Avoid these 8 PowerPoint mistakes

By Dawn Wotapka

Several years ago, Tom Hall, CPA, looked forward to attending a PowerPoint presentation about blockchain's potential impact on accounting. Unfortunately, the slides were so jumbled and overloaded that he didn't learn much.

"The person next to me said, 'I think I know less about blockchain now than I did when we started.' I agreed," said Hall, an associate professor of the practice at the University of Denver's School of Accountancy. "When someone says, 'I didn't even understand what you were talking about,' you've essentially failed. That's the worst possible outcome."

Since then, Hall has been on a mission to help others present better. He has compiled a lengthy list of tips that have been shared with hundreds of students, peers, and professionals nationally. "I'm passionate about effective communication," said Hall, whose résumé includes positions at Deloitte, Goldman Sachs, and PIMCO. "When people can communicate effectively, lives can change, and solutions can be found."

Hall and other CPAs share missteps to avoid during your PowerPoint presentations:

Neglecting the appearance of slides. Slides should be attractive and easy to read, Hall said. For the font, use one that is simple, and when it comes to size, "go big or go home," he said. "Don't make the audience strain and struggle. Reading should be effortless."

Use a dark background with a light font or a light background with a dark font to reduce eyestrain for the readers. "You have to have good contrast," he said.

Being too wordy. Less is more when it comes to words on the slide. Avoid entire sentences, and use phrases designed to capture interest, not explain your entire presentation. "If you can say something in five words, don't say it in 10," he said. "Writing concisely is important."

Getting too technical for your audience. Avoid jargon and lengthy explanations of accounting terms and regulations. "There are too many CPA-provided presentations in which the slides are merely paragraphs of content, especially when CPAs are presenting on new accounting guidance and standards," said Eric Conforti, CPA, a principal with Plante Moran Forensics in Southfield, Mich. "As CPAs, we should try to limit the amount of content on the slides so that we can be the experts."

Leaving too many bullets on your slide. When presenting, use manual navigation and only bring a bullet onto the slide when you're ready to talk about it, Hall said. Otherwise, your participants will tune you out as they read ahead of what you're presenting. "They're going to be looking at all the information while you're focused on the first bullet," Hall said. Be sure to visually de-emphasize older bullets as you introduce new bullets.

Choosing the wrong graphics. Graphics and pictures can be effective, but avoid distracting, unrelated, or cheap-looking pictures. "Step back and ask yourself, 'Is someone going to think this is cheesy?'" Hall suggested. "If they're focused on that, they're not focused on what you're saying."

Not having an agenda. For long presentations, use an agenda slide to give your audience a preview of what you're going to talk about and how you've structured the information. Any headings you use should mirror your agenda slide, and reuse the agenda slide to keep participants aware of your progress throughout the presentation, Hall said.

Don't get too descriptive here, said David Michael Owens, CPA, president of PF Owens & Associates LLC in Cleveland. "Include only a few keywords," he said. "If the agenda slide is wordy, then the audience will think that all remaining slides are long as well. You could start to lose them right away."

Being bland. Remember that part of your role as a speaker is to make people want to pay attention to your deck, Conforti said. Do not just read the slides to the audience. "There are dozens of presenters who can expertly explain that same topic just as well as you," he said. "If you want participants to want to listen to you, try to keep your presentations fun and engaging."

Ending too abruptly. Give your presentation a conclusion. Hall suggests summarizing your presentation with key points you want the audience to remember. "People frequently remember the first thing they hear and the last thing they hear," he said. "And don't introduce new information during your conclusion. If it is important enough to say, you should have already said it. This is your opportunity to summarize and close."

Conforti ends his presentations by offering his contact information for anyone who wants more information. "It provides you an additional touchpoint with your audience and, specifically, with those attendees who found your information valuable or interesting enough to follow up with you," he said.

Read this Technology Q&A article from the Journal of Accountancy for more PowerPoint tips.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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