5 Rules for More Effective Presentations

Presentation software can be a wonderful tool if used correctly. It can also be a dangerous distraction that interferes with communication rather than facilitating it. The line between the two is thin.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/mbbirdy, Image #4746463

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/mbbirdy

Over the course of my career, I have sat through hundreds of presentations. Most of them were done with PowerPoint. Most of them are done poorly.

I often think the presenter would be more compelling if he would ditch the presentation software and just speak. Because of this, I even thought of outlawing presentation software when I was the CEO of Thomas Nelson.

But alas, It has become a staple of corporate life. It is the ubiquitous prop that attends every presentation.

So if we can’t outlaw presentation software, at least we can improve how we use it. Here are my five rules for making more effective presentations.

  1. Don’t give your presentation software center stage. This is the biggest mistake I see speakers make. They forget that PowerPoint or Keynote are tools designed to augment their presentation not be their presentation.

    Never forget: You are the presenter. Your message should be the focus. Not your slides. Not your props. And not your handouts. You are in the lead role, and you need to retain that role.

    No amount of “razzle dazzle” or slide effects can overcome a weak presentation. If you don’t do your job, slides won’t save you. It only makes a bad presentation worse.

  2. Create a logical flow to your presentation. Better yet, tell a story. (See Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points. The absolute last thing you want to do is turn your presentation into a random assortment of bulleted lists, which is what often happens, especially when PowerPoint is involved. There must be a flow.

    Start with a good outlining or mind mapping program. I personally use OmniOutliner. Decide if your talk is going to be a persuasive speech or an enabling one. (It should be one or the other.) We teach you how to do this at The SCORRE Conference. This is something I use every day.

  3. Make your presentation readable. Memorize this sentence: “If people can’t read my slides from the back of the room, my type is too small.” Now repeat it over and over again while you create your slides. If people are squinting during your presentation, trying to make out what’s on the slide, you’ve lost your audience.

    In my experience you must use at least 30-point type. Obviously, it depends on the size of the room, the size of the screen, etc. This is precisely why you can’t afford to leave this to chance. You must test your slides and make certain they are readable.

    In Really Bad PowerPoint (PDF file), Seth Godin also sets forth five PowerPoint rules. In the first one he says, “No more than six words on a slide. EVER.” This may be too extreme, but you get the idea. The more words you use, the less readable they become.

    I have made some really effective presentations with no more than a word or two per slide. It can be done. Steve Jobs was a master at this. So is Tom Peters.

    Here are some other things to remember regarding text:

    • Avoid paragraphs or long blocks of text. If you really, really must use a paragraph, then whittle it down to the bare essentials. Use an excerpt—a couple of sentences. Emphasize the important words. Put the text block by itself on a single slide.
    • Use appropriate fonts. I recommend a sans serif font for titles (e.g., Arial, Verdana, Helvetica, or—my personal favorite—Myriad Pro, etc.) and a serif font for bullets or body text (e.g., Times New Roman, Garamond, Goudy, Palatino, etc.). Most books are typeset this way because it make them more readable. The serifs help you recognize the characters (and thus the words) faster. It makes the text more readable. It’s also customary to use san serif fonts for chart labels.
    • Avoid detailed reports. If you need to include a report in your presentation, hand it out. Don’t force people to try to read a ledger printout on a slide. (Financial people take note!) If you must show a report, use it as a picture and then use a “call out” to emphasize the part of the report you want people to focus on. Better yet, just fill up a whole slide with the one number you want people to take away from the presentation.
    • Avoid “title capitalization” unless (duh!) it’s a title. Sentence capitalization is much easier to read. For example, “Sales are up 100% in the southeast region” is easier than “Sales Are Up 100% In The Southeast Region.” This is especially true when you have numerous bullet points.
  4. Remember, less is more. Fancy slide transitions and fly-ins get old quickly. I strongly recommend that you keep things simple. A basic dissolve from one slide to another is usually sufficient.

    Also, have all your bullets appear at once rather than one at a time. Avoid sound effects—they serve no other purpose than annoying the audience and distracting them from your presentation.

    Finally, cut down the number of slides. You don’t need a transcript of your speech with every point and sub-point. Yawn! People are only going to remember the major points any way.

  5. Distribute a handout. I have changed my mind on this over the years. I do not think that you should distribute a handout before you begin speaking.

    If you do so, people will start reading ahead instead of listening to you. It’s just one more distraction to keep them from focusing on your message. It also eliminates any surprises or drama you have built into your presentation.

    Instead, I tell people that I will distribute a handout of the slides when I am finished with my presentation. (Or now, I often create a special page on my blog, with the slides embedded into it using SlideShare.net.) That way, they can take notes during my session, knowing that they don’t have to write everything down. This allows them to stay engaged without becoming distracted.

Finally, I would encourage you to hone your PowerPoint or Keynote skills like you would any other essential business skill. The more you work at it, the better you will get. And the better you get the more compelling your presentations will become.

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