Death by PowerPoint

I’d always suspected it could occur, but I’d never seen it happen. I’d heard colleagues speak of their near-miss experiences, but I hadn’t ever really seen anything quite so spectacular, quite so toe curling, until recently. I’d been at a conference and had enjoyed various key note presentations and then suddenly, a presenter’s worst nightmare and near death by PowerPoint, for the audience.

This particular presentation had started well enough with an introductory slide or two setting out what was to be covered, and then launched into the content – a great number of text slides, music and movie video clips. About half way through the presentation, some video clips wouldn’t play. The presenter tried to get them to work which naturally stopped the presentation. The audience’s focus was then on numerous blank screens and control panel screens, with the cursor wildly trying to hit a target.

Some members of the audience began to call out ideas as to where to put the cursor, depending on the screen that appeared. You could say there was great audience participation and involvement. And after different interventions, some of the clips played. Others didn’t, despite continuous efforts. The presenter showed great fortitude throughout – keeping calm and focused while attempting to get the system under control and continuing with the presentation.

The effect of the disruptions meant the flow of the presentation was stopped and started many times over. The ‘gist’ of the overall material was fractured and nearly lost altogether. Some slides, music and video clips were passed over because so much time had been lost.

On reflecting on that particular presentation and others I’d seen lately, I thought there were some learnings to be had:

Less is more – the technology is terrific yet the potential exists to be carried away by what it can do, and potentially lose the importance and impact of the messages to be given. Slides should accompany the information and not be the main attraction. So too with music and video clips – use sparingly or run the risk of having the audience so distracted wondering what the next clip will be, that they aren’t focused on the information given.

Also watch the number of slides presented – too many and it’s reminiscent of holiday snaps – absolutely glazing and overwhelming after the first hundred or so in the first hour. The number of slides should depend on content, time available, and determining what can be spoken to and what points need to be shown. Be discerning.

Practise – timing is everything. It is better leaving people wanting more because all the information has been so interesting, rather than leaving them wanting more because there was more content planned than time available. It isn’t the best practice to say there isn’t time for this next bit or, to say there is more content to deliver but time has run out. Practise the presentation many times before delivering it, so issues of content (text and clips) and time available can be determined. Practise will also develop confidence in knowing the system, the icons and the various keys – start, pause, stop, go forwards, backwards and sideways, as the case may be.

Simplify text – avoid putting up text-dense slides and then reading out every word that appears on screen. The audience is likely to read the text themselves (as you do, when text is shown) and it can be distracting and annoying to have the same text read out, word for word

Contingency plan – this is an essential ‘must do’ as Sod’s Law dictates that if something can go wrong it will; and that what worked perfectly in the practice sessions may not do so On The Day. Identify all the things that could go wrong – technology wise. What if the clips won’t play? What if I can’t find my presentation file? What if I’m not familiar with organisation’s equipment? What if there isn’t a technician on site, on the day?

And there’s more to consider, than just the technology. Think about other things, such as: what if I have a sore throat/a cold and my voice is raspy? (take lozenges and water with you); What if I lose my notes? (take a spare set and keep them in your car or briefcase); What if the organisers haven’t set up the room/podium the way I want it? (be on-site at least an hour beforehand, to check the room, facilities, etc). You get the idea – be thorough in your thinking and planning.

Near death by PowerPoint is an avoidable condition and despite all the near misses, one yet to be included in the health and safety legislation. Do your bit to keep audiences safe from harm, by measuring your message, tackling the technology and practising to perfection. ©

July 2005�

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