Articles by Professional Speakers Guild members
Using Computer Presentation Programs Effectively
 2005 Gary Mull, DTM, MCSE

"Are you still doing speeches in the stone age?" This was the question a participant asked of a 
presenter at a recent conference I attended. The presenter had lugged along a box of transparency 
slides to show during his half-day seminar, and I admit, I was a little doubtful at first about the lack 
of modern technology. The presentation went well, overall, but could have clearly been enhanced by 
a good Microsoft PowerPoint, Lotus Freelance, or Aldus Persuasion program. Additionally, it would have 
been much easier to present for the speaker, and definitely lighter to carry on the airplane.
Later in the month, however, I got a different perspective when I spoke a participant in one of my 
seminars after the rest of the class had gone. She told me that when she first walked into the room, 
she was very disheartened to see a computer-generated image being shown on the screen. She 
confided that although she had enjoyed the presentation entirely, and that I had overcome her 
initial apprehension, her first reaction was:
"Oh no! Not another PowerPoint Presentation"

This reaction is not unique, I've found. When talking to people in my seminars and social settings, 
the message I get is clear; People are tired of worn-out power point presentations! Does this mean 
we should jettison the technology and go back to the "stone age", as one person put it, in giving our 
presentations? No more than we should ban television because of the likes of Jerry Springer and 
Temptation Island. The medium itself is not to blame, it is how that medium is used that falls short. 
Too often, presenters rely solely on their software to provide every bit of their presentation's 
creativity. The problem with this approach is that the entertainment value of PowerPoint and other 
programs, leaves a lot to be desired. When a speaker decides to use it as a crutch, instead of as an 
enhancement tool, it can give a presenter a false sense of security about a bad presentation. 
I've sat through many a bad presentation where the insecure presenter just hides behind a barrage 
of screen activity as a gratuitous gimmick rather than having good illustrations and attention-getting 
visual element to add in making their points.
So how should this medium be best used? Obviously, there are millions of reasons for a presentation, 
and therefore, millions of effective and creative ways to deliver it. Creativity can take several forms, 
from the spontaneous quip to the extravagant special effects of a Hollywood blockbuster. Keep in 
mind, though, that a crummy movie with very impressive special effects is still a crummy movie, and 
the same rule applies to presentations. Things that may work well in some presentations will not do 
so in others, but here are some general guidelines for successful use of electronic slides.

1. Add, don't detract. If you find your presentation including phrases like "Here is a picture of how 
we envision the final product", or "Here is how the process works", with the appropriate slides, it is 
probably working to your advantage. If, on the other hand, we interrupt our thought flow, and that 
of our audience, to draw attention, there is probably something lacking in the content. In one notable
presentation I attended, the presenter gave the audience points one and two of his conclusion, then 
said something like "OOPs! Don't be like this guy who just got run over by a bus because he crossed 
the street without looking both ways (while an on-screen video displayed the demise of the 
unfortunate rube) now..., on to point three". 
While meant to be humorous and draw attention to his third point, which was to be prepared for the 
unexpected calamity, it completely distracted the audience from his closing, and got most of them
off the path which he was trying diligently to lead them down.

2. Don't distract. This brings up another important point, which is obvious to most presenters, the 
appropriateness of the material we show. While most presenters I know would never say something
like "I heard of a guy who got hit by a bus because he didn't take the appropriate level of care in 
crossing the street, isn't that hilarious!" Nonetheless, many presenters would think nothing of inserting
a video like the one mentioned above into a presentation as an attention-getter. Not only do you run
the risk of having people in the audience who may have been injured seriously in accidents, or worse, 
have had relatives or friends killed that way, you also completely misdirect the attention and thought
patterns of the whole audience. The intended effect, to get those people who's thoughts were drifting
to focus back on your presentation, will fail. Now those people are focused on the dangerous drive 
home, not you. What's more, those who may have been paying attention to your points may be reliving
the sadness of losing their neighbor to a drunk driver three years ago.

