Technology

Bite the Bullet Point


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Illustration by Jim Frazier

I’ve recently been in the audience for a lot of PowerPoint presentations, and some of the uses have made me wonder if recent news articles asking “Is PowerPoint killing presentations?” are right on target. In the right hands, PowerPoint or any other presentation program can literally and figuratively make a presentation sing. But they can also drain out all the energy, passion and interest. There is no question that the latter happens more often than the former.

The standard approach to PowerPoint for lawyers involves text-dense, bullet-pointed slides on conservative, firm-branded backgrounds with minimal, often simplistic clip art. The presenter often reads the slide text with little elaboration. The text font is often too small for audience members to read. The presenter often distributes the same slides as a handout.

Snore. That approach doesn’t work for audiences whose attention spans have been shortened by TV, the Internet and the fast-forward button. But most complaints about PowerPoint are like blaming modern hammers for poorly built houses. It’s not the tool, but how the user uses the tool.

The biggest problem I see is that people have moved the focus from the speech and the speaker to the slides. Time that should be spent rehearsing and learning what the audience wants is instead spent working on slides. As should be obvious, we’re getting it exactly backward.

Does this mean it’s time for lawyers to abandon PowerPoint for presentations? For some the answer might well be yes. I really don’t want to see another presentation where a lawyer starts out complaining about slides someone else prepared, seems to be reading them for the first time, and would clearly do a better job presenting without slides.

BETTER POINTS

For most of us, however, PowerPoint can enhance our presentations and help us get our message across. Let me offer some ways to improve your use of any presentation program:

1) Are slides even needed? PowerPoint critics like to point out that slides would not improve the Gettysburg Address. You don’t need slides for every speech. Ask this basic question before every presentation.

2) Slides must serve the presentation. Do your slides illustrate and enhance, or do they cramp your style and obscure the points you want to make? People often seem to think time spent preparing slides is the same as time spent preparing the presentation. Spend your prep time on rehearsing and thinking about what your audience wants. When you rehearse, do so with your computer and slides so you are familiar with how they work.

3) Keep the focus on the presenter and presentation. Your audience wants to hear what you have to say; why do you want them to spend that time reading slides? People respond to what you say and will remember you, not your slides. Own the stage.

4) Don’t make slides do double duty. A big problem I see is using the same slides for the presentation and the handout. Slides that work well as handout materials are meant to be read after the presentation. Create a stripped-down version to display in your actual presentation.

5) Get the details right. I always view my slides on the screen from the back of the room before I speak. I have increased font sizes and made other adjustments on the spot. I’m always surprised by slides with text too small or too difficult to read. Even worse is when the speaker knows a slide can’t be read and apologizes for it. Details matter.

6) Find new role models. Los Angeles-based communications consultant Cliff Atkinson wrote a very influential book on presentations called Beyond Bullet Points. His approach to slides is very visual, with minimal text and no bullets. He emphasizes the importance of theme, structure and story. And take a look at the presentations of people like Steve Jobs. Spend some time looking at the TED Talks videos. You’ll see the modern approach to presentation slides. (Hint: You won’t see a lot of text.)

Lawyers are excellent presenters, persuaders and storytellers. Keep that in mind the next time you use PowerPoint, and treat it as a tool to help you, not as a necessary evil.


Dennis Kennedy is a St. Louis-based computer lawyer and legal technology writer. His website, DennisKennedy.com, is the home of his blog.


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