Most presentation consultants in business today have become a bit oblivious¬† to the common practice of referring to a presentation by the tool used to create its visuals. No other product in the Office suite shares this distinction — I know nobody who composes a Word, crunches an Excel, or fires off an Outlook. For today, however, I am not going to turn a deaf ear to this. Today, I am going to treat this like the potentially insidious practice that it is. Tomorrow, I might return to resignation, but today, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.

Almost on a weekly basis, I have clients refer to their slides as their presentation, and I have long since resisted the temptation to say to them, “no, that is just a printed copy of the visuals you intend to show behind your presentation.” After all, wouldn’t you develop a deep and lasting loathing for someone who was that anal? Wouldn’t you be tempted to say, “shut up, you idiot, you know what I meant!”And most of the time, I do indeed know what they mean, so for the good of my career, I don’t correct my clients that way.

This is different. Referring to your slides as your presentation might be nothing more than lazy semantics. But “creating a PowerPoint” could influence the way you approach a presentation project, could impact your ability to design the presentation, and could indeed lead directly to Death by PowerPoint.

You are the presentation

Let’s start with what should be obvious but strangely isn’t: why people attend one of your presentations. People come to a presentation because they hope that you have information that will be of use to them. They want to draw on your expertise, share in your vision, feel your passion, or just listen to what you have to say. Nobody walks into the room looking forward to seeing your slides — that hasn’t happened in the history of PowerPoint. The minute you make your slides more important than you, you do everyone in the room a disservice, including yourself. You are the reason people come to a presentation, not your slides.

Elevating the importance of slides is only natural, given that you will probably spend more time inside PowerPoint than you will any other software application during the process of preparing your presentation. Few of us would be able to work as well without Word, without Excel, or without Photoshop than we would with it. The tools of our craft are crucial to our success, so again, why is this not just a question of proper semantics that most of us shouldn’t care about?

Answer: because it could affect the way we approach the project in the first place. Simply put, PowerPoint is a perfectly fine place to finish a presentation project, but it is the wrong place to start. All wrong!

Being creative

In a perfect world, you would begin a presentation project by thinking about the story you want to tell, getting in touch with your feelings about that story, exploring how you want your audience to feel about the story, and envisioning a positive result.

Exactly none of those things is likely to happen while you are working within PowerPoint.

In order to think creatively, you should remove yourself from your normal work environment. You want to free associate, scribble thoughts, and toss out ideas, unencumbered by the permanence of software. It’s not just PowerPoint; the computer in general is a poor place to begin any sort of creative process. Even Word creates too much temptation to get it perfect the first time, and that’s the last thing you want to think about when you are trying to think creatively. I routinely get paralyzed in front of all those wizards, auto-correct thingies, and even the Backspace key. When that happens, I immediately retreat to my legal pad, where I can start scribbling.

The veritable cocktail napkin is a better place to begin a presentation project. That kind of free and loose environment affords you the best chance of opening your creative canal as wide as possible, and that should be your only objective when you begin to think about a presentation project.

Creating vs. building

This is really the central distinction: what does it mean to create and what does it mean to build? I don’t think I have ever witnessed anyone sit down in front of PowerPoint, place hand to mouse, be confronted with Title-Bullet-Bullet-Bullet, and become brilliant. It just doesn’t work that way, and yet so many try. You’re in your cube, you have a meeting in 30 minutes, you just want to dash off a few ideas, and before you know it, you find yourself trying to craft the perfect presentation, all within the confines of Title-Bullet-Bullet-Bullet.

Separate these two processes. Don’t think about PowerPoint at all when you embark on “creating” your presentation. Think about message, story, mental pictures, emotion, and result. Scribble, doodle, talk out loud, or sure, try out software designed for free-flowing idea exchange. Think about how you want to begin, identify major topics, noodle on transitions between those topics, look for killer endings.

With this in place, now you are ready to build slides. Now you can indulge in all the lazy language you want. Go ahead and “build your PowerPoint,” or “PowerPoint your presentation,” or “slide deck your ideas.” Whatever you want to call it, the building process will be a better experience and will produce a better result because you didn’t confuse it with the creation process.

There are plenty of fundamentals that can make you better at building, there is no shortage of ideas on how to craft the strongest message, and I will happily write on these topics later this year. First, however, let’s keep distinct these two broadest of notions. Let’s remember that PowerPoint is not capable of creating a good presentation. You are the presentation — your ideas, your vision, your passion are the fuel for success. Once you allow that to surface, then you can think about building slides to complement the message.

That’s why you shouldn’t create PowerPoints…

7 Responses

  1. The misuse of the term ” presentation” drives me crazy – I think it does lead people to believe that the “deck” ( hate that term ) IS the presentation and the presenter is secondary. Thanks for the post.


  2. This is probably the most insightful article I’ve ever read about creating presentations. The key word here is “creating”. Some clients will “make a PowerPoint” and then ask me to “clean it up”. What they don’t realize is that sometimes it means starting all over. In other words, taking their content (headlines, bulleted text, clip art) and figuring out a better way to communicate the information. Thanks for the post. I hope it encourages your readers to understand that PowerPoint is just a tool. And hopefully more people can look to someone like me to “create” rather than just “pretty up” a group of slides. And that’s a win win since it pushes me to come up with a higher-end product (presentation).

  3. Ok, I get it….YOU ARE THE PRESENTATION. But what if you’re actually NOT the presentation. I work in a world where there are complex ideas being communicated in a selling situation by a team of people over perhaps a day or “orals.” The team is explaining months worth of engineering data trying to convince a car manufacturer that they are the team to build their wiring harness for the next car platform. It isn’t particularly CREATIVE or ENTERTAINING but is very complex.

    Eskimos have several words for snow because there are different types. We only have one word for Presentation but I believe there are multiple types. Different types need different approaches. When you have a lot of very detailed material to “present” there are very different techniques and tools required.

    1. Good point, Rick — our vocabulary is often deficient. It sounds like you need much more than just a “presentation” — you need to deliver a series of printed documents to complement whatever happens live in the room. Many of us have been preaching this for years, and our beliefs just got a huge shot in the arm by the champion of our industry, Nancy Duarte, and her newly-published web-based book:

      1. Thanks for the lead. Slidedocs embraces the concept perfectly. A PowerPoint add-in named PowerMessage is a tool I’ve begun using to allow me to storyboard my presentation into an organized message and then navigate to each topic just like it was a website. The tool also lets me embed other PowerPoint presentations or PDFs or websites onto any slide. Does anyone else have experience with it?

  4. Great article. To me power point can enhance the spoken word in a visual way, but the presenter has to sell the message.. I have a pet hate for people who have a power point, then read everything on it to their audience.

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