By Michelle R. Davis
Everybody rolls their eyes at PowerPoint, but most speakers use it and most audiences expect them to. Learn why the trouble with PowerPoint isn’t the platform itself — and what cool new presentation technologies are offering eye-catching alternatives to cramped text blocks and bulleted lists.
Do an Internet search for the phrase “death by PowerPoint” and you’ll come across a host of videos and slides depicting the most egregious infractions by PowerPoint users. Charts that look like a maze of squiggles and bubbles. Slides filled to bursting with tiny text. An overload of bullet points. A riot of clashing fonts and colors.
Prezi is one alternative platform to PowerPoint. See Also: 3 Content Curation Methods Way Better Than PowerPoint
It’s funny — until you think about the inattention, boredom, and lack of engagement among the meeting audiences who are subjected to this sort of thing.
Going back more than a decade, it’s been reported regularly that more than 30 million PowerPoint presentations are being created each year. Who knows where that number would stand if they updated the count today? But while PowerPoint seems as ubiquitous as ever, trotted out for everything from four-person confabs to arena-sized keynotes, there are fresh presentation strategies that can help your speakers enhance their message and connect with your audience. New digital tools, innovative approaches, and good, old-fashioned storytelling skills are all starting to filter onto the stage.
But to use those methods, speakers sometimes must overcome the mindset — in themselves, in planners, even in audiences — that PowerPoint is the least complicated and hence most desirable option. “People should go beyond PowerPoint because it’s really a mediocre commodity, but it’s been inflated in importance because corporate America virtually requires that people have slides,” said Rick Altman, director of the annual Presentation Summit, which is focused on improved methods of engaging audiences, and author of Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck and How You Can Make Them Better
. “People make the mistake of saying the slides are the presentation when you are the presentation.”
IS IT TIME TO BAN POWERPOINT?
Microsoft launched PowerPoint as a slideshow presentation tool in 1990. Since then, it has infiltrated offices, boardrooms, schools, and conference halls — just about anywhere someone might give a presentation, small or large. While use of PowerPoint is almost universal at this point, there’s been a mighty backlash against it.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has eliminated the heavy use of PowerPoint from company meetings. There’s been much debate about an overreliance on PowerPoint by leaders in the U.S. military and efforts to ban or limit its use within various departments. Even some conferences have taken up the idea. In 2012, Meetings and Events Australia (MEA), whose annual conference attracts about 900 attendees, banned what it called “bad PowerPoint” as well as the traditional use of the technology. “The bullet-point model was created in the pre-digital era, when there was a shortage of expert information. It was worth flying somewhere to hear that kind of speech,” Linda Gaunt, MEA’s CEO, said in a statement when the ban was first instituted. “Now the web is full of expert presentations you can watch in your own time and location, so meetings need to provide something beyond that.”
Speakers at MEA’s conference now receive a tutorial on what is acceptable and unacceptable, including a letter from Gaunt that calls for presentations that are “simpler, more emotive, and more human than delegates normally see.” MEA includes a list of banned PowerPoint techniques, including bullet points, flowcharts, template backgrounds, clip art, and reading directly from the screen. Learn More: See HaikuDeck in Action
According to a 2013 survey by Dave Paradi, a consultant and presentation expert who runs ThinkOutsideTheSlide.com
, information overload, unclear visuals, and small text are some of the most common annoyances caused by PowerPoint slides. Seventy-two percent of nearly 700 respondents from around the world said a speaker reading the slides to the audience was annoying, while 50 percent of those surveyed said unreadably small text was a pet peeve, and 48 percent ranked slides with full sentences instead of bullet points as annoying. “From a conference or organizational perspective,” said Paradi, whose books include Present It So They Get It
, “instead of saying you shouldn’t use PowerPoint, it’s more constructive to think about how you can use this tool more effectively.”
‘THE STAKES ARE HIGHER NOW’
With all this negativity toward the most common presentation tool out there, what’s a speaker or planner to do? Nancy Duarte, the CEO of presentation training company Duarte and author of Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences
, says you need to focus on using slides as slides, not as “slide documents.” “Three-quarters of the slides out there are not really slides,” she said, “but they are slide docs that have dense information on them, and those are reviled.”
Haiku Deck only allows a few words per slide.
Presenters need to make sure their slides are visual aids and not reports transcribed to the screen. “The communicator should be the star,” Duarte said. “To do that, we have to completely change our mindset.”
There are many options beyond PowerPoint to help do that. Keynote, for example, is Apple’s answer to PowerPoint, with many of the same features, but users often say it more seamlessly incorporates video into presentations and has superior visuals. ScrollMotion is a platform that permits interactivity of data and includes a calculator that can change graphics on the fly. SlideRocket, which is transitioning into a platform called ClearSlide, promises a more collaborative presentation experience, including slide sharing and updating among team members, and includes analytics to track how many people are viewing and sharing the slides. And emaze, a cloud-based digital slide creator tool, permits access from a variety of devices and provides design templates.
Duarte said that she’s particularly impressed with Haiku Deck presentation software because it mandates good design, forcing presenters to focus on cinematic visuals and highlight concepts while restricting the number of words allowed on a slide. Adam Tratt, the co-founder and CEO of Haiku Deck, launched in 2012, said the product arose from the troubles he and his partner experienced trying to create impactful entrepreneurial pitch presentations using PowerPoint. “We are both pretty smart guys and I used to work at Microsoft. We were good at using PowerPoint,” Tratt said. “But that didn’t make us good designers.”
Tratt and his team wanted to “create a tool that would make it impossible for the [user] to create something no less than stunningly beautiful.” They sat down with a stack of design books and came up with some general best practices for presentations, then made them standard in Haiku Deck. The tool limits the number of words on a slide and emphasizes the use of a single powerful image per slide, providing a sophisticated search engine that allows users to hunt through the 40 million Creative Commons images on the Internet — meaning they’re licensed to the public for free use, preventing copyright infringement. Haiku Deck also provides consistent formatting, with 16 designer-approved themes for users to choose from that are carried throughout a presentation. “Most presentation tools let [users] pick whatever font they like,” Tratt said, “