PowerPoint Poison

Last week, I presented a two-day Interpretation By Design workshop in Jacksboro, Texas, with our mysterious and reclusive third author, die-hard Texas Rangers fan Lisa Brochu. I always love traveling to present IBD workshops, as it affords me the opportunity to partake of local fare. In Texas, I got to eat a meal at a real City Drug soda fountain counter, see a game at a new (to me) Major League Baseball stadium, and learn exactly what 106 degrees feels like. (On a serious note: The IBD workshop took place just before the wildfires started. Our thoughts and best wishes are with our friends in Texas.)

There’s a facial expression I’ve seen a lot in recent years. As a frequent traveler and a parent of young children, I am very familiar with the look of dismay that dawns on airplane passengers’ faces when they see me approaching their row with my kids in tow.

I have seen this same look on the faces of conference attendees when they walk into a session room to find a presenter firing up an LCD projector and checking the batteries on his laser pointer. It’s bad enough when you’re faced with one or two hours with a PowerPoint show, but two days would be torture. During our two-day workshop in Texas, Lisa and I used PowerPoint slides for less than half the time.

The first morning of the workshop was conducted entirely without PowerPoint, then we fired up the projector after lunch that first day. So imagine you’re a participant in a two-day workshop. It’s roughly 1,000 degrees outside in the hottest summer Texas has had since the earth was an unformed ball of magma, you’ve just eaten chicken-fried something with fries and a milkshake for lunch, and you walk into a room to find the presenter turning off the lights and firing up the ol’ projector. What would you think? You’d think, “Oh no. Those kids aren’t going to sit by me, are they?”

Here are some tips I follow to keep from crushing the souls of IBD workshop participants with PowerPoint:

Make it image-intensive. I project images, usually with no words, and I talk about those images. Sometimes a single slide generates 10 minutes of conversation, sometimes it’s 10 seconds. The image above is a slide from my PowerPoint that I use as a springboard to talk about how different people use grids in different ways. (Look how adorable my children are. Don’t you feel bad about rolling your eyes when you saw them get on the airplane?)

Get the words out. At the moment, there are 166 slides in my slide show. (It changes frequently.) Only 15 of those slides have words, and most of those are introducing new sections. There are fewer than 50 total words in my entire slide show. (For the record, the word count goes up when I’m presenting with Shea. He can’t tell you his name in fewer than 50 words.)

I know you’ve heard this before, but the worst thing you can do is project bullet points and then read those bullet points. The only reason I repeat this is because I keep going to presentations where presenters read bullet points. Whenever I see this, I feel like the content of each slide is new to the presenter and he’s discovering it along with his audience. When I do use words, as with the “Serif” slide above, I don’t use full sentences to be read aloud, but rather a single word or phrase to be discussed.

Drop the laser pointer. If you have so much going on in a slide that you need a laser pointer to show it, you have too much going on in that slide. The only reason to take a laser pointer to a presentation is if you’re presenting to a room full of cats and you think it would be fun for them to chase the little red dot.

Not only are laser pointers not helpful, they are actively distracting. I find that presenters with laser pointers use them way more than necessary, seemingly absent-mindedly, to fill dead space or as a nervous tic. It makes me wonder if the laser-pointer button is connected to a morphine drip, like with those lab rats in that experiment back in the 1970s.

Don’t use effects. Don’t. They’re distracting and everyone hates them and we’re not impressed that you applied a checkerboard transition to every single slide. And for the love of all that is sacred and good, don’t make your bullet points bounce into the frame from the side.

The only time you’ll see me using transitions, movement, and sound in a slide show is in the above slide, which I use to demonstrate that PowerPoint effects are the Comic Sans or clip art of the multimedia world.

Mix it up. No matter how good your slide show is, it’s not going to keep everyone engaged for the entire presentation. Be sure to mix in activities, conversation, and content that does not require projected images.

