Think outside the slide. Or confessions of a reluctant PowerPoint addict.

PowerPoint: The go-to presentation format, projected in conference rooms everywhere. You know it. You use it. You hate it.

It’s a fascinating paradox of corporate America. Among the few things we can agree on—within a team, department or organization, there is a universal loathing of PowerPoint. Yet, when asked to put together a presentation, we dutifully open our saved template and proceed to cram too many bullet points onto too many slides, knowing full well that information overload will ensue.

Earlier this year, I even started a recent talk with an apology for the slide presentation I was about to inflict on my audience. And I know better. We all know better. But countless people file into conference rooms every day and stare optimistically at the 80-inch 4K screen. We hope that, somehow, this time it will be different. But, sadly, we’re just disappointed once again.

So, what’s the solution? Is it that we’re not following the PowerPoint 101 rules of 10-20-30 or 6x6x1? Do we need new, better guidelines to create effective slide presentations?

Actually, I believe a broader question is being begged here: Why are we married to PowerPoint in the first place?

Rationale #1: We are terrified.

I have a theory. I don’t have research conducted by Daniel Kahneman, Gallop or even Survey Monkey to support it. I made it up. But my theory is based on the number one fear of human beings around the globe: public speaking.

See, when our audience is staring up at a screen, they aren’t looking at us. The slide presentation becomes a curtain we can hide behind, establishing us as a Wizard-of-Oz disembodied voice. And we can relax (a little bit). But presentation trepidation goes two ways. Audiences seem to want to look anywhere but the presenter, like making eye contact is just too uncomfortable. They simply stare at the chart or graph as if in a spell. (Here’s another unfounded theory: Presentations cause audiences to revert back to high school classrooms, where eye contact with the teacher was just as sure to get you called on as raising your hand and shouting, “I know! I know!”) So PowerPoint slides give both the information giver and receiver an object of visual distraction—regardless of what’s actually on the screen.

Fear doesn’t explain all of our addiction to PowerPoint, but I’m sure that’s part of it.

Rationale #2: If it’s not on the slide, they won’t get it.

To be fair, in this age of call-in web conferencing, webinars and online training, there are times that you need a slide deck to cover information. It’s almost a luxury to have everyone in the same room—or even in the same time zone.

You want your key points to be heard and seen (checking those boxes of auditory and visual learners). And, because all your points are key, the content of every slide grows with each click. You read aloud, explain a bit, click and repeat. But whether we’ve got live bodies in a conference room with us, a virtual audience, or some combination of both, we have got to dig deeper when sharing our information.

Communication beyond the slide

PowerPoint has served its purpose for over two decades, and I don’t want to cast undue blame on this software program that was designed to help us share information. No, the fact is that we don’t have a PowerPoint problem…we have a presentation problem. It’s not about creating a more dazzling slide presentation. We simply need to communicate better.

Here is my advice: Stop using PowerPoint. It’s a crutch—and it’s not making your presentations more effective. I’m not saying it will be easy. (Even as I write this, a sense of panic is rising in my chest.) There are alternatives to the slide that will not only keep you on track and emphasize your key points, but also better engage your audiences for a more memorable—and enjoyable—experience.

 

  • Whiteboard(s)

“My handwriting is awful” and “I can’t draw.” “I’m left-handed—it’ll never work!” I hear you. I’ve said the same things. But using a whiteboard (or multiple boards) is perfect for keeping small groups engaged in your presentation. Writing-as-you-go works particularly well when you’re sharing abstract ideas. And when you give a set of markers to everyone in the room to add their thoughts, engagement moves to participation and then to buy-in. Sure, it can be challenging to choreograph this, but in the right environment, the impact is what every presenter hopes for.

 

  • Large image boards

Think of this as an analog version of the PowerPoint technique of putting just one image on a slide with no text to illustrate your point. You can use a single easel, swapping out images as you move through your presentation. Or, if space permits, use multiple boards placed throughout the room. Not only will the images intrigue the audience (without distracting them), but you can use the boards as a visual outline of your talking points.

 

  • Props

Yes, this can backfire and make your presentation look like a poorly executed puppet show. But there is a way to use this method without it turning into a circus. Props are especially effective when you’re trying to illustrate a point using past successes. For example, if you’re an agency promoting a particular approach, you can effectively demonstrate your experience by bringing in products for the audience to see and touch. This is much more memorable than a slide with a logo or two-dimensional display.

It’s time to leave the slides behind—literally and figuratively. And whatever presentation approach you do take, provide the group with some printed material for reference. But do not give them the handouts before or during your presentation. Ever. These pages will just become a substitute for the PowerPoint screen, becoming a distraction and excuse to stay disconnected. Plus, regardless of what you ask of them, people will read ahead. They can’t be trusted.

I know it’s hard. But you’ll be a much better presenter for it. Watch some TED talks for inspiration and buy some whiteboard markers—maybe even a flipchart. Let’s put PowerPoint on the shelf next to the overhead projector.

I’m going for it. If you do too, let me know how it goes.

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