Steven F. Freeman

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PowerPoint Like a Pro

page last modified: 03/09/2012 11:18 AM


How to PowerPoint Like a Pro. June 2, 2006

Prepare a simple story with a strong message -- then worry about the slides themselves

Microsoft's PowerPoint program is a blessing and a curse for business professionals. Most of us use it to convey information, but many of us are bored to tears when we watch the finished product. The problem is not in the software itself, which can be an incredibly valuable tool to enhance the transfer of knowledge. It's how we use it.

As a communications coach, I face mind-numbing presentations that I know can be made much more engaging, effective, persuasive, and exciting with some simple fixes. Let me give you an example. I was asked by Goldman Sachs investment bankers to prepare a CEO for his company's IPO road show.

POWERPOINT POISONING.  When we began to work together I asked him to walk through the entire presentation. I wished I hadn't. More than one hour and 72 slides later, I thought I was physically going to pass out, gripping the conference room desk to keep from doing so. The problem had little to do with the content of the presentation but in the way the story was told.

What should have been a strong story had turned into a long, convoluted and dull series of slides. The CEO took his cue from the slides and in turn become an uninspiring spokesperson.

But after four hours together, we were able to create a dynamic presentation that lasted 20 minutes with a product demonstration thrown in for good measure. The CEO went on to wow investors and enjoy one of the few successful IPO's in that particular time period.

KEYS TO A CURE.  I want to encourage you to think differently about yourself as a spokesperson and how you tell your story through slides. Try to keep the following seven keys in mind as you create, prepare and deliver your next PowerPoint presentation.

It's About You, Not the Slides
Write your presentation's story first and consider the slides complementary to your message. By building too many slides, adding too much information to the slides, and reading the text on the slides word for word, you force the audience to focus on the slides instead of you. Remember, you are the sole human experience your audience has to connect with your product, service, or company at the time of your presentation. Keep the attention focused on the most important brand of all -- you.

Keep Your Numbers Down
One way to keep the attention focused on you is by limiting the number of slides. I once heard a venture capitalist recommend no more than 10 slides for a twenty-minute presentation. That's good discipline. But it doesn't mean you should always cut your presentation time in half to determine the number of slides.

For example, even 30 slides in one hour are far too many for most presentations. In the case of any presentation, less really is more. (MNST ) founder Jeff Taylor once told me that he can speak for 15 minutes with one slide in the background. He uses a total of 11 slides for a one hour presentation. Sybase (SY ) CEO John Chen uses 15 in an hour.

That gives you an idea of just how few slides are needed to make an impact. Motivational guru Tony Robbins will show a total of only five slides in two hours! Again, he wants the focus to be on him, not the slides. And so should you.

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Avoid Deadly Bullets
Slides with bullet points are easy to create -- that's the problem. Anyone with the most basic knowledge of PowerPoint can create a new slide, title, and list of bullets. When this process is repeated and a series of bulleted slides are strung together, the result is dull, mind-numbing, and monotonous.

The most engaging presentations have very few, if any, slides that contain only titles and bullets. Look, I'm not suggesting you get away from bullets entirely. It's perfectly to fine to have bullets, perhaps alongside a graphic. But two slides of bullets back to back (let alone several) can be deadly. Watch the bullets.

Your Audience Can Read, So You Don't Have To
There's no reason to read the text on a slide word for word. Again, the slides should complement the focal point of the presentation -- the person giving the presentation.

Speakers often lose the all important quality of maintaining eye contact with the audience by turning to the slide and reading every word on it. Engaging presenters will glance at the slide and then make eye contact with listeners, paraphrasing or complementing the text on the slide. Speaking of text...

Think Visually
I recently helped prepare a sales leader for a major product announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. He started with more than 80 slides for a 40 minute presentation. Do the math -- that's two slides per minute! Not only was the presentation far too long time-wise (20 minutes would have been tighter and more engaging), contain far too many slides (10 would have been more like it) but most of the slides contained bullets, data and large amounts of text.

Just about anything you say can be made more engaging through the use of visuals - photos and graphics paired with a small amounts of text. If you're confused about how to design such slides, one of my favorite books on the subject is "Beyond Bullet Points" by Cliff Atkinson.

Have a Beginning...and an End
Just as your entire presentation should have a strong opening and even stronger closing, each slide should have a clear introduction, middle and end. All too often, I see slides that run together, creating a confusing and convoluted presentation.

For example, if one slide is titled "Market Share," then verbally introduce the portion of your presentation by saying something along the lines of "We've made substantial gains in market share over the last year..."

You might end such a slide by saying, "And that's why we have enjoyed a substantial improvement in market share over the past twelve months." Have a clear headline, introductory sentence, and strong closing sentence. And commit those remarks to memory!

Practice Out Loud
How often do you actually run through a presentation out loud from beginning to end? If you're like most people, the answer is "not very much." Yet the best presenters rehearse -- what they're going to say, how they're going to transition, how they're going to say it -- nothing is taken for granted. You may even want to invest in a remote presentation pointer, so you can advance your slides while walking around the room.

PowerPoint is a powerful and vital tool to impart information to customers, employees and investors. Used poorly, it can hinder your success. Used wisely, it will help you wow your listeners (see BW Online, 04/6/2006, "How to Wow 'Em Like Steve Jobs").

Gallo is a Pleasanton (Calif.)-based corporate presentation coach and former Emmy-award winning TV journalist. He's the author of 10 Simple Secrets of the World's Greatest Business Communicators. Visit him online at


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