You are Not Your Slide Deck: Rethinking Presentations

This is the year we’re rethinking almost everything about work, so it might be time to rethink how we define the term “presentation” as well. PowerPoint was invented in 1987 and acquired by Microsoft three months later. It’s been plaguing meetings ever since.

So we’ve resigned ourselves to long, not-very-helpful slide decks longer than some of you reading this have been alive. If you can’t resign yourself to them, you may get fired. According to the Army Times, , Colonel  Lawrence Sellin, a Special Forces officer stationed in Afghanistan, was fired from his post at NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in 2010 after he wrote a rant for the UPI wire service in which he voiced his frustration about PowerPoint-obsessed officers who spend more time worrying about font size and bullet points than actual bullets.

That was over a decade ago, and things have improved. But too many speakers still use their slides as a “de facto teleprompter or an all-inclusive list of everything the speaker knows on the subject,” according to coach Stephanie Scotti, writing for Smart Brief on Leadership. She says that detailed PowerPoint slides actually detract from your presentation. “This approach results in text-heavy slides that, when projected onto a screen, have your audience so busy reading that they don’t listen to anything you say. If your content can be distributed and clearly understood without you (the presenter), you’ve created a document, not a visual aid.”

Scotti suggests this checklist to figure out whether you’re using PowerPoint correctly. You’ve got a problem if any of the following is true:

  • You can’t deliver the presentation without the slide deck
  • Your presentation consists of reading aloud what’s on your slides
  • You look at the computer screen to read the slides, and you forget to look at the audience to connect and see listeners’ reactions.

There’s a method to making your slide deck work for you instead of against you. First, prepare your presentation like it’s 1986 and PowerPoint hasn’t been invented yet. This is a good idea for another reason: there’s a non-zero chance that your support technology will fail. The meeting host might not have uploaded your presentation. The laptop might have an issue. Your presentation might not display properly due to compatibility or graphics issues. If you don’t actually need the slide deck to present, you’re fail-proof.

Once you’ve developed your talking points, think about what is most critical for your audience to understand. Scotti says you should apply a “glance and grab” strategy to your slide deck. When you are driving and look into the rearview mirror, how long do you take your eyes off the road? Just a second or two, right? A quick scan for critical safety information, then back to the road ahead where your attention should be focused.

“Now apply that same thinking to your slide deck,” Scotti writes. “Imagine you only have seconds to help your audience make a critical decision. What information will they need? What’s the best way to communicate it? Should you use words? Pictures? A combination of the two?”

One theory of good slide design says you shouldn’t put more than six words on a slide. Ever. Whenever possible, use large, compelling, emotionally charged images to support your points. Keep the focus on you and your words.

“Remember, you are the headline act. If you find yourself saying, ‘I know you can’t read this, but … ‘ or ‘I know there is too much on this slide, but …’ your slide is distracting rather than engaging listeners. Your words — not your slides – should carry the show.”


Work hard. Play Hard. 

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