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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

Six Tips for Avoiding the PowerPointless

Have you ever been taught the skills to use this tool effectively?

Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 08:53

Let me give you my definition of “PowerPointing”: To provide a presentation of slides so crammed with text that the background no longer shows, and that are read aloud, line by line, by someone staring at a screen rather than the audience. Many of you have experienced this; often the presenter will try to outdo his previous performance by adding yet more slides to read aloud.

If I was working with a dangerous piece of equipment, I’d like to think I would be taught the hazards associated with it. Why haven’t we shared with fellow business professionals the hazards associated with PowerPoint?

PowerPoint is an interesting product; it’s one of the few examples I can think of where an item’s brand name has become synonymous with the act of using it. For example, in Great Britain, the act of vacuuming is often called “hoovering,” although personally I prefer the term “vacuuming.” Why? Because it sounds like I’m undertaking an action-hero type activity, as in, “I am about to create a vacuum in the man cave!” Besides, as an action hero like Spiderman, I could give needlessly boring presenters the death-ray stare, turning them to dust for abusing the power of PowerPoint.

According to Microsoft’s website, PowerPoint is “presentation software that helps you tell a powerful story and share your slides.” So really, PowerPoint is just a tool, but like most tools, it can be used incorrectly. I like to compare it to a vernier-caliper measurement device, which can be used improperly as a wrench rather than to indicate where a measurement lies when it is in between two marks on a main scale. OK, so that’s not the best analogy I’ve ever used. My point is that using any tool differently from its intended purpose may not lead to your desired outcome.

I’ve learned to use PowerPoint the hard way, by working with businesses where presenters delivered truly awful presentations. In addition, I attended a presentation training course many years ago. I’d like to share some golden nuggets of PowerPoint wisdom for the Quality Punks among us.

Tip 1: Stop using PowerPoint and that big screen

What? Stop using PowerPoint? That’s crazy talk! Maybe so, but you can stop using it for presentations. Be brave and toss that security blanket aside. Years ago, as a Black-Belt-in-training, it was my turn to present my improvement project to the executive leadership team. I’d spent a huge sum of the company’s money on development and testing, and it was time to show what I’d accomplished. Back then, when Black Belts were given face time with senior leaders, it was usually at the end of the day—a day of nonstop meetings.

I learned about my day’s-end time slot a few days prior. I knew the leadership team would already have been held captive through many PowerPoint presentations. How could I keep their attention, yet make my point effectively? During the dark hours of the night before my presentation, this question still confounded me. But just as I reached the floating point of drifting into sleep, I got the answer: No PowerPoint today.

The next morning I rounded up the operators and engineers to strip down the machine I had been doing the testing on. They stripped it down to its component parts and put these into little plastic trays. We pushed component-burdened trolleys through the corridors, the little wheels squeaking as we rushed to the conference room. Once inside we lined the trolleys up against the wall. Eight well-groomed backs of heads swiveled and turned into faces of disbelief.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” I nervously chirped, realizing the big top boss was there. “If I can ask you all to stand up and please come over here.” I proceeded to pass out the components, showing the “before” and the “after,” all of which were covered in a brothy soup of coolant and oil. Each highly paid executive was captivated, even transfixed, as I handed them gooey metallic parts. No doubt a certain director still remembers me for ruining his beautiful wool suit.

However, I had captured the attention of busy, important people in a way they weren’t expecting. I made my presentation; I got the recognition for the improvements and further support from the top, all without a screen, all without a computer, and all without PowerPoint.

Tip 2: Learn presentation skills from the masters

Who would these masters be? Interestingly enough, we are bombarded with expert presenters every moment of the day. Tune in to a news show or log on to the Internet. Look for sports presenters or news readers, particularly those who aren’t reading from a teleprompter. I like to observe how they move from one topic to another and how they talk directly to you; they’re not reading from a screen somewhere behind them. Consider how your favorite TV presenter would deliver your presentation and use that as a template to improve your style.

Tip 3: Keep it simple, stupid (the KISS method)

Less is sometimes a whole lot more in a presentation. I prefer to have more pictures and fewer words. The reason being that, as a listener, I have an awful habit of reading the text and forgetting what the presenter is saying. I’m more interested in the content than the showmanship. (Incidentally, the KISS method should not be confused with the stage tricks of the glam rock band of the same name. I would not recommend painting a black and white star on your face, or shooting pyrotechnics from your codpiece, unless you are making a presentation to the company’s CEO. In that case you have my blessing.)

Tip 4: Poker-player presentations

Look to your audience for “tells” about your presentation in the same way a gambler looks for weaknesses in his opponents. Death-ray stares are a good indication that you may not be getting your point across; on the upside, at least you’re making eye contact. If you can get a sense of your listeners’ comprehension by observing their body language, it may help you change the tone, pace, or direction of your presentation.

Tip 5: Video yourself making a presentation

OK, this can be embarrassing. However, er, it’s not until you, er, videotape yourself that you realize, er, you have funny little, er, quirks, like saying “er” over and over, similar to parakeet speak. By recording and watching your presentation, you can see your style from the audience’s point of view. I did this once, and now I can’t help but notice when I start doing the er-bird routine.

Tip 6: Practice

Not all of us are lucky enough to deliver presentations frequently and refine our skills. There are social organizations that can help you with your presentation skills, perhaps in a more comfortable environment. If you are passionate about your subject matter, you may feel comfortable talking about it with like-minded people. The next time you are traveling in a vehicle with others, try talking on a subject nonstop for two minutes, without repetition, without pausing, and without saying “er.” How about this for your subject: “Why should you work in the field of quality?” A difficult subject, but it will make you think on your feet, which is also a good presentation skill.

What has all this this got to do with quality? I’m sure if the great gurus W. Edwards Deming or Joseph Juran were alive, they, too, would be using PowerPoint to enhance their presentations. For quality professionals like you and me, we are most powerful when we can influence others and help them gain a quality perspective in business. Currently, I’m aware of only one way of influencing others in a respectful and elegant fashion: through communication. Presentations, of any form, are another term for communicating. If you choose to use PowerPoint for your communication, use it to support your message. Don’t become overpowered by PowerPoint; be mindful that it is you, and you only, who is the communication device.


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.


6 tips for avoiding the powerpointless

Many thanks Paul!Sound advice often in these corporate days, forgotten - and love the 'Quality punk/Ninja improver' titles!