Dying for Better Presentations

It was a large ballroom. Men were in suits, women in business blazers. Big wine glasses filled with sparkling water. Smaller wine glasses filled with actual wine. Starched white table cloths. Fresh cut flowers on the table. It was a fantastic professional environment. The perfect setting to entertain, capture attention, bring the crowd to life. Except were were all dying. You guessed it: it was “Death by PowerPoint”. (I guess the flowers had a dual use)

And here’s the murder weapon. The actual presentation we sat through:

Names have been removed to protect the innocent. And please note this was a few years back and we have all gotten better now haven’t we? Honestly I hope so.

There’s something important to note about this experience: the speaker was actually very good. He had a good style of presenting and was funny when he needed to be. He actually did a fair job of using the following elements:

simplicity
unexpectedness
concreteness
credibility
emotions
stories

But the slide design was terrible. Honestly, scroll back up there and click through those slides again, all 54 of them. Do it. They are over-filled with text. The text does not flow or even match at times. There are bulleted lists, numbered lists, bulleted lists with boxes as bullets (nothing screams the 90s more than those box-style bullets) They are Franken-slides made from years of research.

As tempting as it is to re-make that slide show I cannot bring myself to do it, and I make plenty of presentations for other events so I thought I would add one of those here. It’s not perfect but is certainly a big step from the “Death by PowerPoint” you see above. This was a presentation that I collaborated on with some of our tech coordinators here at our school. We each did a part of the presentation. My slides are nothing but images. There are other slides that are images with a few bits of text. Other than the fact that is obviously mis-matched in its design (due to the fact that it was created by three people) I feel it’s a pretty good example of what a presentation can be. (may I suggest you use the settings icon to view the speaker notes, or you can hit the “s” key while moving through the presentation)

So you have an example of a good speaker with terrible slides and good slides with an average presenter (me). What’s the lesson here? You have to be able to design an eye-catching presentation. It really has to look great, right? But the real power is in the “performance” itself. I’ve seen crappy slides and a great presenter and it “worked”. People liked it, they learned, they walked away feeling good about the experience. But even the best slides in the world will fall flat if the speaker is not skilled. Look back at the list of elements of a great presentation above. Many of them are not directly about slides, though they can be applied in that way. They are mostly about the experience. So by all means please work on those slides. Focus on design. Kill the PowerPoint stereotype. But don’t leave the human presentation and style behind, it’s the real key to bring your presentation to life.

5 thoughts on “Dying for Better Presentations

  1. Oh man, those slides keep going and going and going! I was clicking through them so fast but got bored of that by slide 27 and I was only halfway done?! You were being very kind when you said that these kinds of presentations don’t happen any more. I went to one this week. Well, I slept through one this week. There is definitely an element of all presentations that comes down to the ability and talent of the presenter, but struggling speakers take note: The tragic and continuous stream of painful projected slides that audiences must endure in meetings and workshops on an all-too-regular basis need to go.

    Sometimes I wonder how some presenters don’t present themselves to sleep.

  2. David, I definitely agree with you that the design element of slideshows is so important. I have Middle school students at the moment who are always trying to jam as much text as possible into their slideshow. I think that they often mistake the slideshow as their script and it makes them nervous to take it off because they tend to like to read off their slides. I often emphasize how important it is that they practice their script, make eye contact, use emotion etc; but for many, the experience of speaking in front of the audience is too much for them and they end up relying on the slideshow technology as their crutch instead of using it as a means to enhance their message. Their presentations have improved over the year through repeated discussions on what makes a presentation great and practice and it certainly is not a skill that will develop overnight. But, it is clear that not only do speaking skills need to be explicitly taught; but, so do the design aspects behind great presentations. Thanks so much for sharing your examples!

  3. Slide 50 is a bit blurred and lacks attribution, but otherwise shows some potential!

    You have a humorous style of writing. I was chuckling throughout the article, but perhaps the funniest part? This is all too true (sigh). It looks like your shared presentation incorporates the fundamentals of Presentation Zen. I love the simplicity. We have used parts of this book to help up create a rubric for digital presentations. I think it’s safe to say, that many of our students are still heavily relying on text in each slide.
    I completely agree that the power does come from the “performance”. I think the more the presenter can engage the audience, the better. Last summer I attended a week long workshop- Adaptive Schools http://www.thinkingcollaborative.com/seminars/adaptive-schools-seminars/ (highly recommended). It was really about facilitating meetings and developing teams, but what I learned has helped me greatly with presenting. Even the most aesthetically pleasing presentation will fall flat if the presenter stands and simply delivers while the audience sits and only consumes.

    • I must say the slides I created are the “image only” slides. I cannot claim the others and there are certainly ones that are not “presentation zen” included. That’s because there were several people putting the slide show together, not a practice I really recommend! Mmm… I think I need to find another presentation that is a better fit for this example!

  4. Dear David,

    I couldn’t help but smile when I looked at the murder weapon. I am from Coetail Addis Ababa, in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. When we were learning about good presentation in our Coetail classroom, we saw some awful presentations before watching the good once. Although I couldn’t have called the awful presentations awful if it was not for Coetail. After we learned about power point presentation, we were given a group assignment to be done in the classroom and present it to each other. We all showed some better presentations than the murder weapon you posted and one group, I also will not call names, presented a power point even worse than the one above. The class shared a big laugh and we still joke on those presentations.

    I teach in a second grade class and we have been teaching 2nd graders about good presentations. The presentation learning is for all 2nd graders, and they all get a chance to make a good one. The presentations have poster to act as power points and most of our kids after learning about good power point know what to put and what not to put. It sometimes amazes me how it is very easy for kids to understand something than adults. All the posters made by the kids so far follow rules and are better than the once we adults made in our coetail classroom.

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