Creating Presentations That Don’t Suck!

We have all been stuck in slide show presentations that could not have been more stale or boring. I mean, it seemed at times that they were engineered to confound the mind. Well, research seems to confirm what we felt; slide shows can interfere with learning.

Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.
Taken from WIRED; PowerPoint Is Evil. Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely. By Edward Tufte

Ouch You’re Hurting My Brain

Let’s look at our audience. A good presenter should know their audience. Last time I noticed, I was presenting to humans. John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory details the limitations of the human mind to hold discrete pieces of information in short-term memory. Explore more of John Sweller’s take on PowerPoint and it’s limitations in the post, Is it finally time to ditch PowerPoint? It is a must read.

Supposedly, phone numbers are only 7 digits long because the mind can only hold seven pieces of information in short term memory, plus or minus two numbers depending on other variables according to George A. Miller . There are strategies like “Chunking“, an idea that we can more efficiently use short-term memory, but in general we are limited by what we can absorb in a short period of time. Something to consider when presenting to homo sapiens.

Limitation By Design

I know when I started working with PowerPoint I was excited to build beautiful templates and have all kinds of cool effects happen during slide transitions. Getting the ornate 3D charts and graphs to represent my data seemed like the thing to do. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out this wizardry just to find out that it actually distracts from my presentation’s message. The templates are worse for your presentation than starting with a simple plain layout.

Stand and Deliver

Forgive me, I have sinned. I used to “talk to my slides” during presentation. Reading them word for word is the ultimate way to kill your audience’s interest in your topic. How we interact with the information on the screen can either add or detract from the colors, fonts and images in the slides. Kathy Sierra details great advice and cites resources to improve presentations in her blog entry; Stop your presentation before it kills again! Something else to consider, we are emotional creatures. Use this in your presentation. Seth Godin comments in his post, Really Bad PowerPoint supports this; no emotion, no connection.

The “Do My Slides Suck” Test from Kathy Sierra

  1. Do your slides contain mostly bullet points?
  2. Do you have more than 12-15 words on a slide?
  3. Do your slides add little or no new info beyond what you can say in words?
  4. Are your slides, in fact, not memorable?
  5. Are your slides emotionally empty?
  6. Do your slides fail to encourage a deeper connection to or understanding of the topic?
  7. Do your slides distort the data? (That’s a whooooole different thing I’m not addressing now)
  8. Do your slides encourage cognitive weakness? (refer to Tufte)

Learn From The Best

Some of the best presenters are Lawrence Lessig, Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin, and Dick Hardt. Examine their approaches.

Lawrence Lessig Method
Masayoshi Takahashi Method
Guy Kawasaki Method
Seth Godin Method

Example Presentations

Lawrence Lessig Presentation on Free Culture
Dick Hardt inspired by Lessig presented the OSCON 2005 Keynote – Identity 2.0.
Seth Godin Presentation Example

Guy Kawasaki 10 – 20 -30 Rule Presentation

The Tools

Microsoft PowerPoint
Apple Keynote
Open Office Impress


Convert your slide show into MindManager presentation, a completely different way to see the information based on mind mapping. Craig Pringle explains good rationale for this in his post; Ditch PowerPoint for Presentations.

Final Thoughts

Read the blog entry Marketing should be education, education should be marketing at Passionate Users. This puts teaching and the job teachers need to pull off in a better context.