3. Know your stuff. By using presentation programs as a supplement to, rather than the substance of
an effective presentation, you insure yourself against the unexpected failure of almost any part of the
presentation. During a technical seminar in a large hotel banquet room filled with engineers, I had the
misfortune of having my laptop based slides stop projecting to the screen. After a short bit of humor to
smooth things over and show that I was still in control of the situation (I did a few shadow puppets with
the white light coming out of the projector- to applause and laughter), 
I continued for over fifteen minutes on the topic I was covering. This also gave me the opportunity to wander
out away from my laptop and into the group, which I love to do. Not only did the absence of slides not ruin
the seminar, it almost enhanced it, not only for the reasons above, but because it gave the audience and me
a shared humorous experience that I referred back to a few times for humorous effect (e.g. I jokingly accused
one participant, who asked a strange question, of being the one who had unplugged the video cable earlier). 
This could not have been possible, had the visual part of the presentation been it's main support.

4. Know your medium. If something goes wrong with the equipment or presentation, you should
have a good feel of how everything works. I watched in horror as a salesperson, who was delivering
a presentation about a fairly technical product accidentally stopped the slide presentation and
couldn't get it going again. The program had not closed down, just gone from "slide view" to "slide
creation view" and simply had to be restarted by clicking a button on the screen. By not knowing
how to do this simple step, she ruined her credibility and wound up looking sheepishly on as a member
 of her staff came up to the podium and restarted her presentation. 
This is an extreme example, 
but it also pays to not only know how to run the program itself, but how to diagnose other technical
problems that may occur. In the presentation to which I referred above, where the image from my
laptop suddenly stopped showing on the screen, it was helpful to know a bit about the equipment.
During the short break that I called after the outage, I was able to diagnose that a member of the
audience had accidentally kicked the video cable, dislodging it slightly from my projector. While I am
not an expert of every type of projector on the market, nor would I want to be, I knew enough about
the workings of the system in general to fix the problem within minutes, rather that waiting helplessly
for the hotel media staff.

5. Stay home. 
Just kidding, but please heed this warning. The most notorious misuse of 
presentation programs is putting everything on the screen that you intend to say, and reading from
the slide. Please take my advice, if your presentation contains all the words you are going to say,
stay home and e-mail them to your audience where they can read them at their leisure. Slides should
be reserved for visuals that add to the presentation, diagrams, or information that the audience can
take special notes on (e.g. your e-mail address or telephone number). In fact, slides can be used
effectively in hundreds of ways. I saw one presenter who said something like, "Here are a few of the
laws that govern the operation of a small business today". He then proceeded to show several slides
of laws, rules, and regulations that increasingly got smaller and smaller in type size and more rapid in
succession. The point was well made that there was a good reason to have a good business attorney.
One way that they should not be used is as a script to read from. Even bullet points are a bit suspect,
if they have nothing to add to the presentation other than being a guide for you to follow. In the
technical training field, there are many folks who, because they have some technical knowledge,
assume that they are effective presenters because they can read from slides. We call such people
aptly, slide-readers, and they can always be counted on to put the audience promptly to sleep. 
They fail at communication by using the slides as a crutch, rather than an enhancement. Slide-readers
have done more to damage the viability of technical presentations than cold coffee.

Your success in delivering an effective, memorable presentation can be greatly enhanced with
presentation software. It will, however rarely come from integrating new plug-ins, images or Flash
content, or by fielding dozens of slides that contain the verbiage of your entire presentation. Used
wisely, creative elements and bullet slides have their time and place, but the art of communication
involves a much more expansive universe of interaction. The bottom line is that the purpose of a
presentation isn't to fine-tune your graphics until they look great, or to display all of your ideas
from a screen. The object of an effective presentation is to communicate important ideas and
messages. Using presentation programs should add to, and not detract from, that goal.
For questions or further information on this article, contact the author at
Gary Mull, BS, DTM, MCT, MCSE
Technical Speaker & Consultant,
Mastering Technology, Inc.
Phone: (937) 252-9450
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