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Building an Effective PowerPoint Presentation

Use a building-block approach to create PowerPoint visuals that best convey your ideas.

Helen Modly, 02/07/2008

How many times have you endured PowerPoint presentations in which it seemed the presenter was seeking a prize for using the most slides possible, even when they added nothing to your understanding of their topic? Have you ever missed what a speaker was saying because you became distracted by a cluttered slide? Or even worse, what about the speakers that read their endless slides, word for word? How could this tool, which is so often misused, have ever become the gold standard for live presentations?

Visuals Do Not Replace the Speaker
Tools are aids to enhance a speaker's presentation. Microphones, raised stages, and visuals are common presentation tools. Used effectively, they can greatly improve the audience's understanding of a speaker's topic. Visuals are not a replacement for the presenter, they should not contain the presentation word for word, and they should not distract the audience away from what the presenter is saying. PowerPoint can be used to create powerful visuals, but most of us tend to create our slides the wrong way.

The Cart Before the Horse Problem
OK, so you've been asked to give a presentation on your services to a group of executives. This will be a great opportunity to showcase your firm and maybe even create some new prospects. Where do you start creating your presentation? If you open PowerPoint before you have answered several key questions, you're likely to end up with an overly large collection of verbose slides that lead your audience nowhere. Remember that the visuals created by PowerPoint are meant to be a tool to refine, enhance and supplement your spoken words. They are not where your words are supposed to go. Your words belong in your brain and your mouth, not on the slides. Creating your visuals with PowerPoint should be the last step before you began rehearsing your presentation. Remember, the visuals are not the presentation, you and your message are the presentation.

Plan for Your Purpose
The first thing, the very first thing, you need to do is identify and write down your purpose or goal for giving the presentation. Be very honest. If your purpose it to elicit new prospects from the audience, say so. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that your purpose is merely to inform the audience, unless their increased understanding of your topic is all you are interested in achieving.

On the other hand, if your purpose is really to motivate the audience to consider your firm's services, then you need to add persuasion to your goals. If you think about it, most of the presentations we attend contain some element of persuasion. It might be subtle as in persuading the audience to believe in the importance of the topic itself, or more direct as in creating a desire to buy or obtain what we have to offer.

Analyze Your Audience
Remember the old adage "know thy enemy"? Well, an audience that is matched well to your presentation is certainly no enemy, but a presentation that is wildly off the mark with an audience risks creating a very negative experience for all concerned--especially you.

Ask yourself these questions about your audience:

Who are they?
What are their goals for listening to you?
Will they be receptive or hostile to your content?
What level of understanding do they already have?
Why should they care about your presentation?
What is it that you want them to do with your information?

The ability to identify key characteristics of your audience will guide you in creating your message. It will help in determining what content you are going to present, what level of detail you plan to include, and in what order you present it. Identify these characteristics, and then prioritize them as to which will have the greatest impact on whether you are successful in achieving your purpose.

Create Your Presentation
Notice I didn't say create your visuals. A presentation, whether written or spoken is a logical sequence of distinct parts. Consider these components as building blocks to use in the creation of your presentation. Now that you know your purpose and you've analyzed your audience, it is time to determine which components your want to use and in what order.

Some examples of components you might consider:

* Problems   
* Solutions
* Past Experience
* History
* Constraints
* Alternatives
* Benefits
* Challenges
* Opportunities
* Research Findings

A typical sales presentation might include the components, problems, past history, solutions, and benefits. Old-style sales would suggest that we begin with a disturbing problem, describe the past history that led to the problem, propose a solution, and describe the benefits. An informative or persuasive presentation might start with opportunities, history, current situation and end with benefits.

Less is More
Most effective presentations can be created with four to six of these distinct building blocks. More, and you run the risk of overwhelming your audience and losing the impact of your message. Develop one or two slides for each of the building blocks. Remember less is really more. Don't fill a slide with words. You are supposed to present the words. Many professional presenters follow the 4x4 rule for slides: no more than four lines of text and no more than four words per line.

The purpose of these visuals is to deliver impact to the key words or concepts that you will be presenting. If you must put more text on a slide, consider having the text build upon the slide, one idea at a time as you present. This keeps your audience from losing touch with you while they read a lengthy slide. Ideally, slides should have photographs or other images that enhance your point. For example, if you are talking about hidden costs or risks, show a picture of an iceberg.

Powerful Punches
The fewer slides you use and the less content on your slides, the more powerful of an impact they can have on your audience. Use your visuals as punctuation for your presentation and make them meaningful for your audience. You will get your ideas across in a very professional and effective manner.

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