In the last post, I tackled a Business Insider article that claimed the reason most PowerPoint presentations aren’t effective is that they use boring templates.

My response: what makes presentations awful isn’t boring templates. It’s boring content (slide or spoken), poorly structured and badly delivered.

So what could you do with your presentation deck instead of jazzing up the template?

Before you do anything else, do this:

  • Set the deck aside and look at your speech. Give your speaking notes one more good poring over. Make sure they tell a crisp story in crackling good prose with a strawberry finish and floral notes. Only then do you move on to the presentation deck.
  • Consider dumping your deck. If you’re going to use slides, be sure they can pull their weight and then some. Because slides do have weight: they’re a distraction, competing with you for your audience’s attention. So they’d better have a purpose.
  • Make sure your deck covers the basics. No text-heavy slides. Every slide should drive the central narrative of the speech, or it gets canned. (That awful slide your manager insists has to be in every presentation? Tell them I said you could kill it.)

Now: one moment of template self-indulgence:

  • Check the design. It should be clean and professional, and shouldn’t get in the way of your content. Indulge yourself with one (1) understated design element to reflect the theme of the event or your presentation.

Okay—all of that’s done? You’ve eaten your broccoli? Good on ya. Now here are some ideas you might use to give your slides and your speech some added zing:

Six ways a deck could help make your speech fly without dragging it down:

  • Use a slide for a reveal. Ask a rhetorical question; tell a joke except for the punchline; tell a story but stop before the ending… then deliver the payoff on a slide. This works best if the answer can be one or two words, or a single simple image.
  • Have your slides comment on what you’re saying. Stephen Colbert did this to wonderful effect in The Colbert Report’s segment “The Word,” in which he delivered a rant in character while the slides over his shoulder delivered ripostes to every point — usually funny, often withering.
  • Use a photo from the event. Adding a relevant picture that you clearly shot earlier today — especially if it’s something or someone everyone in the crowd will relate to — provides a pleasant surprise while connecting your presentation to the audience’s recent common experience.
  • Go dark. When the time comes for the big, dramatic climax in your speech, your instinct is probably to go all out on the slides. But consider doing the exact opposite—and going all black. A completely black slide is the next best thing to switching off the projector, and puts the audience’s attention entirely on you and what you’re saying.
  • Paper that wall! An endless procession of slides that each have a photo and a few words on screen gets old fast. Instead, how about an abstract pattern whose emotional tone aligns with what you’re saying? Or a visual motif that evokes the idea of this section of your speech, without hitting your audience over the head with it? Think wallpaper rather than portrait; background actors rather than the star of the scene.
  • Bring in a guest star. A short video clip you’ve solicited from somebody to deliver a quick comment on the subject can provide a change of pace, validation for a point you want to make, or even a little comic relief. Keep it short (the visual interest of a talking head on a webcam is pretty limited) and focused… and make sure the presentation setup can handle it.

Do you need to do any of these? Heck, no. They’re strictly optional in a presentation deck, and a presentation deck is strictly optional (or ought to be) for a speech.

The point is to use them—and your whole deck—not to make a boring speech interesting, but to make an interesting speech even more effective and engaging.

Do you have a favourite way to use a slide? Something that offers productive pizazz instead of decorative distraction? Share it in the comments!

Photo: Flickr user bluemoon8963

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