Bernard O'Riordan, Media Trainer
There’s no doubt PowerPoint gets a bad rap.
Since its first release in 1987, PowerPoint has been blamed for declining standards of literacy, corporate failure, the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster and even the war in Iraq.
But like the overhead projector before it, PowerPoint is a tool. And tools have to be used correctly or they can cause damage.
The problem with most PowerPoint presentations is that too often they are used as a crutch for presenters. Often slides are visually cluttered, with mismatched font pairings and cheesy stock photos, and so many words that you’re forced to read rather than listen.
PowerPoint is not rocket science. To hold the attention of an audience, you need to make your PowerPoint presentation interesting both in terms of content and delivery: it should be like going to the movies rather than studying for a history exam.
Former Apple boss Steve Jobs knew this better than anyone. He was never caught with an ugly presentation slide during any of his Apple presentations: they were always beautifully simple, visual and often focused on just one or two words, as the image below highlights.
Rather than falling into the trap of using boring or complex spreadsheets to highlight the company's financial performance, he often chose just one key statistic to display on screen and then explained what it meant.
Because he knew what he was talking about, the slides were nothing more than a visual aid.
And because he knew people lose interest really quickly, he rarely spoke for more than 10 minutes before introducing another speaker; a “character” to help narrate the story.
Your content, and the way you deliver it, is really important because people will tune out fast if they’re not inspired.
You only have about seven seconds to impress an audience and about 30 seconds to convince them to keep listening.
In fact, educational psychologists say the optimum length of time to teach anyone, anything, is usually 10 minutes.
So, if you want to engage an audience, your PowerPoint presentation should be done and dusted in under 10 minutes, or at least split into separate 10 minute chunks.
Lengthy slide presentations are no substitute for meaningful communication.
With that in mind, here are some valuable tips to ensure people don’t get bored in your next presentation.
Have A Clear AIM
The short period of time you have to engage an audience requires some strategic thinking and planning. Be clear about who your most valuable audience is; know the issues they care about or need to hear about; and then come up with three clear messages you want to get across.
Keep Text to A Minimum
PowerPoint slides are simply a guide to support what you are saying, so it’s best to use text sparingly or your audience will stop listening and start reading. Others might tune out altogether. The days of copying and pasting massive slabs of text into a PowerPoint slide are over. Instead, take a leaf out of Steve Jobs’ book and use keywords to support what you are saying. And make life easier for your audience by using a large font - at least 24 point but preferably 30 point. Are you able to create a PowerPoint slide that uses just three words, or perhaps just one statistic? Give it a go, you might surprise yourself and your audience will thank you.
Make It Visual
It’s a proven fact that images and videos attract and persuade audiences more effectively than text alone. After all, a picture paints a thousand words. So if you have an exciting new product or service, use imagery rather than words to show how it’s making life simpler or easier for customers or clients. Just leave out the satanic spreadsheets.
Use Simple Words
There’s no faster turn off than a PowerPoint presentation laden with jargon or that screams “sales pitch”. Drop industry buzzwords like “synergy”, “optimise”, “efficiency”, “ROI” and instead use everyday language that anyone on the street would understand. Remember the 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident: the PowerPoint report created by engineers contained so much complex technical information littered with jargon that it led to a chain of bad decisions. This miscommunication is widely blamed for Columbia burning up on re-entry, killing the seven crew members on-board.
Stick to just three ideas
We’ve written previously about the magical power of three when it comes to persuasion and engagement. A list of three things is far more intriguing than just one or two and it’s easier to remember than five, six, seven or even 10 things. Steve Jobs mastered the art of focusing on just three things: three products, three ideas, three messages. He once stepped on stage and said.
“Today we are introducing three revolutionary products. The first, a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second, is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough internet communications device.”
Of course, he was talking about one device, the iPhone, but he broke it up into three distinct talking points which made it easier to absorb.
Tell A Story
The best way to connect with an audience and hold their attention is through storytelling. Storytelling is memorable and persuasive and can help those who might not be familiar with a situation understand quickly. So, don’t bombard audiences with facts and figures on your slides – join the dots and tell them a story. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So your slides should do the same.
Five or Six Slides is Best
Ideally, a PowerPoint presentation shouldn’t need more than five or six slides. Each slide is merely reinforcing what you are saying, so it’s there as a visual aid while you unpack an idea. The absolute limit is 10 because no one will be able to comprehend more than 10 concepts in a presentation or meeting. You will just be wasting your time and losing the attention of your audience. Each slide should sit there for at least a minute while you tell a story. Don’t be one of those people beholden to the tool who feels a need to race through the slides.
Deliver it in under 10 Minutes
We all know that attention decreases and interest wanes over time when things stop moving or are repetitive. Sure, some people might still take notes or listen no matter what, but on the whole a long-winded presentation is likely to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. When it comes to strategic engagement in the digital age, shorter, sharper insights are best and visual storytelling is best of all. If you can’t deliver a key insight or call to action in under 10 minutes, then you are wasting everyone’s time.