Tips on building better PowerPoint presentations.

How to not hypnotize chickens.

Okay.  Let’s be honest.  The reason the PowerPoint presentation software has “power” in its name is that the program’s hidden agenda is to conquer the world, via boredom. 

Case in point: the news item in the New York Times recently on the U.S. military’s use (or rather, mis-use) of the medium. 

Apparently the ubiquitous use of computer-generated presentations that has reached near epidemic proportions in corporate America has also penetrated the military complex.  There are designated specialists (hundreds of them presumably) whose entire job it is to create PowerPoint presentations for briefings.  

While some who have seen those briefings suggest that you can’t reduce military strategy to bullet points, there are others who see some merit in the deliberate obfuscation and mind-numbing quality of these slide-like presentations, particularly when working with the media.  Some noteworthy excerpts from the NY Times piece: 

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

 The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

Chickens, indeed.

The problem as I see it, is not in the PowerPoint, but in ourselves, that we often haven’t a clue as to how to use this powerful tool most effectively.  To that end, and with the NY Times expose as their reference point, I asked three of my esteemed colleagues to offer their views on creating effective PowerPoint presentations.  Here are their thoughts.

From Marcia Mantell, Mantell Retirement Consulting  — Marcia frequently uses presentations visuals at her speaking engagements with large and small advisor and corporate executive groups.

 I love PowerPoint.  I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t.  The program is incredibly powerful for non-designers like me, with so many features and neat tools to work with – – even if you aren’t a technical guru.  And, what other options are there for the non-designer to present information?  I suppose we could go back to overheads and the plastic pages that we write on with sharpies, but I’m going to continue to improve my PPT skills!  Here are a few tips that I’ve found most helpful over time:

 1. Think about the venue

For large crowds, you can’t avoid projecting the slides – but they need to have fewer, bolder points that the audience can quickly take away as you fill in the details.  For smaller groups, forget about the projector, provide paper copies for all participants, and then take them through it. Again the presentation pages should be as brief and visual as possible. (More on this below.) 

2. Design with the recipient listener in mind.

[True for all good communications!—Ed.] Think about your audience – what will help them receive your message and enhance the information you are trying to deliver.  Then set up your slide master based on what they need.

 3. Focus on key words and concepts

Remember, this is a Slide Show with key points and ideas to nudge the listener. It is NOT a script that you are going to read.  (Reports and White Papers are for reading.) So,

  • Keep the pages clean. 
  • Focus each slide on one main message. Again, do not put your “script” on the slide.
  • Use 1-line bullets.

 Make notes on your own copy if necessary, as prompts for additional points, or use the slide Notes option to add the prompts you need — longer sentences and details.

4. Present the information visually if you can.

  • Use graphs, tables, charts, diagrams, icons, or photos instead of words. They will capture interest and serve as strong reinforcement for your remarks.  (See Susan Weiner’s comment on graphics below).
  • Use lots of smaller text boxes and learn to use the “align” function to set things up correctly on the slide. 
  • Put key information in colored boxes, like a number or an answer or one word or small phrase to highlight, then include any additional short text.

 5. Use limited animation – and only to help walk the audience through the information.

Animation can distract your audience and shift their focus away from listening to you.

From Susan Weiner, CFA, Investment Writing Susan’s experience, knowledge, and consummate skill as a financial writer are in high demand by investment firms nationwide.  

 Here’s what she’s learned from building PowerPoints presentations for clients and her own seminars:

 1.       Figure out the main point of your presentation before you start writing.

Add or subtract slides according to whether they support your point.

2.       Keep your font size big enough for your audience to read.

That usually means at least 30 points. This is the one part of Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule with which I agree. 

3.       Use images.

People will remember them after your words have faded. There are many free or low-cost photo sites. I also like, where you can license cartoons from the New Yorker

Susan’s third point was brought home recently, she says, when one of her teleclass students raved about the pictures in her handouts. Remembering to use compelling visuals is important, Susan says, “since pictures don’t come naturally to word geeks like me!”

You’ll find more wisdom from Susan on her blog at

From Ann Schleck, Ann Schleck & Co. — Ann has produced hundreds of highly successful presentations for her retirement service provider, advisor, and consultant clients – and for herself.  Here are her top ten tips for creating high-impact personal presentations that sell, with or without PowerPoint:

 1)      Develop a distinct value proposition that highlights what you will deliver that is different from your competition.

2)      Confirm your understanding of the prospect’s/audiences needs and goals at the beginning of every presentation.

3)      Develop prepared questions, in advance, for each section of the presentation to encourage prospect interaction.

4)      Keep it short and memorable.

–Limit a one-hour presentation to no more than 25 to 30 pages/slides in length.

5)      Focus 100% of the presentation on the client’s specific issues, using client examples, case studies, and proof statements throughout.

6)      Emphasize solutions as opposed to products or capabilities … but don’t solve problems the client doesn’t have.

7)      Don’t emphasize a differentiator unless it is important to the client/prospect.

8)       Use “we” and “our team” versus “I” to create sense of teamwork.

9)      Consider a high-impact format, especially when you are in a competitive situation. Examples:

• Case study approach

• Day-in-the-life

• Problem – solution structure

• Unstructured Q&A session– using your team as the “panel of experts”

10)   Turn off your cell phone and DO NOT have your PDA out on the presentation table.

Abundant thanks to Marcia, Susan, and Ann for providing these excellent suggestions!

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