How to prevent death by PowerPoint

Photo by kasto80/iStock
Photo by kasto80/iStock

When presenters use PowerPoint as a script or overload each slide with text or data, it becomes a barrier between them and the people with whom they are trying to communicate. Steve Bustin, a communications consultant who founded Vada Media, offers hints on how to improve presentations and better connect with the audience.

Set clear objectives. Be clear about your objectives for the session. Are you looking to transfer knowledge to another team, to agree on a decision, or to change your audience's opinion or behavior? The next question: What's in it for the audience members? Are they there to hear about new ideas or to get a progress update on a particular project? The answers should provide a good indication of the content of your presentation.

Speak their language. Professionals in every sector struggle to talk about what they do in a way that will be engaging for people who don't have the same knowledge and experience in that field. You have to start speaking the language of your audience. Cut out jargon or acronyms that make sense only to accountants. If you're not sure whether your message is comprehensible to nonfinance colleagues, check with a colleague or friend who works in a different field. When delivering technical information to a nonaccounting audience, simplify, clarify, and repeat. Then check understanding by encouraging the audience to repeat the content back to you by asking questions such as, "Which of those areas I've just outlined do you think will be most useful to you?"

Plot it out and set it up. Plot your presentation with pen and paper so you don't get derailed by the slides. The opening of your presentation is your opportunity to grab people's attention, so get creative. To establish a connection from the start, use humor; use a short piece of music, video, or a bold image to set the tone; or perhaps ask a question or provide a relevant piece of trivia. In your introduction, previewing what you are about to say articulates what's in it for your audience, giving them a reason to listen and engage.

Have three key messages and an organized closing. Most audiences will remember only three key points, so select the three "headline" messages you want to convey carefully. For each headline, start by outlining why the information is important. Then bring in stories, evidence, statistics, or research to support it. Next, link to the following headline to provide a signpost and let people know you are moving on to a new subject. Your closing section should provide a brief recap of the most important points, a "thank you for listening," and a call to action. And think about what creative elements you can bring in to hold your audience's attention. Remember, an image of a megaphone is more engaging than a slide with the words "any questions," for example.

Follow the "6-6-6" rule. Use no more than six words per bullet point, use no more than six bullet points per slide, and don't spend longer than six minutes on any slide. Say what you need to say as simply as possible, and show only what's important. Strip out anything people don't need to know to understand the main point.

Bring the data to life. To give your audience a unique live-action experience that really holds their attention, think about what you can create in the moment. One arresting example is building a bar chart from different colored Lego bricks as you talk about the data. Similarly, if you draw something on a flipchart, it's much more engaging than a slide because it's live and demonstrates your expertise in action. It also changes the energy in the room, and people tend to copy down what's written on a flipchart because, unlike a slide deck, they cannot assume they will be able to access it afterward.

Ask for feedback. To really hone your presentation skills, ask for, and learn from, feedback from colleagues or the clients to whom you're presenting. Ask them how useful the information you provided was and whether there is anything they would prefer you did differently. And ask a colleague to record your presentation. Watching it gives you a good indication of how you come across to your audience and can flag any potential distractions.

The full version of this article, "How to Prevent Death by PowerPoint," by Samantha White, is available at To hear an interview with Steve Bustin, listen to the CGMA Magazine podcast episode "Steve Bustin: How to Give a Better Presentation," at


CGMA Magazine is published in conjunction with the Chartered Global Management Accountant designation, which was created through a partnership between the AICPA and CIMA. The magazine offers news and feature articles focused on elevating and emphasizing management accounting issues.


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