Death by Powerpoint

I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a conference in Romania organized by the World Road Congress PIARC. The subject was risk management in highway operations and I was pleased to have the opportunity to represent the World Bank at the conference. My presentation was well received—and some even didn’t mind my comment that we should not talk about ‘acts of God’ but instead ‘natural disasters’. Several commented that it greatly contrasted with those of the other speakers. For this I can thank Presentation Zen: the saviour from what I call ‘Death by Powerpoint’ (DBP).

World Bank presentations are notorious for DPB. The presentations are full of dense text, with far too much information, too many slides, and are used by the speaker toimage guide them through the presentation. Those who survive come out little wiser than before, and often numbed by the experience. I had done my best to avoid this, but it was only when I stumbled across the Presentation Zen  web site that I realized just how far I was from having good presentations. I bought the Presentation Zen book, and have loaned it to a number of people, all of whom have liked it.

So what is so special about Presentation Zen that it overcomes DBP? To begin with, it has a totally different paradigm. You need to start from the thesis that there are three different aspects to a presentation:

  • The presentation
  • The speakers notes
  • The handout

The problem with DBP presentations is that the presenter combines all three into one and so you end up with a poor presentation, inadequate notes, and ineffective handouts.

So what is the solution? Simplicity. “Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means” (Dr. K. Kawana). This is the whole key to Presentation Zen. You keep the presentation simple which means minimizing the amount of text and the number of graphic elements.

I once did a presentation on involuntary resettlement. Rather than present the differences in the priorities from different groups I created the graph below. Far better than a slide with a table of numbers, and provided a good story to talk to.


The real master of simplicity is Steve Jobs from Apple. The Presentation Zen blog has some excellent material contrasting him and Bill Gates. The two slides below show the stark contrast in styles between the two of them.



You need to embrace the art of story telling. This means that you get away from bullet points which make presentations formal and stiff, but instead create a visual story which you speak to. Which of the two presentations below will form the background to a story, and which is basically a series of points that the presenter runs through. Guess which is from Steve Jobs and which from Bill Gates.



So what are some practical points to preparing presentations that will not lead to DBP?

Face the Audience: OK, this has nothing to do with the presentation itself, but the presenter should face the audience with the slides behind him/her as a background, supporting the story that is being told. Nothing is worse than seeing someone looking at the large screen and reading the text.

Sticky Messages: If you want people to remember your message it should have six key attributes: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories.

Number of Slides: Less is more. Keep the number of slides to a minimum. I’ve heard the story that when Bill Gates introduced Windows 95 he had like 60 slides or a couple per minute; for the iPhone Steve Jobs had something like three slides.

Slide Aesthetics: This is the big one and is the contrast between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates

Numerous studies have shown that people are not able to read and listen simultaneously. So by having lots of text on the screen and reading the text you may as well just keep quiet and let them read. The net result would be the same. It gets even worse when the slide is so poorly designed that it contains a volume of text that cannot be read, let alone synthesised. You know the type, it is where the presenter has reduced the font size so that everything will fit on one slide.

Even the old rule of thumb – no more than six words per bullet point, and six bullet points per slide – is less than ideal. With Presentation Zen the goal is to go for zero bullet point slides if possible. And let me tell you, it isn’t easy.

In my presentation I wanted to tell the story about how people were given a great increase in the standard of living. Rather than present a lot of information in bullet points, why not just contrast where they lived before and the housing provided by the project?


Or when trying to explain the complexities of getting everyone to agree, is it not better to use a lasting image (not from a World Bank project!) of people who refused to move?


Or to introduce the theme of risk management:


Rather than catalogue the different types of risks I just used a photo of them and then spoke to the photos (yes, there are a lot, but the goal was to show the range of ‘natural disasters’:


Now, I will be the first to say that I am still in kindergarten when it comes to applying the Presentation Zen philosophy. I do not have the visual artist’s abilities and I still have about 20% bullet points—but I am trying to eliminate them! To do a Presentation Zen presentation takes a lot more time and effort than a regular presentation, and one can spend an hour or more searching for that single graphic which really gets across the point. But I will say that once you’ve got it, and the storyline comes together, then you are very, very pleased with the presentation. Even more so when afterwards people come and ask for copies.

So here are a couple of my recent attempts—warts and all—so you can see that I’m still closer to Bill Gates than Steve Jobs.

If you have to do presentations please do everyone a favour. Read the Presentation Zen Blog. Even better, buy the book. Check out the ‘Top Ten Slide Tips’. And put these principles into practice. Not only will you personally benefit from putting more thought into the story you want to tell, but you will save your audience from DBP.


2 Responses to Death by Powerpoint

  1. Very well done, and informative.

  2. […] to Give a Great Presentation Like Steve Jobs I recently wrote a posting on Death by Powerpoint, describing how to give a good presentation. The video below brilliantly summarizes these […]

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