Is the Tide Turning on Death by PowerPoint?

presentation skillsI was meeting with a new client the other day who was about to show me his PowerPoint deck for a presentation we’ll be working on together. He prefaced it by saying he tried to follow the recommendations in my book to emphasize images over words.

My expectations in these situations aren’t super-high, and I assured him that the TED-Talk style is aspirational, and not every deck or every slide in that deck is going to reach those heights.

Then I saw the slides. And they were great! Big, beautiful, evocative images, large headings, and very little text.

Is the Message Finally Getting Through?

I — and many others — have been saying for years that dense, wordy slides don’t work. When an audience tries to watch and listen to a speaker while also reading through a bunch of slides, it creates cognitive overload.

People end up partly reading and partly listening (and mostly daydreaming!) and the message gets muddled.

Your slides should reinforce what you’re saying, not repeat it. They should serve as a subtle underscore to your words — capturing the main ideas, provoking an emotion or providing a bit of surprise or comic relief.

Lately I’ve found more and more everyday presenters embracing this approach, which is great news. But it’s surprising, since business presenters face so many challenges.

Why Death by PowerPoint Happens

Presenters fall prey to Death by PowerPoint for a variety of reasons:

  • Their workplace culture tolerates — and even encourages — dull ordinary presentations. When everyone expects a presentation to suck, nobody does anything about it.
  • When corporate presenters assemble their decks they often cannibalize other decks that contain old “legacy” slides stuffed with too much information.
  • Speakers try to make their slide decks serve too many masters. Instead of gearing it to the audience in the room, they want the slide deck to stand on its own, to be read later by people who weren’t there. But presentation audiences don’t show up to read; they show up to watch and listen.
  • Presenters don’t trust themselves. They feel they need words on the screen to cue their thoughts.
  • Finally, many presenters simply don’t have the time it takes to create a modern, visually powerful presentation or to practice the material enough that they don’t have to rely on wordy slides.

It’s a wonder anyone manages to succeed in this environment. But I’m heartened by what I’ve been seeing and hearing at meetings and conferences. People are trying. They’re not always succeeding, but at least they’re trying.

A Quick Tutorial on Modernizing Your Slides

If you struggle with this, here is my 20-minute tutorial on creating more effective, TED-Style slides.


This is not rocket science. If you take away nothing else from the video, remember this: ONE idea per slide, with ONE compelling image to illustrate that idea. If you can do that, you’re 80% of the way there.

Why Are Your Slides Important?

Of all the presentation skills to master, creating better slides isn’t necessarily the most important one. I’d put structure, storytelling, energy and having a good read on the audience at the top of the list. In fact, some presentations don’t need slides at all.

And a great-looking slide deck won’t necessarily ensure a successful presentation. But dull, ugly slides, on the other hand, can absolutely sabotage you before you even get out of the gate. They make a terrible first impression, impede audience understanding, and could lead people to think you’re behind the times, which is not a good place to be.

Luckily, more and more people seem to “get it.” Perhaps the day when Death by PowerPoint is a rare event isn’t that far off in the future.

Photo Credit: kampanyfelugyelo02 Flickr via Compfight cc

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