Some days I wake up to a marvelous gift via e-mail. This morning, my friend Hertha Meyer sent me this The New York Times article on the U.S. military and its use of PowerPoint, entitled We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.
I love this sentence in particular, “Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.” First, I’d say. Duh. Second, I’d finish the sentence with “… and creativity.”
Let me say for the record, I love PowerPoint and Keynote. I use them both constantly. They are infinitely flexible, easy to use, and when used properly, can add incredible impact to any project. The operative words in that sentence are: “when used properly.”
Unfortunately, lots of people have never been trained in how to communicate using slide-based software. People might have gone to a PowerPoint skills workshop, or by default, have learnt how to write bullet points. But not how to communicate. Just last week I saw a colleague in a agency here in Sydney swipe and copy paragraphs from an Acrobat document and paste them into a bullet point. Just out of curiosity, I counted the final tally of words on the slide: 217, in 7 point Helvetica. When I asked her if the word size was a tad microscopic, she said, “Perhaps.” She immediately bolded all of the text, as if that fixed the problem.
I got a call a few days later saying their agency didn’t win the pitch. “The client didn’t think our ideas were very creative,” she said, extremely disappointed because the ideas were in fact fantastic.
Here are some general tips when writing in slide-based software.
If you use PowerPoint frequently, learn how to use it. Find a local class or workshop. PowerPoint is not going away any time soon. Trust me, life’s easier if you aren’t trying to practice your fluency at the same time you’re writing a document. I also don’t buy the argument any longer “I don’t have time to go to training.” If you can negotiate two meetings which are scheduled at the same time, then you can negotiate planning a workshop into your diary.
Here’s the simplest tip to writing a good slide: use a picture. PowerPoint is meant to be visual and simple. Visual = a striking image. Simple = one picture, not 10. Not so complex you don’t know what to look at first, and simple enough to read on the other side of the room. (The same is true for hand-outs. It doesn’t matter if the reader will hold the PowerPoint 12 inches from their nose. It’s just as bad and distracting for your reader especially if (like me) they have to wear readers. Consider that simplicity will also improve your presentation style. You’ll force yourself to sell the information on the page to the listener. In other words, you won’t end up irritating the audience who reads English more quickly in their head than you do be reading it aloud.
Don’t treat PowerPoint like Microsoft Word or any other narrative software. If you write paragraphs in PowerPoint, you’re using it wrong. If you start a sentence with anything other than an active verb, you’re using it wrong. If you’re more concerned with grammar and punctuation than colour, you’re using it wrong. If you write the text before you write the slide title, you’re using it wrong.
PowerPoint is essentially an outline on slides. Organise your thoughts before you start writing.Each slide has one purpose or message: what is it? What are the 3 or 4 messages which substantiate your message, and what are they? How can you visualise those messages, or at least write bullet points without allowing the sentence to wrap.
The first thing you write are your titles. It’s what the audience reads first to make sense of the slide, especially so if you don’t present the slide in the right way. In fact, it’s one way to tell the quality of a presentation. You should be able to read only the titles of your document to get the point and purpose of your argument. And, the last thing you write is your title slide.
I’m conducting a “How To Write In PowerPoint” workshop in Sydney in July. I’ll cover the 10 basic rules of writing presentations, as well as show a number of real bad examples balanced with “how to fix” variations. Write me if you want more details.
Any other suggestions for effective writing in PowerPoint?