Presentation Skills – Presenting with PowerPoint – Where’s the Power, What’s the Point?

It’s Friday afternoon, after lunch and you are about to watch a colleague’s presentation. As the lights dim and the dull purring sound of the projector lulls you into a semi-comatosed state, feelings of despair begin to take over, as the presenter introduces their 30 slides. You brace yourself for the endurance test that lies ahead.

Recognise the scene? It is becoming an increasingly common scenario in the business environment and we now need to take stock and ask ourselves of PowerPoint – “what is the purpose of this presentation aid?”

At first, PowerPoint seemed to be the answer to all our presentation concerns. To the less experienced presenter it became a great way to put a presentation together. With its neat gadgets and easy-to-follow structure, PowerPoint provided a ‘quick fix’ solution to our presentation anxieties – all the presenter needed to do was to ‘deliver’ their slides.”

So why then doesn’t the audience evangelise about it in quite the same way? I am often asked by those who attend my workshops how can they engage more with their audiences when they are presenting with PowerPoint and why do their audiences seem indifferent or even disinterested in what they are trying to present?

One reason for this emerging reaction lies in the presenter’s misinterpretation of the verb ‘to deliver’. Only too often this word has become replaced by the phrase ‘to read out aloud’ and even by the phrase ‘to hide behind’.

Who wants to listen to someone reading out aloud – don’t we all know how to read already? Wouldn’t it be easier if we just give the slides to our audience to take away and read at their leisure -in more amenable surroundings?

The slick and polished nature of PowerPoint has weakened the human input in presenting to such a low level of insignificance that now, the presenter’s role is often reduced to no more than the ‘PowerPoint Operator’.

So where has it all gone wrong and how can we re-address the balance?

One of the key factors in the demise of the art of presenting is down to our basic human phobia of public speaking and our lack of motivation to address this issue. Public speaking is in fact one of the most common public fears – almost as strong as fear of death!

So PowerPoint became our knight in shining armour – it gave us the crutch we needed to get over our fears by hiding behind the technology. The screen became our shining armour – it protected our feelings of insecurity by taking the audience’s attention away from us – the presenter and directing their attention to the big screen behind us which was something far more ‘exciting’ to look at.

Unfortunately, the shine of the screen diminishes very rapidly when you start to see the eyes of your audience take on a fixed glazed expression – and you are only on your third slide out of thirty. You think to yourself “It is time to mount my steed and flee” – if only you could – but you still have twenty seven slides to battle through.

So we need to go back to basics – we have to learn to get over our fears and anxieties and re-gain control of our presentations. We don’t need to ditch the PowerPoint but we need to start using it rather than abusing it – the latter – which has become more the case in recent years.

Going back to basics requires us to return to the first golden rule of PowerPoint which almost everyone ignores. This is to remember that you are the presenter leading the PowerPoint not the other way round.

But – as we have already said, nerves play a crucial role here. Because we are nervous we cling on to our PowerPoint for dear life – as if we are clinging to a rock in a stormy sea. We therefore need practical techniques to allow ourselves to let go without fear of drowning.

Good delivery skills will provide us with this much desired confidence. We have to re-learn the meaning of ‘delivery’ – that it is not reading off the slide or hiding behind your laptop. It is all about the art of communication whereby to learn to command and engage with your audience. These are skills that can be learnt – in fact most good presenters spend a lot of time practising their delivery techniques to help them develop into confident and effective presenters.

You voice is a crucial element in the success of your presentation delivery. Very few people use their voice to its full potential. When we work with people on their vocal technique they are surprised at how empowering this is in helping them to deliver with greater confidence.

A strong presence is also very important. Poor stance, irritating habits, lack of eye contact will all inhibit your ability to engage with your audience. Often, the PowerPoint presenter remains too close to or even attached to their laptop. It is as though they are saying to their audience “Don’t look at me – I’m not important – I’m just an accessory to the equipment.”

I always advise the presenter to move away from the equipment when they begin their presentation. By moving closer to the audience at the start you are saying to them “I am in control of the presentation and welcome you to listen.” Using a remote rather than the mouse will encourage you to move more. The more you move, the more you command your space and engage with your audience

The next issue concerning the abuse of PowerPoint is the construction of the slides. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you didn’t look at each other at all? You may have done so but chances are there wasn’t a lot of rapport between the two of you. We do need to look at people – give eye contact to them if we want to engage with them and build rapport. This is also the case when we present to our audience. But how can we do this when we are reading off our slides – and often looking at the screen behind us – leaving us with our backs to the audience?

This brings us to the second golden rule of PowerPoint, again – one pitifully ignored which is that ‘the sole aim of PowerPoint is to support our message not be the message.’

Reading your slides verbatim is not the answer -take a look at what is on your slides and ask yourself if this is audience friendly. The concept of ‘friendly’ has got rather confused and slides have now become less of a friend and more of a foe. Who needs a friend who throws an endless stream of words at you with the sole consequence of boring you to death?

Slides have to be kept clean. Clear out the unnecessary words. Fewer words say more and have far greater impact. Use punchy phrases that grab attention and are easy to read at a glance. Remember the more the audience reads off the slide, the less they are listening to you. And reading is tiring – especially on a Friday afternoon after lunch – soon your audience will adopt that glazed expression and their minds will drift away to thinking about their plans for the weekend.

“But how will I stay on track if I don’t have all my notes on screen?” – is the typical cry of alarm I get from people when I give them this advice.

It is actually easier to present with cleaner slides. Slides with just short phrases and key words provide an effective prompt but also give you the freedom to become more spontaneous and conversational with your audience. Remember, the slides are there for your audience, they are not your notes – do not confuse the two – they have different purposes.

A good PowerPoint presentation that stimulates and inspires – is this possible? Yes – if you have the power to deliver with confidence and yes- if your presentation makes the right points. Keep the PowerPoint in perspective and don’t allow it to dominate. Always remember – you are the presenter and you are your best visual aid.

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