The Biggest PowerPoint No-No

If you never give presentations to an audience, you can stop reading now and go back to posting on Facebook while pretending to work. If you do give presentations, but never use PowerPoint, Visme, Haiku Deck, Emaze, Prezi, Keynote, Projeqt, Slidedog, Zoho Show or any of the dozens of visual aid software programs available, you can stop reading now and go back to thinking you are better than all those losers posting on Facebook. For those of you still reading, I am going to help you avoid the single most damaging practice people engage in while using slides.

The advice comes in two parts; 1) stop reciting the text on the slide! , 2) stop putting text on the slide in the first place! Some of you may have already heard this advice, but you are likely not employing it to the degree needed in order for you to avoid having a roomful of people silently wishing for your demise at the end of your presentation. Others of you may have heard advice to the opposite. Those who know not to recite text aloud while the audience is reading it may wonder how such bad advice continues to persist. Let me provide story to illustrate.

I was in a large ballroom as a corporate convention was about to begin. I was speaking to the client, Marsha, about last-minute details for my keynote when one of her younger associates, Julie, approached. Marsha asked Julie, “Are you ready for your segment of the presentation?” Julie’s expression showed that this was likely the first time she had to speak in front of a group of top executives. “I’m freaking out!” she said. “Don’t worry,” said Marsha. “It’s easy. All you have to do is make sure everything you want to say is printed on the PowerPoint. Then you just flip from slide to slide and read everything to the audience as you go. That way you won’t forget anything.”

Julie sighed with relief and walked away. Marsha looked at me with a satisfied smile, as if she had just saved one more soul from Podium Damnation. I couldn’t speak, I had bitten my tongue in half. I didn’t correct Marsha at the time. I figured it wasn’t my place to say anything (plus, I hadn’t been paid yet).

Here are the main reasons why you should avoid placing text in PowerPoint, and when you have to use text, never read it. It confuses the brain. The brain absorbs information best when it uses one input channel at a time; reading, watching, or listening. The brain isn’t good at using more than one input channel at once, even if the focus in on the same material. In fact, using more than one channel causes all of them to shut down. If you recite the same text that someone is trying to read, you cancel out all channels of input; causing the audience to actually remember less of the material. This shut-down is also quite frustrating for the brain. So, rather than guiding people through the material, you are stressing them out.

Reciting text destroys meaning. Ever heard someone point at numbers on a screen and say, “As you can see here…”? If we can see it, why are you saying it? We don’t need you to point out the obvious. The reason you are speaking is not to perform functions, life reading, that we can do ourselves. Your main function as the speaker is to provide meaning. Is the 2% figure on the graph a fantastic thing, or a lousy thing? How should we feel about what you are showing us? The ultimate goal of every presentation is to inspire action. Action is the result of emotion, not information. Look at every slide in your deck and ask yourself, “Does the audience really need to know this? What do I want them to do about it, so how do I want them to feel about it?”

Reciting disconnects you from your audience. I have heard many presenters say they like to use PowerPoint because it puts the audience’s focus on the screen instead of themselves. It is fine to be nervous in front of an audience; if you weren’t, you wouldn’t care about them. But all eyes on the screen shows the audience that you don’t really care enough to connect with them. You have to be more powerful than the slides or you don’t deserve our attention.

Text circumvents the brain’s best functions. People love to read, but reading is a solitary act. When we read, it is at our own pace and in our own time. Presentations are meant to enlighten and inspire. To do this, you need to reach the proper brain cortices. The most efficient function of the human brain is pattern recognition. Recognizing patterns is the brain’s default running system. It helps us determine feelings, which lead to action. Pattern recognition is best achieved visually. Even though we use our eyes to read text, reading is not actually a visual function, it is cerebral. Charts, photos, and graphs are visual. Numbers on a page are not as meaningful as lines that go up and down. Visual images allow the pattern recognition centers of the brain to size up information, compare it to other images, and create realizations, which form opinions. Take the textual information on your PowerPoint and convert it to images that the brain can absorb and evaluate. If you want to convey a happy thought, flash a photo of a smiling person. Images not only have greater impact, they are retained longer in our memory; making your presentation more effective.

These simple steps will keep your audience engaged as well as position you as a more polished presenter. And if Marsha tells you to do otherwise, send her to me.

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

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