Killing “Death by PowerPoint” – Part 1

Overcoming the PowerPoint problem


Recently, at the end of Presentation Skills training, a participant asked “Can you train all of our management?”

So what’s the problem?

The overkill of PowerPoint!

Presenters have been reduced to PowerPoint operators since its launch in 1990 with Windows 3.0. “Presentation” has become synonymous with “slideshow”.

Instead we need to be orators – people who speak freely, engagingly and informedly rather than robotically.

The slippery slope with slides, as we discussed at length in the aforementioned training, is that  – be it for a Sales Review or Department Update – we reach for slide software rather than creatively considering how to communicate key messages. We populate PowerPoint with facts, figures, tables and comments, spending hours on “Whizz Bang!” animation …when in fact we want conversation.

The problem is that we’ve confused presentations with presenters

Many present a slide show, achieving 10/10 for “Death by PowerPoint.” At Presentation Skills training we might learn the limitations of slides but wouldn’t dare ask management to set the same example. In fact many managers may remember Presentation Skills training focusing on PowerPoint.

So what do we need to know and how do we tackle the issue?

1. How PowerPoint inhibits presentation skills:

  • Whilst audiences are sent asleep by slides, as presenters we’re losing the art of communication through over-use of this crutch.
  • Copious content displaces meaningful messages. It seems as though we can’t resist the temptation to add more, rather than staying succinct.
  • Excessive time invested in formatting and animating would be better spent on reason, rationale and something remarkable to steer our audience.
  • Despite more information being disseminated, audiences are less engaged.
  • The distraction of slides devalues our delivery. When the audience can read for themselves it mostly renders the presenter redundant.

2. How do we instigate side-stepping of slides?

  • We need presenters, not presentations. Terminology such as “Are you ready to present?” rather than “Is your presentation ready” is a subtle shift away from slide software.
  • Curbing slides in a controlled fashion makes the transition easier. Stating when slides shouldn’t apply e.g. Monthly sales reviews, is easily understood.
  • To polish presentation skills, we need appropriate training and frequent practice via real “to audience” opportunities.
  • Making interaction an expectation encourages us to create original, engaging delivery. Stopping the normal “sit back and listen” and having audiences arriving anticipating some activity is key to kick-starting a shift.
  • It goes without saying that it cascades faster from the top. If senior managers can do it, more staff will try it.

So are slides all bad?

No, in perspective, slides help by facilitating:

  • An easy way to offer supporting visuals
  • Sharing information as an alternative to a block of text
  • Integration of other media e.g. video, online
  • A backdrop at a large venue

But they’re not the whole answer nor a substitute for speaking engagingly. They’ve made us lazy.

Why not just learn how to use PowerPoint properly?

Not all PowerPoint presenters fail to engage or switch us off while supported by slides – just most of them! As audiences, when unable to offer more than a nod, a smile, an occasional “put your hand up if” or a question at the end, we’re passive. When passive our ability to recall is lower as we relate less to the content.

But when we’re active we play a part, we remember well what the presenter “did to us” and how they “made us feel.” Frequently speakers or presenters just aren’t at all memorable. But we remember the memorable presenters – and not their slides.


Giving only “guidelines” for reducing PowerPoint are unlikely to succeed in the way a “ban” – even temporary – will. Paring it back only lasts a little while before breeding begins again and families of slideshows pop up indiscriminately in meeting rooms everywhere. People find get-arounds and compromises when boundaries are blurry.

Slides often confuse us or prove more dynamic than our presenting. Meanwhile meetings seem meshed with slideshows. To stop presentation standards from slipping further we want to get back to basics.

..In Part 2 we’ll talk “The Benefits of Side-Stepping Slides” and “How to Help Presenters Learn to Go Slide Free.”

Other articles you may like:

How to avoid alienating your audience

How to use Interpersonal Skills in interview

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6 thoughts on “Killing “Death by PowerPoint” – Part 1”

  1. Surely most—if not all—presenters are at least motivated by not looking stupid, and most of them, I guess, are motivated by wanting to do the best job for their audience.

    So, my approach to the PowerPoint problem is simply for a presenter, when he/she is preparing their presentation, to ask themselves:

    “what best serves my audience?”

    And, to help answer the question, add: “what best servers me when I am in the audience?”.

    I don’t believe people use PP because they are convinced, through dozens of experiences as audience members, that it is a valuable means of enhancing the presenter’s communication. I can’t believe anyone believes that.

    People use PP because other people do. The problem is that everyone in the audience knows that’s why a presenter is using it—and this runs a big risk of the presenter looking stupid.

    So: “what servers my audience best?”

    There was a period in pop music around the end of the sixties when every song faded out. It was as if the music industry had collectively forgotten how to stop a song and the nadir was reached when “All you need is love” was released.

    Presenters have collectively forgotten how to talk to people. Or, think they have. Just as people could always stop songs promptly (and still do), so presenters have to re-remember how to talk face to face with people.

  2. Funny I have felt that way about PP for years. My best presentation was in Edinburgh a few years ago when the projector failed and I was forced to communicate without slides.

    My worst audience experience was at a conference where the CEO of my accountancy Institute did a rambling 45m presentation with 80 slides each of which contained about 30 lines of text. The audience was appalled.

    Thanks Jeremy for that observation about music. I play guitar myself and never thought of fade outs as a daft fashion before!

  3. Hi Ray. Thanks for the examples. Amazing how easily we forego quality for content sometimes isn’t it? Jeremy’s musical observations are a great angle for this discussion.

  4. I think Jeremy is being a bit unkind to the Beatles. The ending to ‘All you need is Love’ was deliberately overblown to make fun of the trend for every song to fade out. See also ‘I am the Walrus’.

  5. I absolutely agree with the point about trying to get back to oratory. Presentations these days are more like slideshows with a voiceover where the “speaker” stands off at the side talking over, or reading out, the slides. What happened to speakers holding the attention of their audience with the power of their words, their delivery and their message?

    I think Jeremy is right that most people do it because they don’t know any better and it’s all they’ve experienced themselves. It’s the safe thing to do. Presenters look aghast when I try to get them to work without the slides. It’s not just that they need the crutch, it’s as if they didn’t realise they were “allowed” to do that.

  6. Amazing, the power of permission, isn’t it Alan? There seems to be a blur between definitions when it comes to “speaker” and “presenter” doesn’t there? In a business setting “speaker” takes some getting used to for many – quite a shift. Then going further, “orator” comes across as alien. Thanks for your comments. Hope you’re having a great week.

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