Since when did the word “presentation” become synonymous with PowerPoint? Why is it there’s an automatic assumption when you walk into a room to talk — even to only 10 people and even for only 10 or 20 minutes – that you will use slides? In fact, the screen awaits you, and your host tells you where and how to hook up your laptop without ever having asked you in advance. 

Yet if you were to poll the people in the room (and I always do!), they are most often 100% unanimous in saying they strongly dislike PowerPoint and prefer that you not use it. This is due to the overuse and misuse of PowerPoint – which, ironically, is due to the automatic assumption that you’re going to, which is due to the fact that “presentation” has become synonymous with PowerPoint. 

As a longtime whiteboard user (I draw a lot of pictures and write out words and phrases when talking to groups), I have spent many years gloating over my informal poll results that reveal universal disdain for PowerPoint. After all, my stick figure drawings and primitive renderings of houses, fish, and bullseyes are more clever and amusing than some slick PPT template, right?!

Right in only one way: Audiences do tend to remember and retain visuals better when they watch them come alive so to speak. Well, and maybe they’re also a little bit amusing. 

But wrong in other ways. 

Last week, after a whiteboard talk and one of my informal polls – “By a show of hands, how many of you wish I had used PowerPoint?” Total hands raised: 0 – the audience groaned and moaned about how useless PowerPoint is and how glad they were that I didn’t turn down the lights and make them stare at a screen.

And then it happened. I found myself defending PowerPoint as an incredibly useful tool. “It’s not dreadful, it’s a fantastic visual aid,” I implored, “and most people are visual learners and need visual reinforcement.” All true.

I went on to point out that what is dreadful is how people use PowerPoint, which is as a script or as a substitute for a handout (suffice it to say, you know what and who I’m talking about). Slides dense with words are the worst, but the list of offenses committed via PowerPoint is endless. 

Personally, I think this is a Monkey-See-Monkey-Do issue. People follow the model of what they’ve seen before and with 30 million PowerPoint presentations per day in the U.S. (that’s according to the Wall Street Journal), you can see how bad habits might form by mindlessly following others. People just need permission to approach PowerPoint differently.

So here are 6 permissions I will give you:

  1. You may use one word on a slide. Large font, centered. 
  2. You may use an image or a graphic with no words. You will provide the words and the meaning as you talk.
  3. You may even use a spreadsheet but only if you enlarge or circle in a very bright color the number(s) or section you will be talking about. 
  4. You may have only a few, versus a few hundred, slides.
  5. You may show your dog, or an image of yourself skiing.
  6. You may prepare your PowerPoint after you’ve organized your thoughts and decided what you’re going to say, if you have time, and if you don’t have time, use a white board.

These are just a start, but feel free to go outside the box of what you’ve seen others do. Just keep in mind these two words: visual reinforcement. Explanation and narration come from the presenter.

Beth Levine