We used to call them visual aids – those things a presenter or speaker or instructor used to help an audience better understand what he or she was saying. Sometimes they were pictures. Sometimes they were props. But whatever they were, we used to expect the presenter or speaker or instructor to do the heavy work of engaging the audience and conveying the information they wanted to impart. And then along came PowerPoint and we all forgot the essential meaning of visual aids.
Aids are intended to help speakers – not to replace them. They are meant to enhance, support, or add an element of entertainment to the presentation – not to provide a script we can all read together. They are intended to use vivid pictures to simplify difficult concepts, visuals to eliminate complicated text. They add power graphically.
To Microsoft’s credit, PowerPoint has become idiot-proof, which means we can all use it easily. Sadly, that also means we can all misuse it badly. We can type away and put every word we plan to say right on our screens. Plus, we can add all those animations or transition tricks the kids love to use and drive our audience insane as words fly in from unexpected directions.
Then too, you can print those screens and use them as handouts, thinking you’ve killed two birds with one stone – when what you have actually done is killed your opportunity to engage the audience. If there is enough text on the slide to use it as a handout, you have given your audience a reading exercise, not a presentation. A few keywords in bullet points? Sure. Complete sentences? Absolutely not.
The reality is, you can either engage your audience and be the focus of their attention, or you can be the lead reader. You cannot do both. And do be aware that as you read, your audience is ahead of you – and getting more annoyed by the minute. One might certainly ask, if your goal is to give your audience something to read, why drag them in to your presentation?
Imagine if you attended a play and instead of receiving a program, you were handed the script. If you are anything like me you would be thinking something like, “How can I watch a play when I am reading a script?” The fact is, you can’t. Our brains are not made for that kind of multi-tasking – reading and listening and watching all at the same time. And if we all read along together, we miss the action – the human dimension the presenter brings into our midst.
Still, that’s not the only problem. Even though Microsoft suggests it, using slides as handouts is a big mistake because printed slides are the exact opposite of reader-friendly reading material. Slides are horizontal; documents are vertical. Slides should be on dark backgrounds; documents should be on white paper. Slides use huge font; documents use nothing bigger than 10 to 12 points – or they are harder to read, not easier. And so on and so on.
The issues I describe are not problems with Powerpoint. They are problems with bad presentations. So, let’s understand the real point of PowerPoint.
Good presentation slides:
- help the presenter engage the audience
- keep audience’s eyes focused on the presenter
- simplify, enhance, highlight or visually delight
- uncomplicate difficult concepts
- convey big ideas in simple, pictoral form
- avoid text as much as possible
- use big, vivid pictures – not cheesy clipart
- add a touch of humor or entertainment
- make the presenter look good.
Used well, PowerPoint is an invaluable visual aid. It creates a powerful opportunity to be warm, enthusiastic and engaging. It provides a background visual that gives the presenter room to be real and talk conversationally. It allows the presenter to be flexible and human and likable. It makes the presenter look good. And that’s the point.