Surviving Handout Hell

The height of my client-visiting season is May through August when I visit or connect remotely with dozens of client sites and meet with many hundreds of people. Almost to a person, the following two statements hold true:

  1. The biggest issue that presentation designers and content creators face is placing too much text on a slide.
  2. The primary reason that people do this is because they are asking their slides to function both as the visual for the presentation and as the printed leave-behind or handout.

The frequency with which this strategy fails is nearly breathtaking. In fact, for the sake of round numbers, let’s just call it 100%. Yes, this will fail every time you attempt it. And you, in turn, will become an epic failure for attempting it.

Let’s make this really simple: a good presentation is identified by three things: what you say, what you show, and what you give. Your ideal is to make each of those as good as possible: You want your words to resonate, your visuals to complement your story, and your handout to provide valuable detail. Too often, however, they all become the same thing: you place all those words on a slide, you then feel compelled to read them (because it is excruciatingly difficult to resist doing so), your audiences receive printouts of slides that recite this same story, and your presentation is deemed something less than a success.

Let’s make this even simpler: don’t do that anymore! Do not design slides as if they are handouts. Do not print your slides and call them handouts. Do not write speeches and project them before your audience just because you think they will make good handouts. Do not do these things.

This topic has gotten tremendous publicity recently when the rock star of our industry, Nancy Duarte, coined the phrase “slidedocs,” and devoted an online book to the subject of using PowerPoint to create documents. To quote the Duarte website, a slidedoc is a “visual document, developed in presentation software, that is intended to be read and referenced instead of projected. Their scannable nature makes them great pre-read, reference, and leave-behind materials.”

All of the attention given to this topic has helped us reach an inescapable conclusion: you must separate the tasks of creating visuals and handouts. You cannot effectively do them with one thing; you must create two things.

When I tell this to a group of people live, you can actually hear the groans. And I understand the specter of what I’m saying here, as I know all about 11th hour crises, crazed bosses, ridiculous deadlines, and the like. But that doesn’t change my advice; in fact, it just makes me more strident about it, because if you suffer through these things, it becomes even more important that you be doing something that you like and that you’re good at. Nobody likes creating slides for double-duty because it is impossible to do. Nobody is any good at it because it is impossible to do.

But as soon as you separate the tasks, you become a different person. When you can deliver yourself from the impossible assignment of double-duty slides, you give yourself an opportunity to think like an effective presentation designer:

What elements do I need to create the best possible visual to complement our story.

Now, let me gather up all of the details and the research that my audience would appreciate reading afterward.

You will become so much better at both of these tasks and your work will become more rewarding. And in the process, you will become a better storyteller and presenter and will distinguish yourself from 99% of the people giving business presentations today.

While yes, I am asking you to do two things instead of one, on July 16, I will show you a technique to enable you to cover off both tasks within the same PowerPoint file. The folks at PresentationXpert are hosting a free webinar on my behalf, where this topic will take center stage. (You can watch the recording of that video here.)

It’s almost scary how close to a panacea this is. I don’t use the word “literally” lightly: if PowerPoint users stopped the practice of creating double-duty slides, it would literally eliminate at least 75% of all incidents of Death by PowerPoint.

So I put it to you: Do you want to make the world a better place? Do you create slides that you then print as handouts? Stop doing that!

Which Layout am I Using? Good Question!

With little doubt, the single most significant improvement that came to PowerPoint in version 2007 was the redesigning, revamping, and rebuilding of the slide master/slide layout relationship. An awkward and unintuitive mash-up of functions in prior version, now the engine is easier to use and much more powerful.

While there are various idiosyncrasies with the slide master engine, and as with all current software, it remains a work in progress, there is one pet peeve that has especially annoyed me. I routinely caution my clients and workshop audiences against “thinking like a version 2003 user” — in other words, not taking advantage of the power of multiple layouts and custom placeholders. How ironic that Microsoft itself is guilty of old-style thinking with its UI design.

Enter Exhibit A, the version 2010 interface with a standard slide deck open. Note the yellow arrow pointing to a decades-old part of the Status bar. It is telling you which Slide Master is in use, in this case the one designed for the 2013 Presentation Summit.

Just what layout is this? It's not so easy to tell because Microsoft seemed to forget about this UI relic.

Just what layout is this? It’s not so easy to tell
because Microsoft seemed to forget about this UI relic.

That was once a valuable piece of information; today, it is nearly useless. In the days of old, the only way to craft different slide designs was to create second, third, and fourth slide masters.While a bit awkward to implement, we were grateful for any way to create design modifications to a template. In those instances, it was tremendously helpful, perhaps imperative, to have immediate visual confirmation of the slide master being applied to the current slide.

But today, 95% of the decks we create contain just one slide master, and most of the time, we don’t even bother to change its name from the clunky “Office Theme” default. Seasoned users know that the real power lies with the layouts; they are how we create the actual look and feel of our presentation work.  We don’t care which slide master is in use by a slide; we want to know which layout has been applied.

But this artifact on the Status Bar was never updated from version 2003 — it continues to provide us with information about which we could hardly care less. At a minimum, I expected to be able to right-click it and direct it to show us something else, but it ignores all mouse clicks, left or right. The only way to find the name of the current layout is to right-click on the slide or the slide thumbnail, choose Layout, and then look for the layout thumbnail with orange highlighting. That fails my litmus test for ready access to important information.

The only evolution that this Status Bar component has seen is that version 2013 removed it entirely. That is both ironic and depressing, as keeping users informed about which layouts are used by which slides is valuable and helpful.

So you need to solve this problem yourself, and here’s how:

1. Enter Slide Master view and select the first layout, probably your title layout.

2. Select the Text tool and create a text box that is off the slide. The text need not be larger than about 12pt, any typeface, and black is probably fine.

