PowerPoint – A Double-Edged Sword

17 February, 2005 - 22:07
How to get the best from your on-stage graphics and prevent your audience from tuning out.

by Fiona Robertson 

Powerpoint can be a convenient and visual tool, when properly designedPresentations often include the use of on-screen graphics to accompany a speaker’s delivery.  Used effectively, such speaker support can enhance presentations considerably; but used badly, they can cause an audience to ‘tune out’ a presenter.




This section explains how to create and use PowerPoint presentations, and what can result if you get it wrong.  The subjects covered are :




Creating A PowerPoint Presentation

  • Formulating The Presentation’s Content
  • Slide Formats
  • Style Formats (Text, Layout, Emphasis, Punctuation)
  • Graphics & Holding Slides
  • Builds & Transitions

Using PowerPoint

  • Software, Hardware & Presentation Mechanics
  • Presentation Techniques & Best Practice
  • Common Pitfalls
  • Final Preparations

Creating A PowerPoint Presentation

When creating a PowerPoint presentation, you will need to address the following elements. This will enable you to assemble your basic material and establish the ‘look’ you want to achieve.

  • Formulating The Presentation’s Content
  • Slide Formats
  • Style Formats
  • Graphics & Holding Slides
  • Builds & Transitions

Formulating The Presentation’s Content

Start by getting the draft script for a presentation and work through the content, looking for key messages or important information that needs emphasising. 


Also look at ways to illustrate what’s being said: advertising stills, company logos, financial information, slides from Board presentations and images which encapsulate the points being made will help to break up the presentation and keep your audience’s attention stimulated.



Having plotted the content of the slides, rehearse the presentation to see that the accompanying imagery works.  If it doesn’t, be ruthless - modify the script, the PowerPoint or both until you have a strong, cohesive presentation, both visually and orally.  Once the content has been determined, you can begin work on the look of your presentation.

Slide Formats

Create a template for your event and circulate it to all your speakers.  That way, you will receive back their drafts in a consistent style, which will save you time and effort later. 



The template will form the basis of every slide : first, choose a background; then use the grid to plot out where your text and images will go.



Remember to create generic slides for different usages, such as names, job titles, headings, subheadings, bullet points and graphics.



Fix the maximum number of text lines your slides will carry, looking at the line spacing between rows.  That way, you’ll achieve a consistent look throughout, plus you’ll avoid slides becoming crammed with illegible script.



Text : Choose a font and a font size, making sure your script will be large enough for those at the back to read with ease.  Also, choose a colour for your font. 



As far as the use of colour goes, ensure your background and font colours are distinct yet complementary – while trying to avoid colour combinations that make the eyes dance !  Remember, however cheery red and green might seem, if your audience can’t read the script, your presentation will be pointless.  For text against a white background, avoid yellows, light blues and greens - you may be able to read them on your monitor but projected, they will disappear into the background.



Layout : Be consistent with the spacing on your slides, both between text lines (ie line spacing) and between letters (known as kerning).  Your aim at all times should be to achieve maximum impact and complete legibility. Then consider how you want to list information –

  • Do you want to use indentations or keep your text justified ? 
  • Will you use bullet points, numbers or letters ?
  • Or perhaps hyphens, dashes, dots or symbols ?
  • If your conference has a particular theme, you may want to adapt it for your bullets.

Emphasis : What about adding emphasis ?  Will you go for underlining, bold script or font size changes ? Whatever you decide, keep it consistent across the whole presentation for a clean, streamlined look.



Punctuation : Next, will you use open or closed punctuation ? Closed punctuation is now considered rather old fashioned and entails each line starting with a capital letter and ending with a mark, (usually a comma or a semicolon).  Every line is indented a little further than the line above, and dots are used after abbreviated letters.  As a style, it tends to look rather fussy, with lots of spaces and punctuation marks; also, with listed points requiring increasing indentation space, you will lose valuable text area.



Open punctuation, however, is much cleaner and sparer – text is usually justified to the left, abbreviations such as ‘eg’ don’t have dots after each letter, and new lines don’t have to use capital letters at their beginning and commas or semicolons at their end. It’s more modern and it gives you more room on your slides.


To illustrate, a slide using closed punctuation might look like this : ______________________________________________

Better Customer Service.


