Are you making these fatal PowerPoint mistakes?

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I’m not a big fan of slideware for speakers.

My position is heretical in the business world, so I often work with executives to simplify their slides because they can’t live without something on the screen behind them.

I must confess that I’ve run across a new study that suggests one good reason and use for slideware. I’ll get to that later. First, a few words on the proper use of PowerPoint-like slide programs, whether it’s Keynote or Prezi, or something else.

The usual business slide is covered with words, and what most people connect to is pictures—preferably pictures of people or perhaps kittens. What’s more, they learn best from simple pictures. So, move them emotionally with pictures of faces (or kittens or puppies), and connect your key concepts visually to triangles, circles, squares and the like.

Keep it simple

Don’t get fancy. It’s not necessary, and it doesn’t promote learning. In addition to pictures, you can use graphic illustrations, tables and charts and the like for help with numbers, but simpler is usually better.

Pie charts are good slide material; tables that have the same information expressed as raw numbers are most definitely not. You want to find a visual image to represent the number. Especially if it’s a big number you’re trying to talk about-we humans have trouble with numbers over three digits.

You should try to express just one idea in each slide.

Here’s the best way to think about visuals, especially PowerPoint. It’s the way that writers of Broadway musicals think about the songs. They put in a song when the emotion of the moment demands something more than words. That’s why the stars break into song when they realize that they love each other, for example.

You should use PowerPoint in that same way. Don’t think of it as wallpaper that’s always there behind you, but a discrete moment in your talk when you turn to an illustration because it’s too difficult to put the idea into mere words.

If you apply this stringent test to your use of PowerPoint, you’ll find that you use it much more sparingly and effectively. You can go to black in between these song-worthy moments.

Sidestepping common pitfalls

When you do use PowerPoint or one of its rivals, a few guidelines can help you avoid the usual mistakes. I do like title slides that go up before you speak—at conferences when there will be a series of speakers, for example. It helps the audience keep track of what’s coming up.

I don’t like PowerPoint wallpaper when you’re speaking. It’s distracting for the audience and raises the awful risk that the audience will find it more interesting than you. Why test that ice?

So, use PowerPoint for illustrations, pictures, graphs, pie charts—that sort of thing. If you must use it for words, limit them to three lines or fewer. That means no more than three bullets, and the bullets should never exceed a line. Otherwise they’re not bullets, they’re poorly worded sentences, and it’s a tip-off that you’re indulging in a speaker outline—the real sin of slide use.

[RELATED: Simplify your communications and expand your reach. Join us at Microsoft’s headquarters for our 7th annual communicators conference.]

Make your headline, if you need one, a complete sentence.

Rather than writing, “Implications of Cost-Cutting on the Department,” or some such label, a full sentence will force you to say something like, “Cost-cutting will mean the elimination of needed services.” Clearly, the second statement is more interesting than the first: It tells you the thought, whereas the first headline just tells you that a thought is coming.

PowerPoint users have at their disposal a plethora of fonts, clip art, and bells and whistles that let items zoom in from the left or right, or other glittery effects. Eschew them; they are merely an apology for real thought.

Stick to a full-sentence headline, or a key number, and an image, if you must use words. Better: just a picture. Best: no slides at all.

Remember, a presentation is an act of persuasion. You’re most persuasive when it’s just you. If you ask someone to marry you, will you use slides?

A slide that actually works

Now, what was in that new study on boosting comprehension?

Oh, yeah. It found that having people stare at a natural scene—or a picture of one—for 40 seconds boosts concentration and reduces mental errors.

That’s the first bona fide study I’ve seen that shows slideware improving retention. Perhaps your title slide should have your name over a background of a natural scene, and you should show it for at least 40 seconds before you begin.

That’s a use of slideware I could get behind.

A version of this article first appeared on Public Words.(Image via)

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Common PowerPoint mistakes—and how to fix them

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It’s easy to develop bad habits—drinking too much coffee or always running late—but it can be much harder to break them.

In the corporate world, there is one bad habit (or collection of bad habits) we’d like to see everyone kick: poor use of PowerPoint. Even the most skilled presenters can do better.

Replacing bad PowerPoint habits with more effective techniques helps you tell a more engaging story, connect with your listeners and even change the conversation.

You might feel stuck in a rut with your PowerPoint slides. If so, imagine how your audience is feeling. Do you notice people’s eyes glazing over? Can you blame them?

Ask yourself: What can you do to liven things up, bring a fresh perspective to your presentation visuals and help your listeners to “get it”?

Here are three common PowerPoint mistakes that you can easily replace with more savvy tactics:

1. Following equations of ‘X slides per minute’

Have you been asked to limit your presentation to a certain number of slides? Some mistakenly believe that the length of a presentation should be measured by the number of slides you show. That misconception leads people to look for a magic number of slides per minute for an ideal presentation. There is no such thing.

New habit: Focus on your audience and your message, rather than on the number of slides. Who are your listeners, and what do they care about? Use slides if they help your audience understand or remember what you are saying. You might consider using props or a video to supplement or replace a slide deck.

In her book “The HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations,” Nancy Duarte advises: “Don’t worry about slide count. Just make your slides count.”

To learn more about avoiding dependency on slides, read “Who Said PowerPoint Rules?”

2. Putting too much text on a slide

We’ve all seen slides so laden with text that there’s no way the audience can even see the words, much less take in the message. In his book ” Presentation Zen,” Garr Reynolds aptly calls text-heavy slides “slideuments.” If your content can be distributed and clearly understood without a presenter, you’ve created a document, not a presentation.

It’s easy to fall into this trap when you feel compelled to share everything you know with your audience. This “curse of knowledge” leads to information overload that only makes your listeners shut down.

New habit: To help “manage your real estate” and make sure your text is visible to everyone in the room, use a minimum of 30-point type on your slides. That limits the amount of text and forces you to pare it down to the key points you want to convey or, better yet, to one idea per slide.

3. Leaving out images

Making your slides text-centric takes the attention off you as a speaker. People are compelled to read any text that is put in front of them.

Wendy Gates Corbett, president of Refresher Training and an expert in designing vivid presentations and corporate training materials, describes the effect this way: “People who can read can’t not read.” While your audience is reading your slides, they are not listening to what you’re saying.

New habit: Try using relevant images that convey the essence of your message with only a few key words on each slide (what I call a “glance and grab” strategy).

Duarte suggests asking yourself, “What would I like people to remember?” and giving that point visual emphasis.

On the left is a typical text slide with bulleted information. The right-hand picture can convey your message to the audience in an instant, without distracting them with words to read while they are trying to listen.

See more PowerPoint examples by Wendy Gates Corbett from her website.

To learn more, read “Using ‘Glance & Grab’ to Perk Up Your PowerPoint.”

You’ll be surprised at the big impact these simple changes can make in your presentations. Time and again I see my clients experience an “ah-ha!” moment when they realize how effectively they can engage listeners by using these techniques.

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com. A version of this article originally appeared on SmartBlog on Leadership.(Image via)

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