Kenny Li

@wandererli

How You Should Actually Be Using PowerPoint

All the animations in this article were done using PowerPoint.

Whenever you’re presenting an idea, the return on your effort is maximized when people can fully understand it. While speaking about an idea is a good start, PowerPoint is a tool that gives you an opportunity to visualize it to your listeners also, giving them a much more complete understanding of your point.

I recently taught a workshop on hacking PowerPoint to effectively engage audiences at MIT’s business school, Sloan. The challenge was to rework the audience’s way of thinking about PowerPoint to transform them into more effective presenters. With the overwhelmingly positive feedback and subsequent adoption of many of my suggested techniques, I decided to write this article provide some tips for a wider audience.

I won’t get into the instructions for creating all the different slides, because it’s much more intuitive through an interactive workshop (if you’re interested in a workshop, please email me at kenny@kennyl.com). This article goes more into the thought process behind effective and unorthodox PowerPoint presentations, along with some examples that apply those thoughts.

Think of [PowerPoint presentations] as the video to your audio.

PowerPoint Presentations are terrible because the world accepts them as terrible things, so everyone thinks they can just pass off mediocrity as acceptable work. Before continuing to venture into this article, I ask that you leave that way of thinking at the door. The right presentation style combined with a beautiful PowerPoint can transform any topic into an amazing educational experience for your audience.

The Video to Your Audio

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is in how they think of PowerPoint in relation to their presentations. In most cases, people’s view of it as a necessary evil inevitably charts them on a self-fulfilled prophecy of a zero-sum game, fighting against their own creation for the audience’s attention. On the other hand, you should think of it as a video to your audio.

Whenever you’re presenting an idea, the return on your effort is maximized when people can fully understand it. While speaking about an idea is a good start, PowerPoint is a tool that gives you an opportunity to visualize it to your listeners also, giving them a much more complete understanding of your point.

Illustrating Your Story: Shapes & Animations

This Amazon Echo was built with Ovals and Rectangle shapes, plus some animations.

You might not believe me, but you can design simple and elegant demos of your product/vision by just using the Shapes (Insert ▶ Shapes)and Animations tools available on PowerPoint. I argue that there is no object you cannot recreate without just using the basic shapes in PowerPoint. You just need to put in the time to break down the objects into their simplest shapes, and rebuild from there.

The Underrated Power of Animations

I know you probably think Animations are the bane of PowerPoint — most gurus suggest against using any at all, as they do little more than distract your audience like a cheap parlor trick.

Combining a few shapes together and animating with a line to give the effect of a filling cup

Below, I used a combination of Rectangle, Rectangle Rounded Corners, and Oval to recreate the pieces needed to assemble the silhouette of an iPhone. Then I added in a Fade animation with one piece fading in after the previous one, and combined them all together by guiding them with a Line animation.

Describing Your Idea Vs. Demonstrating It

You don’t need to have the actual product/idea built out to be able to demonstrate it; with a bit of creativity, you can manifest your idea right on PowerPoint. Now that you’ve seen the possibility with Shapes and Animations, I challenge you to take it a step further in your new thinking. Instead of trying to describe what text messaging is, I’ve recreated Apple’s iMessage below using the iPhone silhouette.

While you’re going through this example of iMessage, you might be asking yourself why I’m recreating the whole thing from scratch, rather than just using an image. Well, with each shape under your control, you’ll be able to do much more with it.

I’m able to bring my iMessage demo to life by giving it the effect of actually loading with different Fade In and Zoom animations. Furthermore, I’m able to also illustrate the effects that occur through typing by changing key colors to indicate that they’re being pressed. Although you may consider this level of attention too detailed for your own purposes, it will engage your audience, making your presentation more interesting for them.

One thing to note is that you don’t have to design every single shape. For some shapes and symbols, you can use websites like flaticon.com to quickly find what you’re looking for. If you don’t need to animate the shape piece by piece, then websites like flaticon are a great option.

Improve Understanding with Data Visualization

I do not recommend copying and pasting in charts you might find on the Internet. Unless those charts come with the exact data you’re looking for, chances are you’ll have some information that serves to distract more than add value to what you’re presenting. Also, you may not want to overwhelm your audience by giving them too much data to consume at once.

