One of the unintended consequences of the increased competition of the last few years in the public speaking world is perhaps surprising: it’s becoming harder and harder (at the keynote level) to persuade meeting planners to let the speaker go on stage without PowerPoint or some other such slide software. Their attitude is, “well everyone else has slides, where are yours? If you don’t want to provide them, that’s risky or different enough that maybe we should just go with someone who is willing to provide us with slides.”

The speaking business is a risk-averse business and speeches without slides are perceived as riskier than speeches with them.

As someone who has campaigned for years against the misuse of slide software, I find this trend distressing. In spite of my best efforts, speakers still use the software for speaker notes, making them more about words than images.  Speakers still use the software as a crutch for getting through a presentation that they’ve insufficiently prepared. And speakers still throw far too much information on their slides routinely instead of doing the hard work of really figuring out what their talk is about and distilling the essence of it for the audience.

But there’s a further problem with the software, one that’s even more insidious and destructive to good presentations.  Because slides are created one at a time, they encourage people to think in terms of vertical slices rather than horizontal storytelling.  As such, they promote an ADD approach to presentations at a time when good storytelling is more important than ever to get and hold the attention of an audience.

It’s hard to tell a good story with a slide – or a series of slides.  And stories are what we remember – because stories naturally fit our brains.  We remember good, emotional stories especially easily.  Data is something that we forget just as easily. 

That storytelling power is undercut by PowerPoint deck building.  The PowerPoint templates encourage bullet points. You create a slide by putting data (or words) on it. Perhaps you find a slide from a co-worker that has a great chart on it.  You put the two together.  And then you repeat the process until you have enough slides to fill the time allotted.  What you now have is a data set, or a set of boxes with bulleted words in them — both hard to deliver in a presentation in an interesting way, and harder still to remember. Your PowerPoint slide creation technique is therefore ensuring that your presentation will be forgettable and boring. 

Instead, start with your story. Say it out loud.  Tell your story to someone else first, so that you can be sure you have one.  See if it holds their interest. Then, capture it in a word doc, or a storyboard, or scratch it with a quill pen on vellum, but whatever you do, create a story first.  Make sure it flows horizontally.  Then, add some illustrations with a slide program if your story calls for illustrations.  Don’t start with PowerPoint – it will only hurt your storytelling and therefore your presentation.

18 Comments

  1. Funny, the reason you think PowerPoint is so bad, is the exact reason I think it’s so great. As contrast, I start every presentation in slide view mode, and use the open space/white space to create a storyboard. It could be an image or a word or whatever, but I find starting there, and being able to see each slide (or piece of the story) very helpful. I can see which parts of the story need an image, quote, word or whatever to reinforce my point in the story. I guess it’s not the software, but how people use it. For me, it’s a great storyboard platform that evolves into slides.

    1. Mitch, thanks for the perspective of a master at work — I love that you use PP as a storyboard. I’m protesting the use of PP as a way of lining up a series of bullet pointed lists. And I know you would never do that.

  2. Love that I am commenting right after my buddy Mitch!

    I totally agree with you about Powerpoint with words, Nick. But I’ve had good success using Powerpoint for images that punctuate the topics I’m discussing.

  3. Good morning Nick

    The power in all presentations should be with the presenter. The power of the presenter is to be used to create connection with the audience. Is not communication all about connection? I feel firing bullet points at your audience should be against the law.

    Look at the Masters of business presentations, the late Steve Jobs, the work of Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds with PesentationZen. The message from the masters is that the image and not words that matter. The image that provides the emotional power and support to the point being made.

    The problem is with the presenter, does the presenter stand powerfully before the audience or like the wounded soldier, leaning on the crutch of PowerPoint? The audience decides, with their attention, on which kind of presenter you are, strong or weak.

    Kindest regards
    John

    1. Love it, John! “the power in all presentations should be with the presenter.” As always, the gift of grand language from the Bard of Ireland.