To achieve this :

  • Be polite when answering the ‘phone.
  • Answer within five rings.
  • Introduce yourself.
  • Ask how you can help.




While the same text, with open punctuation, would look this way :




Better Customer Service


To achieve this :

  • be polite when answering the phone
  • answer within five rings
  • introduce yourself
  • ask how you can help


Graphics & Holding Slides

You may decide to include images in your presentation - and these can range in technical sophistication from ClipArt to 3D graphics or video.



Use graphics for illustration or emphasis, not just as a moving background.  Your audience will be drawn to the imagery – meaning their attention will be focussed on looking rather than listening.  However, if what you show them mirrors what you are saying, you will make your points more clearly.



When not showing your audience something specific, use a holding slide to act as ‘wallpaper’.  Holding slides are fairly generic and usually incorporate your template background plus a company logo, the conference title, the event theme, the subject heading or the presenter’s name.  Holding slides are used in order to :

  • Act as a visual pause between the graphics you want to show;
  • Prevent an inappropriate slide staying on screen when you move onto another subject;
  • Shift the audience’s focus from the screen back onto the presenter;
  • And, when the screen does shift from a holding slide to a graphic, the difference will be more attention-grabbing.

See Using PowerPoint, below, for a fuller explanation of how to keep or lose your audience’s attention.

Builds & Transitions

If you want a slide to build – ie for new points or subheadings to appear at timed intervals - you can programme this into the slide so that it builds automatically; alternatively, you can make builds appear at the click of a spacebar.



Slide animations can also be programmed to appear automatically or manually, as you prefer.  Animations refer to both the way each text line appears (eg bullet points wiping from right to left), and the way slides move on through a presentation (eg one slide dissolving into the next).



Depending on the PowerPoint programme you are running, these transitions can be many and varied and are largely a matter of taste.  The latest version of PowerPoint (2003, Professional Edition) can perform some sophisticated animations that can reinforce your messages.



You can also programme the presentation to run automatically from start to finish, (known as a slide show).  Every build and slide transition can be individually programmed to change at a specified time interval.  However, presenting this way means you’ll have little control over your delivery, once your slide show has begun.  It therefore tends to be used for stand-alone presentations, where there is no live speaker.

Using PowerPoint

It is a widely-known fact that people absorb and retain information far more effectively through their eyes than their ears - we are programmed to use our eyes first.  What that means for presenters is, if you put up a slide, your audience will automatically strive to read it for themselves instead of listening to you !



With this in mind, try not to show slides containing too much detail – the more there is to read, the longer your audience’s attention will be deflected away from the speaker.



Also, don’t bother faithfully recreating complex charts and diagrams full of tiny detail – no-one will be able to read them and, again, your audience will spend time worrying about what they missed, not listening.



Instead, pick out important statistics, slogans, key phrases – all the top-line information you actually want your audience to read and retain. 



To give examples : If, as you reveal last year’s killer sales figures, you echo the results on a slide – great.  Everyone will hear the news, then they’ll read the news; and input delivered via two senses should sink in easily.  However, if you tell your audience the great results while flashing up a table of how your competitors performed, you can guarantee people will be trying to analyse the data.  They’ll tune out from the speaker – however briefly – to focus their attention on the slide, probably missing the speaker’s key point in the process.

Software, Hardware & Presentation Mechanics

PowerPoint, like any piece of software, is continually being upgraded and refined.  The most recent version is PowerPoint 2003 and a full explanation of what the programme can do is available at www.microsoft.com.  This site also explains how to manipulate images, import data (eg charts) and create graphics, to help you develop your product knowledge.



If you are creating your own presentation, remember that you will need a range of software and equipment add-ons, in addition to your PowerPoint software.  If you plan to show photos or moving images, first off you’ll need a graphics package such as Adobe Photoshop.  You’ll also need hardware - a digital camera (and appropriate software) or some sort of video interface. You could also download images from the internet but beware of using copyrighted material without permission, (see Copyrights).



If creating your own presentation seems a bit daunting, you can hire professional Graphics Operators through specialised companies.  This option means you can tailor your presentation exactly, using operators who can do very sophisticated things with the material you supply.  Also, the whole process will be completed far more quickly; hence, this is the preferred option within the events industry. (See the Directory for listings of freelance and company suppliers.)