Similar to applying shapes and animations to create objects and demos, you can use it to visualize your data as well for better control of the narration and better focus. Because data is precise, what I recommend with the shapes you combine is to use the ratios of size that can be found in Format ▶ Size after selecting your shape. By using the ratios, you can create an accurate yet beautiful data visualization.

Data Visualization: a creative effect for a “block and chain” themed timeline of events

Data visualization in this case doesn’t have to be limited to just charts and graphs. Timelines that are visualized through animation, for example, give the effect of moving forward, rather than just a flat description of events.

Focus Your Audience with Slide Guidance

Stop making your audience think. Humans can’t multitask, so every second people spend reading the text on your slide, or trying to figure out some complex graph you slapped in their faces, or wondering why an image is there when it doesn’t make immediate sense… is a second they don’t pay attention to you. After all those seconds add up, people get lost, bored, and wonder why you’re even up there in the first place.

This is where Slide Guidance comes in. Slide Guidance is an approach to improve your PowerPoint slides by directing your audience’s attention to little pieces of information, one at a time, rather than laying it all out at once. The concept is fairly basic and often seen but not used enough.

1) You can guide by putting the pieces of information on separate slides. This is the easiest way to control your audience’s attention. Separate your main points into different slides, rather than bulleting them all in one. This method is particularly effective if each of your bullets would have detailed text (more than a sentence long).

2) Or you can guide by using animations to focus on the information you’re currently narrating. By adding effects like Fade In, you can go through lists without worrying about people reading beyond what you’re talking about. It also helps build a slide so that audiences are not intimidated by all of the text showing up at once.

3) Or you can guide by placing emphasis on certain pieces of information. In the rare event that your slide just needs to be a paragraph long, you can still provide guidance by emphasizing certain pieces of it. While bolding text is a step in the right direction, it is often not enough to make text really stand out. Another option is to change the font color. I like to add a highlighting effect through a combination of the Parallogram Shape in PowerPoint and a Wipe Animation. Not only does it look more sleek, but you are also able to control when it appears, giving you an opportunity to prioritize your emphasis.

The problem and solution don’t have to be on the same slide.

Adapt to Your Audience

How will this capture my audience?

Ultimately, when you’re hacking away at PowerPoint, the question that should keep coming back into your mind is: “How will this capture my audience?” There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to designing PowerPoints. For my workshop at MIT, I was in a room full of peers. In that setting, to engage my audience, I was comfortable enough to make some silly slides to create some laughter; my goal was to set the mood for the presentation as a friendly, enjoyable one. As a result, I took a more whimsical approach to my title slide.

With this audience, I could take more risk in my presentation, and I decided to do something the they wouldn’t expect. As the slide revealed itself and the rainbow emerged, I stood underneath and gestured the clouds in a parting motion as an irony to suggest I moved them myself. This acting, combined with the tone set forth through the slide, filled the room with the exact reaction I was looking for — laughter.

Sometimes, the limiting factor may not be your audience, but instead, your medium of delivery. For example, with video conferencing, you’ll still want to preserve the same formatting tips, but reel back in the animation effects. Video streaming is unreliable, and usually animations end up choppy or delayed. Ultimately, the viewer is likely to perceive it as an amateur job that will reflect poorly on their unconscious judgement of your effort.

PowerPoint Is a Tool You Should Master

Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a corporate executive, you can’t avoid PowerPoint. From business pitches to sales forecasts, PowerPoint presentations permeate all aspects of business and end up on the projector or television in front of many viewers every day. Rather than viewing it as an unavoidable cost of being in business, take advantage of the tools made possible to you through the software to create a presentation worth everyone’s time.

Reach Out to Me

If you’d like for me to run a PowerPoint workshop for you, please reach out to me! I’m available for workshops, custom designs, consulting projects, presentation reviews, and other professional matters. I also have lots of other tricks up my sleeve, so let’s connect and see what we can work on!

Otherwise, you can connect with me through Social Media:

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