My seatmate on my flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia is a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army. He watches me as I work in Microsoft PowerPoint. “You know,” he said, tapping on my shoulder. “I couldn’t help noticing what you were doing in PowerPoint. I wish more of our presentations were like yours.”

What did he mean by that?

Presenting vs. Reading

Just about every presenter I know uses Microsoft PowerPoint, or some other application like it. And I get it. It’s a great tool. It can turn even a boring speech into something more entertaining by:

  • streaming video from the web
  • playing audio clips
  • showing animation
  • offering notes to help the presenter along

PowerPoint has evolved to work on just about any device and can also be delivered over the Internet using wifi and the cloud. It can be the difference between a mediocre and a great presentation. But, unfortunately it can also be a presenter’s worst nightmare. If used wrong, PowerPoint can kill your presentation.

My military seatmate’s biggest complaint about PowerPoint? “Too many words,” he said. “Every time I go to a presentation at work within the Army, there are lots and lots of slides with paragraphs and paragraphs of words.” PowerPoint is such a great tool that sometimes presenters use it as a crutch. They forget that they’re presenters, not readers. People can read. If they want to learn about your topic, they can get a book or find an article somewhere, trust me. Good presenters know to keep their slides brief, with short bullet points. They use these slides to remind them of certain facts for elaboration.

And they do what they’re paid to be doing: presenting, not reading.

And it’s just just reading your PowerPoint that can be a problem.

Some presenters love the cool new web-based features offered in PowerPoint. And they are cool – you can stream YouTube videos and browse the Internet and display animated Gifs and do all sorts of neat stuff. But that gives rise to another problem: depending on where you do your presentation, the Internet may stink–or at least your connection to it could. Too many presenters rely too heavily on all the web-based features for their presentation and then find themselves in serious trouble when the Internet connection at the meeting site is slow or non-existent.

The good ones either have a backup plan or don’t rely on these features at all. Or, if they are going to use them, they do their homework in advance and test out the facility before the presentation … just in case.

Avoid using too many presentation distractions.

PowerPoints can be super-distracting. Some presenters love to litter their slides with funny photos, popups, animation, graphics and goofy cartoons. Or they go super-heavy with their slide design, such that audience members have to struggle to pay attention while they try to figure out the unusual fonts and bold colors being used. The whole point of a PowerPoint presentation is to supplement what you’re saying, not for it to be the center of attention. You’re the speaker. You’re the center of attention.

If you’re really an accomplished speaker, then a PowerPoint shouldn’t be necessary at all. Think of the great ones: Tony Robbins, Steve Jobs, Zig Ziglar, and countless others on Ted Talks … these people rarely, if ever, use PowerPoints. Comedians don’t use PowerPoints. Neither do politicians. Or Sunday morning preachers. These people tell stories. They have a commanding presence on stage. They are funny. They are scary. They are persuasive. They get their message across through their communication skills.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of these people. I wish I could just get up on stage in front of thousands and mesmerize them with my stories, wit and advice. But I can’t — yet. I’m not as bad as some of the military people my seatmate complained about. I do keep my PowerPoint slides short and simple with brief bullet points. I don’t use the Internet. I don’t go overboard with graphics and animation. But the fact is that I still rely heavily on PowerPoints for my presentations. But when I reach that day when this is no longer the case, I’ll know that I’ve stepped up to another level of public speaking.