Death by PowerPoint

Jerry Seinfeld joked about a survey that found that the fear of public speaking ranks higher in most people’s minds than the fear of death. “In other words,” he said, “at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

I have another type of fear of public speaking; that of listening to a speaker reading in a monotone from notes which they have projected on the wall behind them.

We’ve all experienced the cruel and unusual punishment of “Death by PowerPoint”. As far as I am concerned the ubiquitous use of this software (it’s even taught in schools now) has not only resulted in a possible cure for insomnia but also in the death of good public speaking.

What I find interesting — and baffling — is why we tolerate this colossal waste of our time? Instead we actually seem to support it; the lights are often dimmed first to assist us in nodding off, or to make it easier for us to check the messages on our phones.

It is easier to understand the use of PowerPoint from a nervous presenter’s perspective. The slides take the focus away from them and provide them with super sized notes. The focus of a presentation has thus shifted from presentation as a verb, to presentation as a noun; i.e. the presentation’s content over its delivery.

As an example I was recently asked to send someone “my presentation”. What they wanted was the slides I planned to use. They were somewhat flummoxed when I explained that I did not have any slides and even if I did I could not send them “my presentation”; that was something I would have to deliver.

A good presentation is so much more than just its content. Two examples that spring to mind would be Steve Jobs’ iPhone launch speech and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” address. I am sure you would agree that neither of these would be enhanced in any way by the addition of some slide ware!

If you are serious about your presentations then my recommendation is to start with yourself — get some training in public speaking. The focus should be on how you can speak and communicate better. Somewhat counter-intuitively you may also need training in how to speak with notes, only in this case notes of the paper variety. Believe it or not, with a little practice it is possible to use notes without appearing to read from them word for word.

You also need to learn some good old-fashioned rhetorical devices such as repetition, metaphor and the vanishing art of storytelling. Finally, you need to practise the actual delivery of your presentation. The key here is to practise as you mean to deliver. This means you cannot simply practise in your head or on your own in front of a mirror. Instead, practise your presentation in front of someone and ask them to provide you feedback. Did you get your points across clearly and precisely? Did they feel you engaged with them?

If you have to wake them up at this point or stop them playing Angry Birds you know your presentation isn’t quite ready.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe PowerPoint can help with the structure, content and format of a presentation. After all, a well-chosen picture can speak a thousand words. What PowerPoint shouldn’t do, however, is show you those thousand words, even in bullet point. Critically, nor can PowerPoint make a poor speaker into a good one. Like most worthwhile things in life that requires some hard work.

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” So said Peter Finch’s character in the multiple Oscar-winning film “Network”. Accordingly, I encourage you all to avoid giving, or taking, any more presentations that have the presenter’s notes projected on the wall. I say death to Death by PowerPoint.