3. Whatever name you assigned to the layout, type into this text box.

4. Copy that box to the Clipboard, move to the next layout, and paste.

5. Change the name to match the current layout. Shown below is my “alternate” layout, which I use when I want to place title and content on the same horizontal position. Without any text, it might look the same as my standard layout or one with just a title, so knowing which layout is current is vital.

With a simple text box, you can create your own Layout indicator.

With a simple text box, you can create your own Layout indicator.

As it is off the slide, your little text box will never appear when you are running a slide show; you will only see it when working on the slide. Not only have you solved a dilemma, you have actually built a better mousetrap. With this little text box, you have created a better display than the one in the Status Bar, because it is right at eye level and in line with your active focus.

No template leaves our offices these days without this little addition to the layouts and when I show this tiplet at the annual conference, it regularly gets oohs and ahhs, even though it’s the dumbest little thing.

This workaround shouldn’t be necessary — the PowerPoint development team should have thought this through and realized that knowing the current layout is more important than knowing the current slide master. That said, I am grateful that the solution is relatively painless.

On Software and Trust

“I don’t see how a software tool can create trust.”

“I am fascinated by your analysis of trust and how animation contributes to it.”

My last post, The Phenomenon of Attention, generated no small bit of commentary, including the two above. This doesn’t surprise me: the Animation engine within PowerPoint has been blamed for everything this side of 9/11, and I’m going to credit it with something as powerful as creating trust with an audience? Granted, just like PowerPoint shouldn’t be blamed for the bad things that people do with it, credit for the good things rests with those who use it properly. Still, hear me out…

It is rare that I ever lead a presentation skills workshop without discussing Animation. That holds true for the upcoming California series in April and a free webinar I’m hosting on April 24. I know how insatiable your appetite is for creating motion on a slide. And that’s the rub: so many people find this tool irresistible, abuse of privilege is bound to occur. Few things are more emblematic of Death by PowerPoint than checkerboarding photos and spiraling text. We’re all just so used to these types of dreadful treatments, we just roll our eyes and laugh.

The benefits of effective animation

This sets the stage for the person who knows how to use animation properly during a presentation. Animation finds its highest form when you use it to sequence dense, chunky data, like complicated bar charts, diagrams, and tables. When you bring audiences along gradually and allow them to appreciate the arc of your story, they develop an immediate sense that you’re different. When you resist the temptations and limit yourself to tasteful wipes and fades, you create a completely different experience for your audience members. Here are a few of the good things that happen when you use animation properly:

Your audience really gets it: I’m a proponent of separating form and content to promote understanding. Offering up the empty chart is a great way to prepare your audience for the rest of it. Showing just the topics helps frame the conversation before you give the information within each topic.

You control the pace: Most dense slides are displayed too quickly, leaving audience members feeling as if they have just drunk from the fire hose. If you suspect that members of your audience are not clear on what it is you’re about to show them, you can wait until they understand before continuing.

You become more confident: When you prepare a slide with intelligent sequencing, you have control of your audience in the palm of your hand—literally, if you use a wireless remote. Confidence is one of two transferable commodities that can make a presenter more confident.When you are confident about how you handle your technology, you will become more confident about the content of your presentation.

You create trust: And now for the biggie, the second transferable commodity. PowerPoint audiences are so often on guard in case a presenter does something ridiculous with animation or obnoxious with content, it’s amazing that they remember anything. When you take your audience members through a difficult topic with a friendly pace and a well-conceived plan, you tell them that they can relax, lower their guard, and just take in the information. They can trust that you won’t do something stupid and annoying.

And when your audience members begin to trust you with the way you use the software, they will be inclined to trust you with your message. And trust, I submit to you, is perhaps the most powerful emotion of all. It could be the promised land for presenters. How ironic that animation, the tool derided by so many for so long, could be the very thing responsible for real, measurable audience engagement and appreciation.

Imagine that…


The Most Valuable PowerPoint Feature that You’re Not Using

The best-kept secret of modern versions of PowerPoint? That’s a no-brainer, as I experience it almost every time I interact with users. When I am brought into an organization to consult on presentation skills, most in the room don’t know about it. When I give webinars, I can practically hear their oohs and aahs when I show it. And at the Presentation Summit, where 200 of the most earnest and passionate presentation professionals gather each year, I routinely get many dozens of users in a room producing a collective gasp.

I refer to the Selection and Visibility Pane, introduced in Version 2007 and largely overlooked by most users of 2007, 2010, and probably by the few who have tested the waters with 2013. I attribute this to two things: 1) This function doesn’t actually create anything; and 2) With lower-resolution displays, the icon shrinks to the size of a pinhead and most don’t even see it.

Let’s reverse this discouraging trend right now, shall we? The S&V task pane addresses several of the most frustrating aspects of the software over the last decade. It deserves your undying love and devotion. Here are three big reasons why.

1. Select Objects on a Crowded Slide

The simplest virtue of S&V is the ease it affords you in selecting objects that are hard to reach with a mouse or even invisible to you. When objects overlap one another, reaching the ones on the bottom of the pile has traditionally required contortions, such as temporarily cutting or moving the ones on top or pressing Tab until you think the selection handles maybe kinda sorta are around the desired object.

With Selection & Visibility, you can select objects by clicking on their names in the task pane.

Those headaches are all in your rearview mirror now, as the figure above shows. With S&V, you can select objects by clicking on their names in the task pane, bringing much-needed sanity to what should be a menial task. Once selected, you can do anything to an object that you otherwise would have. As I said earlier, this pane doesn’t really do anything except make it easier for you to do what you want.

