Remedial PowerPoint

Microsoft has an executive communications manager dispatched to teach the U.S. Army how to use PowerPoint. (Arguably, that’s a problem already.) Dave Karle’s job is “stopping the army from using [PowerPoint] stupidly“. And what does he come up with? An animated 3D video of two superheroes discussing what not to do in computer voices from 1995. The characters spew bad advice, and even though it’s intentionally tongue-in-cheek, presenting bad ideas is not the best because the audience cannot understand your message without reversing the logic. Excuse me. Presenting good ideas is best because the audience understands your message easily and immediately.

But there’s a second layer here: the video itself is a bad example of a presentation. I’m not sure if this too is intentional, but it’s highly detrimental because Karle could teach a lot more with an example than a nonexample. It’s incredibly ironic that Karle doesn’t use (doesn’t trust?) PowerPoint to present information about PowerPoint. I guess I’ll have to do it instead. (I’m not going to fuss with PowerPoint for a blog post, but I’ll give you a description of the slides.)

The first slide says “How to give a PowerPoint presentation (using Powerpoint)” on a beige gradient, because solid colors scream the 90s.

Usually it’s actually a bad idea to state your main idea first (it kills the suspense). For example, if your main idea is a solution to a problem (or a product to fill a need), you should outline the problem and refute other solutions before you introduce your main idea. Otherwise, you have a solution without a problem, and your audience will be left wondering, “why is it necessary that I learn how to give a PowerPoint presentation anyway?”.

With a red carrot insertion, “How not to give a PowerPoint presentation (using PowerPoint)”. A moment later, the calm beige is replaced through sliding bars by a collage. A lime green title, “Satirizing Totally Unintelligible Presentation Information Domination (STUPID)”, flies in, and a wall of tiny navy blue bullets is illegible against the purple background. ClipArt of of someone presenting to a room of people spins into place, and a growing and shrinking bright red and orange 3D WordArt reads (and is) “Annoying!!”.

Remember: you’re trying to communicate with other people. It’s not good enough to be the egocentric 5th grader who says “but I can read it!”. You need to present the information in a way that your audience can’t help but understand and agree with you (and buy your product). Melodramatically, you want to shove a funnel up their spinal cord and force feed them ideas without them knowing it. You need to make your information innocuous enough to slip past your audience’s mental defense systems in broad daylight. Any extraneous movement, color, or idea could trip the alarm. To avoid doing that, make your presentation (say this slowly) clear and concise.

Back to beige. “Clear: understandable, organized” and below it “Concise: short, simple”. The synonyms are in a smaller and lighter typeface.

State your solution so that it is obvious what you are proposing and make it sound simple and natural. Increase the quality and decrease the quantity of information, all of which should be traceable back to this main idea. A great way to achieve this is through a hierarchy.

The text slides off to the left and a new header “Clear and Concise” appears. Underneath it are bullets, all in uninteresting grey except the first, “Hierarchy”, which is in red.

A structure makes similar points are easier to relate. Rather than the superheroes who give eleven ideas in no particular order all at the same level, you should group similar ideas together. For example, using less text and using fewer images fall into the same category of leaving more whitespace. Your audience can now remember one general principle instead of two details, meaning your presentation is more concise.

The “Hierarchy” bullet fades to black and the next one, “Slide design”, fades to red.

Let the audience know about your hierarchy with your slides. Use color sparingly, like to draw attention to the specific bullet you’re talking about. Don’t put the lowest details on the slide at all; merely say them aloud. Use animations to subtly reinforce your hierarchy; the iPhone does a great job of this by making users feel like several screens of information still exist just a flick away. Don’t feel compelled to use a feature like a graph or organization chart just because PowerPoint supports the feature. You should be smarter than the tool you’re using, and sometimes that means using a different tool. That’s right, it’s perfectly alright to have a presentation without PowerPoint.

The “Slide design” bullet fades to black and the next one, “Practice”, fades to red.

You should demonstrate effortless competence during your presentation, which means you need to make all your mistakes before hand in trial runs. Write a script and memorize it, because you’re going to be saying more than is on the slides. Practice reading the script aloud and iron out anything that sounds funny, then practice with making slide transitions at the right time. Consider your body language and tone of voice, and keep yourself engaged with the audience. You don’t want to put them to sleep, but you don’t want to get them involved either – more of a sedate trance. Keep talking so they don’t have a chance to think, and try not to stumble, but recover quickly and move on if you do. Dress sharply. Be prepared to improvise.

The “Practice” bullet fades to black and the next one, “Order”, fades to red.

Your hierarchy should suggest an order for your topics, and you should transition one to the next. Think about what topics build on one another, so you jump around and repeat yourself as little as possible. Remember, it’s all for the audience’s benefit. A logical order reduces their cognitive workload and makes the presentation feel nice and smooth. Also, put your strongest points first because you’ll only have about a minute to grab their attention. Be prepared to leave out details if you fall behind. You may have to cut the presentation short, so put your weakest points last. In the interest of time, we should wrap up. (People perk up when they hear this.)

The “Order” bullet fades to black, and all the bullets gracefully slide left. “Clear” and “Concise”, sans synonyms, slide back from the right.

At the end of your presentation, bring back your main idea and tie everything together. The arguments you built by stating facts and drawing conclusions all work towards this goal. Make sure that if your audience remembers nothing else, they get your main idea. Sometimes you can make it even clearer and more concise as you conclude.

“Clear” and “Concise” fade and are replaced by a single word, big but not too big: “Reduce.”

Thank the audience for their time and field any questions with poise and confidence.


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