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3 Principles of Effective Presentations

The conventional wisdom and advice about how many words you should use on a slide isn't always the best advice.

Last month I had an opportunity to write a 20-page booklet for ATD entitled PowerPoint: Your Co-facilitator.

Powerpoint Your Co-Facilitator - effective powerpoint presentations

Since then, a number of friends and colleagues have asked me to boil the booklet down into the top five or ten tips that lead to effective PowerPoint presentations. As I reflected on that question, I think there are three guiding principles that can make any PowerPoint deck better. And these principles have very little to do with conventional advice such as “bullets kill, so eliminate bullet points” or “only use three lines of text, no more than 8 words per line, and no smaller than 36 point font”. My principles have little to do with the need to hone your graphic design skills, either.  

Principle 1: Before you open PowerPoint, plan.

All too often, when someone is asked to deliver a presentation, they immediately open PowerPoint. They get their thoughts down. They may tweak a few things. Then that becomes their presentation and the audience is stuck watching a slide deck that is content-heavy and not very engaging.

Instead, I suggest that presenters do not reflexively open PowerPoint, but rather open a Word document or even eschew technology altogether and grab a tablet of paper and a pencil and use the following steps:

  1. Sketch out the main points.
  2. Decide how best to visually represent those points using PowerPoint (or whatever presentation software you choose).
  3. Tell your visual story with your slides as you serve as a sort of presentation tour guide, narrating the experience for your audience.

To help with this process, here is a storyboard template. Another post illustrates the evolution of a slide from concept to final imagery.

Principle 2: Draw attention only to the information to which you want your audience to pay attention.

Sometimes bulleted lists are the best way to share information. You do not, however, need to share the whole list at once. A simple adjustment to slides wherein you animate your bullet points and reveal them one at a time can help your audience stay focused on you. Otherwise, your audience will be reading all the information on your slide and not really paying any attention to you.

When it comes to charts and graphs – whether the information is fairly simple or if it’s a complex data set – two tips can be helpful:

  1. Make sure the title of the slide has meaning. Instead of “Annual Employee Turnover” as the title to your slide, try something that draws attention to the point you’d like to make, such as: “Employee Turnover Is Down 27% From Last Year”.
  2. If there is a specific data point you’d like the audience to pay attention to on a bar graph or in a chart, highlight it in a different color. When you can avoid making your audience work too hard to interpret the data on your slide, they’ll pay more attention to you and the points you make verbally.

Principle 3: Let your audience interact with your content.

Effective PowerPoint presentations are not necessarily a one-way form of communication. If you want to take the pulse of your audience about a certain topic before you launch into your brilliant discourse (or if you simply want to make sure they’re still following along), embed an interactive poll into your deck and insist that your audience use their smartphones to engage with your presentation (since they may be using their smartphones anyway to check email or post on Instagram). PollEverywhere is a service (starting with free pricing, though for larger audiences there is a fee-for-service model) that allows you to easily embed such polling into your deck.

Instead of dictating the order in which you present your content, you can also ask your audience for things on their mind and then reveal that content Family Feud-style by using these tips.

Of course, Jeopardy-style review games have long-since been used in the training room. Here is a Jeopardy-inspired PowerPoint template which can be used in the training room.

These are three guiding principles for making any presentation more engaging. What is your advice for effective PowerPoint presentations? I’d love to hear your PowerPoint tips, tricks and ideas for engagement in the comment section.

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