…and as a bonus, I’ll provide some tips on how to improve them!

There is an interesting dichotomy between our perspectives on Powerpoint presentations when we create them and when we are on the receiving end (as a file or orally delivered). As creators we are typically proud of our work…or at least the accomplishment of getting them done, since they are quite time consuming. As the audience we are often unfulfilled; we may be bored, or unclear, or somehow feeling that the ROI on our time just isn’t there.

I’m not the first to write (or complain!) about Powerpoints and I won’t be the last. My angle in this post is less about tips and tricks but instead getting behind the root causes of unnecessarily lengthy presentations. As is the case with medical matters, we can’t merely look at symptoms but instead consider the underlying phenomena that cause the symptoms we’re experiencing – in this case audience disengagement or general failure to meet objectives.

I’m a story teller who loves to connect thoughts in the exact way my audience experiences them. I’m also an efficiency nerd. Those two traits together have made me an accomplished Powerpoint jock, especially in standard work environments. I’m going to focus on the job landscape (versus public speaking) because it’s a more common scenario, although some of the insights apply universally.

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If you hope to create a Powerpoint of maximum impact, beware of the following factors that can compromise your success:

  1. You lack confidence.

Just so you know, if you’re ever crossing an international border or being questioned by cops, you raise a huge flag if you talk a lot. If I was ever to cross back into Canada concealing twice my import limit, I would look the official square in the eye and answer every question with the shortest possible answer that doesn’t make me sound like a jerk. And when there is silence, I say nothing, patiently waiting for a question. (I’m not admitting…in print…to have broken any rules. I’m just saying this is how I would handle it…ha!)

Works the same way on the job. When we’re unsure of ourselves the verbal word count goes up and it bleeds right into our file. More slides, more words per slide, more everything.

The second and bigger issue is that many of us are not confident speakers who expect to forget much of what we plan to say. Typing every word out is like a crutch that sadly tends to replace practice before the big moment.

Tip: Well, following from that last point – practice! I have more to say on the issue, but you can google effective public speaking and find hundreds of decent articles.

Otherwise, the motto is ‘if it doesn’t fit on a T-Shirt it’s too much for a slide’. Think of it this way – YOU are the presentation, not the presentation. Assume people are going to read maybe ten words on your slide if they choose to read anything. They will focus on you, and if you start reading they will disconnect. Structure your slides around no more than three primary points. Practice presenting using key words and phrases as your trigger versus entire sentences. To the extent you become more successful doing this, your slides will become efficient.

  1. Your boss lacks confidence.

I have run into this a fair amount, especially when I have had a boss who is hyper-sensitive to the desired result or politics in a room such that every point and choice of words is (senselessly) deemed high-stakes.

The process of reviewing a file with your manager can be nerve-wracking.  They see a dozen words on a slide and they almost go into panic mode. To them it’s not enough to just know you’re going to talk about X subject.  They want to know what precisely you’re planning to say. So if you’re not all prepped and polished to deliver your presentation right then and there, you’ll end up having to type it all out to show your boss. And here we are again, with a text-heavy presentation.

Tip: Use slide notes to detail on critical slides how you’re going to language each topic for which you think there is sensitivity.

  1. You feel compelled to show our work.

This is a variation of the confidence issue. Somehow in the workplace we love to equate importance to time spent. So if we work on a project for a few weeks and deliver anything less than 60 slides in a 3 hour sweaty meeting, the project couldn’t have been that important…or at least you’ll be concerned few will think you fully invested yourself in it.

The only time we talk about really important things for a short amount of time is when it’s bad news. Like, layoffs. We gather everyone, inform that we’re cutting 10% of staff, craft a few sound bytes on why this is a great thing…and then scatter.

Tip: see my next point for a more complete solution. In the meantime, seize opportunities to embrace the notion that less is more. When I do consulting I grease the rails with my hiring contact by asking if they just want the bottom line or if they want to see all the background analysis. This type of conversation on the front end works well to warm people up to a more to-the-point presentation.

  1. You tell stories in the boardroom the same way as at a party.

Think carefully about where you are. Socially we tell stories chronologically (“you’ll never guess what happened to me yesterday…yadda yadda…and this happened…yadda yadda…and then…and then….”).  That ordering system almost never flies with senior decision makers. Take note of this when you’re sitting in a meeting with an exec and you’re just observing. Someone will be storytelling and of course will start from the beginning. Watch how quickly they are interrupted and compelled to reveal their mysterious destination. Usually happens in 10-12 seconds. .Why? In business the paradigm is different; I call it ‘first the headlines, now the news’. Bottom line comes early / background comes later.

