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Putting the Power back in PowerPoint October 6, 2009

Posted by Jason Hirschhorn in Slide:ology, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.

Having just completed Nancy Duarte’s Slide:ology, I have one thing to say to all of the audiences that I have subjected to a PowerPoint presentation that I have created: I’m Sorry!  Duarte is the woman behind Al Gore’s PowerPoint tour de force, “An Inconvenient Truth” and she takes readers through several engaging, glossy pages of how to create an effective PowerPoint presentation.  Several highly relevant examples are provided.  The main message I took away: What you’ve been doing thus far has probably been boring, disengaging, alienating or incomprehensible to your audiences. 

Some of her points to effective, engaging, informative and persuasive slides may sound simple: Pick the right tool for the job; use succinct text; large fonts, convey big ideas; use clean lines, reduce clutter; use colors that mesh well with your subject matter; use pictures that convey emotional impact.  While these may sound simple, Duarte takes us to a level of nuance that we probably have not encountered before when thinking about PowerPoint.  Many of us probably just relied on pre-constructed templates that were put together by our companies.  Some of her more nuanced points include the personality behind fonts (Georgia is formal and practical; Times New Roman is professional and traditional; Century Gothic is happy and elegant) and the10/20/30 rule (you should deliver a presentation in no more than 10 slides, take 20 minutes and have font no less than 30 point).

One of the primary takeaways for me from Slide:ology is how slides and PowerPoint have become a part of organizational culture and how implementing some of her messages will require a culture shift in organizations.  I used to work in consulting where PowerPoint was King.  If you didn’t or couldn’t convey your thought in PowerPoint, you didn’t really have a thought.  Often these messages were conveyed in small, detailed text-heavy or complicated slides with graphs, charts and frameworks.  For a consulting organization to adopt some of her ideas will require a culture shift about how we communicate.  Duarte convinced me that it’s worth shifting that culture towards to embrace a style and approach that will result in more powerful presentations, communication and ideas.

Here, then, area a few of the most salient takeaways from Slide:ology:

  1. Don’t ignore the importance of your background.  The color and texture of backgrounds conveys a message, but they should never compete with content. A dark background is formal and is good for large venues whereas a light background is more informal, illuminates a room and works well for smaller settings.
  2. Use the three second rule.  Can the message you are conveying on a slide be understood in three seconds by your audience? It should be.
  3. Pick the right chart for the job: Pie charts work for showing large differences in proportion, especially percentages.  Bar charts are visually more precise than pie charts and are good when you need to show relationships.
  4. Remember the “Bullet Laws:” Protect your audience.  Use bullets sparingly.  Use parallel structure and avoid sub-bullets.
  5. Don’t be afraid to be PowerPoint-less.  Hitting the “B” key during a presentation will turn your screen to black so that the focus is on the speaker.  Pressing the “W” key will turn the screen white. 


1. Ben - October 9, 2009

I just finished another great book on the same topic, Gary Reynold’s Presentation Zen, and I work in an industry dependent on slide decks, seemingly incapable of communicating, even in one-on-one meetings, without them. At first I was surprised that such smart people do not embrace the principles extolled in the aforementioned books, but coworker made a very good point (albeit not a total vindication of the practice).

1) Not every slide deck is meant to be a presentation, and the principles of good design for a presentation do not necessarily apply to an artifact. The counter argument, then, is perhaps slides aren’t the best means of creating said artifact, which leads to point two.

2) A great presentation bears the audience in mind. Using an unfamiliar and/or unexpected format may have a counterproductive effect. If the aim is to disrupt the audience’s mental models to offer a new perspective, maybe it will work or maybe it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, too much disruption introduced at one time, closing the audience off to the message.

I am not advocating bullet point/text heavy slides, but I am encouraging restraint in emulating the minimalist, quasi artistic styles made popular by skilled presenters like Steve Jobs. There is no doubt in my mind that Steve Jobs makes good use of media in delivering his presentations, but his style is also well suited to his audience and message. In a typical consulting engagement, I don’t think it would work so well to illustrate my SWOT analysis.

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