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Just Say No to PowerPoint—Then What?

The problem is not the software, it's knowing what you want to say.

Someone decided a few years ago to declare the first week in February “Say No to PowerPoint Week.” Great idea, except it fizzled after a few years. Maybe the problem was that no one knew what to do instead.

Fast Company mentioned that tech conferences like Demo and Finovate have banned presentations and replaced them with 7-minute product demos—substituting one technology for another. The idea, apparently, is that the product will talk instead of the slideshow.

After bringing up the usual debate about whether the fault lies with PowerPoint or with the presenter, TheJobBored suggested that what we really need is a Learn to Give Better Presentations Week. How about we work on that one?

The problem with most presentations comes done to one thing: people don’t plan what they are going to say. Instead, when there’s a presentation to prepare, they dive right into their slideware and start creating slides. No wonder so many presentations are bad. A picture is only worth a thousand words if you have something to say in the first place.

So, the first remedy to bad PowerPoint is to figure out what you are going to say—before preparing your slides. All the best books on presentation skills recommend spending as much as 60% of your preparation time on planning your message, and only 20% each on creating slides and rehearsing your talk.

Nobody trusts the advice because they think they don’t have time to plan. But the only way to develop a smart presentation that holds peoples’ attention is to hone your message. Planning what you are going to say is, furthermore, the best way to save time.

By creating an outline, you create your script first, instead of at the end, after you have spent hours creating slides and there is no time left to think about what you are going to say about them.

The outline you write can be imported directly into PowerPoint from Word, creating your slides automatically. Select all slides, and you can assign a background and text formatting to the whole slideshow. See Beyond Bullet Points, by Cliff Atkinson for more on how to do this.

By planning your message first, you also create the basis for a handout that people can review after the show. You can copy that text into the Notes section of your slide deck so that the presentation file includes your visuals, plus the narrative that gives them meaning.

Now back to Just Saying No... Want to dispense with PowerPoint entirely? Hand out a one-page summary of your message at the beginning of the meeting. Suggest that everyone to take 5 to 10 minutes to read it, and then open up the floor for questions and discussion. Have slides or an additional handout with examples that illustrate key points, or the data that supports your recommendations. Replace PowerPoint’s one-way communications channel with real dialogue and you will remedy most of what people hate about presentations.

In the first month after Lou Gerstner became CEO of IBM in the mid-1990s, he gathered with senior managers to review the performance of the company’s business units. The standard protocol had been to present quarterly results with a stack of transparencies and an overhead projector. At the beginning of the meeting, Gerstner walked to the front of the room, turned off the projector, looked the first presenter in the eye, and said, “How about we just talk about your business?”

Not a bad idea.

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