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Career development: Creating an effective Powerpoint presentation

Powerpoint presentation

Presentations are a key part of the planning professional’s skill set, says Rachel Miller. Done well, they can win the hearts and minds of your audience, whether you are presenting to clients, addressing a conference, or speaking at a local community hall

Powerpoint presentationMicrosoft's PowerPoint is, without doubt, the tool of choice for most speakers. It’s not surprising; this easy-to-use software can highlight and illustrate key points, bringing plans and developments to life and keeping your audience engaged.

But the truth is that a PowerPoint presentation can just as easily fall flat — especially when the slides show no more than a few tired bullet points that the audience has usually read before the speaker has had time to explain them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Getting the most out of PowerPoint is about having clear objectives in mind and then making it work to your advantage – and most of this is down to preparation.

1. Focus on your audience

Your presentation must be targeted at the audience. This may sound blindingly obvious, but some speakers focus too much on what they want to say and not enough on what the audience might actually want to hear.

Avoid the temptation to demonstrate everything you know. Instead, think about the needs of the audience and focus your presentation on helping it.

2. Start strong

The first few minutes really count. This is where PowerPoint can help you set the scene, show the audience that you understand what it needs, and explain what you are going to deliver. Refine and practice your opening words until you are absolutely happy with them.

Don’t be tempted to save a key point for later in your presentation. You may well have lost half the audience by the time you get to your big reveal. If you don’t win over members of your audience at the start you probably won’t get them back later.

3. Establish a structure

A common mistake is to try to cram too much into a presentation. It’s important to keep your presentation tight and focused; the best way to do this is to create a clear structure that you share with the audience so that you bring them with you every step of the way.

Remember the rule of three – the optimum number of points that most people can absorb and remember. Divide your presentation into three key parts and don’t list more than three points on any one slide.

A tried-and-tested way to structure your presentation is:

• Explain the situation/problem;

• Outline the possible solutions; and

• Present your plan.

4. Get in the flow

The best presenters use PowerPoint to create a logical ‘flow’ of points and move effortlessly from one slide to another. This is where practise can really pay off and it helps to build trust with your audience – essential when you are trying to win it over. It’s also a good idea to introduce a new point before you bring up the relevant slide – it looks more professional and stops people reading ahead.

5. Dealing with data

Presentations are often full of facts and figures, especially in the planning sphere. The trouble is, no matter how knowledgeable an audience is, it will lose concentration when faced with too much data.

There are two key ways to handle this. One is to make sure you present data well – make full use of the PowerPoint tool SmartArt and turn your bare statistics into compelling graphics, such as bar charts and flow charts. Secondly, be selective; flag up the most important data and provide the rest in a handout at the end.

6. Engage your audience

Anything that engages your audience emotionally will get attention and be remembered. Try to tell stories. Use examples from real-life and include surprise, humour, or suspense. Show some passion for your subject and tell everyone how excited you are to be there.

Interaction between speaker and audience also improves engagement. Ask and answer questions and find simple ways for audience members to participate. This is especially useful at training sessions.

7. Create visual appeal

Research proves that visual material is absorbed more quickly than words and remembered for longer. And visuals are absolutely critical when it comes to presenting development proposals, for example. Good-quality photography, plans and illustrations can all bring your presentation to life.

Make sure visuals are strong and bold. Avoid using anything that is hard to decipher. Spend time devising a clear ‘look’ for your entire presentation using typefaces, colours and icons – it will look more professional and cohesive.

8. Use your own words

The words that you say are certainly important, but the words you project on-screen are also powerful. And too many PowerPoint headings are full of dull corporate-speak or jargon.

Don’t assume that everyone you are addressing is ‘in the know’; create easy-to-understand headings that pose questions, arouse curiosity or promise interesting insights.

9. Focus on the outcome

And finally, think about what you want your audience to do afterwards and make sure your conclusion contains a call to action. 

Rachel Miller is a freelance journalist and editor of the Marketing Donut small business website


Simon RaybouldExpert Q&A: Simon Raybould

Q. What's the biggest mistake people normally make with PowerPoint?

A. It’s thinking that PowerPoint is for you, when it should be there for the audience. It’s not a crutch. You have to think about what the audience needs to see. Never use PowerPoint slides simply as a prompt or a script for your presentation.

Q. How can you make your presentation more polished?

A. Use PowerPoint’s Presenter View. It gives you a place to put easy-to-read notes so you don’t forget key points, but the audience only sees the slide. It also means you can introduce the next topic just before you bring the slide up – giving the impression you are totally on top of your game.

Q. How important are visuals?

A. They are vital. We process visual information up to 35,000 times faster than text – but all your graphics must be well-designed and must tell the story of the data. Complex data should be provided in a handout at the end. Before you begin your presentation, tell your audience there will be a handout and it will build trust.

Q How do you make sure nothing goes wrong?

A. You can reduce the risk of failure by making sure all the logistics are right on the day – everything from the technology and handouts to your own appearance. The best way to do this is with a comprehensive checklist. Draw this up in advance; on the day, the simple act of checking the list will give you more confidence before you go on. It’s also critical to practice – you must really know your material.

Q. How do you cope with nerves?

A. Trying to go from being scared to being calm is a big ask. Your adrenaline has to go somewhere. Research has proved that channelling that energy into excitement – literally by saying the words “I am excited” – improves confidence considerably.

Dr Simon Raybould is the founder of Aware Plus, specialists in soft skills training and presentations. His new book is Presentation Genius