Sharpening PowerPoint.

Many people nod off at the very mention of this slide program. So how do you keep them awake when you're giving a show?

Last week, we talked about the challenge many marketers face when the make-or-break point of the sales cycle lies in the hands of someone with limited knowledge or skill (See Missing Link).

This week, we’ll look at something maybe even more frightening—what happens when getting the message across is up to the marketer alone. In a PowerPoint presentation.

PowerPoint turned 20 last year, and few human tools have created such a love/hate relationship. People all over the world are dreading today’s meeting and the PowerPoint presentation that a colleague or supplier is going to drone through.

Many of them are dreading it as they write their own PowerPoint presentations themselves.

The emotions over slideware programs are strong. (PowerPoint’s the most common, but Google just began offering one for free, and there are plenty of others out there.) Yale professor Edward Tufte argues that PowerPoint is evil and that any other product that had created so much damage would have been recalled years ago, instead of selling millions of copies. A great parody shows what might have happened to the Gettysburg Address if Lincoln had access to PowerPoint.

Others have take a different approach. David Byrne, frontman of the Talking Heads, uses PowerPoint as an artistic medium, and has created a DVD, lectures and museum exhibits of his presentations. Al Gore used PowerPoint as a element of An Inconvenient Truth, which has helped accelerate the Green Movement, won an Academy Award, and led the man who was “once the next President of the United States” to a Nobel Prize. Cities have been awarded Olympics based on PowerPoint presentations. And every day, millions of people use slideware to get their ideas across.

So maybe it’s not bullet points that kill presentations. Maybe it’s the bullet points in the dangerous hands of people who don’t know how to use them.

How do you avoid this?

The first thing to remember is that slide program software isn't the presenter: you are. The slides support your presentation, but they can't give it for you. When you maintain this control, you avoid many of the pitfalls.

The other fundamental to remember is that slides are visual--their purpose for being there is to complement your words with images that make your message easier to understand. A shining example of this is a talk from the TED convention by Wade Davis, an anthropologist with the National Geographic Society, who fills the slide screen with photos of people from different cultures. The pictures don't distract from what he is saying; they instead draw you into his words because you want to know more about them.

That's what slide shows are supposed to do: give your message more weight.
Here are a few more guidelines that might help with this:

1. Never use one slide where two will do. One of the biggest gripes about PowerPoint is that presenters use too much information on slides. When you had to physically photograph or typeset each slide then the expense caused people to be economical and fit as much as they could into a single image. An extra PowerPoint slide costs nothing. And the change from one slide to another is a prompt to help bring your audience back into the show.

2. If you must use an effect, pick one and stick with it. PowerPoint gives you dozens of special effects--dissolves, slides, spins, and more. You can even select a random effects option where the show will mix them up for you. Few things can be more annoying to an audience. Pick one effect (the simpler the better) and use it for the entire show.

3. Don't let your template control your life. The standard templates offered with slide shows look like standard templates to be used by someone without the ability to have something more professional. Avoid them (or at least modify them some if you must use them.) Many companies provide templates for employees to use as a way of reinforcing brands. But these can be just as bad, especially if they limit the options available to the presenter. A template should be simple, clean, and out of the way of the "live" area of the slide. After the first slide, the template is ignored as viewers concentrate on changing content. Templates with images that wrap around the slide and prohibit the author from using full-screen visuals should be avoided.

4. If you're going to hand off your slide show to someone else, use standard fonts. Arial, Times Roman, Verdana and other "universal" fonts are on almost everyone's computer. If you give a colleague a show with a custom font and he or she doesn't have it, you've created a big headache.

5. Have something to say that isn't on the slide. Some suggest that it's never a good idea to repeat what's on the slide. All the communications studies we've seen indicate that repetition helps reinforce messages so they are retained. But remember that the audience can read faster than you can speak, and if you're only repeating what's on the slide, they'll tune you out. You can repeat the slide copy for emphasis, but have something to say that adds to each point. That keeps the focus on you.

6. Take advantage of the technology. PowerPoint lets you add video, audio and other media. If a video clip supports your message, use it and give the audience something else to keep their attention. PowerPoint also lets you hyperlink, and this can be a very powerful tool. Many presenters may have hundreds of slides that they use for different audiences. Instead of reviewing each presentation and cutting down to just the ones that are appropriate, hyperlinking sections of the show can allow the presenter to jump to just the slides needed--without the audience ever knowing.

7. Make it easy on your audience by offering handouts or copies. You can't pay full attention if you think you have to write everything down. Copies of shows with notes (given after the show) keep the attention on you.

8. Rehearse. Or at least practice. Everyone means to rehearse before giving a big presentation, but often there's just not time. That doesn't mean you can't practice your presentation skills with a similar show so you at least feel more comfortable with the format, projector, remote, and other elements. There's nothing better than going into a presentation confident that you know your material and tools. And it shows when you start speaking.