Rename objects

The screen image above might look unusual to you because you had never laid eyes on S&V before, but there is another cause for a raised eyebrow: Circle in the front? Circle in the back? Where did those names come from? Most of you know what kind of names PowerPoint assigns to objects because you have been scratching your heads over them for the better part of a decade. Rectangle 23…TextBox 9…AutoShape 34.

Historically, PowerPoint has been maddeningly obtuse in its naming scheme and you’ve never been able to do anything about it except curse. But with S&V, you can assign names to your objects that actually make sense. You’d probably do better than Circle in the middle, and that’s the point: you get to decide what to call your objects.

Renaming objects becomes more than just a cute screenshot opportunity when you have complex animation to create. PowerPoint’s obtuse object names are duplicated in the Animation task pane and with ambitious animation needs, you could find yourself drowning in a sea of obtusity. With Rectangle 23, 24, and 25, which one enters first, which one moves to the center of the slide, and which one fades away? Arrghh!

Thanks to S&V, you can do much better. You can name objects according to their appearance or purpose and have a much easier time creating animations for them.

On this complex slide, each object is carefully named according to its context, making the animation process orders of magnitude easier.

Case in Point: Solavie, the skin care product that offers formulations for six different Earthly environments. To highlight these formulations, the six icons in the lower-right corner move and morph into the six photos across the top, after which each string of text cascades in. So lots of identical shapes doing similar things, one after the other – imagine pulling that off with typical PowerPoint names. But the image above shows how powerful object renaming can be. Each object is named according to its environment type, making the animation process orders of magnitude easier.

Hide and Unhide

Sometimes it is not enough to be able to name objects. Sometimes you just have to get them the heck out of the way. When you are working on the final parts of a 45-second animation, it becomes incredibly tedious to have to start from the beginning each time you want to test it. You need to be able to start from the middle or near the end.

Prior to S&V, if you needed to temporarily remove an object, you had to cut objects to the Clipboard and work quickly before you accidentally send something else there. Or work up some bizarre strategy of duplicating a slide, doing your business there, then moving those objects back to the original slide.

Hiding objects is good for your sanity. Here, earlier elements in the sequence are temporarily hidden (note the white space to the left of the slide), allowing you to focus on the remaining two.

Now we have an elegant and simple solution: make an object invisible. The screen image above shows the beauty and the genius of hiding objects, as the tail end of the Solavie animation gets the attention that it deserves. As you can see, when you hide an object, it leaves the animation stream, making late-stage testing a piece of cake. Here, just the final two environment types are still visible. The earlier four are still there, just temporarily hidden.


Selection & Visibility lives on the Home ribbon in the Editing group. PowerPoint ribbons have a bad habit of changing right when you might want something on them, and that contributes to the anonymity of a small icon that is there one minute and gone the next. Indeed, there is no way to predict when you might want to use S&V. Creating, inserting, designing, animating – using S&V cuts across all contexts of PowerPoint operation. So it’s helpful to know about its keyboard shortcut of Alt+F10. There’s no mnemonic that you can apply to that shortcut – it’s as easy to forget as the function it belongs to.

So you just have to commit it to memory. When you’re in the throes of creation, just press Alt+F10. Pretty good chance that little task pane will come in handy.

Fighting the “Look at Me!” Syndrome

This is an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released third edition of Rick Altman’s provocatively-titled book on presentation best practices. Available by mid-June in paperback, PDF, ePub, and Kindle. You can learn more about it at the BetterPresenting website.

AS WE APPROACH OUR TENTH ANNIVERSARY of the Presentation Summit, it is fitting that we look back on a memorable moment of the debut season. It was the fall of 2003 and life as I knew it was about to change forever. We were in Tucson AZ for our first-ever event, and PowerPoint expert Glen Millar had traveled from Australia to lead a session on animation. Glen is a brilliant crafter of presentations who has dreamed up and forgotten more techniques than you or I will learn in our lifetimes.

Glen was upfront about what he was about to show his audience. “You’re about to see some really gratuitous stuff here,” he said in his Down Under drawl, to which the audience laughed. “In order to discover the potential of what the software can do, sometimes you just have to experiment.”

When the audience saw Glen’s animation contraption in 2003, their lives changed. They saw an entirely new dimension to the potential of attracting the attention of their audience.

With similar irreverence, the slide was entitled “Absolute Nonsense,” and it looked like this. Click on the image to download a copy of the slide to see what Glen showed his audience that day. Gears turning, pistons pumping, paddles flapping, balls bouncing…all controlled by PowerPoint animation.

Each of the elements on this slide are carefully timed to become part of a working, almost organic, system of motion. Most in the audience had never seen anything like this and had never considered the use of animation in this way. If you look up epiphany in the dictionary, it really should reference Glen’s October 18, 2003 workshop on animation.

The buzz lasted all day; I knew the impact of this presentation would be more lasting. And I was a bundle of conflict. After all, what better advertisement for a conference in its rookie season than 200 disciples returning to their colleagues and saying, “I can’t wait to show you what I learned at the Presentation Summit!”

But the specter loomed of those same disciples returning to their places of work and wasting not a moment finding an occasion to use their new skills. This tendency is remarkably human and cuts across all disciplines and all ages. My wife Becky and I can remember as if it happened yesterday the moment that our six-month-old daughter Erica (now a college student) discovered that she could flex a muscle in her throat and emit a sound. The cause and effect relationship was captivating to her and nothing short of a tranquilizer would stop her from demonstrating her new skill that night. And I’ll show you the very essay in which our other daughter Jamie, then in third grade, discovered adjectives.

