliver the most information to the audience in the least amount of time? How can each slide achieve the greatest visual impact?
This is another often-overlooked aspect of building a clear and concise presentation.
- PowerPoint deck design should start with a clear outline and consistent flow. Doing so helps audience members retain key messages.
- Clear organization also makes it easier for the meeting leader to get back on track if he/she forgets what comes next when presenting or facilitating.
- A great way to ensure a PowerPoint deck is organized sensibly is to create the structure of the presentation first, then fill in the content details on slides, and lastly, create an engaging visual design.
- Additionally, make sure to create slides that break up the deck’s main sections…in other words, use section or chapter headings. This creates blocks of information, making the material easier for the audience to follow.
Design and Arrangement of Individual Slides
Nancy Duarte, the author of Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, suggests that how a slide is arranged has the most impact on how the slide’s message is received. To maximize the clarity and impact of every slide, there are six elements to consider:
- Can the audience quickly identify the main point of the slide?
- Does the audience know what order to process the information?
- Can the audience identify the relationship between slide elements?
- Do all of the slide’s information points belong together?
- Does the location of the elements give the audience a perceived meaning?
- Does the slide give the audience any visual breathing room?
Some meeting leaders and writer/designers don’t understand that the arrangement of slides is one of the most important concepts to consider as they are creating their PowerPoints. In order to create an effective visual aid, ideas must be easy for the audience to decode, which is nearly impossible to accomplish without considering the six elements listed above. If all of a text-heavy individual slide’s content is given equal value and emphasis, then the slide becomes hard to decipher. That is when the scary concept of “Death by PowerPoint” begins to sneak into audience member’s thoughts, which in turn, de-values the meeting leader’s presentation.
Whatever your presentation is about, remember that the main goal is to convey a memorable message to the audience. Avoid crowded, detailed slides, pay attention to the organization of the information and arrange each slide with care. Keep PowerPoints simple and straight to the point so that the message is easy for the audience to decode. In essence, always create the deck for the audience and never for the meeting leader. If you follow these principles, we promise that the use of PowerPoint will enhance discussion, critical thinking, and thoughtful decision-making. It won’t hinder it.
Duarte, Nancy. Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, O’Reilly Media Inc., 2008