PowerPoint: 5 techniques to excite—not bore—your audience

Brevity and vivid imagery are essential to making the most of this popular presentation tool.

Have you ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation and felt as though all the oxygen was being sucked out of the room? Of course you have! PowerPoint—despite being as dull as a stack of phone directories, as relentless as a headache, and as pious as a preacher—has still managed to become the primary mould into which presentations are now “poured.”

In response, I want to imitate that blonde weight-loss guru from the ’90s and yell “Stop the insanity!”

Sadly, PowerPoint is not going to stop. It’s too easy to use and far too commonplace. So my mission today is simple enough. I want to ask you to use it differently. Here are five tips for making your PowerPoint presentations more, well, powerful.

1. Make one to three points, not 10 or 20. Please do not be lured by ease with which PowerPoint lets you create bullets. Although I love bullets, I don’t think they deserve center stage in oral presentations. For one thing, they’re better suited to print. For another, the mere presence of bullets will tempt you into doing a data dump on your hapless audience. The mind will tolerate only what the seat can bear.

When members of your audience walk away from your talk they are not likely to recall the little bits of information you so lovingly shared. If you’re lucky, they’ll remember, at most, three ideas. (This has nothing to do with intelligence—it’s just the harsh reality of auditory memory, which is relatively weak in most people.) So stay focused on the big picture, the overall point you want your audience to remember.

2. Use metaphors. The next time you have a spare 17 minutes, watch this masterful presentation about dictionaries by lexicographer Erin McKean. The smartest thing about her presentation, I think, is her central metaphor: that the world sees her as a traffic cop (someone who decides which words are “good” and belong in the dictionary) when she wants to be a fisherman (someone who dips her net into the sea and captures beautiful words.) Her entire lecture turns on this central image, which is absolutely unforgettable.

3. Create a disconnect. As an audience member, there’s nothing I hate more than having someone read PowerPoint bullets out loud. Instead, keep me interested and engaged by “disconnecting” the PowerPoint text from your speaking notes. Make your points in your speech but use visual images to back them up.

In the YouTube video, Erin McKean gives some compelling data about the numbers of books in the Library of Congress. But does she show bullets, a graph, or a pie chart? No! She shows an image of the library itself. This image “backs up” her point and makes it more memorable. (Note: In cases where the exact numbers need to be remembered by the audience, I suggest you provide take-home handouts after the presentation.)

4. Tell stories. Most presentations have too many facts and not nearly enough anecdotes. CEOs who want to motivate their employees or impress their shareholders understand this intuitively and pepper their presentations with personal stories and anecdotes about fascinating situations.

Make your presentation more memorable and “sticky” by taking advantage of the basic human hunger for a good story. (Yes, this works in sales presentations, too. Think of the power of client stories!)

5. Have fun! Be sure to add some humor—but not of the joke book variety. Avoid sticking a lame joke onto a presentation as if it were a Band-Aid. Jokes must be organic—that is, they should arise naturally from the material you’re delivering. Humor should also reflect your own personality—otherwise it will sound fake or phony. Erin McKean, for example, makes a number of nerdy, gentle jokes relating to words—something you’d expect from a lexicographer—and the audience laughs appreciatively.

When it comes down to it, PowerPoint is really not so different from most other types of communication. Its success doesn’t depend so much on the message, as on the focus and charm of the messenger.

A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her Web site, the Publication Coach.

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