Public Speaking Tips for PowerPoint
The first question we need to ask ourselves before reaching for our PowerPoint is:
‘Do we really need it?’
It was once pointed out that here we have this wonderful piece of presentation technology and most people still use it like an old-fashioned chalkboard.
The best use of PowerPoint (or other presentation support software) is to supplement anything that the spoken word cannot convey (such as videos, pictures, and graphics).
That would already remove the majority of slides in use today, as many of them are merely literal or shortened transcripts of what the speaker intends to say.
If your audience is reading what you are saying, very quickly they can find themselves thinking:
‘One of you is not necessary! Leave me with the slides. You can go home.’
And then fairly soon after that, they realise:
‘You could have emailed me this and I would not have had to come at all!’
When PowerPoint was first conceived by Microsoft it was referred to as ‘presentation support’.
It was only after it left the building that it became ‘the presentation’.
We spend so much time on Public Speaking and Presentation Skills working on delivery skills, structure, and engagement: making sure we come across with authority and credibility, and then we cede all of that to a piece of software.
You are the presentation! You are what matters.
PowerPoint should be there to enhance your presentation.
The problem, more often than not, is PowerPoint has become the presentation and you are no more than the person who brings up the next slide.
The layout for most presentation rooms does not help as it supports this impression because the screen is usually situated in the middle of the room, which means the presenter is pushed to one side and at best relegated to being the commentator on or at worst the reader of whatever is on the slide.
So we need to ask ourselves:
‘Is the use of PowerPoint enhancing the presentation?’
‘Am I using it like a large container kit bag, just to keep everything together?’
Most words can be said and do not need to be either written out in full or in bullet points.
Therefore if the message is:
‘We need to trust our colleagues.’
The only word that really matters in that sentence is ‘trust’.
If you thought it would be useful, you could put up a slide with nothing but the word ‘trust’, written big at the centre of the screen, and speak around it. Telling us why it is important, what it shows, and when to give it. The word ‘trust’ is no longer the word, it has become a graphic and if it is one of your key messages, you have a visual representation of the word that will make an impact on the audience and stay with them at the end of the presentation.
With or without PowerPoint for support, I would still make sure to emphasise the word ‘trust’ in my presentation. I would repeat the word ‘trust’ many times in my presentation and I would give examples of ‘trust’ in my presentation. I would make sure that you left the room in no doubt about what my key message was.
By having the word written on the screen behind me, it would be virtually screaming out at the audience all through that section of my presentation.
And please notice, as I say ‘written on screen behind me’, in my mind I am no longer imagining myself standing in the corner introducing slides, I am in the middle of the room; I am in charge; I am putting my message across and the screen is ‘behind’ to support me.
I could almost come out and repeat nothing but the word ‘trust’ to you 100 times and it would have a similar impact as that word, written large on the screen!
For those of you who have seen former CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer delivering his ‘developers’ speech, you will remember (hard to forget) that he comes out on stage and with a dynamic coercive energy, rampages around the stage crying out no more than ‘developers, developers, developers, developers’
He is a living embodiment of the one-word PowerPoint slide!
What is his message? We need developers!
And to get the message across even the words ‘we need’ are not necessary!
He could have taken the traditional PowerPoint approach:
Title - The need for developers in the .net age
- Why do we need developers?
- to develop code for .net
- to maintain Microsoft's supremacy in the field of software development
- to develop new applications for the twenty-first century
- to bring to life the ideas for a new world
An average presenter would just read those bullet points out to us – and because they are reading, their voice will probably be a little monotonous, and a good presenter might choose to expand on each bullet point.
A great presenter realises they can achieve more impact by stripping all those words down to the key ones and once they have done that, they might find themselves thinking:
‘Do I need to use PowerPoint at all?’
I could simply perspire a lot and charge around the stage shouting: ‘developers’.
It might have more impact!
So –what is the best use of PowerPoint?
It seems to be pictures and graphics.
But the BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke once said,
‘I prefer radio to TV because the pictures are better’
And so you may find that a good story, well told, can have more impact than an image, because as the presenter you are in control of the detail and emotion and you can tailor it to suit your audience, which therefore suggests that sometimes even just ‘image only’ slides can be superfluous.