In software parlance, I refer to this as use of a feature based on recency of discovery, not appropriateness to the task. You use it because you just learned it. Rounded corners on rectangles back in the desktop publishing boom of 1986…dressing up your C:\> prompt in 1988…fancy hyperlinks in 1996…Excel pivot tables in 2000…and “Absolute Nonsense” in 2003.

The urge to place into operation that which you have just learned might be one of the finest human traits ever. Imagine the innovation that has come from this tendency and the advances across all disciplines and pursuits. Intellectual curiosity is a wonderful thing; watching it play out in human achievement is even more wonderful.

Unless, of course, you practice your craft in public. Then it has potentially lasting implications of a different sort. You can usually tell when a person has just learned, say, how to make bullets go dim after appearing, or how to make a title fly in letter by letter, or how a motion path can turn static objects into ambulatory ones. When you see the effect in action, but it has no context or purpose whatsoever, there’s a good chance that recency of discovery is the driving force behind its use.

Even the experts at the Presentation Summit learned something new when Glen Millar showed how to place a photo on the background, cover it up with a full-sized rectangle, create an object on top of the rectangle (the ellipse), and fill it with the background image.

I should note that we who considered ourselves Glen’s colleagues that day were not left out of the epiphany. When he showed a little-known trick of hiding the background and showing pieces of it through other objects (left), he sent us all scurrying to our notepads or notebooks.

To this day, many of us on that debut teaching team in 2003 still look for excuses to use this background trick, even if it is not suitable to the context of the presentation. We too cannot always resist saying “Look at me!” in public.
By its nature, PowerPoint is an extroverted activity. People turn to it for the purpose of communication—often in person, often to large audiences. You put your ego on the line when you do this, so it helps to have a sturdy and healthy one. In fact, showing off is almost part of the essential nature of the discipline and should not be viewed as a necessarily negative trait.

But there are right ways and wrong ways to get attention, and there must always be purpose behind it. This chapter’s pain is brought to you by the compulsion to add gimmicks to PowerPoint-driven presentations when there is no legitimate reason to do so. The fact that you just learned how to do it does not change anything. If it doesn’t contribute to the message, it has no place on your slides. Let’s say that again:

If it doesn’t contribute to your message, it has no place on your slides!

Chapter 13 discusses some of the healthier ways to show off in public.

Oh, the Pain…

This is an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released third edition of Rick Altman’s provocatively-titled book on presentation best practices. Available by mid-June in paperback, PDF, ePub, and Kindle. You can learn more about it at the BetterPresenting website.

THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT PESSIMISM, despite the somewhat bawdy title. In fact, I would argue that this book explores the opposite: the ultimate message contained in these pages is enabling and optimistic.
Nonetheless, first there are dues to pay. As countless experts on messaging will attest, good storytelling is often about first identifying the pain. And as tennis great Martina Navratilova once said to me personally, “No pain…no gain.” She was talking about physical fitness, not creating slides, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to name drop…

Chapter 1: The 30-Minute Syndrome

If only I could earn the proverbial nickel for every time I have heard the following. It could be any setting in which the conversation might turn to PowerPoint, which in my case is frequently.

“Oh,” the person says, in response to almost any remark made about the software. “PowerPoint is easy. I learned it in about a half hour.”

Let’s start by acknowledging that the statement is generally true: PowerPoint is not difficult to pick up and begin using. Both of my daughters created slides for school projects before the age of 10, and indeed, a reasonably astute grownup can begin making slides within 30 minutes.

Microsoft might have you believe that this is a virtue of the software. In fact, it is bad. It is very, very bad.

Who Are These People?

Creating a presentation can be an extraordinarily creative experience, but it rarely starts out that way. And that is because PowerPoint’s default settings are not very creative and because most PowerPoint users do not come to the software from a creative field. They start out elsewhere in the Office suite. They are Excel crunchers, Outlook gurus, Access junkies. They are used to software with a steeper learning curve and a point of entry that requires much more effort before they can do much of anything. When they encounter PowerPoint and discover that they can begin using the program with effect in less than an hour, they are like kids with new toys.

But again, this is not a good thing; it’s a bad thing. These people declare themselves proficient after their requisite 30 minutes of training. These same people who get really good at their 30-minute skill set call themselves advanced users. And those who teach it to others are considered gods.

But they don’t get beyond those first 30 minutes of skills. And then they go forth and commit high crimes against innocent businesspeople everywhere. Death by PowerPoint.

We point our finger of accusation at both of the two main camps that we speak to in this book: those who create presentation content and those who deliver presentations. Often, one person wears both hats, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Inexperienced content creators and ill-equipped presenters both contribute to the poor reputation endured by the software and the presentation industry in general.

The Creative Disconnect

Missing from the equation, of course, is the creative component. And you can’t fault the typical number-crunching, word-processing Office user for not grasping that. These software programs are tools, wielded to perform tasks. You learn the tool well enough to perform the task, you go home for the day, and what happens in the cubicle stays in the cubicle.

But PowerPoint is different. With PowerPoint, you practice your craft in public, and this craft is forever linked with death and taxes as the three things humans fear most.

This is much more than the converted Excel user bargained for. It’s possible, make that likely, that she had no experience at all speaking before a group; she simply taught herself how to make bullet slides.

And herein lies the biggest disconnect of all. The company that this innocent Excel-cum-PowerPoint user works for might spend millions of dollars on its brand: expensive design firms to create glossy brochures…P.R. firms with lots of names on their door, hired to spin messages…high-powered marketing firms to ensure maximum exposure.

And this same company then sends someone out with 30 minutes of training to make what will likely be a company’s first impression: the sales call in the boardroom.

Why Is This Happening?

