Why (and how) you should give up PowerPoint

The other day when I showed up at a venue where I was speaking, I encountered a curious sight: the tech guy, carefully pushing a giant screen into position. I realized that the organizers hadn't asked me about slides, and simply assumed I must have them. Since I was the only person speaking I quickly spoke up to save the tech guy some labor, and told the people in charge that I would be PowerPoint free. They all went "oh." It was a good "oh," though, and one organizer mentioned that they were trying to get more employees to stop using PowerPoint with their presentations.

I think that's a smart corporate goal. Unless specifically requested to do so (e.g. for my TED talk) I rarely use slides in my speeches. There are several reasons to forego them.

First, PowerPoint is frequently misused. The rationale for slides is to add something visual to a talk that you can't get just through the speaker talking, or in a hand-out. So when people play video clips, or want to show how things might change in an image, then PowerPoint is a great choice. But often, people just use it to provide a text summary of the highlights of any particular discussion point. There is nothing gained by saying "sales were flat last year" and then putting up a slide that says "sales were flat last year." This does not help people remember that sales were flat.

I know people use slides to share more complicated information than can be discussed by a speaker — maybe the sales figures from every department, for instance, with a comparison to the previous year, to show they were flat — but this misjudges the benefit of presentations. People don't really remember facts and figures from a talk. They remember the speaker's excitement, and stories that illustrate a point. If you want people to know numbers, give them a handout to study beforehand (or after) and point them to ones of major interest: namely, the ones that illustrate the story you want to tell.

Second, PowerPoint is often used as a crutch. The reason people have slides saying "sales were flat last year" is that they don't remember what they intend to say in their talks. PowerPoint serves as a mental trigger for the speaker to get through his stuff. But if you don't remember what you're going to say, chances are it's not going to be a great talk. Better to know your stuff cold. You can use a small notecard to keep track of your main points, but if you don’t remember your main points, it's possible you have too many. (Three is good. I know I'm pushing things with 7 in my main keynote talk, but that's when I'm going for a full 50 minutes).

Third, PowerPoint can invite some massive fails. Speaking at a conference? Maybe the organization never received your presentation. Maybe the files got corrupted in your sending them, and no one notices until 10 minutes before your talk. Maybe you brought your own equipment but it's incompatible with the venue sound system. Or maybe the equipment freezes up and won't advance the slides. Maybe the organization has an incredibly fancy system with professional technology people advancing the slides, but they miss your cue and don't do it at the right time (I have seen this happen). If you don't already have your talk memorized, and know it will be interesting enough without the visuals, you are screwed.

So how to give up PowerPoint? You basically have to change how you design your talks.

Think of one main goal or take-away you want people to remember. If they remember nothing else, what should they be able to say was your point? Be very very clear on this. If you're not clear on it, no one else will be either.

Then, think of a few ways (like 3!) you can illustrate or support this point. Stories tend to be the best illustrations, or surprising information people didn't know, or other things that the brain finds easy to store. For anyone who's seen my TED talk, this is why I tell the story about the broken water heater — it's a good way to illustrate how quickly we can "find" an extra hour in the day when we absolutely have to.

Then, you might take time to address the main objections or concerns you know people might have about your material (if it's that kind of speech — you're presenting something new, and people might be tentative. In the op-ed world, we call this the "to be sure" paragraph, when you acknowledge the strongest arguments against your thesis, and speeches can have them too).

Then draw the audience back to the main point — possibly even with something personal that brings it all together.

When you design a speech this way, it's actually not that hard to remember it -- absolutely, 100 percent memorized. Yes, you do have to practice it. You have to practice it a lot. But think about it this way: You don't have notes or slides about those stories you tell at cocktail parties all the time, right? Like that funny thing that happened on your honeymoon that you and your spouse tell to every newlywed couple you meet? (And isn't it funny when your spouse is grabbing a drink, and you tell the story, and then he/she comes back from the bar and is introduced and darned if he/she doesn't start telling the same story?) You can remember these stories because you’ve thought about the point, and the characters, and the build-up of tension, and the epiphany. And you've told them many times (too many times, as your spouse can attest).

That's kind of how you want your talks to go: simple point, lots of stories, and lots and lots of practice.

For me, my major public speaking breakthrough came when I started thinking of myself as doing a one-woman show. I'm an act. And so, of course, I rehearse the act — just as any actress would for a show. I move around stage, I tell stories, I engage with the audience. People are there for me to entertain them, and hopefully learn something at the same time. And while one might not automatically think that your average corporate conference presentation has the same goal...more often than not, it does.

In other news: The Frugal Girl has a post up about which household tasks are worth prioritizing if you're short on time, and which can be let slide. She suggests laundry, dealing with paper clutter (because of the possibilities of bills/forms/etc.) and cooking (because eating out is very expensive). Dusting, not so much. What would you prioritize, and what would you let go?

