Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How PowerPoint Presentations are like movies

There is nothing wrong with PowerPoint, except the way people use it. PowerPoint is a visual media but presenters insist using PowerPoint as a text document. It's not.

Think about the best presentation that you have ever seen. It was image rich and text light.

Most PowerPoints fail for three reasons:
1) Presenters fail to deliver a compelling narrative
2) We can read almost twice as fast as a person can talk
3) Presenters don't understand how the brain processes information

Notice that I did not mention too many words on a slide. I think we all know that's a common trait of bad presentations. Just because you have a lot of words on the slide doesn't mean anyone is reading them. A little more on this bit later.

Similarly, I left out a few other obvious remedies to improve PowerPoint presentations, like remember the audience and rehearse the heck out of it, because, well because they are obvious.

Here's a quick, but by no means definitive set of ideas to improve your PowerPoint presentations. It's a mix of science and common sense.

One note, the suggestions that follow are meant to help people delivering live presentations. If you will not be on hand to deliver the audio track for your presentation, this isn't for you.

Set Expectations
Like a movie, you'd what to know if you are going to see romantic comedy or Transformers sequel. Telling the audience what to expect helps them make connections with information they already possess, easing the burden on working memory.

Develop a narrative
If you go into a bookstore, you'll notice the shelves are stocked with novels, biographies, and history. What do they have in common, they tell a narrative story. Human beings love stories. Use that to your advantage. Give your presentation life by creating a story line.

Start writing the presentation in outline form
Remember when you first learned how to write an essay. The teacher insisted that you write an outline first. There was a reason for it. It created structure and helped you tell a better story. For PowerPoint, the outline is slide sorter view. Begin you presentation not by diving into the normal view but lay out the outline of the presentation by writing in the titles in the slide sorter view.

Write titles in headlines form

Studies show that writing titles in headline form increases retention. A well-written headline sets expectations in the reader. Before you start talking about the image or text on the slide, the reader knows the theme for the slide. Your audience will get used to seeing the main thought the headline and be ready for you to explain it. This reduces the strain on working memory.

Use one main thought slide

People don't hate lots of slides in a presentation. They hate slow presentations with lots of slides and there is a big difference. Your slide should communicate one idea, one concept. Use the slide images and words to reinforce that idea.

People can read 400 words per minute
Speakers talk about 200 words a minute. This means the audience has read the entire slide before the speaker has gotten half way through the slide, which really means your audience is bored before you get through slide one.

People process words as little pictures
Text heavy slides impose a double burden on the audience. They have to spend a lot of mental energy process the little pictures and not listening to you. Wouldn't it be better to give them one picture and explain what it means? By the way, marrying a relevant image with a verbal track increases retention.

Human beings get bored every ten minutes
Nobody knows why. But it's true. This means that every ten minutes you need to give them a compelling reason to listen to you. One of the best ways to do this is change your teaching style every ten minutes. If you have been lecturing for ten minutes solid, introduce an anecdote, use a role play, poll the audience. It also helps if you introduce new topics every ten minutes.

Be consistent handling text and graphics
Do not make the viewer work to understand each slide's structure. Most companies have corporate slide templates used for handling graphics and text. Rather than viewing the templates as confining, look at them as liberating. You no longer have worry about where to place the picture and your audience doesn't have to think about why the text is larger on some slides than other.

Read the experts
Like anything, if you want to get better do your homework. In this case, I suggest the following books:

Beyond Bullet Points, Cliff Atkinson
Resonate, Nancy Duarte
Brain Rules, John Medina
Presentation Zen, Gerr Reynolds

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