When Microsoft Windows crashes, it pops up what techies call "the blue screen of death." But there's another deadly blue screen that businesspeople are even more familiar with. You know the one: The royal blue rectangle that contains bright yellow lines of bulleted text, a pie chart, or sometimes just brightly colored logos. You've already seen enough dull PowerPoint slides to last yourself a lifetime. So why, when it's your turn behind the lectern, do you boot up the same old speech?
It's easy to turn to the templates that come standard with the Microsoft Office suite, fill in a few forms, and recite the information on the slides. But don't expect the audience to remember you -- or what you said -- once you walk out the door. Tools like presentation programs can quickly become crutches, and even get in the way of effective communication.
Too many speakers try to cram everything they have to say into their PowerPoint slides, according to Patti Kane, vice president of Gumpert Communications, a public relations and marketing firm in Needham, Mass.
Instead of using visual aids to punctuate and reinforce what they're saying, they create too many of them and pack too much information onto each. In the end, they only end up confusing the audience.
Most people do this because they treat presentations as an opportunity to simply dispense information, says Anne Warfield, president of Edina, Minn.-based Impression Management Professionals. "They just get up and rattle off the information that they feel should be out there," she says. But overwhelming the audience with information actually gets in the way of communicating the message.
"If you put in too much information they're going to feel like they're not smart," Warfield says. "They'll transfer that anger and frustration to the speaker."
Rick Linder, president of Linder Management Consultants, suggests what he calls a six-by-six rule: There should be no more than six lines of text on each slide, and no line of text should have more than six words in it.
The Wrong Speech At The Wrong Time
Programs like PowerPoint make it incredibly easy to create presentations. But they don't help taylor them to particular audiences. Simply selecting the PowerPoint template for "Giving Bad News" doesn't mean you should use the exact same speech for your few key investors and the staff as a whole.
Speakers need to know why the audience is interested and how much they already know about the subject, Kane says. Then they can construct their presentations accordingly. "You have to know how sophisticated they are," Warfield says. "Putting up overheads for a bunch of computer geeks would be a joke."
Doug Whipple, an attorney at Jones Day Reavis and Pogue in Washington, D.C., has seen such knowledge gaps kill a company's chance at gaining financing from venture capitalists. "Entrepreneurs only have a few minutes to make their pitches," Whipple says. "Most get so bogged down in talking about the specific technical details of their products that they never really get around to letting the audience know exactly what it is that their product does."
The size of the audience also matters. Big rooms -- especially big, full rooms -- can make it hard to keep the audience's attention. "The smaller the audience, the better they move with you," Warfield says. Larger audiences require more time to absorb what you say and take in the information on your slides. "It's like dragging around the Titanic," she says. "You can feel them moving in waves. It could take a minute or so for the people in the back of the room to catch up."
The Slide Slave
Remember that the audience has come to see a speech, not a slide show. They also didn't come to see the back of your head, as you look up at the overhead to find your place. "If you do that, you might as well not even show up," Linder says. "You are the star, not the slides."
Warfield says some presenters hide behind the slides because they want to stay completely detached from the information they are presenting. "They feel they should just give the audience the information and stay toward the back, that the information is what's important," she says. "But your audience always wants to connect with you."
To keep slides from becoming a distraction -- to you or your audience -- Linder recommends turning off whatever is on the screen when you're done talking about it. "You don't want those words sitting up there five minutes later when you have moved on to a different point." he says.
Doug Whipple has an even simpler rule: "Don't put anything up on a slide if you can make your point without it," he says.
The Handout Handoff
If you've ever wondered about the best time to hand out copies of a presentation, that's because there's no good answer. Wait until the end and people may not be able to follow what you're saying while you're saying it. Hand it out in the beginning and you risk being upstaged by your own supplementary materials.
"You run the risk of them getting to a visual aid they don't understand or looking at the wrong thing at the wrong time and getting confused," Linder says. He suggests using handouts only if you want feedback as you go along or are trying to teach your audience, since they allow the audience to take notes. But if you're giving more of a "pep rally" speech, you want all attention right up front at all times.
"I pass out handouts face down and ask the audience not to flip them over until we're ready to discuss them," he says. "They're usually pretty good about doing that."
The Dimmer Dilemma
Hitting the lights right away can kill a presentation. Launching into the slides may seem like the best way to get to the point, but Linder claims it tells the audience they should pay attention to the slides, not the speaker.
Then there's the sleepiness factor. Patti Kane once gave a two-hour presentation to a group of travel professionals during a week-long convention in Cancun, Mexico. To hold their attention for such a long time, she peppered her presentation generously with travel photos she had taken herself. When she arrived in Cancun she found out that her presentation would be the very last event of the trip, and she knew she was in trouble when the attendees filed in with their suitcases already packed and looking like they needed a nap. "As soon as I dimmed the lights they started dropping like flies," she says.
Linder says that launching into your presentation without first getting the audience's attention can mean losing them for good. "Get the audience's attention first -- share information, get involved, and give them an incentive to listen," he says. "They need to know that you're not wasting their time."
When the audience started slumbering during Kane's Cancun speech, she decided to turn up the lights, cut out half of the information she planned to present, and move into the audience to wake them up and get them involved. She says that if she had it to do over she would have made sure she knew ahead of time that she'd be the final speaker. "And hopefully I'd have the good sense not to dim the lights," she says.
The Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Presentation
Two types of preparation are necessary for any presentation: preparing the speech and preparing the space.
Writing is tough for many people, so Warfield recommends not getting too caught up on the final version before even putting pen to paper. "First put down all the information you want to include in the way that you know it and understand it," she says. Then edit it down and try to put it in the perspective that you think your audience will hear it. Then finally look at it and say, 'What does my audience need to grasp and understand, and in what order, for it to make sense?'" That third edit is the time to boil the presentation down to three to five key talking points, she says.
When you are finally comfortable with the material and it's time to present, make sure the room is ready for you. Call ahead or arrive an hour early. Check out the room, the equipment, and make sure you have everything you need.
Rick Linder once made a classic mistake while giving a presentation on -- what else? -- using visual aids in presentations. "I didn't realize that the guy before me had unplugged the overhead projector," he says. "I launched into my presentation, talking about how important it is to prepare ahead of time and when I went to flick the switch to display my first slide, nothing happened." he says. "I ended up turning it into a joke: 'I hope you've all learned a valuable lesson.'"
Linder says that it turned out to be one of the best presentations that he's ever given. "It showed me that the audience really is cheering for you," he says. "They want you to be comfortable and do well."
To handle a mistake like Linder's, make sure you bring backup copies of the presentation on disk and in hard copy. Bring extra light bulbs for overhead projectors. And, of course, make sure you can do the speech without the slides, if necessary. "You should be able to give your presentation even if you have a power failure," Warfield says. Who knows? The audience may even like it better that way.