In the 1990s, Canada’s Corel Corporation was flying high in the graphics world, owning the most heralded and most popular graphics program around, CorelDRAW. Back in 1993, Version 4.0 added two programs to the suite: Chart and Show, to facilitate the creation and animation of charts and graphs.

Corel’s charting program was ahead of its time and not ready for prime time, but the graphic artists and illustrators who dabbled with it back in 1993 produced some very nice work.

They went nowhere, they were full of bugs, and most Draw users ignored them. Two years later, they were out of the suite, banished to small footnotes in the history of a smallish software maker. But a few users did dabble with them and their creations were quite impressive, as you can see at left. They were like nothing that any PowerPoint slide or Harvard Graphics chart (remember that?) ever produced.

This was perhaps the first time that a presentation tool was placed into the hands of a creative professional, and this little story from the past speaks volumes about the dilemma that the presentation community faces today. The issue is two-pronged:

  1. People are thrust into a position of being the company’s creative force even though they do not have a background in the arts or come from a creative field.
  2. Those who do have a creative background and are capable of producing excellent work with PowerPoint don’t have a place in their company’s org chart.

I would also like a nickel for every time that I have met a PowerPoint user with an obscure and obtuse title, or simply the “admin.” Not to impugn in any way the workforce of administrative professionals; the title does not and should not imply that a graphically talented person is holding the position.

Companies have simply not made enough of an effort to identify, define, and cultivate the role of the presentation professional. Therefore, it usually is assigned in haphazard fashion to anyone willing to step up to the plate, including the person who is simply good with Microsoft Office.

Have I described you yet? Odds are, I’m in trouble one way or the other. If I have identified you as the person thrust into the role of PowerPoint jockey, I’ve either offended you or made you defensive. If you are the creative professional honing your craft with presentations, I’ve reminded you of your biggest frustration and now you’re mad at me for that.

In other words, there’s pain in this book for its author, too…

The 2012 Design-a-Template Contest

American Idol Meets Slide Design

As the Presentation Summit enters its tenth season, we continue the happy tradition of our Design-a-Template contest. From several dozen entries, we will award a trip to the conference (Oct 7-10, Scottsdale AZ) to the person whose work is chosen as most appropriate to serve as the conference template.

For nearly a decade, we have created a tradition that includes: brilliant work by exceptionally talented people; the discovery of a unique challenge when creating a template that is to be used across many dozens of seminars; spirited debate between our own versions of Simon, Paula, and Randy (now Randy, J-Lo, and Steven, of course); and the requisite dose of comic relief that accompanies it.

Be Noticed…But Not Too Much

Conventional wisdom would suggest that your first order of business as a contestant would be to stand out from the crowd—to make sure that your design is noticed.

That would probably disqualify you in the first five seconds, as it did for one of our first entries in our inaugural contest in 2005.

This template is very creative...but how attractive would it be the 30th time you see it?

No doubt a lot of thought and effort went into this design, but the one piece missing is the notion that these slides needed to serve as the backdrop for all of the brilliant ideas of our team of experts. Our template needs to wear well; it will be seen eight hours a day for three consecutive days. A design like this one would promote eye fatigue as it competes for attention with the foreground elements or tries to integrate with those elements. As attractive as Steve Rindsberg and Jennifer Card are (the two people waiving on the title slide), we would grow weary of their greeting by about the third hour of the first day.

This is not unlike some of the auditions that we regularly see in the first few episodes of an American Idol season—the people who want to make the most of their 30 seconds of fame. Some of them can actually sing a few bars, but that gets lost in the flash and dazzle that they choose to lead with.

The winner that year, Karen Giblin or Largo FL, authored a much more understated design motif and its quiet elegance impressed our versions of Randy (yours truly), Paula (slide:ology and Resonate author Nancy Duarte), and Simon (the then-product manager of PowerPoint, Ric Bretschneider). Its even background would not compete with the ideas of our presenters and would facilitate showing large-sized slides.

Less flashy and easier on the senses...

A Picture is Worth How Many Words?

Paying homage to the age-old adage, we offer many seminars on the value of using an evocative photo in place of a paragraph of words. We think there are few things better than transcending the conventional bullet slide. This advice was taken a bit too far by this 2006 entrant who was apparently trying to make a slide that was worth about 15,000 words.

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but too many pictures is probably worthless.

On the title slide, they all faded in on a meticulously-created cascade, giving rise to the question of who exactly would see that effect. Only those who entered the room the moment that the presenter started the show? Or would the presenter wait until everyone was there before “presenting” the title slide? Sorry, animation on a title slide just doesn’t work…unless it is on a loop…and then it is working way too hard…

The winner that year did not try so hard. Deb Shenenberg of Scottsdale AZ produced this smart and inviting design that won over all the judges.

Trying softer is often better than trying harder.

As one of the presenters, I especially appreciated all of the small boxes on the content slides that I could use to create hyperlinks to other slides or other files.

Local Knowledge

In 2007, our conference (known at the time as PowerPoint Live) journeyed to the heart of the French Quarter as our effort to help restore the New Orleans economy. We expected many of the entrants that year to use the storied city as the basis for creating themes. And many of them did…they just took their sweet time doing it…and I panicked…two weeks before the deadline and there were only two entries, neither of them any good…so I created my own entry to the contest…unbeknownst to the judges…until this very moment.

Desperate conference hosts often resort to desperate measures, like crafting their own contest entries.

Randy thought it was the best thing he had ever seen in his life (wait, who was Randy again? Oh…right…). Paula felt as if the design was a bit heavy, and Simon called it juvenile and horrific, a complete embarrassment to the competition, and a miracle that I wasn’t arrested for it. Okay, so Ric didn’t react in character quite to that extent, but the end result was that my disguised entry did not make it out of the quarterfinals.

