By Katherine Teitler

March 8, 2017

It's a mistake

Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment for any appreciable amount of time has been asked to give a presentation of one sort or another. Regardless of role or responsibilities, you’d be hard pressed to find a professional that hasn’t, at some point, worried over the details of what he or she was going to say and how to put together the best and most appropriate accompanying visual aid.

Some people prefer to start planning by thinking through pertinent talking points while others use the visual aid—the “presentation deck”—as a way to create the talk itself. While there is no one “right” way to develop presentation elements, there are some key “dos” and “don’ts” when it comes to the presentation deck.

By far, the most common visual aid used in corporate presentations is PowerPoint (PPT). And how many times have you heard or used the phrase, “Death by PowerPoint” to describe a presentation deck? The ubiquity of this saying is telling, isn’t it?

Though PPT has its limitations, experienced users can actually (believe it or not) create fairly interesting visual presentations. Not to mention, other formats like Prezi, Keynote, and SlideRocket are (generally) accepted alternatives to PPT that allow the creator to experiment with dynamic features. 

Jump down the shelters to get away

Oftentimes it’s not the lack of capability or user experience that causes people groan when asked to make or view a slide deck; it’s that what has become the norm for visuals is so boring and ineffective that the thing itself has become synonymous with “boring and ineffective.”

That said, a visual aid is just that—an aid. Not all people learn or consume information in the same way, so enhancing a talk with something that hits other senses is helpful to both the presenter and audience. Slides/decks make a spoken presentation “sticky” and highlight important points. When data is discussed, the deck is a nice “leave behind” for audience members who might want to dig in further after the talk, or who might need a prompt to remember exactly what was shared. Still, slide decks get a bad rap. Maybe, though, the issue is that presenters are approaching slide decks with a skewed view and not using the visual aid optimally. We all, after all, are asked to use accompanying slide decks—whether for a conference talk, board presentation, team meeting, annual review, budget argument, status report, or the like—so why not avoid common mistakes that lead your audience to tune out?

Tell us, general, is it party time?

Text-heavy slides

The most common mistake presenters make when creating a slide deck is to include too many words on the slides. There are many problems with this: Text-heavy slides are hard to read; audience members end up trying to read the slides instead of listening to the presentation and tune out any “color commentary” provided by the speaker, thus diluting the experience and practically guaranteeing that the audience won’t absorb pertinent aspects of the presentation; words taken out of context can be confusing or misleading; etc.

 

Source: https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2012/01/worst-powerpoint-ever.pdf

The reason speakers fill up slide decks with words is because they’re worried the audience won’t receive enough information if the slide contains only a few bullet points, a short sentence, or one image. The fact is, however, that those speakers are actually doing themselves a disservice because of the aforementioned reasons. An audience member seeing only a few words on a screen will know there’s more to be learned and actually listen to the talk. When entire paragraphs are displayed, the natural reaction is to think “this is it.”

The visual aid should be a complementary component to the talk and never a replacement or duplication. Having reviewed thousands of slide decks and ensuing evaluation forms over the years, I feel qualified to say that presenters who use their decks to highlight key points and reinforce carefully considered aspects of the talk always earn better feedback.

Cluttered slides

“Embrace the white space,” was excellent advice I received when putting together my first security talk. Speakers need slides to be visually appealing, but just as with text-heavy slides, slides that display too many or too “busy” images (sometimes in combination with too many words) end up confusing and distracting audience members from the core message.

Oftentimes speakers want to show network diagrams, flowcharts, or the like to enhance what they’re sharing. However, complicated diagrams and charts that fit onto one slide are universally too small to read from anything other than the 1st row of seating, and multiple images on a screen often end up clashing.

When putting together your slide deck, consider how each slide looks from the audience’s point of view instead of what you think each slide conveys. Remember that when it comes to interpreting something visually, every person will have a different opinion, so simple is best. Keep the audience focused on your talk—the words you are speaking—and not a cluttered graphic or image. If the talk supports providing charts, graphs, or other detailed visuals, consider designing handouts (that are distributed after you’ve finished speaking) or creating two versions of the deck: One that is suited for the presentation itself and one supplied after the talk that’s intended to be viewed at close range.

Random information or images

How many times have you sat through a presentation during which the presenter shows one slide with a particularly humorous image, and at the end of the talk the only thing you remember is the image itself?  Or maybe an esoteric quote is included and you’re left wondering, “Am I missing the point? Does everyone else get it?” Rest assured, you’re not alone.

