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Death By PowerPoint

It is with fear and trembling that my fingers play across my computer keyboard to write this column. Mainly because I myself may at some point have been a perpetrator of this dastardly act: boring an audience to death with a powerpoint presentation. On the other hand, I know I have definitely been a victim (or an innocent bystander) and perhaps, quite rightly am just the one to speak of the pain and anguish of this slow and agonizing ‘death’ by powerpoint. Also I feel that is my civic duty to touch on the topic as we live in violent times and by giving a few tips here who knows what dangers I may be averting.

Powerpoint is a series of slide presentations developed by Microsoft to help trainers, business people, teachers, students and others to persuasively communicate their messages. Like many of man’s invention it can be used for either good or evil. Sadly, many a manager/executive has turned what was supposed to be an impactful and easy-to-use tool into a vengeful instrument of extreme torture for audiences everywhere.

Mounds of paragraphs
Believe me nobody knows about death by powerpoint more that the unwilling employee who has had to sit through many a torturous presentation by a new manager who has finally caught on to the ‘wonders’ of powerpoint. The poor member of staff sits before the screen transfixed as the slides roll by each worse than the other. It is no wonder that staff often literally run screaming from the room, aghast at the idiocy of it all. Spelling errors, ghastly colours, words flying off the screen in every and any direction, mounds of paragraphs and more words packed on a screen than any living person should ever see in this lifetime – no matter how much they love to read.

There are many errors that you can make when putting together a slide show and after reading this column you might want to give a quick listen to “How Not to Use Powerpoint” by comedian Don McMillan on YouTube. It will back up what I have to say.

Time and place for everything
First of all, like anything else there is a time and place for everything. Trust me not every meeting calls for a powerpoint. A small, interactive staff meeting that is meant to give your staff information about the progress of the company and get their responses and ideas to new operational procedures might not necessarily call for your to pull out the big guns of forty powerpoint slides. Then again, when speaking to a group of people whose literacy level is low, it might not be such a brilliant idea to astound them with a power point presentation. They might look impressed and shake your hand strongly when you are leaving but ask them if they understood what you said and you might be disappointed. And this is especially true if the slides have a lot of numbers on them. As a non-figure lover if I was in that there audience you would not find a friend in me.

We are an oral people and so we just love words, lots and lots of them. But we do not love to see them on paper, or on a screen. It bothers us. We tend to prefer if someone else, namely a speaker, is doing all the work and we only have to incline an ear and listen. So then, the cardinal rule when putting together a powerful powerpoint presentation is that less is more. Use simple words and under no circumstance try to put all that you are going to say on the screen – using it as a memory aid for your self as you struggle to make sure that you use the right words. That is a big, fat, no, no. One writer suggests that fifteen words should be the maximum on any slide. Use only a few words or a phrase to emphasize or reinforce an idea. Use short words that bite – that will only perhaps maim but not kill your audience.
Spelling errors
I hate spelling errors, especially my own because it shows that I was not careful enough in checking back my copy. If you think a spelling error on paper looks bad, try to imagine a spelling error on an enormous screen in 40-point Times New Roman font. So, there you are in all your pompous glory, socking your intellectual brilliance to your audience and your slides have spelling errors. It is made doubly worse when your back is turned to the screen as you face your audience and so it is only after expounding at length that you turn to see the errors grinning at you. A good idea at this moment in time is to gather up your papers and the jump drive on which you have said offending powerpoint presentation, ask for a postponement and exit stage right because ‘you no ready.’
Screen colour
Be careful of your choice of screen colour. Not every colour that you choose that looks good on the screen of your laptop or on your computer screen will have the same dazzling effect on your audience. In fact it might just dazzle and confuse them to death. O.k. so you love the colour blue and the brighter the better, but it cannot be your sole mission in life to spread this love to audiences everywhere. Another tip is to avoid busy backgrounds or ones with hard-to-read fonts, or fonts with equal color density to the background.
Use a bold, simple and large font
Some people have a problem choosing and sticking to a particular font. Like the true Jamaican man in his perpetual hunt to find a mate, this serial offender never settles and remains true to one font throughout a presentation. And to make matters worse like my Jamaican man, their taste oftentimes runs wild and a little bizarre. So you will find the first few slides with the very modest Times font, a few slides later they shock us with the curvaceous Courier only to stun us later with the Albertus Extra Bold. I like Veranda and bold Arial because on screen they are very legible. Minimum font size should be 18pt but an average font size is 40pt to allow for easy reading in the back of the room. Keep the fonts consistent throughout the presentation and use no more than two different font types.

In another column we will look at the 20x20 Pecha Kucha (pronounced peh-cha ku-cha) format which was started in Tokyo in 2003. Each presenter is allowed a slideshow of 20 images, each shown for 20 seconds. This results in a total presentation time of 6 minutes 40 second. The idea behind Pecha Kucha is to keep presentations concise, the interest level up and to have many presenters sharing their ideas within the course of one night.


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