Tech Topics: Tactical PowerPoint

Tech Topics: Tactical PowerPoint

When to use PowerPoint and when not to. 

By Christopher Witt

You might think that with a book titled Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, I would be opposed to using it in each and every presentation. But I’m not. At least half of my clients use – and need to use – PowerPoint or a ­similar type of software. And I ­happily help them do it, because I believe it can be a useful tool when used for the right reason and when used properly.

Please notice my two caveats: when used for the right reason and when used properly. They’re major caveats.

When Used for the Right Reason
The common assumption these days, especially in the corporate environment, is that presenters should use PowerPoint. It’s a bad assumption.

PowerPoint is a useful way – not the only way, sometimes not the best way, but one way – of visually displaying information. With relative ease, it lets you project charts, graphs, photographs, illustrations, videos and computer-generated animations for audiences to see. So if your primary goal is to communicate information – if you are conducting a training session, giving a project update or a report, or making a proposal or a sale pitch – feel free to use PowerPoint.

But not all presentations, even at work, are about communicating information.

The higher you rise in an organization, the less frequently you’ll be concerned about communicating profuse amounts of facts and figures. Instead, you’ll increasingly find yourself speaking to motivate people to take action, or to inspire them to achieve a goal or to better their lot in life. Perhaps you’ll want them to change the way they think about an issue.

In such cases, PowerPoint can be more a hindrance than a tool. Don’t use it just because it’s available. In most cases, it’s better to take center stage and demand your audience’s attention, earning their trust as you speak. Remember, you have fantastic tools to accomplish this: Tell stories. Use the evocative power of the ­spoken word and the beauty of well-crafted sentences. Rouse people’s emotions and plant pictures in their imagination.

Don’t use PowerPoint because people expect you to. Don’t even use it because everyone else is. Use it, instead, when – and only when – your objective is to present information. Use it well, but use it as the result of an informed choice. 

When Used Properly
Much of PowerPoint’s bad press is richly deserved. When was the last time you walked into a meeting and said, “Oh joy, another Power­Point presentation”? There’s a reason the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” has gained currency. And the deficiencies of far too many PowerPoint presentations – too many slides, incom­pre­hensible charts and graphs, unreadable text, annoying animations, a lack of any coherent message – are too well known to require explanation.

To be fair, most of the problems associated with PowerPoint stem from its misuse by presenters. There’s nothing in the program that forces you to create more slides than you can explain in the allotted time. You’re not required to copy graphics from other programs that look small or blurred in your slides. Nowhere does it say you must choose font styles, sizes or colors that render all text illegible.

Search for “PowerPoint mistakes” on Google, and you’ll find more than a million Web pages suggesting how to avoid the most common misuses. The Toastmaster magazine regularly offers valuable tips that can help you avoid a slideshow disaster.

I offer two suggestions to help you use PowerPoint appropriately:

1. Begin by creating your strategy and your message. Don’t even turn on your computer without first determining what you want to accomplish. What do you want your audience to do as a result of listening to you? Why would they want to do it? How will your presentation help them solve a problem or achieve a goal that’s important to them? What do they need to know in order to accomplish that task? What is the clearest and most persuasive way of organizing your material so that it accomplishes your goal?

2. Use as few slides as possible. Traditionally, most people will advise you to use no more than one slide every minute or two of your presentation. I suggest using only as many slides as necessary, and not a single slide more. Skip the cover slide, the one with your company name and logo and the title of your talk. Remove the “Agenda” slide. (The agenda should be short enough – maybe three items – that you can simply tell people what you’re going to talk about.) Also, be sure to delete any slide that has more than 15 words on it. (If you want people to read something, send them an e-mail beforehand or give them a handout.) When you’re done talking about what’s on the slide, black out the screen (by pressing the “b” key on the ­laptop) and do what presenters have been doing for centuries: talk to people face-to-face.

PowerPoint presentations don’t have to kill an audience’s attention, interest and goodwill. They can, when used for the right reasons and in the right way, be exactly the right tool to help you achieve your goals. 

Christopher Witt, a former Toast­master, is the founder and president of Witt Communications in San Diego. He is the author of Real Leaders Don’t Do Power Point: How to Sell Yourself and Your Ideas. Reach him at