Are you making these fatal PowerPoint mistakes?

The author is no fan of slideware, but he acknowledges that many speakers feel uncomfortable with nothing on the screen behind them. Here, then, are essential dos and don’ts.

I’m not a big fan of slideware for speakers.

My position is heretical in the business world, so I often work with executives to simplify their slides because they can’t live without something on the screen behind them.

I must confess that I’ve run across a new study that suggests one good reason and use for slideware. I’ll get to that later. First, a few words on the proper use of PowerPoint-like slide programs, whether it’s Keynote or Prezi, or something else.

The usual business slide is covered with words, and what most people connect to is pictures—preferably pictures of people or perhaps kittens. What’s more, they learn best from simple pictures. So, move them emotionally with pictures of faces (or kittens or puppies), and connect your key concepts visually to triangles, circles, squares and the like.

Keep it simple

Don’t get fancy. It’s not necessary, and it doesn’t promote learning. In addition to pictures, you can use graphic illustrations, tables and charts and the like for help with numbers, but simpler is usually better.

Pie charts are good slide material; tables that have the same information expressed as raw numbers are most definitely not. You want to find a visual image to represent the number. Especially if it’s a big number you’re trying to talk about-we humans have trouble with numbers over three digits.

You should try to express just one idea in each slide.

Here’s the best way to think about visuals, especially PowerPoint. It’s the way that writers of Broadway musicals think about the songs. They put in a song when the emotion of the moment demands something more than words. That’s why the stars break into song when they realize that they love each other, for example.

You should use PowerPoint in that same way. Don’t think of it as wallpaper that’s always there behind you, but a discrete moment in your talk when you turn to an illustration because it’s too difficult to put the idea into mere words.

If you apply this stringent test to your use of PowerPoint, you’ll find that you use it much more sparingly and effectively. You can go to black in between these song-worthy moments.

Sidestepping common pitfalls

When you do use PowerPoint or one of its rivals, a few guidelines can help you avoid the usual mistakes. I do like title slides that go up before you speak—at conferences when there will be a series of speakers, for example. It helps the audience keep track of what’s coming up.

I don’t like PowerPoint wallpaper when you’re speaking. It’s distracting for the audience and raises the awful risk that the audience will find it more interesting than you. Why test that ice?

So, use PowerPoint for illustrations, pictures, graphs, pie charts—that sort of thing. If you must use it for words, limit them to three lines or fewer. That means no more than three bullets, and the bullets should never exceed a line. Otherwise they’re not bullets, they’re poorly worded sentences, and it’s a tip-off that you’re indulging in a speaker outline—the real sin of slide use.

Make your headline, if you need one, a complete sentence.

Rather than writing, “Implications of Cost-Cutting on the Department,” or some such label, a full sentence will force you to say something like, “Cost-cutting will mean the elimination of needed services.” Clearly, the second statement is more interesting than the first: It tells you the thought, whereas the first headline just tells you that a thought is coming.

PowerPoint users have at their disposal a plethora of fonts, clip art, and bells and whistles that let items zoom in from the left or right, or other glittery effects. Eschew them; they are merely an apology for real thought.

Stick to a full-sentence headline, or a key number, and an image, if you must use words. Better: just a picture. Best: no slides at all.

Remember, a presentation is an act of persuasion. You’re most persuasive when it’s just you. If you ask someone to marry you, will you use slides?

A slide that actually works

Now, what was in that new study on boosting comprehension?

Oh, yeah. It found that having people stare at a natural scene—or a picture of one—for 40 seconds boosts concentration and reduces mental errors.

That’s the first bona fide study I’ve seen that shows slideware improving retention. Perhaps your title slide should have your name over a background of a natural scene, and you should show it for at least 40 seconds before you begin.

That’s a use of slideware I could get behind.

A version of this article first appeared on Public Words.

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