Finally, take everything I’ve said here with a grain of salt. I realize that every presentation is going to differ based on the content and purpose of that presentation, so it’s impossible to apply hard and fast rules to every one of them. The most important common thread of all of my suggestions above is that presenters should seize control of their content. PowerPoint is a useful tool, but used incorrectly, it can sap the energy out of your presentation. It should complement your personality, not replace it.

One final note: Thanks to Friend of IBD Matthew Greuel, who shared a link on our Facebook page to the Swiss Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP), which fights against the “economic damage resulting from presentations using PowerPoint.”

PowerPoint Wars

Have you ever spent time during someone’s PowerPoint presentation wondering what they were thinking when they created it? Hopefully I’m not the only one. I often have a difficult time watching some use PowerPoint. I was reminded of this recently when the PowerPoint slide to end all PowerPoint slides was created.

The full story, presented by the New York Times, explains the roar that came from one slide displayed by General McChrystal in Kabul. It has made its round on social media networks and even made it to The Daily Show.

When watching a PowerPoint presentation, I find myself trying to figure out the presenter’s way of thinking in developing the presentation aide and paying little or no attention to the presentation. I have this same problem when my wife is talking. Occasionally, I’ll see that PowerPoint presentation that hits you like a slap to the face, leaving you in wonder with what the designer has done. Again I’m not paying attention because I want to know how they achieved that effect. My wife also employs the slap in the face technique in order to gain my attention.

Here are a few tips and tricks that you can use that will make your PowerPoint programs rock, or at least be more tolerable.

Think Inside the Box: Paul and I live and die by the grid. It’s our lot in life. PowerPoint has a grid system that you can easily apply by simply clicking on the view tab and then clicking on the gridlines box. It is the Microsoft version of a grid, which means it works quickly and efficiently, didn’t cost extra, but is not as sexy as something offered by Apple. (That’s right the grid can be sexy.) By following a grid, flow and organization is improved. IBD (the book not the blog) takes a more in-depth look at lifestyle improvements by applying the grid.

What the Font: This happened to me just a few weeks ago. I put together a presentation that I was really proud of and when it was up on the screen the typefaces that I painstakingly chose were not present. I didn’t save my presentation in the correct format to encapsulate the fonts and the computer that I was displaying from didn’t have the same fonts installed as my computer. PowerPoint will make some decisions for you—decisions that I would rather my two-year old son make—by substituting fonts for you, but here’s how you solve that problem: In PowerPoint 2007, choose the office button, choose the PowerPoint options button, choose save in the list, choose the box for embed fonts in file, and then choose embed only the characters used in the presentation (best for reducing overall file size) or embed all characters (best for editing if the file is going to be shared).

Smart Art: PowerPoint 2007 has made an attempt to break out of the problems related to overused, predetermined screen layouts. The Smart Art allows you to transform those ever-present bulleted lists into graphics that may or may not help improve the communication of your point. The fact that Microsoft Office 2007 calls this “art” scares me and is reminiscent of the ubiquitous Word Art available in other Office 2007 programs. Smart Art may be destined to be the new typewriter, screeching tire, or laser sound effect. There is always a time and place for a laser sound effect (primarily Star Wars reenactments) but never in a presentation (unless it is a presentation that you are trying to annoy me, which may be a valid use). If used appropriately the function could be an asset but I’m afraid once it becomes more commonplace and the most popular templates get overused and abused.

Thematic Approach: Did I even have to write this? Sure I did, because I’m guilty of it. I find myself thinking about the presentation design concepts and elements long before my presentation is complete. My wife thinks about dessert long before the appetizer is gone. As interpreters we need to remember that the basics of program development apply to the creation of a PowerPoint presentation. Take into consideration purpose, theme, audience, research, organization and then review your purpose and theme before designing the program.

Remember that it was created for businesses but you are responsible for making the decisions to improve the presentation. PowerPoint is a tool for interpretation not the interpretation or intended to replace the interpreter.