On the Road with PowerPoint Users

I am halfway through my eight-city tour of the United States on my [intlink id=”2379″ type=”page” target=”_blank”]PresentationNext series of workshops[/intlink], and when I tell each gathering that I learn almost as much as they do, I am only indulging in a bit of hyperbole. In truth, the tour has been incredibly eye-opening for me, as it usually is when I get a chance to see how people from so many different organizations approach their presentation projects and use the software. I have met people who create slides for online tutorials, high-fidelity music videos, webinars attended by over 5,000 people, and your basic in-the-boardroom sales call. Vive la différence!

For this post, however, I am more interested in their shared experiences than their disparate ones. Across all four cities, I have found some common threads among the few hundred people that I have encountered. Here are a few of those common threads…

1. What’s a designer?

Very few people come to the presentation industry from a background in the arts, and yet they are asked to design presentations practically on a daily basis. What does that mean for them? Really, this gets down to the core question of what the word “design” actually means. Most people use that word in an aesthetic sense — they might say “that is a well-designed slide,” when they mean “that slide is pretty.”

But that’s not what design means. The word design is meant to refer to how something is built; how it functions; what its structure is. Decoration is a different thing altogether. I’m as guilty as others in using lazy language around this word, so I try to differentiate between presentation design and slide design — the former implying the more accurate meaning of the word and the latter referring to how a slide looks.

2. You’re better than you think!

Irrespective of what the word means, most people attending our workshops believe they have no design skills. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that they have never been given a chance to find out. Most slides today afford no opportunity to think like a designer — with six or seven fully-formed sentences on a slide consuming every last pixel of open space, who could possibly think like a slide designer? Once the message is refined and the verbiage honed and distilled, then (perhaps for the first time), content creators get a chance to see if they have any instincts for creating attractive slides. I speak to this point in my Three-Word Challenge video.

3. Version 2003 is still with us

Most users I have encountered are using version 2007 and a few are at version 2010. But those who spent time first with version 2003 are still using it…even if they’re not. One of the biggest changes between those two versions is the handling of slide masters and layouts — there is a sea change of new capability and function that began with version 2007. In the last two months, I have seen hundreds of sample decks in which people are using version 2007 but stuck in version 2003 mentality. They create far more slide masters than they need to (instead of creating layouts under one master) and confine themselves to the two traditional title and content placeholders (instead of creating as many as they might need). They spent so much time with version 2003, they think as if they are still there.

When version 2007 users have their eyes opened to the true power of layouts and placeholders, it is a head-exploding experience for them.

4. Animation is an abandoned concept

So many people have had ridiculous animation foisted upon them when in the audience, they have developed an aversion to it. In fact, I have heard from many that their corporate standard is literally to forbid its use. What a shame! When used properly, animation can spell the difference between a presenter just delivering information and being able to fully convey the weight of a message; it can mean the difference between audience members merely hearing a message and truly appreciate its impact. This from the tool that also brings us boomerangs, spirals, and other childish effects that are at the core of Death by PowerPoint. How ironic.

5. PowerPoint is terrible at defaults

When I am in front of a room of several dozen people and I have hand to mouse actively working the software, it becomes more apparent than at any other time how inflexible certain parts of the software are. When I am working in private, I am more able to overlook some of these deficiencies; in a large room with 50 people looking over my virtual shoulder, PowerPoint’s issues become more evident.

Let’s return to Animation for just one of many examples. My most-often used animation is a one-second fade set to occur after the previous element is finished. That is simple to accomplish, but there is a world of difference between a function being easy and being accessible. Look what I have to do to perform that command:

1. Use the Add Animation command to choose Fade. If that command is not visible, I must first change ribbons so that it is.

2. Change On Click (the permanent default) to After Previous.

3. Change the speed from .5 (the permanent default) to 1.

This wouldn’t be so painful if I could at least Tab through those controls, but I cannot. In fact, if the Animation ribbon or task pane is not present, I have to spend one more click just to get there. And don’t tell me that I can use the Animation Painter to clone from one object to another; while fine for copying a complex animation, it is not the answer for quickly applying preferred settings. Practically every other software program that I use offers changeable defaults and custom styles; why not PowerPoint? It is almost scary to think how much less tedious my activity would be if I could simply tell the software that I want my starting point for an animation to be a one-second fade. To say nothing for how much richer the experience would be if I could create a set of styles to anticipate my common requests.

Even Word does this. Sigh.

6. People believe they should never look at the screen

I am amazed at the degree to which presenters have taken the advice about how to regard the screen that is behind them. I know that Toastmasters cautions against turning your back to the audience; I wonder if that advice has become twisted and distorted over the years. In any event, I find that many people would rather ignore the screen altogether than refer to it. And yet, when an accomplished presenter can use the screen in a natural fashion and treat it like the simple visual aid that it is, audiences respond very well to that. They do not respond as well to the screen becoming the primary component of a presentation and they do not respond well to a presenter pretending like it’s not even there. This takes practice to integrate the screen into an organic and natural-feeling conversation, and it is effort well spent.

I have four more cities to visit: Chicago (Apr 26), Newark (May 9), Baltimore (May 10), and San Jose (May 17). I am sure I will have more observations to share after that, because the one thing I can always count on when I give these workshops is that I learn something new about the software and how it is used and regarded by the community.

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