Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Making Better Presentations with Powerpoint

There is something wrong with the way most presentations are given. This became more clear to me recently after seeing excellent presentations from Bob Seawright, David Blanchett, and Michael Finke. They are doing something that is quite different from the standard type of academic presentation I've been use to seeing for the past 13 years. But what is different?  To understand better what is going on, I read Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery.

In this book, Garr Reynolds basically turns everything you thought you knew about giving a Powerpoint presentation on its head.

Bullet points... Don't need them

Text... a bit overrated

The fundamental idea is that presentation slides are not meant to serve as stand alone documents that can be read and understood separate from the presentation. They are meant to augment and add to what the presenter says. If you want to share more information with the audience, then prepare a separate document to distribute. Powerpoint is not a Word processor, and don't try to use it as one.

Actually, Garr Reynolds lives in Japan too, but over in Osaka. He notes that a lot of the aesthetic qualities of Japanese culture extend well to giving presentations. It is unfortunate that Japanese Powerpoint presentations are sometimes the worst offenders in spite of this. I don't know how many times I've seen slides with probably 500 words per slide in presentations from high-ranking people.

I'm going to try and do a better job with my presentations in the future. In this regard, I think a few key takeaways for me from this book include:

-plan your presentation out with pencil and paper before moving over to Powerpoint

 -remember that the audience is not as involved in your topic as you and so it is important to emphasize "What's my point? And why does it matter?"

-practice what you would do if you had to cut an hour presentation down to 30 minutes, or a 20 minute presentation down to 5 minutes. This helps you make your message clearer and tighter.

-keep the slides simple. Don't construct them as stand alone documents. Prepare something separate for that.

-prepare 3 components for your presentation: your slides, your notes, and your handout.  Then you don't feel so much need to include everything in the slides

-never distribute a printed version of your slides

-slides should be visual and provide support to your points. The verbal content comes from speaking

-prepare a story

-use of bullet points should be a rare exception

-try to replace text on slides with images that help make the point of what you will say

-empty space on the slide is okay

-always finish before your allotted time and never go over. Aim to use 90-95%.  Amen to this... academic presenters... the world will not end if you don't go 15 minutes over your time limit to explain every single robustness check

-try to avoid speaking from behind a podium and try to keep the lights on

Finally, I'm now preparing a presentation for my most recently finished research paper, "Choosing a Retirement Income Strategy: A New Evaluation Framework." It is going to take some time to get the kinks worked out, but to give an example about what the book intends, as well as to keep this entry anchored to retirement income, here are rough drafts for a few of the slides I've prepared:


  1. Simplifying the slides is in line with the slow but inevitable trend to eliminate the academic presentation entirely. Maybe, academic presentations made sense when the paper came out several years after the research was done. Nowadays, though, the paper has to be finished to even be accepted into the conference. Effectively, the presentation is just an advertisment for the paper, so many conferences have been reducing the time allowed for the presentation. One of the conferences I attend has, over the years, gradually gone from 60 minute presentations to 25 minute presentations and the complaints are few.

    Keeping in mind that the primary goal of the presentation is to get people to read the paper, why stop at images? Why not use sounds and animations? It might cause grimaces from the more conventional members of the audience, but it is really very much in line with modern approaches to information presentation.

  2. Great post on how to have make your presentation "appealing" to your audience. The mistakes I see that other make aside from the excessive bulleting and walls of text are the outrageous colors. You can always attract attention without using eye-irritating colors.

    Darwin Feldman

  3. Good advice Mr Pfau. Presentations have definitely evolved with technology but I would highly recommend Dale Carnegie's 1930s classic on Public Speaking for some other useful tips also. I referred to it a lot when I was working on my own annuity presentation to IFAs.

    @Darwin - I agree with your statement re; outrageous colours. Some people give such over the top, elaborate presentations just because they CAN with a click of a button.

    Will give this post a retweet!

  4. Thank you all for the comments.

    I'm working on making a presentation now for one of my articles. And I'm trying to use more images and fight the temptation to put too much text. I suppose the reason I always put lots of text in past slides is to make sure the audience could see all the details, and to make sure I didn't forget to say something. But ourbrooks, right, now that working papers have become established, most everyone can have access to the paper during the presentation to fill in some missing details, and the presentation becomes more of a matter of explaining why the matter is important and why you should take the time to read the paper too.

    The Presentation Zen book does encourage using video and sound, but for that I think I'm not always confident that there will be technology available (such as Internet for youtube or decent speakers) during the presentation.

  5. in addition to bad colors, the other thing I find annoying is the inclusion of too much cheesy clip art from Microsoft Office.

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