  4. I actually use tons and tons of slides that are entirely images or short silent videos that I talk over. So when people ask me for copies of my slides it will make no sense to them until they see me present it. This is a style I learned from Seth Godin years ago who also uses zillions of slides.
    But yes, slides with bullet points and lots of text are deathly

    1. Agreed, Shawn — The Seth Godin (and Shawn Hunter) method is an excellent use of slides — visuals that are emotionally powerful, punch lines, or visual commentaries on something Seth is saying. I’ve seen Seth a number of times, and his use of slides is masterful. That’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m protesting is the down-in-the-trenches use of slideware as notes, words, and bullets.

  5. I agree and disagree. I completely agree with the distress over the feeling of compulsion to use slides indiscriminately; not every presentation warrants their use. But don’t blame the hammer because the carpenter does not know how to properly wield it — PowerPoint can be a wonderful tool for storyboarding. Furthermore, it has built-in capabilities to enable a presenter to work interactively through slides in non-linear ways — also potentially key to good storytelling.

    And if I can be so bold as to point out that at the Presentation Summit this fall (www.PresentationSummit.com), we will require exactly NONE of our keynote speakers to use slides if they choose not to. And in our geek track, we will show people exactly how to storyboard and use hyperlinks in their slides to create more horizontal and interactive experiences for their audiences.

    1. Rick, thanks, as always, for the good counterpoint. You represent the Good Angel side of slide software, using it for the right purposes and in the right ways. Thanks!

  6. I don’t hate Powerpoint for the way it forces me to think or build presentations or present.
    I hate it because using it is a horrible experience.

    I’ve been using it for years and years and I’m still constantly battling it to do what I need.
    Any other app that I spent thousands of hours using would make me a power user.
    In Powerpoint, I’m a newbie after decades.

    Some of that may be my fault but I think most of it is it’s fault.
    A result of their killing all competition with their bundling strategy.

  7. The sword has two edges.

    My experience with presenters without slides is that they rambled and took more time than allotted.

    Using pictures in your slides is a must, because they really tell a story.

    And yes slides tend to break up a story into slices.

    I guess the difference is Pros vs the rest of us

    1. Thanks, Bob — You’re right, a presenter without slides (and also with them) has to be a good storyteller. We don’t have time for rambling today — as audiences we’re far too impatient.

  8. Nick. Your tips are so valuable and I look forward to seeing them arrive. This particular one about PowerPoint Vs Storytelling is extra special and invaluable. My co writer and I, Bobby Hart, are having Millennials read the manuscript for their comments. It is consistent that they are reading in “sound bites”. They love stories, but they have to be short for them to fully read. And even after they have read something it is out of their mind by the bottom of the next page. I know this is a huge generalization, but it has been consistent and I believe, fits with your concerns about PowerPoint. Glenn Ballantyne, on of your greatest fans and readers of your books and blogs.

    1. Thanks, Glenn — always good to hear from you. Remember that those millennials are also binge-watching Netflix shows with the rest of us, so it is possible to catch them, hook them, and land them. It’s just harder and harder work all the time.

  9. Hi Nick – great thought-provoking post, as always. I agree about the over-stuffing, using as speaker-notes approach to slides, and it’s still horribly common – certainly in Australia where I coach.

    And I’m with Shawn, who commented that if people ask for his deck it will make no sense until they see him present it. I’m a big believer in needing to be there as interpreter. I do get pushback on this one from many of my corporate clients though, who say that they’re covering their backs/need to show every graph and data set because senior management expect it, and want the slides afterwards.

    In these cases, I recommend having two decks: the sparse, image-based deck for the actual presentation, and the over-stuffed deck to send out afterwards. Or put the text-heavy deck in an appendix.

    Clients nearly always agree with me. But time constraints and company expectations can still sabotage their best efforts!

    1. Hi, Sarah — thanks for the great point. I’ve often said that to clients and corporations as a way of resolving a useless argument. If I want a slide deck that’s moving and powerful to look at, and you want a slide deck that’s full of information, charts, words, and data, then for heaven’s sake let’s do 2 decks!

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