Take Five: Avoiding 'Death By PowerPoint'

Tips for creating powerful presentations that engage audiences

An example of a poorly constructed presentation slide that overwhelms rather than engages the audience. Photo by Geetesh Bajaj, available under Creative Commons License.

How many PowerPoint presentations have riveted your attention?

Probably not many, according to Hugh Crumley, director of the Certificate in College Teaching Program in Duke's Graduate School.

"PowerPoint has great potential to support a presentation, but it is all too often used as a sort of teleprompter, which can put an audience to sleep," Crumley said. 

To create presentations that engage, entertain and inform, follow these five tips from Duke faculty and staff members who teach about the power (and pitfalls) of using slides to create killer presentations.   

1. Don't Just Read Slides. Crumley said research shows that when a presenter reads text from a slide, it damages the audience's ability to understand the message. He described the duplication of visual and aural information being processed in the brain at different speeds as being like watching a movie when the sound is not synchronized. "It's painful, and a poor use of PowerPoint," he said.

2. Use Visuals. Individuals are hard-wired to look at pictures. This makes a presentation filled with good, relevant photos more memorable than long bulleted lists of text. The key, according to Crumley, is to decide on the key message for each slide and find a diagram, chart or photograph that the audience can link to that message. Lee Sorensen, subject librarian for Visual Studies and Dance at the Lilly Library, cautioned that presenters should be aware of copyright issues when using photos. "But if you search on Flickr for creative commons material, everything is usable, and you can simply list your sources at the end like the credits in a movie," he said. Duke faculty, staff and students can also access a wealth of images through the Duke Images Portal on the Duke Libraries website. The portal links to visual databases that Duke subscribes to so that the photos can by the Duke community without cost. The databases range from ancient pottery to Associated Press news photos.

3. Tell A Story. People remember more when they intuitively understand the structure of a presentation. "I tell students to structure a presentation like a story, with a beginning that grabs attention, a middle that answers all the questions people might have, and an end that tells them what to do next," said Kathryn Helene, who teaches a class called "Powerful Presentations" for Duke's Learning and Organization Development. "Then create the slides to support that structure."

4. Use the B Key. Pressing the B key during a PowerPoint presentation will darken the screen, allowing you and your audience to interact without the distraction of slides. (This works for PowerPoint and Apple's Keynote programs.) "If you don't have relevant images to show, turn it off," Crumley said. Eliminating screen distractions can be particularly useful when soliciting input from the audience since the focus will stay on the presenter, not the screen. Pressing B again will bring the presentation back to life. 

5. Practice. Like any other skill, presenting gets easier with practice. Helene, who teaches a class at Duke on creating presentations, recommended memorizing the first few sentences of the presentation to ensure a smooth beginning and rehearsing the entire presentation at least once to ensure presenters are comfortable with the slides. For Helene, that means a dry run with a captive audience. "When I first started speaking publicly I was so scared my voice wobbled all over," Helene said. "I got better by practicing giving my presentations to my parakeet."