How to not suck at PowerPoint

Over the years, I've noticed that people tend to misuse Powerpoint. I was one of these people, until I started researching what separates a highly effective PowerPoint presentation from the rest. I've compiled my findings in this post.

Why most PowerPoints suck

The majority of PowerPoint presentations suck for one of two reasons:

  1. Mistake #1 - PowerPoint is used when it is not necessary
  2. Mistake #2 - PowerPoint slides are poorly formatted

Avoiding Mistake #1 - Using PowerPoint when it's not necessary

You can instantly become better at PowerPoint simply by interrogating whether or not a PowerPoint presentation is necessary at all. As you do this, here are some helpful heuristics to keep in mind:

PowerPoint is not a good tool for meeting facilitation

Through my research on PowerPoint, I learned a lot about how the most effective corporate leaders run meetings. One common thread is that they all despise the use of PowerPoint. Some, including Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Must, have gone so far as to ban PowerPoint.

I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People confront problems by creating presentations. I want them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they're talking about don't need PowerPoint.
- Steve Jobs

Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the innerconnectedness of ideas [...] The reason writing a 4 page memo is harder than "writing" a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how things are related.
- Jeff Bezos

Are CEOs in corporate America focused enough on product improvement? I think the answer is no. Spend less time on finance, spend less time in conference rooms, less time on PowerPoint and more time just trying to make your product as amazing as possible.
- Elon Musk

If you are motivated to have an impactful career, avoid unnecessary meetings whenever possible. This is especially true for engineers, since meetings will take time away from the focused, hands-on work required to build and improve a product. As Musk says, you should spend less time on meetings/PowerPoint engineering and more time on product engineering.

If a meeting is truly necessary, then use Bezos' approach of requiring attendees to present ideas in 4-6 page memos that are circulated at the start of every meeting. This will "force" deeper thinking a "better understanding of what's important."

PowerPoint is not a good medium for supplementary notes

Never put supplementary material in a PowerPoint presentation. Instead, put supplementary material in a memo that is distribted after the presentation.

PowerPoint should not be used as a script or outline for the presenter

PowerPoint presentations are for the audience, not the presenter. This seems like I'm stating the obvious, but 99% of PowerPoints seem to be constructed without any appreciation of this key tenet.

As you construct PowerPoint slides, ask yourself if your slides will truly enhance your audience's comprehension of your message. Slides that are heavy in text typically have a negative impact on audience comprehension. While slides that include simple visuals can positively impact audience comprehension. If you catch yourself constructing slides that are designed to to "jog" your memory during a presentation, you should question whether you are equipped to give a presentation at all.

Avoiding Mistake #2 - PowerPoint slides are poorly formatted

According to a team of public speaking experts at Penn State, people are prone to crafting poorly formatted PowerPoint slides because "PowerPoint defaults are weak." In short, PowerPoint defaults encourage presenters to format their ideas as bullet points, which leads to text-heavy slides that are cluttered, disorganized, and antithetical to audience comprehension.

To combat this problem, the same team at Penn State created the Assertion Evidence Model to encourage presenters to create talks that "are comprehended better by audiences and project more confidence from speakers."

The Three Principles of the Assertion Evidence Model

The key to the success of the Assertion Evidence Model is the constraints it imposes on PowerPoint presentations - also known as the Principles of Assertion Evidence:

  1. Principle #1 - You must break away from the PowerPoint mold. This means that instead of constructing each slide around a topic, each slide should be focused around a key message - also known as your “assertion.” Messages should be developed outside of PowerPoint and you should only move to PowerPoint once you’ve established what each slide's message will be.
  2. Principle #2 - Support each slide’s central message (i.e. assertion) with visual evidence (not bullet points).
  3. Principle #3 - Get comfortable with your content through practice so that you project confidence during your presentation. DO NOT memorize a script. Rather, know the content well enough so that you can form off-the-cuff sentences to support each slide’s assertion.

How to use the Assertion Evidence Model

The Assertion Evdience team has a helpful website that includes improved PowerPoint templates to get you started. However, it's important to note that the Assertion Evidence templates alone will not make a great presentation. In order to give a great presentation, you must have sufficient motivation to prepare your presentation and practice your talk.

In Summary

In today's world, too many people fail to question the need for PowerPoint and meetings more generally. Get into the habit using meetings and PowerPoint as sparingly as possible. If you find yourself in a change-resistant culture where meetings and PowerPoint are overvalued, leave as quickly as possible.

When you must use PowerPoint, get familiar with the Assertion Evidence Model and use it to form your presentation. And remember that you and your ideas are the heart of your presentations - not your slides.