“PowerPoint Misuse Syndrome”

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Do you suffer from “PowerPoint Misuse Syndrome?” That is, using PowerPoint for purposes it was never intended for.

PowerPoint was officially released by Microsoft in 1990 as an easy-to-use method for producing visuals for presentations. It allowed people who would not ordinarily choose to use visual aids (note, that visuals are an “aid” to understanding), to enhance their communications with an added dimension.

Unfortunately, PowerPoint Misuse Syndrome dominates the business world. People use PowerPoint for three purposes: as a visual enhancement to their presentation (the intended purpose); as a stand-alone document to distribute, meant to communicate all the information in the presentation; and as a means to prompt the speaker. However, when you use the same PowerPoint for all three purposes, you lose the communication potential in all of them.

One client’s PowerPoint visuals exemplified the problem. Because his PowerPoint presentation was attempting to communicate all the material via the visuals, it offered no benefit to the viewer of the live presentation. In fact, it was a distraction, likely to frustrate and alienate the viewer.

Some of his slides consisted entirely of words…and lots of them. It would be impossible to read them because 1) to accommodate all the text, the font was illegibly tiny 2) the slides could not be kept up long enough to read them and 3) reading the slides would preclude listening to the presenter, or vice-versa.

The slides with graphs and images were extremely dense: not easily deciphered even by a person well versed in the subject matter. Some images featured additional dense text boxes. Others expressed many ideas in one image. If I were an audience member, I would probably ignore the visuals in order to listen to the speaker’s words. If I instead tried to make sense of the visuals, I guarantee I would not be taking in the verbal communication.

To maximize these visuals’ effectiveness, most of the text would need to be eliminated and the images would need to be simpler and graphically clear, each image representing only one idea at a time.

As a stand-alone document, this PowerPoint presentation was not the best way to convey all the information in my client’s presentation. Important information was lost by trying to cram it onto a slide, and the images became too complicated to make sense of. A better choice would be to create and distribute a more user-friendly Word document with simpler visuals inserted. The document would be a written parallel to the live presentation. It could fully communicate the material, with visuals used to clarify the concepts.

My client also diminished the power of his live presentation by using his visuals to cue him on what to say. How many times have you seen a speaker change the slide, turn his or her back to you to look at the screen, and then in an, “Oh, yeah, this slide is about…” moment, speak to the slide. That speaker is not in charge of the presentation. Bottom line, the slides should never lead the speaker. The speaker is the main event; he or she is the guide and the visuals are secondary.

A better choice to prompt a speaker is to use note cards, or even a single sheet of paper, with bullet points to keep the speaker on track with content without having to look at the slide. Small notes could be inserted to prompt the speaker on which slide is next and what to point out on it. The speaker would introduce an idea (cued by a bullet point on a note card), put up a slide supporting that idea, then interpret it for the audience. The note cards encourage the speaker to speak spontaneously because he or she is guided by bullet points, not a verbatim script.

If you fall prey to any of the above, rest assured, there is a cure for PowerPoint Misuse Syndrome! The next time you make a presentation, choose the medium most appropriate to the kind of communication you are making: simple visuals to enhance the live presentation, a fleshed-out document with simple images as a stand-alone to distribute, and separate notes to guide you as you present. Yes, it entails a little more thought and time, but it makes for targeted, powerful communications.


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