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When Microsoft launched PowerPoint in 1990, they knew they had a hot new tool.  It is not clear whether they realized the extent to which this software program would reshape the way the world communicates.  It revolutionized presentations, enabling anyone to create professional-looking, visually-appealing slides and images.  And it was so much easier to use than old-fashioned overhead projector slides!

Everyone jumped on the PowerPoint bandwagon and, within 20 years, it became ubiquitous.  And, like so many tools, it became overused and misused.  By the mid-2000s, “death by PowerPoint” became a standard phrase to describe overly long, overly wrought slide presentations.  A backlash erupted:  some advocated avoiding slides altogether.  Alternate softwares, like Prezio, appeared on the scene to offer PowerPoint relief.  Still, PowerPoint reigns.

Why?  Because many people learn better by seeing than hearing.  Like it or not, slides are here to stay.  So the question is not “how do we avoid using them”, nor is it “what software do we use to create them.”  The real question is “how do we create effective slides?”

Dozens of articles and books have been written on this subject; yet, people continue to make the same mistakes.  Here then are my top five tips for effective slide usage, based on my top five pet peeves:

  1. Use slides to supplement the speaker, not vice versa:  Do not write paragraphs on slides;  keep text to 3-7 bullets only.   Each bullet should contain no more than 7 words.   Slides should summarize main points, not explain it.  If you can read all the information on the slide itself, why bother having a speaker?
  2. Use graphics to reinforce the main concepts:  Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but only if it is meaningful.  Use only images that visually explain the concept.  Don’t include pictures just because they are somewhat related.  For example, if you are talking about how to structure a chart of accounts, do not include a picture of cash just because they both relate to money.  Instead, show a chart that describes the relationship of sub-accounts to main accounts.
  3. Use animation only for emphasis:  Too many flying or bouncing objects on a slide cause motion sickness.  Use animation only to bring attention to an important point or result.
  4. Stick with one image style:  If you are going to use clipart, use clipart throughout.  If you are going to use professional-looking photographs, stick with that for the entire presentation.  Bouncing between clipart and photos looks amateurish.
  5. Use more slides for webinars than for in-person presentations:  When talking in front of a group, the speaker is the main source of visual stimulation for the audience.  Slides supplement the speaker’s actions, facial expressions, and gestures.  Therefore, changing slides every 2-3 minutes is perfectly fine.  For webinars without video conferencing, however, the audience does not see the speaker and relies entirely on the slides for visual stimulation.  Therefore, changing slides more frequently, about every 30 seconds to one minute, can help keep the audience engaged and focused on the presentation, and not on all the other available distractions.

That leads us to….

This month’s questions:

Regardless of software (PowerPoint, Prezio, or Keynote), if you could correct one common mistake that people make when creating presentations (other than those already listed), what would it be? Why?

Please share your ideas below so we can learn from each other.

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