Beyond storyboarding: Key tips for putting the power back in your PowerPoint

The average PowerPoint presentation is pretty bad. The only way to change that is to stop thinking about a presentation as a collection of slides and start thinking about it as a story.

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article titled, "What IT Leaders Can Learn from Hollywood." Without going too much into it here, the basic idea is that the average PowerPoint presentations are pretty bad. Granted, there are a number of reasons why they're bad, but the main reasons are:

  • They're way too long. Rarely do you need 30 or 40 slides to get your point across, yet presentations of that length are pretty common, and
  • The often-related problem, the critical points are lost in a cloud of superfluous information and hokey graphics.

It doesn't really matter where these bad habits came from — what does matter is how to break them. And the only way to do that is to stop thinking about a presentation as a collection of slides and start thinking about it as a story. The key point I was driving at in my last article on this subject is that you can take a lesson or two from Hollywood by approaching your story the way a director approaches planning his films — by using storyboards. Storyboarding is an easy way to develop the ideas and flow of your presentation overall, BEFORE you shift your focus to crafting the individual slides.

After posting that article, I received a number of e-mails asking for more tips, especially tips on how to make the slides themselves better. Well, I'm glad you asked. There are a lot of things to say about this (and plenty of people have). So for now I'll cover a handful of the most common problems I've found IT leaders making when creating PowerPoint slides, and I'll make some recommendations on how to counteract them.

So, once you've got the story nailed down tight and you've done whatever storyboarding you feel comfortable with, it's time to turn those storyboards into crisp, clear, powerful slides.

Problem #1: Failure to write strong titles

First impressions are the most powerful — it's a rule that applies to slides as much as it does anything else. Masterful PowerPoint storytellers are, well, masterful, because they've learned to use every device possible to get their key messages across. So never underestimate the power of a good title.

Just like good newspaper headlines lead readers into the story, the title of each slide should convey the message of that slide. Writing pithy and informative titles is an art form. Make them simple, direct, and explanatory. Having limited space to make your point really forces you to distill and clarify your message.  Remember, the end goal is to make your story as easily understood by your audience as possible.

Learn the difference between descriptive and explanatory titles. Descriptive titles merely state what's on the screen ("2010 Dept. Financials," for example.); they're glorified labels and therefore often throwaways. Explanatory titles are primers — quick summaries of the information on the slide (e.g. "Project costs for 2010 are well within budget").

Ask yourself, "What's the most important thing I'm trying to get across in this slide?" Use the title to tell your audience why they should care about what you have to say. Then, make sure the content of the slide follows up on that objective in a way that's clear and easy to understand. Refer to the title to keep yourself on track and include only what's relevant to the central point(s). Use your title to TELL; use your slide to SHOW.

Problem #2: Information blitz

Let's face it. If knowledge is power, then surely facts are the tools through which it's gained. Still, the amount of information we use to get our points across to our audiences must be measured. Too much of it and you risk confusing or intimidating your audience. For most of us, nothing makes us want to zone out more than a visual explosion of information on the page.

Simply put, most of us cram way too much information on one slide. One of my favorite and most fitting quotes is from Mark Twain — "I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one." It takes work to tell a story succinctly. Choose your words carefully. Focus on the facts that serve your goal.

We're not in high school anymore trying to meet our word count quota for a term paper. Less is almost always better when it comes to the number of words on a page. If you find the slide is starting to look busy (it's a gut feeling), you can always add another slide to continue the story.

Be your own ruthless copy editor. If you can successfully make a point in a dozen words, challenge yourself to do it in nine or ten. When you stay determined to pare down the amount of information on a slide, what remains is more condensed, uncluttered, and intelligible.

Problem #3: Too many pretty pictures

Think of it this way — if a picture is worth a thousand words, then you should be able to eliminate a thousand words for each one you include. You shouldn't need that many more words to explain what the picture means or why you've included it. Even though you might think that text-only slides are boring, you shouldn't add graphics just for the sake of adding graphics. Although the intent may be to "spice things up a bit," the result is most often the inclusion of "zero-value" graphics that leave your audience scratching their heads. More importantly, pointless graphics push the valuable details to the periphery — literally and figuratively.

Furthermore, there's a vast difference between a picture and a graphic. We've all seen pictures in presentations — stock photos of compasses, globes with computers on them, generic blue figures holding hands, and so on. Most pictures aren't worth the screen real estate they occupy. Graphics can be diagrams, tables, graphs, charts, screenshots, etc. Despite what they are, the key difference is that graphics add value, pictures don't. A good graphic can be used to support the text in a clear and simple way. An excellent graphic can replace text altogether, and it can tell a story on its own.

Critically assess whether what you're including is a picture or a graphic, then, ask yourself how much value it's adding to the slide. If you can make your point as well or better with words alone, that's probably the way to go. Only use graphics for concepts and ideas that would benefit from a visual aid. Simpler is almost always better. If you're not sure a certain graphic is helping get your point across, it's probably better to leave it out.

Communication is key

Remember one of your most important jobs as an influential CIO or senior IT leader is communication. Considering how much we use PowerPoint in our daily lives, learning to craft first-rate, no-nonsense slides is a great way to communicate effectively internally and externally.

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