PowerPoint: Project yourself

Public-speaking experts offer pointers on delivering effective presentations

Bullets or no bullets?

Most PowerPoint users have come to think in bulleted concepts when creating their slides. Bullets are succinct, visual and neatly convey information. But are they absolutely necessary, and would your audience benefit from a different approach?
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There seem to be two schools of thought on the bullet. Allen Weiner, president of Communication Development Associates, said he’s happy with bullets if they are used appropriately. So is Jan Carroll, an instructor at the Graduate School, USDA.

“I actually like bullets,” Carroll said. “There are very creative ways to do them. It has more to do with the way you format and make them look. And if you’re using graphics, you should accompany charts with bullet-pointed text.”

However, David Green, master trainer at Dale Carnegie Training, is an advocate of alternative thinking. “Think completely outside of bullets,” he said. “Is there some other way of seeing it? If it’s a new concept, can I make an analogy to connect it with something I do know? Use concepts that can simply reinforce what you’re saying, perhaps images of numbers.”

Green referred to the approach of Garr Reynolds, author of “Presentation Zen.” On his Web site tutorial, Reynolds suggested that the best slides might have no text at all. In one example, instead of offering an eye chart of bullets to illustrate that 72 percent of part-time workers in Japan are women, Reynolds opted for simplicity with a photo of a Japanese woman and the statement. Or even better, he said, display a bold “72%” over the photo.

The point? The slide remains a visual aid that supports the narration. If you want your audience to walk out with the full content of your presentation, give them a detailed, written handout as a take-away.

Of course, if you’re going to use bullets, use them appropriately. “Don’t do a slow reveal,” Weiner said. “Put them all out there and don’t worry about it. When you do a slow reveal, it creates stress for the audience about the ones they can’t see.”

Weiner also suggested that if you have a long list of bullets on a slide, don’t talk about all nine. Call attention to one or two of them. The audience can read the rest.

Finally, never create your presentation by developing bullet slides. “It’s the worst thing you can do,” Green said.

— Caron Golden

When preparing a PowerPoint presentation, people often make the mistake of creating their slides first. And then the presentation goes downhill from there: too many slides, too many gimmicks and too much information.

PowerPoint and similar software have become staples of speeches in the federal information technology community, providing the backdrop for countless breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

But people should not assume they know how to make an effective presentation simply because they know how to use the software, experts say. “Most people use PowerPoint incorrectly,” said David Green, a master trainer at Dale Carnegie Training.

One problem is that PowerPoint offers a lot of functionality that, once learned, often must be unlearned.

“In our classes, we are making sure our students don’t overuse the bells and whistles,” said Jan Carroll, instructor at the Graduate School, USDA.  “Content is the king of the presentation.”

Opportunities for training in PowerPoint presentation are fewer than those for general public speaking, but presentation experts say learning a few PowerPoint tricks can go a long way toward making someone a more effective public speaker.

Think content, not slides
When creating a presentation, don’t focus on the slide deck, Green said. If the slide deck is essential, you can send it to people in an e-mail message. The objective is to prepare a talk.

Slides enhance and bring an image to support what you’re saying,” Green said. “You’re using your voice, words and emotion. Having something on the screen gives you something for your eyes as well. Too many people miss that point when they start to design.”

Doug Staneart, president and chief executive officer at the Leaders Institute, agreed. He advised speakers to develop their presentations around three to five talking points — that’s all people can remember — and use the slideshow as a visual aid.

“Using PowerPoint as a visual aid to get key concepts across will solve 90 percent of the problems people have with PowerPoint presentations,” Staneart said. “Designing a presentation with just a few key concepts makes it easier to deliver with stories and visual aids. It offers depth, and the audience will remember more.”

Preparation is important. To enhance his presentations, Green creates two sets of notes. The first has all the details he needs to learn. The second set is one page or index card with larger elements and one bullet point for each.

“But I should know the presentation so well I don’t need it,” Green said. “The first thing I create is a mind map of ideas, then I put them in order so that the ideas flow and connect. Then I create visuals that enhance or tell the story. I’ll make an outline that’s a picture of the visual itself or use key words to remind me.”

Keep it simple
It’s tempting to play with software and show off your hard-won technical acumen. But experts advise against it. If content is king, help your audience remember what you’re saying by keeping the visual presentation simple.

Carroll offered a few pointers:


  • When it comes to text, keep it short and support the presentation.