Tip: Let me give you a template for exec-friendly Powerpoints. Note, this is the most useful tip in this whole article; if you read nothing else, don’t bypass this!! My standard flow is this:

a. Why we’re here / objectives; you’d be surprised by the number of people who attend meetings and are unsure of why it was called!

b. Background or history; short review of events leading up to the meeting if needed

c. Decisions to be made / what success looks like for meeting

d. Approach; how you looked at the problem or opportunity. Outline the work you did but do NOT show it

e. Conclusions and insights (this should never come last; in fact the better presentations have this in the first half)

f. Information that directly supports conclusions; these are your key work slides

g. Decisions / agreement / next steps; this is where most of the discussion should happen

h. Backups

A few notes:

  • You can skip or condense some of the early steps or re-order slightly to customize for your business situation and ensure continuity
  • Backups can be fully formed slides, raw data or charts created in other files such as Excel; the key is to find a balance between skipping the process of making more slides while also ensuring backups are organized and easy to access or read should you be asked to show some of it

In order to efficiently get to this templated flow, do not create slides as you go. We make this mistake often particularly when working with data. We compile chart after chart in pretty slides and then later try to figure out how to turn it into a story. Wrong.

You can start to build your presentation in outline view if that helps organize your thoughts at the 30K foot level. Might be helpful to create sections a, b and c which will result in less than five slides and will form a compass for your analysis. Next, gather your information in raw form and process it to the extent you can derive meaning from it. Keep this process going until you have your needed revelations or insights, usually no more than a handful. This is the most important moment that anchors your whole presentation and not just section e.

Once you have your conclusions, grab only the information that directly contributes to your conclusions and create slides from that. I try my best to keep it to about six slides but it’s hard to develop a rule of thumb since projects have much different scope and size. The main point is to be extremely judicious when deciding which data strongly supports conclusions. Next, look at your remaining data and information; format it all enough to be readable as mentioned but don’t feel pressured to make slides for everything. Order your information so that backups are clear and accessible and you are in a position to fill out section d – your approach

If you’ve worked the process properly you should have no more than about 15 slides for a one-hour meeting (plus backups). The feeling is both scary but also exhilarating because it’s a bit like walking into a meeting naked. Ha! It’s a whole new way to approach presentations, but you’ll feel liberated in the end. Trust me.

  1. You forget the punch line.

The ‘business update’ presentation is the big culprit here.

I was lucky in my career to receive high-level communication coaching. I remember my mentor, Tamara Jacobs, telling me “There is no such thing as an update meeting”; her point was that when you have something to present, you should always have a desired outcome. In this case you might want to make sure all are aligned on a certain perspective on the business. Or, you should think about asks; don’t just give an update but ask for something; ask for support or engagement on some critical next milestones for the business. Every moment you have with an audience is an opportunity. Seize it.

Tip: It’s up to you to shape the opinions and the direction in the room. If you don’t do that, two things can happen: a. some among the high-priced help may give you an opinion you don’t want to hear, causing your momentum to change trajectory…or b. you lose direction, which can cause slides to proliferate.  Even in the most benign of presentations, consider applying the template I provided in the last section.

  1. Your math skills need fine-tuning.

We continue to do simple math that doesn’t work, and it sounds something like “ok we have a 60 minute meeting and it should be 1-2 minutes per slide so I’ll aim for about 40 or 50 slides”.

You base this final count on the number of slides you could get through if you talk at an even pace. However, we forget to consider a number of things:

  • meetings never start on time or can be cut short
  • people interrupt for clarification or probing questions…like…a lot
  • conversations get derailed

Tip: Aim for 3-5 minutes per slide, excluding title slides or benign transitional slides. Twenty core slides for an hour is about the max. Leave time for discussion and decision making at the end. The best meetings spend no more than half the time sharing information and the other half processing, deciding and crafting next steps. Most of us experience a ration that’s more like a 90-10…assuming you even get through the whole thing ::::tempted to insert emoticon sad face:::::

  1. The tendency to fill up available blocks of time.

Let me take point 6 one step further. Here’s a thought. Just because a meeting is an hour, ask yourself if you really need it. In truth, you need just enough time to deliver your points and make a decision.

Tip: Think openly about how much time you really need for a meeting; be influenced by your objectives and number of critical points you need to make. And then, challenge yourself to reduce that time by at least twenty percent. I take myself through a fun exercise of just finding slides to move into backup, thinking about my template. You can’t imagine how popular you’ll be if you book a 60-minute meeting and adjourn in 30.

  1. It doubles as a report.

Many times you will have to email presentations to a broader audience or to those who missed the meeting. By design, Powerpoint is not for ‘reports’ so you are left with a conundrum; the file doesn’t stand on its own if it has a lean design like we have discussed so far. We compensate by again being slide and text heavy.

Tip: Another place where slide notes come in handy, so move your monologue there. The bigger fix is cultural so I best not get started on that train of thought. The general objective is to reintroduce reports in Word form (or other appropriate media) back into organizations, but we’re tapping into cultural issues here; that’s for another time. Powerpoint is not a fits-all solution for business communication, yet we talk to each other professionally only using that and email for the most part. Can we have a coffee chat about why business communication is ripe for innovation? It’s a favorite subject of mine! Actually it has already started with emerging startups such as Slack (to which I openly give praise every other post).


Change takes time. Show patience with yourself to form new habits and ways of thinking; and, allow your audience some time to get adjusted to a more prudent style. In the beginning, an efficient Powerpoint style can leave your audience with a feeling of elation tempered by suspicion that perhaps some work or detail was omitted. In time, though, you will be known as Powerpoint royalty – a label that delivers better attendance at your meetings and maximum engagement.