And my fear was unfounded, as we soon received a flood of entries, including many fine New Orleans-inspired designs. The winner, belonging to Liane Fuji of San Francisco CA, might not have been received with as much enthusiasm in another city—it might have been thought of as too loud. But the judges agreed that with a host city like New Orleans, special consideration was called for. And any concern that the design would get tired across the conference was completely eliminated when Liane agreed to create three separate designs, one for each day.

This multi-themed design was perfect for a New Orleans-based conference.

Analog and Digital

The notion of creating multiple designs was never part of our criteria, but Liane seemed to have started something in 2007, because our 2008 winning entrant, Lindsey Strobel of Austin TX, went so far above and beyond the call of duty, we felt guilty. She created six separate designs, each sporting a wonderful two-world quality merging the analog and digital environments in which we all live.

This potpourri of slide masters guaranteed fresh visuals morning, noon, and night.

While these title slides are full of personality and energy, the interior slides were clean, consistent, and in keeping with our quest for these slides to sink into the background. And with these title slides, our presenting team felt like kids in the candy store when allowed to choose which motif was the best to use for which seminar topic.

Matching the Carpets and Drapes

Last year’s winner, Tany Nagy, cornered the market on talent and luck. Her creative design was full of charm, local flavor, and an uncanny sense of decor, as the colors she chose matched perfectly with the carpeting and accent colors of the conference hall. We were so tickled, we used the design for the cover of the conference guide, the t-shirts, and the posters.

Our 2011 winner made us wonder if she had traveled to the conference venue and matched the decor.

Would you like to show off your creativity to your peers? This year’s contest is open for business and the winner is awarded with a free trip to the conference and the thrill of seeing his or her work showcased before over 200 of the most passionate and dedicated members of the presentation community. We use the phrase “his or her” generously: so far, all of our winners have been women. Guys…c’mon…maybe it’s time to break up this sorority party…

Details on how to enter can be found at the conference website—just click the Design-a-Template Contest link. We look forward to seeing the product of your inspiration…!

My PowerPoint Wish List

As you have probably heard, Version 15 of Office has been announced, signaling imminent discussion about development of the new version of PowerPoint. And to be sure, new features, interface changes, and performance enhancements have all been decided upon by now.

In other words, this is the absolute worst time to ask for new features.

In other words, only a fool would publish his wish list now.

So right on cue…here we go…

1. Total Overhaul of the Handout Master

One of the leading causes of Death by PowerPoint is users loading up their slides with too much text. One of the primary reasons for that is because they intend to use those slides for projection as well as printout. And the reason for that is because they have no good alternative. PowerPoint users need a way to produce dedicated handouts, separate from their visuals, and miniature replicas of the slides do not qualify. Let me reiterate: Printing slides as handouts is a bad idea!

The Handout engine is so deficient, my workaround for clients is to poach the Notes page. You can use the Notes master to add visual branding, headers, footers, logos, photos, optional slide thumbnails, and a multitude of text. It’s really quite well-suited for printing handouts…too bad you have to give up your speaker notes to do it.

PowerPoint needs something like the Notes page, dedicated to the design and creation of leave-behind materials and handouts. It should be called the Handout master, and the pathetic thing that currently bears that name should be rolled into the Print engine where it belongs.

It’s almost scary to think how much better our community’s slides would be if people had a viable alternative to creating one set of slides for both visual projection and printouts.

2. Styles Brought to Animation

How is it that Microsoft Word has styles for text and Excel has styles for cell content but PowerPoint has no global styles for arguably the most important output that it produces — the motion of elements across the slide? I appreciate that the Format Painter tool has migrated to the Animation engine, but picking up the attributes of one element and copying them to another is not good enough. We need to be able to define a group of animation attributes, save them, recall them, and apply them.

Imagine how much more productive we would be if we could create styles called, say, Two-Second Fade After Previous, and Wipe Right On Click, or Grow 200% and Move 200 Pixels Left (which we would call Pan and Zoom, which would otherwise be on my wish list). And imagine how powerful it would be if you needed to adjust animation settings across several dozen elements and all you had to do was modify the style that controls them.

My graphic drawing program has been doing that since 1995; it’s time that PowerPoint did it, too.

While the developers are working on that, I sure would appreciate being able to Tab through the settings in the Animation task pane. Presently, it is a mouse-centric activity. Together, these two shortcomings create needless tedium and excessive mouse-clicking, resulting in measurable loss of productivity and increased risk of repetitive-stress injury.

Oh, and while they are under the hood, when I ask for an animation to be one second in duration, and I then decide it should be a fade instead of a wipe, I would really appreciate the software not changing the duration to its arbitrary default of a half-second without consulting me.

3. Table Animation

Before we leave the subject of animation, how come I can animate charts and graphs but not tables? I think it’s terrific that I do not need to break apart a chart in order to animate its series values and categories. That’s way cool! How come something so much simpler — text that is placed in rows and columns — does not have the same privilege? Why must I convert the table to a metafile and then methodically ungroup just to sequence its entrance?

This contributes directly to Death by PowerPoint– tabular data is too complicated to show all at once and audiences check out when we presenters do it. But the solution is so punitive, most people surrender to it. My clients laugh at me when I show them the almost-juvenile workaround of creating solid objects in front of the rows and columns and applying exits to them. I don’t blame them.

4. More Precise Motion Paths

Okay, one more on Animation. We really, really, really need to be able to designate motion paths by screen coordinates instead of by a blunt mouse push of a low-resolution arrow. Really.

