A Presenter’s PowerPoint Slides: Too Little Of A Bad Thing?

by drjim on January 7, 2009

When Is Too Little Information On A PowerPoint Slide A Problem?

When Is Too Little Information On A PowerPoint Slide A Problem?

Hopefully by now everyone at least knows that you can seriously damage your audience if you create and use poorly designed PowerPoint slides. The number one offence that everyone seems to be able to agree on is that a slide that has been overloaded with text and numbers (a) doesn’t work, and (b) puts your audience to sleep. Good news – this problem has been solved!

Olivia Mitchell who is a speaking coach out of New Zealand (was there ever a “Zealand”?) discovered a blog posting by Laura Bergells in which she laments the current state of PowerPoint presentations as we move into 2009.

Laura’s main point is that most people have gotten the message that too much information is a bad thing. However, she objects to the way that we are currently solving it – by removing basically all of the information from our PowerPoint slides and replacing it with pretty pictures.

She’s got a good point – I’ve started doing this over the past year or so. However, in my own defense, I only started doing it because I saw that Steve Jobs was doing it and everyone was just raving about his presentations.

I sorta don’t have the heart to tell Laura that it’s probably going to get worse (in her opinion) before it gets better. A new presentation format in which you only get twenty slides and can show each one for “only” twenty seconds (for a total of 6 minutes 40 seconds) is catching on. This presentation style is called Pecha Kucha, and was started by two architects in Tokyo as part of a designers’ show and tell.

So what’s a presenter to do? First off, I think that we all need to sit down and have a quick reality check. Why do we give presentations? These are actually pretty poor ways of teaching new material. Adults learn in all sorts of different ways and listening to spoken words (and looking at PowerPoint slides) doesn’t do it for most of your audience (especially the younger ones raised on multimedia).

What this means is that you’ve got to decide why you are REALLY there. The list is pretty short – convince the audience that your view is correct, get them to agree to take some action, educate them on some new piece of information, or simply to amuse them.

Keeping the “back to basics” concept in mind, we should remember that PowerPoint slides don’t deliver the presentation by themselves. Instead, their whole reason for being is to help the presenter. It’s when we rely on our slides too much that we start to lose our audience.

So can you use a slide that has a lot (but not too much) information on it? The answer is YES. However, you can’t spend too much time on it and your certainly can’t read the contents of the slide off to your audience. Remember, the slide is a tool, not the presentation itself.

As we enter 2009, what should the ideal PowerPoint presentation look like? In a nutshell, it should look like it was designed to support the words that are being spoken. This will involve a lot of visual imagery (“pretty pictures”) and SOME detailed slides if they are needed.

It’s how the detailed slides are used that will differ from presentations of old. Show the detailed slide, make your point in an unhurried manner, and then move on. Additional information can be provided on your web site, in handouts, or in pod-casts that your audience can use to learn more AFTER your presentation. Welcome to 2009!

Have you gone to the minimalist approach in your presentations or are you still using a lot of words and bullets? What do you think of presentations that you sit through that only use pretty pictures and few words? Do you remember more or less from these presentations? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Bowler January 15, 2009 at 4:16 am

I appreciate the minimalist approach in a PowerPoint presentation. When it’s done effectively the presenter has clearly put some thought into their choice of pictures and they work as visual metaphors for their talk. I do find that speakers are less prepared to deal with complexity in their presentations if they take the minimalist approach. Line or pie charts still have a role in a good presentation…they need an explanation, but they make their point.
p.s. I believe that Zealand is one of Denmark’s islands!
Peter
Presentation Skills Coaching

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Dr. Jim Anderson January 15, 2009 at 8:50 am

Peter: I think that you’ve hit on something here. Making your slides bare is a good approach, but if you don’t put extra time into making sure that what’s there is relevant to what you are saying, then you’ve done your audience a disservice.

Don’t give up the graph! Just make sure that it’s clear and don’t spend TOO much time on it – make your point and move on!

Finally, yes – your knowledge of geography is better than mine. Olivia Mitchell (who lives in New Zealand) pointed out to me that some Dutch explorers (who knew about Denmark islands) came up with the name. I am so ready for my next game of Trivial Pursuit!

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George Torok January 20, 2009 at 5:14 pm

I’m with you.

As I see it – only one thing should be on the slide – an image. It’s meant to me a visual mediun which means photos, graphs or diagrams.

George Torok

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Dr. Jim Anderson January 20, 2009 at 8:01 pm

George: I hear where you are coming from. It’s interesting that in the speaking community, there is starting to be a bit of a backlash against the backlash of image only slides. I suspect that a mix of images and just a few key words holds the key to a striking visual. Now the trick is to find out just how many words is enough without being too many…!

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