Effective Use of PowerPoint in Presentations

PowerPoint is a useful tool, but if not used effectively it can detract from the overall quality of a presentation.

Ever wonder if technological advancements rob workplace communications of some spontaneity and candor? That perhaps actual conversations where we look at each other and react to nonverbal signs such as shrugs, frowns, smiles, and wandering attention might work better than email? If so, we could apply the same useful skepticism to another familiar technology.

PowerPoint can inhibit the give-and-take that should be at the heart of any learning opportunity. I have good company in that opinion. Bob Gates said it troubled him as defense secretary to see so many promising mid-career officers relegated to preparing PowerPoints for senior officers. In “Call Sign Chaos,” former defense secretary and retired Marine Corps general James Mattis wrote, “PowerPoint is the scourge of critical thinking. It encourages fragmented logic by the briefer and passivity in the listener.”

In presentations that work, participants share ideas and tell stories keyed to a clear message or theme. PowerPoint should be an adjunct, limited to photos where needed and the occasional major point, key quote, or humorous cartoon as an opening mood lightener. Turning away from the room to read bullet points on a slide breaks the natural eye contact that any educator counts on. On top of that, I’ve seen presenters checking their watches and rushing to the last slide, leaving far too little time for the lively Q&A that any presentation or speech should inspire. 

So what to do instead? Get off the stage. You’re not a lecturer. Walk around. Approach someone who’s asking a question or sharing an opinion or even taking issue with you. Welcome observations and encourage others to react. (I love sitting back as participants offer anecdotes about what works and doesn’t work.) Go to the low-tech flip chart or whiteboard to jot down ideas. Above all, make and maintain eye contact. 

Still, you might ask, how does your audience leave the session with details worth saving and passing on? Simple: Hand out “takeaway” sheets at the beginning or the end. To get focused attention, I prefer the latter. That way, you can reassure them ahead of time that they don’t have to scribble notes.

Finally, just be yourself.

Dave Griffiths has hosted seminars on workplace writing and presentation skills at some 15 federal agencies, including the Army IG in Germany and South Korea and USAID in Cairo. He was the national security correspondent for Aviation Week and Business Week and taught journalism at Penn State University.