Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Three Rules for Using PowerPoint

One of the most frustrating things I have encountered when attending workshops at a conference is to have a presenter really misuse PowerPoint. It is a tool that has replaced slides in meetings and, while making it easy for anyone to create presentations, has unfortunately also brought out some of the worst urges in presenters. I have attended many workshops where speakers have flooded the screen with irrelevant images, overwhelming amounts of information, animations, and other “enhancements” that end up just distracting the audience from the full value of the material. With that in mind, here are my three “rules” for using PowerPoint…

Rule #1: 6x6. This helps me remember to not have more than six lines of text on any given slide AND that I should have no more than six words per line of text. When the screen is jammed full with text, the audience cannot pick out what is really important. As a presenter, I should make it so that the audience can easily see what is important in the material. Limiting the amount of text on the slide means I can use a larger font (making it easier to read from a distance) and the audience can listen to what I am saying rather than spend all their time trying to read the slides.

Rule #2: High Contrast. Have you ever tried to read yellow text on a red background? It is not easy. Light colors on dark backgrounds work well, as does dark text on light backgrounds. I have heard some arguments for choosing one approach over the other, but the two sides agree that having high contrast will make the slide easier for the audience to read.

Rule #3: Judicious Use of Images. This rule also applies to sounds, movies, and animations. I am not saying that you cannot use images, etc. but you need to be sure that the images add something useful to the presentation other than “flash”. Content should stand on its own and not need much more to illustrate its value. My feeling is that when speakers overuse flashy add-ons such as animations, those end up being distractions that take an audience away from the content. If you like the flashy stuff, go ahead and include it. Just be careful to not add so much of it that the content delivery suffers.

In many cases, these rules can be bent or even broken (perhaps I should have called them guidelines instead). But it is important that, if you choose to break a rule, you know exactly why you are doing it. If you need some slides to have more than six lines of text to get your point across, then do so. If the animations or images help draw attention to a particularly important part of the material or enhance a theme, then I often consider that a good use of the technique and an appropriate time to bend or break the rules.

A dancer friend of mine once joked about his “flash and trash” routines, observing that the flashy footwork distracted the audience from his rusty technique. When entertaining a crowd, “flash and trash” may be good enough (I certainly have done that enough times, myself) but, when it comes to professional presentations, I want to make sure that the flashy additions do not hide or obscure the information being shared. After all, people generally go to educational sessions to be educated first – and entertained second. Don’t let the entertainment detract from the education in your next presentation.

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises