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Trainer’s Approach to Effective PowerPoint

A trainer's approach to PowerPoint with Mike Parkinson

Most trainers have a love/hate relationship with PowerPoint. Why is that? There are probably a lot of reasons, but one reason I see over and over is that many trainers are taking the wrong approach to creating PowerPoint slides.

Mike Parkinson is not only the founder of Billion Dollar Graphics and author of A Trainer’s Guide to PowerPoint, but he is also one of only 36 Microsoft PowerPoint MVPs in the world! This week, he took some time with the Train Like You Listen podcast to really dig into how to create engaging and effective PowerPoint slides. During this podcast, we discuss the number one issues that experts see when users open this tool, why a simple mind map can help you become a better PowerPoint designer, and how to approach building a good slide.

Listen using the player below. Please leave us your thoughts in the comment section or on twitter @train_champion.

Transcript of Our Conversation with Mike Parkinson

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to the Train Like You Listen podcast, a weekly podcast of all things Learning & Development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn. I’m the co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning and I’m joined today by Mike Parkinson, who is the owner of Billion Dollar Graphics.  He is also one of 36 Microsoft PowerPoint MVPs in the world.  We’re going to talk about that in just a moment.  And he is also the author of a book that I think everyone should be reading.  It’s called “A Trainer’s Guide to PowerPoint”. Mike, thank you so much for joining us today.

Mike Parkinson: Thank you very much for having me.  I’m very excited to be here.

Brian Washburn: Well, we’re excited to have you and as we always start our podcast and Train Like You Listen to keep things brief…we like to have folk introduce themselves and introduce themselves in a 6-word biography.  For today’s topic, since we are focused on the wonderful tool of PowerPoint, my biography…and something that comes up in my life when it comes to PowerPoint is I used to really hate PowerPoint.  How about you, Mike, how would you sum up your career – your life – in 6 words.

Mike Parkinson: Fewer words…. “I’m a geek.”  That pretty much sums it up.

Brian Washburn: (laughing) Let’s get into that….and actually – speaking of geek – and this idea of Microsoft MVP.  Can you tell us a little bit more about what it means to be a Microsoft PowerPoint MVP.

Mike Parkinson: It’s a complete honor and a privilege.  Essentially it’s giving me – my voice – a little bit more weight… and I’m a huge proponent of championing best practices and getting them out there and in people’s hands so that they can do more…and with less. Because welcome to the world of “I have fewer resources and need to get more done.”  Microsoft essentially elevated my voice to a level and gave me access to insider information to help me navigate. or help shepherd people toward, a better way of using this particular tool.  It translates into all forms of communication.  It’s not just using PowerPoint…its using any form of communication.  Its best practices for that…and really, really applaud Microsoft for understanding that and looking for people out there that are way smarter than I am and giving them an opportunity to share and help.

Why is PowerPoint so Common in Training Presentations?

Brian Washburn: So, in talking about PowerPoint, you have this book – A Trainer’s Guide to PowerPoint.  It’s our world, right?  It’s your world, it’s my world, it’s the world that a lot of the people who are listening to this are in, and work in.  Why do you think that PowerPoint is so ubiquitous in training presentations?  Like why need slides, or at least why do we feel we need slides for every presentation?

Mike Parkinson: Well, the umm… I asked that same question because I did not like PowerPoint.  I was like “uh, PowerPoint is so bad.”  And then the more I used it, the more I realized the benefit of it.  And the #1 thing I can think of is that it forces presenters – people who are about ready to share information – to gather their thoughts into a concise, engaging story or explanation.  They’re not just running off the cuff or doing something like that.  They are thinking it through, they’re organiz- they’re also given an opportunity to use multiple modes of communication.  Because what science has told us is that multiple forms of communication increases understanding, recollection, and adoption.  And thats kind of what every person who is presenting is trying to do.  Even if it’s a sales presentation, you want adoption.  And PowerPoint, for example, is a medium to help you use all of those forms of communication, think through the best way to share it and to do it in a way that is concise and compelling.

What are the Common Mistakes in PowerPoint?

Brian Washburn: Well, and that’s the thing, it’s such a powerful tool.  Everybody uses it….and…but people don’t always use it to the fullest of its abilities.  What do you think are maybe 2 or 3 things that you see that people do poorly when they are developing slides?  …perhaps some pitfalls that people need to be aware of when they’re putting slides together.

Mike Parkinson: Well, the #1 thing…and I cracked up when I was at Microsoft – they always have a conference every year  – and one of the first things that one of the people that worked at Microsoft said was “The worst thing you can do when you start a PowerPoint presentation is to open PowerPoint”  Because that doesn’t allow you to plan.  You’re limited to the construct that Microsoft thinks is going to be best, you know…bulleted slides with the title bar and things like that.  And they’re saying “no, take that off the table and figure out what you’re trying to say…” and so forth.  So, start off with some outlining tool, mind mapping, or just sticky notes and a whiteboard.  Either one of those will work.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, you know, and can you say that again?  What is the worst…the #1 thing that even Microsoft says is your biggest pitfall when you’re getting ready to put your presentation together?

Mike Parkinson: The #1 problem that most PowerPoint presentations fall prey to is that they open PowerPoint first.  Microsoft advocates NOT, never opening PowerPoint first.

Brian Washburn: I, you know, I have been preaching this for…just because its been something that I’ve discovered, right?  So you get…you open up PowerPoint and then suddenly you’re locked into the structure of PowerPoint.  And so just listening to you say that…it warms my heart.  So, I didn’t mean to belabor this point, but it is something that I have felt have been really important for years and years and to hear somebody, coming from your perspective, who lives in this world of graphic design, to say that I think it’s affirming for me.  It’s exciting to hear.  What are some other things that people… kind of pitfalls that people fall into when they’re designing something in PowerPoint?

Mike Parkinson: Absolutely.  The other thing that comes to mind – and I see this a lot – is they treat a slide almost like a Word document.  But PowerPoint is a visual medium.  It’s not meant to be a Microsoft Word file on a slide.  And if people treat it like that then people are competing with the presenter, meaning that if there’s a recorded voiceover or the person is actually presenting it virtually, or live, people are going to read the slide and ignore the presenter and that’s a big problem.  One of the things that I found is there’s a sneaky, sneaky trick that you can create handouts from your slides with all of your narrative in it.  But it’s optimized as a handout, and not as a slide.  So that’s the 2nd one, is using…looking at a slide as if you’d look at a Word page – don’t do that.  It’s not.  It’s meant to be a visual medium.  You want to elicit curiosity in the audience because if the audience thinks they know what you’re going to say before you say it, they’re going to tune out.  So they’re just going to just read it and say “oh, I’m done with that person”

Brian Washburn: Sure.  And your brain can’t. Your brain can’t process both reading what’s on your slide…

What Does the Audience Want from Your Presentation?

Mike Parkinson: It needs to.  And the last thing is most PowerPoint presentations are created for the author, by the author versus the audience.

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Mike Parkinson: So they assume that the audience is motivated by the same things they are… and care about the same things that they do when they don’t.  And so to empathize with the audience is of critical importance.  And there are some really cool techniques to do that.

Brian Washburn: Do you have a few hints…in terms of techniques…to be able to empathize a little bit more with the audience?

Mike Parkinson: Yeah, absolutely.  #1 is ask them.

Brian Washburn: (laughing)

Mike Parkinson: Ask them what they want.  What’s their hopes, fear and biases, you know… Ask them and they usually tell you.  If you can’t ask them, what I’ll do is a HFB mind map, which is a hopes/fears/biases mind map and I’ll start to focus on the subject matter and I’ll start thinking, from their perspective, what’s their hope?  Oh, that they’ll save money.  Ok well how will they save money?  Well, there’s no surprises…they have cost control mechanisms…things like that.  And I fill that mind map out and then I start to look for things that appear over and over and over and over again and that becomes my top one, two or three key motivators for that particular audience.

Brian Washburn: Uh huh, So for someone who’s listening and says “look, I’m not a graphic designer.  It’s great that you have a company where that’s kind of your focus.  But I’m not a graphic designer.  I don’t have time to put together a beautiful deck.”  What are one or two specific things that they can and should be doing to make their deck more engaging and effective for their audience?

Keep it simple, silly?

Mike Parkinson: Two things come to mind.  #1 is KISS:  Keep it simple, silly.

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm.

Mike Parkinson: One of the workshops I teach is called “Super Simple Slide Design” and essentially what it’s doing is its saying “look, unless you’re a trained designer, don’t try to get fancy.  Because you’re definition of fancy, and other people’s definition of fancy are very different.  Instead, simplify things, and thats going to make it look more professional.

Brian Washburn: So, “simplify” is a big word.  There’s a lot that’s in there.  What are some ways that people can simplify their slide deck?

Mike Parkinson: One of the first things you do is don’t use aesthetic embellishment.  If people think that – usually if people have an issue with the slide it’s because the content or the message is weak, not the visual.  Because if the message is strong, the visual can be REALLY bad and still be VERY effective.

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm.

Mike Parkinson: But one of the things people do is they put something on a slide and they go “oh this is boring” so they start adding 3D effects and colors and drop-shadows and bevels and clip art…and next thing you know you have this cluttered mess that doesn’t mean anything to anybody.  But the author thinks its magic, when it’s not…not for that particular audience.  So keep it simple.  Avoid unnecessary aesthetic embellishment.

Brian Washburn: That makes sense.  And did you have another tip?

Graphic Libraries for PowerPoint

Mike Parkinson: Yeah, I highly recommend, and they’re out there… They’re few and far between, but they’re out there, is get a graphic asset library.  Get an asset library of PowerPoint elements. There’s a lot of prefab stuff out there.  My recommendation is don’t use the stuff that’s built into PowerPoint, especially if your audience has seen it before, because we devalue things we have seen before.

Brian Washburn: Sure.

Mike Parkinson: So if we see something we haven’t seen before we go “wow, thats kind of cool. I guess the person put extra effort into that.”  And that’s all happening really quickly.  So there’s a lot of graphic asset libraries that you can get to augment your content.

Brian Washburn: Yeah.  So, Mike, this is great information.  And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, you have an entire book that is full of these thoughts.  I love the title of it because it explains exactly what our industry needs, a trainer’s guide to PowerPoint.  We don’t need to be graphic designers but we do need to be effective in how we use it.  So as we end here, we have a couple of questions that are just real quick rapid-fire speed round questions for you, so our audience gets to know you – and love you – a little bit more.  Are you ready for the speed round?

Mike Parkinson: Yes I am.

Brian Washburn: Alright.  So what’s your go-to food before you actually deliver a presentation?

Mike Parkinson: Protein bar.

Brian Washburn: (laughing) Keep it simple. I love it.  What’s a piece of training tech that you cannot live without? 

Mike Parkinson: It’s gonna be…. I feel like I’m cheating here, but it’s a laptop running Mac and Windows.  I need both operating systems, and I need them at my fingertips.

Brian Washburn: How about a book or a podcast that people in the learning field should be paying attention to?

Mike Parkinson: Well besides, of course, Train Like You Listen I’m going to say The Presentation Podcast.  Its 3 MVPs – Troy Chollar, Nolan Haims, and Sandy Johnson.  It’s absolutely amazing.

Brian Washburn: What kind of stuff do they talk about?

Mike Parkinson: They talk about everything related to being a presentation professional.  It’s gonna range from actually presenting orally or tools and tricks and techniques for doing, using PowerPoint and other software effectively…mostly PowerPoint though.

Brian Washburn: So you’ve plugged Train Like You Listen.  You’ve plugged some other MVPs.  Do you have any shameless plugs for yourself before we end here?

Mike Parkinson: Yes, yes.  Me and a whole bunch of MVPs got together and we created a tool that is helping a lot of people be more successful.  It’s called “Build-A-Graphic”, like “Build-A-Bear”, so  And it helps you… it’s a PowerPoint plug-in that helps you…or “add-in” I should say…that helps you turn text into professional visuals.  So it automatically analyzes the text and gives you a visual representation that then you can modify and edit it.

Brian Washburn: That sounds amazing!  I think I’m going to have to check it out as well and maybe even plug it in a newsletter that I have coming out pretty soon, so…  Mike, thank you so much for joining us, and for all of the folks that are listening thank you so much for listening once again to Train like you Listen.  It is a podcast that can be found on iTunes, on iHeartRadio, or anywhere where you get your podcasts.  And if you like what you hear, we would love it if you could give us a rating.  So, until next time happy training!

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