Many companies use either a production company or a specialist supplier for their speaker support production as they do not have the staff in-house to deal with the peak demands of PowerPoint production in the run up to a conference.  If there is a conference with, say, 8 speakers, you will need to allow at least 6 days’ programming time to accommodate the changes, image searches and graphics production that will be required. 



And, during rehearsals, there will always be changes.  Trained professionals are able to work under pressure, in full public view, and for much longer hours than your in-house team will manage.



You will also need to think ahead about how you’ll deliver your presentation :

  • Will you have a laptop on-stage with you so that you can advance through the builds and transitions yourself ?
  • Will you pre-programme your presentation as a slide show ?
  • Or will you have a Graphics Operator working for you backstage ?


If this is the case, you’ll need to signal to the operator so they know when to change the slides.  Most operators work on a cue-light system : presenters hold a small, battery-driven box (or ‘click switch’) in the palm of their hand, which transmits a radio signal when the button is pressed.  This activates a light next to the operator, who then advances the presentation.  Click switches are small and portable, meaning presenters can move about the stage if they wish. 



Operators prefer to adopt a belt-and-braces approach so they’ll also work off your presentation script.  Once your script and your slides have been finalised in rehearsal, these will be passed to the operator.  They will save the slides onto their show machines (ie the presentation and back-up kits) so that, if system A freezes, system B can take over.  They will then work through your script, marking the exact points you have indicated for slide changes in rehearsal.  This way, they can anticipate cue signals and respond immediately.

Presentation Techniques & Best Practice

  • Don’t fight with your own presentation for your audience’s attention !
  • Time the slides to your verbal delivery to achieve maximum emphasis or effect.
  • Break up any dry sections with illustrations and graphics.
  • Keep the amount of information on each slide to a minimum.
  • Make information simple and clear.
  • Minimise statistics and figures.
  • If there are lots of bullet points, build them slowly so your audience has time to absorb each issue.
  • If it’s easier to show something, don’t struggle trying to put it into words.  Remember : show what you can’t say; say what you can’t show.
  • If you plan to mention people, try to show their photos as well as their names.
  • When not showing informative or illustrative graphics, use holding slides as your ‘wallpaper’.
  • Edit your graphics ruthlessly.
  • Make sure that the remaining slides contain compelling material.
  • Distribute handouts after your presentation, again, to retain your audience’s attention.
  • Finally, remember : great graphics are no substitute for a well-crafted speech.  Your presentation needs to be strong, even without the visuals, for it to work.  (See Speechwriting and Presentations for advice on how to construct an effective presentation.)

Common Pitfalls

  • Never, ever present by simply reading out your slides to the audience - they can do this for themselves and you’ll look lost for words.
  • And, when showing quotations, allow time for your audience to read them for themselves – don’t duplicate them in your speech.
  • The other cardinal mistake is to confuse presentation slides with a prompting system.  Generally speaking, your slides shouldn’t lead your vocal delivery; if anything, they should follow what you’ve said to reinforce your messages.
  • If you have difficulty remembering what you want to say or which slide comes next, print off ‘speaker’s notes’ from the presentation itself. 
  • Alternatively, use the slide miniatures to create numbered flash cards that are bound together in their correct order.
  • Or use a prompting system ! (See the Directory for Prompt suppliers.)
  • Make sure there are two click switches on-stage – and that both contain new batteries.
  • As you develop your script and slides, make sure each new version is saved with a different version number (including the date and time, if possible).
  • And, obvious as it may seem, make sure everyone working on slide presentations (including the presenters and the graphics operators) is using the same version of the same software package.

Final Preparations

Finally, before you take to the stage, make sure you’ve prepared properly :

  • With a final, timed rehearsal of the script and slides together;
  • That all graphics amendments have been saved - on both the show and the back-up machines;
  • That you, your graphics operator and the showcaller have the latest version of your script, marked up to show slide cues;
  • That you know your cue on- and off-stage;
  • That you have a click switch in your hand or at your place on the stage;
  • That you know what you’re going to say and do (using either speaker’s notes, flash cards or prompt);
  • That you will be able to see the on-screen graphics (for verification).

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