Death by PowerPoint: Steer Clear of Dull Decks

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Have you ever attended a presentation that leaves you straight up wowed? Where the presenter oozes charisma like butter melting on hot toast? Where there’s awe-inspiring visuals, perfectly-timed pauses and a carefully constructed narrative? Did you leave, thinking wistfully “woah, I want to do THAT”? Well take a seat, and we’ll help you figure out how to go from PowerPain to WowerPoint and leave death by PowerPoint in your dust.

Turning soul-crushing, yawn-inducing decks into a rip-roaring, eye-popping spectacle is less like rocket science and more like assembling flatpack furniture – it’s all about understanding the blueprint.

Let’s look at the problems you’re facing first, so we can start to unearth some solutions.

Autopsy of a PowerPoint massacre

PowerPoint has been the darling of the presentation world since its creation in 1987, with approximately 35 million presentations given each day by an estimated 500 million users. But, all too often, audiences feel more like they’ve been trapped in a never-ending sequel of Groundhog Day rather than viewing an enlightening, engaging narrative. Jam-packed slides, migraine-inducing colour schemes, mixed up fonts and non-existent narratives are the usual culprits. It’s enough to make even the bravest audience members want to run for the hills.

Understand your nemesis

What is it, exactly, that makes presentations fail? As with anything, it’s generally a combination of factors. Lots of presenters overload their audience with info, mistaking quantity for quality. Or they neglect the importance of centring slides around a narrative structure. Or there are those presenters who forget about their audience altogether. Which is ludicrous but shockingly common. Here’s a closer look at those culprits.

Overloaded slides

According to the same poll that estimates 35 million PowerPoint presentations are created daily, the average slide contains 40 words, which is, generally speaking, too many words to keep your audience focused on whatever hugely complex subject you’re talking about (there were 40 words in that sentence – did you zone out?). And that’s just the average amount of on-slide copy, lots of presentations go way further than that, stuffing slides full of information and hoping for the best.

Digesting huge amounts of information slide after slide, with no respite in sight is a massive ask for any audience. We know it’s tempting to squeeze every fact, figure and stat onto your slides, it’s crucial to remember that quality always trumps quantity. Drowning your presentation in a sea of text is the fastest way to lost engagement and attention.

Absent narratives

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to narrative arcs, and everyone with an undergrad lit degree will have a different idea of how many arcs there are and what they look like. But if you’re writing a deck without even a nod to narrative structure, you’re missing a trick.

Even when a presenter sort of follows a plan, it often follows a painfully familiar crappy deck track. Let’s see if this sounds familiar.

  • Act one: a flat monologue going through the history of the company and a run-down of the entire top-level management team (that you’ll probably never meet or hear of again).
  • Act two: even more self-centred, Act Two explores the nuances of a simple product with a complicated lack of clarity that makes it near impossible to understand.
  • Act three: the presentation is rounded out with a smattering of dry financials, as well as a fumbled rehashing of information you were already provided in both Acts One and Two.

Silent spectators

A hero demands a villain. A burger demands a bun. And a presentation demands an audience. Yet, in many presentations, the audience gets lost in the shuffle. Presenters make assumptions about prior knowledge, spitting out heaps of specialised information without considering whether the audience can even understand it.

Ignoring your audience is the quickest route to disengagement and confusion. It’s worth remembering that an audience isn’t just a faceless mass (or a grid of silent screens); they’re the reason you’re giving the presentation in the first place. Make them feel seen, heard and valued.

Put those three rubbish ingredients in a presentation pan, and what do you get? Death. Cold, digital, death by PowerPoint.

The path to PowerPoint redemption

So how do we turn the tide? Here are our top tips for avoiding murdering your audience.

First up’s the hook. Every presentation needs one – it’s what grabs your audience’s attention and gets them invested. It could be a question, a hot take, a joke or a bold statement. Find what works for you, your message and your audience.

Then we sharpen up our sick storytelling skills. Weave your presentation into a cohesive narrative. Humans are hard-wired to respond to stories. They’re engaging, memorable and give context to your info. Introduce characters, build tension and grow to a climax with a satisfying resolution.

Our final tip is practice. Because nobody becomes a presentation pro overnight. Practice makes PowerPerfect, as they say. Rehearse your timing, work on your gestures and your intonation and learn your info inside out. Knowing everything there is to know around your presentation topic will boost your confidence and help you to deliver an engaging performance.

Pull that trio together for a solid presentation foundation. Build on that with great design to really make your presentations really kill it. In the good way.

Design best practice

Design principles aren’t just rules for the graphic design gurus in the room. Every presenter needs to understand the basics in order to avoid birthing a visual nightmare. There are a few general rules good decks tend to stick to. Again, because we just love a good triplicate, here are our top design tips for you to follow.

  1. Simplicity is key – stick to one idea per slide. Limit the on-screen copy and use high-quality visuals to support your messaging.
  2. Consistency rules – maintain a consistent look and feel throughout your presentation. That extends to fonts, colours, graphics and tone. Your audience will appreciate the cohesiveness.
  3. Define your visual identity – what does your presentation’s look say about you and your brand? Make sure your design reflects your identity and message. If you’re serious, go for a sleek, professional look. If you’re playful, let that shine through in your design.

Death by PowerPoint isn’t inevitable

Death by PowerPoint isn’t an inevitable fate for decks. It’s avoidable if you understand your audience, use engaging storytelling and keep design best practice in mind. Your presentations should be a two-way street, a dialogue that engages, entertains and educates.

Embrace the new era of presentations. Leave dull decks in the past, and usher in a future where PowerPoint isn’t a necessary evil but a powerful tool for persuasion, inspiration and connection. Or if that sounds like too much effort, why don’t you just outsource to us…?

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