Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Making points with PowerPoint, Part 1

Running meetings, doing sales presentations, or conducting training sessions has long been a regular part of corporate communication.  We’ve come a long way from the days of chalkboards, flipcharts, and overhead projectors. Now, PowerPoint software is the universal standard for most organizations employing visual aids to accompany speeches or other formal talks.  Most speakers today, in fact, feel naked without their PowerPoint-equipped laptops and digital projectors.

The big question is, how does one make the best use of this technology? I’ve seen a lot of PowerPoint presentations – some good, some bad.  But even with the good ones, many presenters still have a little difficulty understanding both the potential and the problems that go with this method of audiovisual support.  The most important thing to keep in mind is that whatever tool you’re using (like PowerPoint), it’s your choice as to how much (or how little) of the program is needed to get across your message most effectively.  In some cases, the old rule “less is more” may be a better approach than “Let’s see how many special effects I can pack into this presentation.” 

Don’t get me wrong – I like the animations and audio/video effects as much as anyone else, but I’ve also discovered that the effects can get in the way of the message.  As a result, your audience might go away remembering the cool way you transitioned, rather than the informational points you were trying to communicate.  I like using effects or different slide layouts to provide some variety to my presentations, so that the slides aren’t all just lookalike bullet points and “talking heads.”  Even TV news producers have recognized this principle, and intersperse studio shots, on-screen text, location reports, voiceover narration, animations, music, bottom-of-screen “crawl” bulletins, etc., to keep things lively.

The other concern with loading too many elements into a PowerPoint show is that you have a greater chance of exceeding your computer’s (or flash drive’s) capacity to handle all the memory-hogging extras smoothly, without slowing down or having things appear at the wrong times.  I’ve had instances where I’ve slaved away on synchronizing a sound effect to coincide with a particular slide, only to have it come in late in actual delivery, or disappear entirely. 

The other problem comes when you want to share your PowerPoint with others through email, CD-ROM, or on a server that “broadcasts” your program internally to other departments within an organization.  If the final file size of the PowerPoint is too large (because of all the extras), you’ll either find it impossible to upload without getting error messages telling you the file size is over the maximum limit, or, again, the show won’t play back properly on other computers.

So, you’ll want to be careful about:
  1. How many visuals or graphics you include (there are also ways of re-saving images with lower resolution or smaller file size, to keep memory requirements down);
  2. How many different transitions, animations, sounds, or special effects you use;
  3. External “extras” like video files, internet links, etc., that may not function at all when transferred to or played back on a different computer than the one at your own workstation where you’ve assembled your PowerPoint (very often, the simple act of transferring or duplicating the PowerPoint “breaks” the links to the external video or web file.  When the new computer doesn’t know where to look for that external file, the result is a “no show” for that particular element.

Empowering formulas

There are lots of formulas people have come up with to help you plan or write presentations – from the classic KISS (Keep It Simple, Sam) to more professional ones like AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action).  These can be very helpful in ordering your thoughts, structuring the flow of different sub-sections, and staying on target so that you don’t include too many unnecessary tangents.

Revisiting traditional rules of audiovisual slide design will also aid you by keeping your slides simple, readable, and engaging.  For example:
  •         No more than 3-4 lines per slide.
  •         No more than 5-6 short words per line.
  •        Use white or yellow as the text colors when doing “reverse” text over an image.  They stand out better than other colors like hot pink, orange, etc., especially if the background is busy or cluttered.  If possible, also use the shadow or outline option on the text, which will provide an extra bit of separation.
  •         If you have plain colors as slide backgrounds, text colors like black, dark blue, dark green, dark red, etc., will work well – up to a point.  Sometimes, if the background is dark (or you’re using a gradated background effect), some colors may work better than others … so use your own judgment.  You may also have to change the font color for the last line or two, if the text appears over the darkened section of the gradated background.
  •         The simpler and bolder the font, the better, for legibility.  Fancy or decorative fonts may be fun or attention-getting at times, but they can also be overdone, distracting, or inappropriate if you use them excessively throughout the presentation.  Sans-serif fonts like Arial, Helvetica, Franklin, or Gill Sans are usually more legible than serif fonts like Times, Garamond, Palatino, Bookman, etc. (because of their fine lines, they can be hard to read against complex backgrounds).
  •         If possible, use one image per slide, unless intentionally constructing a montage.  The more you squeeze in, the more competition for attention your audience will experience, with a resulting decline in comprehension.

For more ideas, check out how professional broadcasters and movie makers employ text, images, and transitions – TV shows and films offer great examples of dramatic, impact-generating, extremely legible use of the common audiovisual elements available in PowerPoint. 

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