5. Rethink Object Alignment

At the Presentation Summit, we regularly preach the importance of precision alignment of objects for corporate slides. And then we need to award an advanced degree to those who learn how to do it. I acknowledge that the recent addition of on-screen guides is helpful, but they cannot compensate for brain-dead alignment.

Here is an example. Let’s say that you have three elements that need to be lined up:

A headline here

A rule here

A text box here

You need to left-align the three of them so they start where the headline is positioned, but if you select these three elements and use the Align Left command, they will all line up with the rule. Why? Because that is the left-most element and you asked for a left alignment. That’s brain dead! To accommodate this, you must first move the rule to its right so that the headline is the left-most element and then try again. That’s brain dead!

And don’t even get me started on how the software decides how to align three centered objects. Which one is more in the center than the others??

Microsoft cures PowerPoint of all of this brain-deadness by allowing the user to determine the anchor during the selection process. Here’s a simple rule: the object that you select last is the one to which the others are aligned. If you are marquee-selecting, the anchor is the one at the top of the stacking order. There…problem solved.

6. Evolve Bookmarks

I love the Bookmark feature introduced in PowerPoint 2010 — it opens up entirely new creative pathways for those who import audio and video clips. Now it’s time for them to mature in two important ways: we need to be able to rename them and we need to be able to adjust their position.

7. Redesign How One Slide Deck Plays From Within Another

I would love to shout to the whole world about the value and the power of calling one slide show from within another one. I’m not just talking about creating a hyperlink, which is a perfectly fine feature but requires that I get to the mouse and click on an object. I am talking about how I can be 20 feet away from the computer, advance once with my wireless remote, and suddenly be showing slides from a different deck. When the secondary slides finish, I return right to where I was in the primary deck.

Did you know that you can do that within PowerPoint? Probably not, because it requires an undocumented and antiquated Windows function that probably only the baby boomers among our readers remember as Object Linking & Embedding. Using OLE, you can embed an external slide deck onto a slide and designate that it be shown as part of the animation sequence of that slide. This capability has been literally transformative to the way I produce my presentation skills workshops. I’ll happily share with you upon request all of this geeky-tweeky stuff and why I love placing one slide deck inside of another. As soon as I stop shaking in my boots in mortal fear that Microsoft will remove OLE functionality from the program.

I’m sure there is a better and more accessible way to offer this capability than from 22-year-old technology that Microsoft conceded was a failed initiative over a decade ago.

8. Allow Marquee Zooming with the Mouse


9. Scrub the Notes page

I don’t share slides very often in a conventional presentation setting (see my rant earlier about creating handouts), but I often do in my PowerPoint workshops, when I want students to be able to open, dissect, and reverse-engineer a technique that I have shown them. But they don’t need to see all of my speaker notes just like they don’t need to read my diary. I want a native, no-plug-in-required, method of eliminating all of my notes. What…you can already do that? With the Document Inspector from File | Check for Issues?

Oh. Well, one out of nine is a start…


The Yin and the Yang of the Presentation Summit

With less than a month now before the ninth annual Presentation Summit, Sep 18-21 in Austin TX, here is our official yin/yang guide to the conference, showcasing the interesting and eclectic duality in our lineup this year:

YIN: Julie Terberg returns for her incredible makeover sessions, creating something wonderful from something…less than wonderful.
YANG: Sandra Johnson shows how to create complex shapes in PowerPoint, creating something from nothing.

YIN: Connie Malamed returns to discuss the significance and impact of visual communication.
YANG: Nick Morgan makes his debut to expose the hidden communication, the so-called “second conversation.”

YIN: Wayne Michael wants to talk to you about freshman orientation.
YANG: Nigel Holmes wants to talk to you about hot dogs and helium balloons.

YIN: Olivia Mitchell flies in from New Zealand to show you how to create a presentation in one hour.
YANG: Ric Bretschneider wants to show you how to give a presentation in six minutes and 40 seconds.

YIN: Ric will also go until nearly midnight in his traditional Guru session Monday night.
YANG: Garr Reynolds will start his keynote address right about then, from his home in Osaka Japan.

YIN: Troy Chollar will show you how to design for wide screens and large impacts.
YANG: Dave Paradi will show you how to reduce your environmental footprint.

YIN: You’ll learn amazing amounts all day long.
YANG: We’ll go out for amazing evenings in downtown Austin, including a fully-hosted private reception on the ultra-happening Sixth Street Tuesday night.

All of the components that have made our conference famous will be in place: The ever-accommodating Help Center, for free, drop-in technical support; the flexible scheduling that allows you to pick and choose seminars as you go; the delicious meals; and perhaps above all, the friendly and intimate atmosphere that we create for the presentation community, facilitating true relationship-building and bonding — unmatched at any other business conference you will attend.

We have about 30 seats left and we would enjoy nothing more than to see you reserve one of them.

Watch video snippets from the conference

Read the bios for our entire team of experts and presenters

Survey the schedule of seminars

Get advice on how to sell it to your boss

Forward this to a colleague

Three Words…For a Fourth Time

I was asked to debut the Outstanding Presentations webinar series that Ellen Finkelstein is hosting across the next eight weeks, and over 500 people couldn’t find anything better to do with their time than to listen to me. It was a very good experience for me for several reasons—chief among them the importance of learning an important lesson over and over again. I was at risk of taking for granted one of my most precious mantras…until I encountered hundreds of people who had not heard it before. My audience helped infuse a  freshness and a new vitality into the idea that I probably couldn’t have achieved on my own. That, in turn, warrants a reiteration here in print…for the fourth time.