Putting together a compelling and complementary slide deck is challenging under the best of circumstances, and therefore speakers try to get creative and try to use something that no one has ever seen before or that can lighten the mood about a heavy topic. The mistake here is that using information or images that don’t support the talk—even if you think they do in an abstract way—frequently leaves the audience wondering, “huh,” or simply shifts the focus off of the content of the talk and onto something tangential. I’ve also seen instances when a speaker uses an ambiguous or lesser known quote and people in the audience either start looking it up (again, taking the focus off the talk) or dispute it in the middle of the talk because they’re seen or heard a version somewhere else at some other time. This turns awkward fast, so you’re better off using information and images that support the talk in a not-too-complicated way.

Typos and poor grammar

Putting together a good presentation is hard, effortful work, and the more time a person spends looking at his or her own materials, the more the words, images, and thoughts start to swirl together. This is completely normal, but even editors need an editor. Strong presenters often revise slides multiple times before settling on the final version (occasionally right up until the start time of the presentation itself), but it’s wise to ask for a peer review or outside set of eyes on that “final” version before walking into a meeting or onto the stage.

Typos and bad grammar absolutely have an adverse effect on how an audience receives a presentation, regardless of the greatness or intelligence of the speaker her/himself. Even in security, where the focus is ordinarily on technical capability, sloppy work is sloppy work, and a sloppy presentation could lead listeners to question your efficacy and abilities outside of the presentation.  

Every slide deck template includes spell and grammar checking capabilities, so that’s the least you should do before stepping into a live presentation. Sometimes, though, the words just get jumbled up, and that won’t be caught by a spell/grammar checker. Ask a coworker, colleague, friend, or family member to review your work prior to the onsite presentation; many times, the less familiar the reviewer is with the subject matter, the better he/she is at catching awkward phrasing or inconsistencies—they’ll be less focused on technical details and more attuned to the flow and clarity of thought, which is precisely what is needed for a compelling slide deck.

Lack of “stage setting” and conclusions

As the saying goes, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” We’ve all heard this advice and understand why it’s important, but sometimes when putting together a presentation, it feels incredibly repetitive to be saying or writing the same things over and over and over. Remember, though, that your audience is hearing what you’re saying and seeing what you’re showing for the very first time (or should be. If what you plan on presenting is common knowledge, maybe choose another topic or focus).

To save time, presenters occasionally just copy the “Agenda” slide and re-use it as the “Conclusions” slide. Even with plenty of detail in the middle, merely repeating verbatim what you’ve already said isn’t especially effective. A good talk and accompanying slide deck is a progression. To make this work, start with a simple explanation of what the audience will hear; you can’t get overly complicated at the start because you haven’t explained the subject yet. The topics in the main body of the presentation should mirror the agenda items laid out at the start, but include significantly more detail, data, and “color commentary.” At the end of the presentation, now you’ve told your audience something new, interesting, or thought provoking, so while the conclusions or take aways should reflect what you’ve just shared, they also need to reflect the initial stated intent. It’s very important to map back and make sure conclusions aren’t way off base with or even contradictory to what was conveyed at the beginning (yes, this happens. Our thinking evolves as we build talks and work through new concepts), because this will only serve to confuse your listeners.

The best way to think about the flow of a presentation is:

  1. Here is what I am going to talk about/present today
  2. Here are all the details about this topic/subject/idea
  3. Here is what I shared/we discussed AND here is why it matters/here is what can be done next

It’s important to note that audiences love that last part: “Here is what can be done next.” If people are taking time to sit through your presentation, give them something they can take away and use. Ensure that the time your audience has invested in you is worthwhile for them in a tangible way. Change their world a little bit.

If it is can we all come?

If you’ve read through to this point, it’s feasible that you will be developing a slide deck presentation sometime soon, are dreading that process, want another perspective on creating an effective deck, or may be attending a conference or meeting in the near future and want to see how many presenters throw together mediocre decks without too much thought. Whatever your reasons may be, the next time you need to give a presentation, consider how the accompanying slide deck can be a useful and powerful supporting element rather than an obligation. Combining your spoken words with a visual aid that bolsters and emphasizes the key points will make your presentation memorable and impactful. This is only true, though, if the slide deck is considered part of the presentation.

Most people would not plan on standing in front of an audience to speak gibberish, filling the time with incorrect or misleading information, throwing around disparate thoughts and stories, or veering desperately off track without any tie-in to the original idea. With this in mind, it makes sense to:

  • Keep slides streamlined and easy to read: Too much text is a distraction to your audience.
  • Eliminate small text or graphics, or anything that’s hard to see from a distance. Supplemental material can be handed out after the presentation.
  • Use only information that supports your words. Random or esoteric text or images take your talk out of focus.
  • Review slides carefully before the live presentation. Typos and sloppy grammar reflect poorly on a speaker.
  • “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Make sure you give a cohesive presentation that supports your outline the entire way through and provides a final summary of information that your audience can use.  

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