Jeanette Henderson

Previously, presenters had to labor for weeks, even months, partnered with highly skilled, expensive audio-visual departments, to get overhead projections and slides just right. With PowerPoint, the job was reduced to simple point and click word and image-processing programs nearly anyone with a desktop computer can use, no AV department necessary.

The task is now so easy it has come to be expected in practically every business, technical, and even general-information presentation. Presenters are often maligned, considered lazy or unprepared if they show up without an extensive PowerPoint presentation. To appear prepared, some presenters resort to putting their outline on PowerPoint, then proceed to do nothing more than read their outline out loud, or write a bunch of nonsense just to take up space. How many of us have been tortured with that kind of tedious, lackluster, and disconnected presentation?

What used to be a tool for presenters is too often a crutch, or even worse, the slideshow becomes the presentation itself. Remind yourself that slides don't connect with audiences, only a presenter can do that. No one was ever inspired by a slideshow without the presenter being inspiring as well.

First the facts. To be effective, you must maintain authority at all times to win the audience to your side. They must trust that you, a real person, know what you're talking about. You cannot relinquish that authority to anyone or anything without a clear reason, or you risk losing control of the situation.

Imagine authority as a beach ball. As long as you have the ball in your hands, you are the authority, that's where people are looking and listening. When you want the audience to pay attention to someone or something else, you must physically turn to that person or thing, and in essence, toss the imaginary beach ball to them. By telegraphing to the audience what you want them to do (indicating your leadership), they will look where you want them to look.

When presenting a slide in a PowerPoint presentation, look at the screen while the audience silently reads it. Then take the beach ball back by turning from the screen back to your audience and reestablishing eye contact with them. Now you have the authority again, and have clearly demonstrated that PowerPoint is just a tool.

None of this happens in typical PowerPoint presentations as most people do them today. First, presenters tend to darken rooms so the audience can see the screen better, which makes the screen the focal point the entire time. Worse, people have a hard time reading and listening at the same time, which means they have to choose between reading something that is the brightest thing in the room, or listening to a voice coming out of the dark. Since our visual sense invariably takes precedence over all else, we keep our eyes glued to the screen, barely hearing a word the presenter is saying.

Even when you hand authority over to your PowerPoint correctly, there are a few more things to consider:

  1. Keep slides to a minimum. Use one only when the point is easier to explain with a picture instead of words.

  2. Put a blank slide in between slides to let the audience know when to focus on you.

  3. Dim the lights as little as possible (or have someone control the lights accordingly), so that the audience can see you.

  4. For the rest of your presentation, try to use descriptive words that let your audience use their imaginations rather than relying on slides.

Years ago in a conversation with a coworker, I told her how much I had enjoyed the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. She said she hated it. I pressed her to explain. She said it was because the filmmaker tried to show her too much, and that his images were never as good as her own imagination. "In the old days," she said, "when a character peered into a dark hole and said, ‘Oh, no, not snakes, I hate snakes,' I imagined so many snakes in that pit it made my hair stand on end. In the movie, they didn't even come close to what I had imagined." She was disappointed because she felt the movie shortchanged her imagination.

Our imagination is one of our greatest assets, and these days, it's getting way too little exercise. So next time you have to do a presentation, resist the urge (and criticism of the lesser-informed) to put every word or image on the screen. Instead of wasting time designing an overabundance of convoluted and unnecessary slides, concentrate on using descriptive words, and let the audience's imagination do the rest of the work for you.

Jeanette Henderson is the coauthor of the book There's No Such Thing as Public Speaking. She is a cofounder of Podium Master (www.podiummaster.com), a nationally recognized presentation consulting firm.