  • Use no more than two fonts, and be consistent. The size of the fonts depends on the content and the size of the room.

  • Keep graphics simple, too. Stick to one style, and don’t overuse animation and slide transitions. It can break the audience’s concentration.


“You don’t want to lose your audience with gimmicks,” Carroll said. “Use design to enhance — not be — the presentation.”

Green advised speakers to pause when they make an important point or tell a story. He often turns the screen black or inserts a black slide at the appropriate points in the presentation. “It breaks up the monotony of the visual presentation,” he said.

Another way to emphasize a point is through a slide’s title. Allen Weiner, president of Communication Development Associates, suggested using declarative phrases that start to tell a story.

“Where you might have had a title of ‘Operating Expenses, First Quarter,’ instead try ‘Overspending First Quarter.’ That would be the headstone or headline,” Weiner said. “Then the tombstone at the bottom is the declarative solution, ‘We’re bringing in an outside consultant.’ Then you’re bringing home the point and keeping it simple.”

In related advice, Weiner told speakers to stick with simple language. “Use plain English, not lots of polysyllabic words. Don’t dumb it down. Keep it simple.”

Keeping it simple also invites more interaction with the audience.

“The shorter the slide, the greater the chance you’ll get questions,” Weiner said. “Then keep the questions simple by restating them and [keeping] the answers no longer than the questions. Otherwise the presenter risks looking defensive.”

Staneart also reminded speakers to be as specific as possible. “Otherwise, we let the audience draw their own conclusion and risk that they’re drawing a different conclusion than what we want,” he said.

Turn off the hose
Subject-matter expertise is helpful when preparing a presentation, but it can also be a pitfall. Technology experts, as much as anyone, run the risk of burying their presentation — and their audience — with too much information.

“With IT folks, the big challenge is they feel they’ve failed if they don’t give the audience everything they know,” Staneart said. “They put so much data in their presentations and assume people in the audience care as much about it as they do. In our program, we force them to come up with the three, four or five most important concepts the audience needs to know.”

Green is a fan of Guy Kawasaki, a former executive at Apple turned venture capitalist. Kawasaki, who spends hours listening to pitches from entrepreneurs who want him to invest in their businesses, developed what he calls the 10/20/30 rule for slide presentations: 10 slides shown in no more than 20 minutes and presented in 30-point type font.

“Most people have too many slides, and after 20 minutes you tend to lose people,” Green said. “Less is more. You must be able to refine your presentation. Then each point you make is more powerful, believable and memorable.”

Respect the audience
Much expert advice boils down to one goal: Helping audiences absorb the message without getting lost in the process. All the advice offered will help make that happen. But experts often have one additional tip: Think about the presentation from the audience’s perspective.

“Remember that they often hear presentations and are in need of something different to keep their attention,” Green said. “They want you to do a good job, to be entertaining, to give them the information in a way that’s easy to retain.” That’s why humor is often helpful, he said.

Storytelling is useful, Staneart said, especially for IT people, who tend to be more analytical. Don’t assume that all the details that make you happy will do th same for your audience, he said. “Instead of giving people just the straight data, tell the stories behind the data. It makes the presentation much more interesting.”

Basic public-speaking tricks are also handy because a PowerPoint presentation, in the end, is really a speaking  engagement.

“When looking at speaker notes, you have to be looking at just three sentences of four short words, not a long paragraph,” Weiner said. “Look down briefly, but make sure you look up and make eye contact at the end of a sentence or thought.”

And when practicing delivery, speakers should also think about their voice. “Most people come across as flat,” Weiner said. “The traditional solution is talking louder, using the volume you’d use for someone mildly hard of hearing. Volume creates tone change and does great things with a person’s face. It makes people feel you have high energy.”

Public-speaking guidelines should not constrain speakers from trying different approaches, Carroll said. “We really stress that people shouldn’t be scared to experiment in terms of developing their presentation and delivery,” he said. “As long as your content is set, and the slides are looking good, you have more flexibility with your delivery.”

Confidence helps, especially in the event of technical glitches, Weiner said. Should the unexpected happen, a speaker should be able to go on smoothly, even with humor.

“Remember, PowerPoint is only a visual aid,” Weiner said. “I should be able to talk comfortably about my topic at the drop of a hat. The most important thing is to be completely comfortable with the content.”

Golden is a freelance writer based in San Diego.

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