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Your PowerPoint Doesn’t Have to Suck

Previously on

Last month in How PowerPoint Kills Learning we looked at the brain science which proves that the text-laden manner in which PowerPoint is almost universally used actually impedes learning. If you’re interested in that science, the link is below.

What PowerPoint suck looks and sounds like.

PowerPoint is ass backwards when it comes to designing an effective presentation because it’s designed to assist the presenter rather than the learner.  We've all seen typical powerpoint slides which effectively outline what the presenter wants to say; not necessarily what the presenter wants the listeners to hear or learn.

Designer Garr Reynolds calls these monstrosities “slideuments” – an attempt to merge documents with slides.

Worse yet, these slideuments are invariably read by the presenter. I admit I used to. The software invites you to proceed like this. But, as I explained last month, putting the same information on a slide in text for learners’ eyes that is coming out of our mouths for their ears in fact jumbles our message.

Once sucked into a PowerPoint template, the presenter gets a double whammy reward. First, you don’t have to actually learn, retain and rehearse what you’re going to teach because you can just read it from your slideuments. Second, you can print them out as a handout – so you don’t have to separately prepare that either. Sound familiar?

Here’s the HUGE problem. This design approach is all about YOU, the presenter, and what you’re going to say. It has nothing to do with the learners and what they’re going to LISTEN to, REMEMBER, or be inspired to ACT on.

And here’s a HUGE question:

If learners can basically get what they need to know by reading your PowerPoint, why do they need you?

We don’t have to ditch PowerPoint altogether. I haven’t. But we do have to shoot all the bullet points and we have to think outside PowerPoint’s presenter-centered software.

Think outside the PowerPoint “presenter-centric” box.

Forget about using your PowerPoint presentation as your handout or as your cue cards. Hard to imagine? Then you’re misusing it. I speak from experience.

Instead, think of actually writing an Oscar-winning training script – one that will hook your learners’ attention, keep them engaged, and inspire them to act on what you’ve presented. Then storyboard it. Storyboards are a series of images arranged in sequence for purposes of illustrating a narrative.   

Some folks recommend you storyboard first and then write the narrative. It works better for me the other way around but I think this step order is less important than you coming to see PowerPoint as a visual aid for your learners rather than as speaker’s notes and a handout for you. It should illustrate and dramatize your narrative – not replicate or outline it.

Anything that needs to be replicated, such as

  • In-class exercises or scenarios
  • A study guide for a test
  • Additional recommended resources

Should be in a handout separately designed for that purpose.

A picture is worth a thousand yada yadas.

Your ideas and information are much more likely to be remembered if they are accompanied by pictures instead of words. The pictorial representation of ideas is such an accepted powerful way of reinforcing information that psychologists have given it a name – Picture Superiority Effect or PSE.

According to John Medina, author of the acclaimed book brain rules and a molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, pictures work better than text for reinforcing spoken information because pictures don’t compete with the speaker.

When we read text it is processed verbally not visually - we hear a voice in our head. You’re hearing a voice right now as you read these words. That’s okay for reading. But if the text is on a presenter’s slide, the reader’s inner voice is chattering the same time the presenter is speaking.

Pictorial information is processed on a different channel in the brain – the visual channel. Pictures may illuminate what is being said but they don’t create static on the same wavelength that written words do. Instead, they memorably reinforce information – like dramatic mnemonic devices.

Think outside the PowerPoint template.

So, kill all your PowerPoint bullets and think of each slide as the blank canvas of a storyboard. Admittedly, it takes lots of thought, work and practice. You have to have your content down cold since you’ll be using your PowerPoint not as a teleprompter but as a riveting picture book that drives your verbal points into the visual memory of learners.

Here are 3 books for creating dramatic PowerPoint presentations that will sear your message into the hearts and minds of learners. Plus, they’re great eye candy.

  • Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds.
  • slide:ology – the art and science of creating great presentations by Nancy Duarte.

And here’s a good, FREE PowerPoint presentation on what we’ve been talking about -- It uses a lot less text than my previous average PowerPoint presentations -- and it doesn’t even have a speaker. As its creator notes in the show, if he was using the presentation in a talk, he’d eliminate 90% of the text.

One way.

I approach PowerPointing completely different now. I word process my instructor outline first. That’s my script. It gets shorter and shorter the more I rehearse and learn my lines until it’s just skeletal prompts.

This is my security blanket. If I get caught up in a discussion and forget where we left off when the discussion began and where I wanted us to go next, it’s there for me. It makes me feel safe to follow my learners into deep water knowing I have a life line back to the boat.

I’m not against using the Notes Page view in PowerPoint instead of my word processed outline. It just doesn’t work for me personally. I can’t read the Notes Page view print on my small travel laptop without donning my “cheaters.” Having to go bend over my laptop and squint through reading glasses for a cue is not only disruptive, it’s uncool. I can wander over to my Arial 16 font crib sheet and glance at it an offhand way as the need arises. 

After I’ve scripted my training, I begin to storyboard it with PowerPoint. I start with a blank layout – no cookie cutter templates for me anymore. Every background is solid black. I may have a title slide that is mainly a photographic image. Then I think about what images dramatically illustrate my chunks of information.

There are other great looking backgrounds. In PowerPoint 2010, click on

  • File
  • New
  • Sample templates

For just a few. While in Sample templates, check out Duarte’s “Five Rules (for Creating Great Presentations).” View it in Slide Show with your volume on and see some excellent ideas for making your PowerPoint presentations engaging and helpful to learners. Or watch it on youtube at the link below.

There are plenty of sources for images that dramatically support and illustrate your content. I still have credits I purchased at and but I’ve recently discovered “google images.” When you type in search terms and are delivered photographic images, you’re warned that they may be copyrighted. I’ve linked two articles below I’ve written on copyright and the fair use exception. DISCLAIMER – Those articles are not intended as legal advice.

Included are slide sorter views of a PowerPoint presentation of mine that I constructed under the old PowerPointing mindset and then the one I re-did with the brain science in mind discussed in this and my previous article. Slide sorter is actually a good reality check for whether your PowerPoint is a good storyboard or boring, text-laden cue cards. Thanks to my editor, Frank Borelli, you can also find links below to these presentations.

If you think a viewer doesn’t get all the information from my re-vamped version – you’re right. They need me. But they will be engaged to listen, remember and act much more by the revised PowerPoint.

Don’t forget you can always have a separate handout that covers material such as in-training scenarios or exercises, recommended resources, or a study guide to prepare for testing. I often do.

Before and After version of Heroic Cynicism – Life in the Arena accompany this article.  Even just those simple screen shots show the differences that exist and it’s easy to see why the After version is so much more eye-catching.

No Idiot’s Guide for Dummies.

The process I’ve suggested here is no Idiot’s Guide to PowerPointing. It takes exponentially more time. A picture can be worth a thousand words but it can take a long time to find that kind of picture and then more time to crop it and work it into a slide with just the right dramatic effect.

And because you’re not reading your training presentation from your PowerPoint slides you really have to master your material and put in the memorization and rehearsal time that demands.

Like most things in life – you have to care enough about what you’re doing and want to do it the best you can to put in the extra time and effort. Do our recruits and officers deserve anything less?


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Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of enter-train-ment," Val Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and noted author. She combines a dynamic presentation style with over 10 years experience as a prosecutor where her trial work received national media attention on ABC's Primetime Live, the Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. In addition to her personal appearances, she appears on television, radio, and webcasts, in newspapers, journal articles and books. Visit her website: