Finding a balance between an effective presentation and “death by PowerPoint”

This content is 18 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

If, like me, you attend a large number of presentations from suppliers and partners, you are probably acquainted with the concept of “death by PowerPoint” but more recently I’ve noticed a trend towards using alternative visual aids (or even none at all) to grab the attention of the audience.

A few weeks back, Microsoft’s Steve Lamb was planning to give a full day seminar with no PowerPoint slides. I don’t know how that went (probably quite well, as it was a technical event with lots of demonstrations) but I recently saw CA’s Executive Vice President for Technology Strategy and Chief Technology Officer, Mark Barrenechea, speak without PowerPoint and I found the event to be very disappointing. Far from inspiring the audience with his presentation, the lasting impression with which I left the impressive Ditton Manor venue was one of a poorly-prepared presenter who scribbled some unintelligible notes on a few OHP foils (remember them?) and ran out of time. I’m sure that Mark was actually extremely well prepared, but that was the impression with which I left the event (and that will stick in my mind).

Whilst dropping PowerPoint is a commendable idea, in order to dump the visual aids (in whatever form – PowerPoint, OHP foils, or flipchart), an extremely charismatic presenter is required who can hold the audience’s attention completely and, in the business world, there aren’t too many people who can carry that off well.

I’m sure there is a balance to be struck somewhere between PowerPoint overload and completely disregarding any pre-prepared visual aids. Personally, I find that a slide deck can be a useful aide memoire when presenting – maybe that’s what it should be (too many people try to cram too much information onto each slide).

Having said that the slide deck should just be an aide memoire, when attending events, I like to be given a copy on which to take notes. Having to wait a few days (or even weeks) to download the slide deck after the event doesn’t work for me, but by the same token, I rarely give out my slide deck in advance if I’m using PowerPoint at an internal meeting (because I find that a small audience of customers or management tend to jump ahead and read the slide deck rather than listen to the message I’m trying to present).

Today, I’m at an event with a difference. In common with many Microsoft technical events, today’s event includes a lot of demonstrations; however instead of the usual slide with the word “demo” emblazened across it, around which I’m normally madly scribbling notes, John Craddock and Sally Storey from Kimberry Associates have included slides called “doodles”. These doodles are one-slide summaries of the key points from the demonstration, which are not presented but which allow attendees to concentrate on watching the demonstration instead of writing notes. I’ll certainly give the concept a try next time I demonstrate a technology to an audience.

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