I sat through three PowerPoint presentations today, and each one was a heartbreaking missed opportunity. Do you have any idea how hard it is to be a professional communicator watching someone with a good story wander down the trail of random information that is the typical PowerPoint? Do you know we cry silently to ourselves every time a presenter loses an audience three ugly, dense slides in?
PowerPoint in nascent form appeared in the early 1980s, when computer software’s main job was enticing people to buy computer hardware. The first Macintoshes added images to the personal computer’s short list of capabilities, inspiring programmer and entrepreneur Robert Gaskins to develop “presentation graphics for overhead projection.” (His original, pre-PowerPoint presentation for the project can be seen here, in all its dot-matrix glory.) He enlisted his old friend Dennis Austin to do the heavy lifting on the code.
In retrospect, their prediction that their presentation software would save businesses time has proven hilarious. PowerPoint has become emblematic of wasted time, empowering every self-important office bore to lay-out their 72-slide plan in microscopic detail.
The thing is, in the hands of a skilled user, PowerPoint is an amazingly powerful tool. The key is asking the software to do less, not more. Less information, fewer animations, bigger type, more open space and pictures. The slides are a condiment sprinkled on the meat of your message. You want people to listen to you, not to read your slides.
There is a saying in Hollywood: show me a lead character people root for and I’ll show you a hit movie. PowerPoints are the same way. The goal is not to present every important bit of information. The goal is to get your audience to care. If they care they’ll seek the information you need them to understand.
And for heaven’s sake don’t turn your back to the audience and read the slides. If you do that, your best outcome is the audience sneaking silently away while you’re not looking. The worst case is people start throwing things.