Dec 30 2008

PowerPoint Design Principle #2: Control

Are you in control of your slides? (c) iStockPhoto/Andy Gehrig

Are you in full control of your PowerPoint presentation? (c)iStockPhoto/Andy Gehrig

In a previous article, I covered the first PowerPoint design principle of consistency. In this article, I’d like to explore the principle of control. Many PowerPoint users fail to realize they control many aspects that determine the success or failure of their presentations. Seemingly insignificant decisions in the presentation design stage can come back later to haunt the presenter when the presentation is delivered. For example, choices about what content to include, how to introduce the content, or what “special effects” to use can make or break presentations.

The principle of control asserts that you build your PowerPoint slides in a manner that allows you to control and thereby create a successful outcome for your presentation.  Drive your PowerPoint slides to the outcome you want, don’t be driven by your slides to an undesired destination. Rather than blaming the software for disappointing results, you should evaluate if you are taking any of the following design elements too lightly and not proactively controlling the fate of your presentations.

Choose the right content

Too often presenters include content that can cause a presentation to veer off course. Once a presentation is off course, you’ve lost control. Here are a few ways this can happen:

  1. Contradictory content: In trying to paint a complete picture, a presenter may include contradictory or conflicting information, which effectively undermines all the key points she was hoping to make. Your core content needs to be much stronger than any conflicting points that are introduced.
  2. Ancillary content: A presenter may include “extra” information, which takes the presentation off on unexpected and unwanted tangents or detracts from the core message the presenter was hoping to convey.
  3. Unanswerable content: Another presenter may raise questions in his presentation that are bigger than his content can answer, leaving the audience more frustrated than edified. If you open a knowledge gap, be sure that you can close it with your content.

Self-inflicted damage from poorly chosen content is unfortunate and completely avoidable. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience and try to anticipate the obvious questions they will have about your content. Based on their anticipated reactions, edit your content accordingly.

Manage the flow of information

It’s not enough to have the “right content”. You also need to manage or control the way in which it is introduced to your audience.

  1. Content staging: You need to have the right content, but you also need to introduce it in a digestible manner for your audience. How you introduce your content is something that you can control via content staging, which is a technique of breaking up text or graphics into digestible portions using custom animations. Rather than overwhelming your audience with every detail on a slide all at once, you can use the content staging approach to control the flow of information to your audience.
  2. Review and adjust: When you leverage someone else’s PowerPoint slides, you need to review their slides and adjust them based on how you would introduce the same information to your unique audience. You want to remove any “surprises” from the slides so that you are always in control of your presentation. Undesired surprises can come from unexpected animations or transitions, the order and timing of how concepts are introduced, the level of detail emphasized, etc.

Minimize technical issues

Many presenters forget that Murphy’s Law is out to destroy every single PowerPoint presentation. What seemed like a good idea at your desk on your computer can quickly become a really bad idea at a different location on another person’s computer. You need to determine your tolerance level for potential technical issues (could my career or reputation be negatively impacted if this doesn’t work?) and identify possible problem areas beforehand. Here are three common technical problems to anticipate and minimize:

  1. Internet connectivity: If your presentation has a link to a website such as a Youtube video, you are exposing yourself to a potential problem, especially if you’re unsure if you’ll have internet access or how good the access will be (i.e., it could end up being a very weak/slow connection).
  2. Sound: If you’re going to feature a video or a sound effect within your slides, you need to ensure that audio is supported from a technical perspective. There are really no good substitutes for missing sound. Trust me – explaining to your audience what they should be hearing doesn’t work.
  3. Custom fonts: Presenters sometimes want to add custom fonts to enhance their PowerPoint presentations. Unless the presenter takes steps to embed the custom font within the presentation, PowerPoint will insert a different font in its place on any computers that don’t have the same custom font installed.

As a general rule of thumb, the more “moving parts” you have in your PowerPoint presentation (i.e., anything external or non-standard in PowerPoint), the more exposed you are to problems. Try to minimize the moving parts if you have a low tolerance for problems.

You can’t necessarily control what happens before or after your presentation, but you can design your PowerPoint slides in a way that can influence a better outcome. True PowerPoint ninjas recognize that they are in control of their own destiny and take pre-emptive steps in the presentation design phase to achieve better results.

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