dull powerpoint

At The Humphrey Group, we work with executives and managers across a wide range of industries and sectors. And no matter whom we are working with or what level they are at, we always hear two comments:

  1. PowerPoint presentations remain the preferred mode of communication within their organization, and,
  2. Virtually every presentation they hear or read is ineffective.

How can one reconcile these two realities? Why are organizations demanding a slide deck for something as mundane as a quarterly update or as significant as a town hall? Why are they turning to PowerPoint slide decks to replace memos, meeting agendas and briefing documents? And why do they keep doing this when people are, increasingly, weary of wading through pointless decks?

Because visual presentations, when done right, can be a powerful way to convey thinking. They allow speakers and writers to express ideas visually, which can improve retention and understanding in audiences.

Few presentations meet such a lofty standard, because writers and speakers continue to fall victim to what I call the seven deadly sins of presentations. Here they are, along with what you can do to make your next meeting much more effective.

Sin #1: Defaulting to PowerPoint

Jeff was a senior project manager for a mining company. He had been asked to speak to the COO and his leadership team about lessons learned in their recent mine shutdown. When we started our coaching session Jeff already had 35 slides of content, and wanted help paring the deck down to 30. 30!

“Before we get started on this,” I asked him, “why did you choose to use slides for this opportunity?”

Jeff paused. He thought. He looked at the deck.  Then he looked at me and replied “I’m not sure. I just started typing and here we are.”

Slides can help you convey ideas visually, but leaders recognize that they aren’t always necessary. Before you open a blank PowerPoint deck, give some thought into what you want to convey—and what action you hope to inspire.

Sin #2: Dumping information

Slide decks are really good at conveying information. You can pack as much as you need into a slide—and the software will even shrink the text to make sure it all fits!

Yet smart leaders know that successful presentations are based on connecting with an audience to shape their thinking and inspire them to act. And these leaders also know that it is their own ideas and beliefs that do this—not a barrage of unfiltered information. The sole function of the information you share in a presentation should be to support and substantiate the ideas you want your audience to believe in. That’s why leaders begin by deciding what ideas they believe in and want to convey through the presentation—not by simply dumping data on a deck.

Sin #3: Lacking a message

One of our banking clients has a senior team that is notorious for never letting presenters finish their talks. The speakers complained that this audience was rude and disrespectful; surely after spending hours building presentations, they should have the right to deliver them in their entirety!

But after sitting in on a few of these “hijacked presentations” the rationale for the interruptions became immediately clear; the speakers had no core message. Instead, they would outline their agenda and then drone on through topics like “background” or “opportunities,” hoping to wrap up at the end with well-founded conclusions and recommendations. No executive had the patience for this, and consequently dove in with questions early on.

True leaders present differently. They distil the thinking of the entire presentation into a single focused idea—that’s their core message. And they present it up front.

Sin #4: Lacking persuasion

Most weak presentations I see are informational rather than persuasive. They feature an agenda slide listing the topics that will be covered, and slide after slide of data and facts. There is nary an argument to be found until the end.

Leaders avoid the “topic list” approach to presentations. Instead, they build an argument that makes a case for their message.

They know every piece of the presentation should show why the case they are making is a compelling one.

Sin #5: Including baffling visuals

Slides should not require interpretation. If your deck includes complicated charts, super-detailed graphs or contextually confusing images, it will only baffle your audiences.

Leaders build their slides so that each makes a single, clear point in an unambiguous way; they know that effective presentations require no interpretation by the audience.

Sin #6: Over-sharing

Far too often, speakers build more slides than they could possible need.

Marie was a credit risk analyst at an investment bank. She had to give a presentation on five companies she followed, and the risk they each faced in the coming months. When we met to go over her slide deck, she resisted my efforts to prune some of the 47 slides from the deck.

When I pointed out she only had 20 minutes, she agreed that it was a lot to fit in, but told me “I just need to have these in here in case I am asked for detail on how I reached my conclusions.”

Fortunately for Marie, there is a simple solution: appendices. Leaders include only those slides they absolutely need to convey their arguments; anything else can go in a notes page or in an appendix. By doing this, you can keep control of the audience’s attention and avoid the information dump referenced earlier.

Sin #7:  Letting slides do the heavy lifting

If you are delivering your presentation in person, remember that you are the best visual—not your PowerPoint deck. Audiences want to look you in the eye, listen to your voice and make a judgment about whether or not to believe in what you are saying. Every slide you put up creates competition for these powerful non-verbal cues.

Leaders know that their own presence is the best visual tool in a presentation, and work to create and maintain a strong connection with their audience. They choose to use slides carefully, and only in those instances where visual thinking trumps verbal.

Remember: very few people are ever inspired by a slide. But a dynamic, engaged, persuasive presenter? That’s another story.

Bart Egnal is president and CEO of The Humphrey Group, which teaches people to communicate as inspiring leaders and express ideas that move others to action. The company has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Mexico City, and serves clients around the world.

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