PowerPoint iconTips on using Microsoft PowerPoint

Gary Chapman, LBJ School of Public Affairs

Microsoft Powerpoint is a powerful and nearly ubiquitous software tool that is commonly misused, and frequently in ways that detract from the quality and effectiveness of oral presentations.

Nearly everyone has experienced a mediocre or bad PowerPoint presentation, but few people understand how to use PowerPoint effectively. Some critics of PowerPoint argue that it enforces a shallow, "pipeline" style of thinking and speaking, and a few (unfortunately common) techniques appear to dull the attention of audiences. (The Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s August 2003 report on the Space Shuttle disaster specifically singled out PowerPoint as a source of engineering oversights.) There are a few critics of PowerPoint who rail against the use of this software application and refuse to use it themselves.

Nevertheless, PowerPoint is almost certainly here to stay, but its use could be improved.

The Ten Sins of PowerPoint

1. PowerPoint is now used frequently as a speaker's "crutch," especially when the speaker is repeating or simply following what's displayed on a PowerPoint slide. This has been shown to diminish a listener's attention, and at the very least it shifts attention from the speaker to the screen, which detracts from the speaker's ability to engage with his or her audience. Speakers who simply recite what is on their PowerPoint slides are notoriously dull public speakers.

2. PowerPoint users routinely put more information on a slide than slides should display. PowerPoint is best used as a tool of illustration—to show audiences things that supplement and enhance what the speaker is saying. Unfortunately, many PowerPoint users put so much information on a single slide that the typical audience member can't read it easily, or doesn't even try. (Such slides are humorously known as "eye charts.") And the speaker has lost the audience’s attention to its frustration.

3. PowerPoint contains "tricks" of slide transition or text and graphics animation that are almost all unnecessary, distracting, and too “cute.” Tricks such as text that bounces into the screen, or shoots into the slide from the side margins, or flips upside-down, etc., add nothing to the presentation and usually detract from its professionalism.

4. Everyone has seen a PowerPoint presentation that exhibits an awful, sometimes even embarrassing, lack of design sense, especially when the presentation is displayed in low-contrast colors that make it difficult to read. Nothing destroys a presentation’s effectiveness more thoroughly than when the audience is straining to see what’s on the screen, or when people are wincing because of a bad design or color scheme.

5. PowerPoint routinely does something that trips up a speaker and suddenly the speech is stalled, or it becomes a series of mutterings about what has gone wrong with PowerPoint. When PowerPoint’s behavior gets in the way of delivering a speech, the speech has gone wrong in a way that is all too familiar.

6. Many speakers today assume, without thinking about it, that when they use PowerPoint they should have a slide on the screen during the entire presentation. Or they simply leave a slide on the screen, again without thinking about it. A common result is that the audience is forced to stare at a PowerPoint slide that has lost any connection to what is being said.

7. Because speakers who use PowerPoint often assume, again without thinking about it, that their audience will be, and should be, looking at the projector screen, they put little or no effort into their own visual engagement with the audience. “Screen accompanied by still-life of speaker” is unfortunately the most common picture of using PowerPoint for oral presentations.

8. Speakers who use a projector attached to a computer routinely forget that the sizes of the computer screen and that of the projection screen are vastly different—the latter is a multiple of the former. This means that when a speaker whips a cursor around on the computer’s screen, audience members get whiplash trying to follow the cursor around on the projection screen. Plus, what seems “normal” to do on a computer screen often looks like an incomprehensible psychedelic light show on a projection screen. Speakers who orate while simultaneously operating a computer are almost certain to lose their audience.

9. Audiences sense when a speaker is dependent on PowerPoint and they quickly grasp that the content of the speech is tied to the length of the PowerPoint presentation. This shifts the audience’s attention to how many slides there are, or, if the slides are delivered as handouts, how many slides are left to go—i.e., they are no longer listening to the speech.

10. People who use PowerPoint often think that preparing an oral presentation means preparing a PowerPoint presentation, and then delivering that, with accompanying oral commentary. Needless to say, the art of preparing a good speech is lost, or may never be developed in the first place. What PowerPoint can do should not be the starting point of an effective oral presentation.

Click here for "Thoughts on Using PowerPoint Effectively"