Words paint pictures.
It may sound as if I am saying you never need to use PowerPoint.
I am saying you probably don’t have to use PowerPoint, but there are still moments when it might enhance your words or messages.
It should be used as a tool of embellishment, rather than the tool of first resort.
And a final thought before I give you ten tips for when you are using PowerPoint, Fred R Barnard, an American advertising executive, - and this is almost in contradiction to Alistair Cooke - famously declared:
‘A picture is worth a thousand words’
Sometimes the picture can say a lot more than the words and a lot quicker.
I remember helping a safety manager for ocean-going oil tankers prepare his presentation.
He turned up with a deck of over 50 slides.
I thought, ‘Here we go – lots of unnecessary words!’
And it turned out the majority of the slides were pictures: pictures of tankers in flames billowing acrid black smoke, tankers with massive gashes in hull spewing oil into the sea, desolated wildlife, destroyed coastlines.
The images were more eloquent than anything he could say. He realised he did not need to say anything – and he didn’t, because he knew the cumulative effect of each of those pictures, one after another, would speak more rapidly and more overwhelmingly than anything he could say, and so after seeing those images, his audience was fully ready to pay attention to his safety presentation.
Keep it simple
Less is more is always a good principle when using slides
Keep your slides in reserve for important messages that cannot be said as powerfully in words
10 20 30 rule
10 slides, 20 minutes, font 30 or more.
This may not always be realistic, but still a good goal or reference point
At font 30 it is only possible to have a maximum of eight lines.
Even this might be too much.
Therefore another suggested rule of thumb is:
No more than four lines; no more than six words per line.
If nothing else these guidelines should discourage the temptation of using a slide like a notes page
And certainly discourage from that most depressing slide, which is a lot of text with ‘….continued….’ along the bottom!
Slides are slides and notes are notes
If you feel more secure having a little more information written out to remind or reassure, then that is what the notes section is for. Only the important image or key text will be on the slide. Any personal reminders are for you alone.
If you find the right picture that sums up the message of that part of your presentation, you can use it as a reminder and as the jumping-off point for the words you wish to share.
A picture allows you to be flexible. On some days you may feel that little more needs to be said, on other days you might wish to give a little bit more supporting material.
If you cannot find the perfect picture then a keyword might do the job. As described above, if my theme is ‘trust’ I can use that one word as the springboard for talking about ‘trusting’ others, being ‘trustworthy’, or building ‘trust’.
Remembering that radio is better than TV ‘because the pictures are better’, you can further embed the theme of trust with your own personal experiences, anecdotes or case studies.
Use a consistent design
Some people will judge you on your slides. If the slides are inconsistent, maybe that suggests your research is also hurried and uneven. If you slides are messy, maybe your thinking is also untidy.
So pick a clear simple font. Stick to the same size. Make sure the logo is the same size and in the same place on each slide (but if you are having to use a company-formatted slide, see if you can persuade the company not to have too much clutter on the template – it can easily become overwhelming).
Use consistent language
If you have a list of bullet points (Can you keep it down to Three?) remain consistent in word form.
So either start a list with
‘research…, build… and assess…’
as your keywords for each point or else
‘researching…, building… and assessing…’.
Animations and Transitions
Just because they exist does not mean you need to use them!
This may also depend on the style of presentation.
If your aim is to charm and entertain, then a few clever transitions may be good.
If your intention is to inform, clarify or propose, the simpler the better.
Engage with the audience
All the principles of Public Speaking still apply: eye contact, gestures, and particularly an animated and engaging voice. Reading slides with a slide changer in your hand is the perfect way to destroy vocal variety, so pay extra attention to the voice when presenting with PowerPoint. You are still delivering a presentation, so use of questions, as audience interaction is still a valuable way of maintaining full attention.
Most lists of suggestions end here with Practice. If possible:
- practise in situ to make sure you are comfortable with the layout and how the technology words
- work out a strategy if there are any technical failures
- time the presentation
- spend extra focus on how you intend to verbally transition from section to section
- gather feedback on the effectiveness of the presentation – ideally from someone supportive and ideally before the presentation, not just after you have done it!