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How to use PowerPoint AND engage your audience

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The Engaging Presenter
This is a guest article by Bookboon author Michael Brown.

Audience-abuse has to stop.

The US armed forces agree. This from the highest levels in the Pentagon: “PowerPoint stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.”  This from Brigadier General McMaster: “PowerPoint is dangerous because it creates the illusion of understanding. Some problems are not bulletizable.” This from General James N Mattis, Joint Forces commander: “PowerPoint makes us stupid”. He also likened it to an internal threat, and banned it.

If any institution is interested in practical outcomes, it has to be the armed forces.

PowerPoint is arguably the best visual aid ever invented, but it is used so abysmally by so many that the standard of presentations world-wide has plummeted. Audiences are routinely disengaged and ill-informed.

Confession time. Do you think presentations are about visual aids with your voice on the side? Do you inflict PowerPoint on your audiences from beginning to end? Do your audiences look like hypnotized chickens in less than a minute?

Okay, now that I have your confession, here’s what you need to know. The following method brings PowerPoint audiences back to life, makes them absorb the messages, and generates special applause for the presenters.

This is truly radical. A revolution in how we use visual aids.


Choose to speak mostly without visual aids

Yes, just you, directly in front of the audience, conveying ideas armed only with your reason, conviction and passion. You use the screen only when a slide directly and specifically illustrates your point. Then you turn it off.

I know what I’m asking. For many, that choice is a big deal, a psychological hurdle demanding lots of courage. Too much for some – they can’t cope without the continuous screen-crutch.

Yet in my training workshops, I see again and again how grateful people are for a cease-fire in the visual bombardment. And with gaps between slides, the impact of each slide is significantly higher.

Still with me? Here’s how to make the new method work.


Prepare your presentation on old-fashioned speech notes – not on PowerPoint

Yes, another psychological hurdle. It’s hard to lose the idea that the screen must carry everything.

You’ll add slide numbers here and there on your speech notes, but only when a slide is specifically relevant and only when a visual will bring understanding more easily than you alone. Typically that means charts, graphs, diagrams or photos.

Forget word-filled slides. They put everyone to sleep.

But what if I rely on the screen to prompt me?

Stop doing it. Audiences hate it, because you’re obviously at the mercy of the machine. They prefer you to use speech notes, because you’re in charge. Also, they prefer you to introduce a new slide before they see it – easy to do from speech notes.

What if the audience wants a complete record of my presentation?

Give them a hand-out with all detail, preferably at the end.

How do I blank out the screen?


Make your first slide completely black and use it as your PowerPoint-go-to-sleep slide.

It’s the slide you show when you’re not showing a slide. You go there by pressing 1 then enter on your keyboard. PowerPoint sleeps, your audience stays awake.

You might want to insert a small identifying mark onto that black slide, so small that only you will notice it. I use a single dot down in the left bottom corner. That’s peace of mind – there are all sorts of horrible reasons why the screen might be black – but if you can see your tiny mark, you know you can wake the system in a second.

When you do want a picture up there – say, your third slide – press 3then enter. It will jump onto the screen instantly. Then, as soon as that slide is irrelevant, press 1 then enter – back to black. Beautiful. Step right back in front of your audience and go on with your presentation. You are in charge.

That’s authority.


Why do we humans want less use of the screen?

It’s because we crave full-on connection with the person talking to us. Even in this age of devices and screens, we want you, as a presenter, to be fully engaged with us. Then we’ll welcome the occasional relevant slide.

Are you ready to take back control? Are you ready to be the master of your own presentation, returning PowerPoint to it’s rightful role as your servant?

Join the bloodless revolution. Use PowerPoint and engage with your audiences.

We hope you enjoyed this article!

PowerPoint 2013 has a lot more exciting features. All you have to do is to explore it. Aren’t you excited to discover and use these features such as how to track changes in PowerPoint 2013?

Good luck with your next presentation and don’t forget to have a look at the other blog articles for more tips:

About the author: Michael Brown has run hundreds of intensive training workshops on presentation and media skills. He wrote The Engaging Presenter (Parts I, II, and III) which is available on Bookboon. He lives in Christchurch, New Zealand.