What if a law were passed prohibiting bullets from exceeding three words in length? Could you abide by it? Perhaps not, but humor me on this one, because it stands as one of the best exercises you can do, whether you are the presenter, the content creator, or both. The value of this is so high thanks to two universal axioms for presentation professionals:

1. If a slide contains complete sentences, it is practically impossible for even the most accomplished presenters to avoid reading them word for word.
2. And when you read your slides word for word, you sound like an idiot.

Here is a classic culprit, taken straight from my client files—in this case, a major pharmaceutical company. Somebody simply did an idea dump right into his or her slides, and anyone who tries to speak to this slide is doomed to become a drone and guaranteed to turn the audience members into zombies.

The fourth bullet is quite different than the first three, suggesting that it shouldn’t be a bullet at all. But set that aside for the moment — before you read on, I want you to clean up this slide by mentally reducing each bullet point down to three words. Ditch the adjectives, jettison the pronouns, eliminate the flotsam.

Even with your sharpest knife, you might not be able to cut all the way down to three words, but the reward is in the effort. Here is my attempt at what I refer to as the Three-Word Challenge.

You can see that I failed to get within three words in most cases, but the result of my losing effort is an unqualified victory. The slide is much stronger now, and even though I have no familiarity with the subject, having gone through this process, I feel as if I could almost present on it now.

Several important things take place when you make an earnest attempt to get within three words:

  • Your slides are friendlier: With just that one task, you create slides that are much easier on the eyes of your audience. Eye fatigue is the silent killer of presentations. When you ask your audience to sit in a dimly-lit room for 30 or 60 minutes, their eyes are going to be the first to go. The more words each slide contains, the quicker the onset of fatigue. Fewer words, less fatigue. Your bullets might not be as descriptive, but that’s okay—it’s your job to do the describing.
  • Your pace improves. Something almost magical happens when you reduce the amount of words on a slide. Everything seems snappier. The slide draws more quickly, audience members absorb the information more efficiently, and you most likely project more energy.
  • You create intrigue: In three words, you are not going to be able to fully explain your points. But that’s not bad; it’s good. In fact, it’s terrific! Without having to ask them, you invite audience members to use their imaginations. Once you get good at the three-word rule, you will become a better writer of bullets. You will begin to write with color and humor; you could become coy, even mysterious. These literary techniques serve to command attention. They help to engage your audience on an emotional level. And that, dear reader, is the holy grail of presenting.
  • You learn your material better: Of the many bad things associated with dumping complete sentences onto slides, perhaps the worst is how lazy it makes the presenter, whether it is you or someone for whom you create slides. Excess verbiage sends a subtle but powerful message that you don’t need to prepare as much, because everything you want to say is already there. Parsing the words increases your burden as a presenter, but once again, this is a noble burden. Adhering to the three-word rule forces you to learn your content at a level you otherwise might not have reached.

One of my favorite quotes about presenting comes from Mark Twain:

“If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready today. If you want me to speak for just a few minutes, it will take me a few weeks to prepare.”

The three-word challenge is a microcosm of the wonderful dynamic that Twain articulated. In order to get down to three words, you really need to study the text. You need to truly understand what you intend to communicate and you need to pick three words that create the perfect backdrop for your ideas. Getting down to three words requires that you practically get intimate with your text.

While the second of these two slides is certainly a better place for your audience to be in than the first, the most significant point to make is the potential that the second slide creates. Now, perhaps for the first time ever, you, the content creator, have an opportunity to think like a slide designer. With all of that flotsam on the slide, what chance did you have previously to create an attractive slide? How could you be evocative? How could you stir emotion? You couldn’t!

But now you have a canvas; you have white space. And it doesn’t require an advanced degree in visual communications to find a stock photo or company image that might support your message. In this particular exercise, it took my pharma clients barely a half-hour to reach this point:

In our workshop that day, we had already discussed the value of creating semi-transparent shapes to better blend imagery with text and this was a perfect opportunity to use that technique: the text lower-left is in a rounded rectangle, filled black with 50% transparency, allowing the photo to show through but still ensuring good contrast. You only see one rounded corner because the rectangle is hanging over the edge of the slide. Margin controls on the shape ensure that the text appears centered in the visible space. There is also the question of the fourth point, the “Who owns the decision?” question. Changing it to italic and separating it with a simple white rule serves to reinforce its role as the summarizer of the ideas. Having eliminated the bullet character from these bullets helps, too.

This slide becomes a completely different experience for everyone involved in the equation—the content creator, the presenter, the audience member. The content creator gets to think creatively (perhaps for the first time); the brevity of the text allows the presenter (again, perhaps for the first time) to get out from under the slide and truly communicate directly to the audience; the audience member is more likely to feel the weight of the message. Photos help that cause, just because of the way that our brain receives and processes visual information, but the most important part of the equation is the presenter being able to tell a more impactful story, delivered from the burden of all of that text on screen.

So why doesn’t every organization create slides this way? Why doesn’t every boss see its value? At the Presentation Summit this October,  I will devote an entire keynote address to this question. Here is the digest:

  • Bad handouts: The revised slide will not function well at all as a leave-behind document. Good. Great! You should never try to create one slide for these two purposes. See my post, The Lunacy of the Leave Behind for my rant on this topic.
  • Won’t work as an emailed presentation: Same problem, same response—you shouldn’t try to have it both ways. Bite the bullet and create a second version.
  • The boss refuses: This, of course, is the far greater challenge and victory here is a marathon, not a sprint. Changing company culture is never easy, and we will devote a post to just this topic later in the year, after the Summit. In short, be patient, be persistent, seek allies, and be ready to conduct an intervention.

In the case of idea slides, less is so much more. Taking the three-word challenge is one of the best devices to get you to less. It took four passes and over 45 minutes to create the distilled version of the slide above. Mark Twain would have been proud.