Podcast news — mine and others: The Best of Both Worlds podcast episode on Sarah's Hurricane Irma evacuation is live. Ideally, this will inspire a few people to think about such questions as where you might go in an emergency, what you'd need to take with you, and what you'd do to prepare your house for the possibility of flooding.

I'm on Peter Shankman's Faster than Normal Podcast talking time management for people who like to do lots of things. And I'm on I Want Her Job talking about professional life in general. Thanks for tuning in!

Photo: Example of a slide that would add nothing to my talk

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20 Responses to Why (and how) you should give up PowerPoint


  1. omdg says:

    I kind of love this idea. As you said, people often use power point as a crutch to remind them of their talking points, but alas, reading from your slides takes away from the impact you can have as a speaker. Not sure how going ppt-less would go over for an academic/grand rounds type talk where we’re supposed to convey massive amounts of information. I’ll bet if I did some investigation I’d find that the best talks relied less on ppt than the better ones.

    Any thoughts on chalk talks?

    • omdg says:

      *than the less good ones.

    • @omdg – I read some research once that chalk talks were more effective for information retention than power point. The presenter seems to be figuring it out, and the audience is figuring it out with him/her, and when we figure things out, we retain more information than when information is simply given to us.

      The issue with academic presentations is that even very smart people have very little ability to remember copious quantities of information presented to them. Anything that was really critical would need to be accessible at the time it was used (a checklist for a procedure… that sort of thing). Taking notes helps, as does reviewing the notes, but still.

  2. Phil says:

    Everybody “zigs”…and you reflect…and then “zag”! Brilliant!

  3. Brooke Kent says:

    If you’re in a scenario where you must do Powerpoint, the best, most useful book I’ve ever read on making visually powerful slides is: “Presentation Zen Design” by Garr Reynolds.

  4. Timothy Hadley says:

    These are terrific ideas. As you suggest, the decision about whether to use PPT really depends on the context–type of speech, audience, venue, presentation equipment, speaker’s experience level, etc. PPT is only a tool. And like any tool, it can help or hurt, depending on the skill of the user.

    So I wouldn’t suggest that speakers ought to automatically “give up” PPT. IMO, they ought to make an informed decision, for each speaking context, about whether they should use PPT. Visuals can greatly enhance a presentation, if skillfully done. If not, they can ruin it.

    TY for an excellent and very informative column.

    • @Timothy – thanks! Sure, it can be an informed decision. But from my observations of corporate and conference life, it’s mostly just automatic. All presentations require power point. Without a slide deck, it’s like the presentation never happened. I want to push back on that idea!

  5. Natasha says:

    I find it easier to absorb information through reading it rather than hearing it. That said, I am not a huge fan of PP presentations. The best talks I’ve even seen were chalk talks! It feels so much more engaging when you see the speaker actively writing or sketching something on the blackboard.

    PP can be useful as a supplement, but slides should complement, not reiterate the presentation word-for-word.

    • @Natasha – see my comment to OMDG – I have written in the past on some research finding that seeing someone draw something or write something helps people remember more. Any time the brain has to work, it absorbs more.

  6. Jennifer S says:

    Have you read Slideology by Nancy Duarte? It’s fantastic! A great way to think of visuals as complementary. I’ve used it in practice and have gotten amazing feedback on my PPT when it’s required (I don’t do any of the no-nos you mention, don’t worry). I also recently had one of my former undergraduates write me several years after graduating to say again how glad she was I’d made them read and use that book. It had been a great professional tool for her.

    • @Jennifer S – I think I may have that book somewhere in my giant pile of books. I’ll take a look around for it!

  7. Beth says:

    Like all things I think there is a time and place for PP and a time for going without. As an academic basic scientists, something would be lost if I didn’t get too see certain data. Movies and pictures of cells and organisms undergoing biological events are not easily replicated in words. There is something amazing about seeing single neuron resolution or the movement of cells in and out of blood vessels. Without PP (or similar) some things are just not as impactful. That being said, few people live in the world of basic science so this is a moot point for a lot of people. Chalk talks are still commonly done at Universities when scientists are interviewing for professorships. So we get both at different times. They each have their time and place. By the way, chalk talks can be terrifying when you are interviewing for a job!

    • Beth says:

      Please excuse the vast number of typos! Definitely something you have to look out for in a PP. 🙂

      • @Beth — too true, nothing like having a typo magnified like 500 times over your head.

  8. T. says:

    Sometimes isn’t a crutch a good thing? This past 7 days I have had 9 different presentations totaling about 23 hours of content. There is no way I have time to memorize all of that! Having the crutch is often necessary for me – and holds my audience (graduate students) accountable for the content when they claim 6 months later they didn’t know about something. It also helps me cover what can be extreme social anxiety.

  9. Tana says:

    Thank you for this! I so detest PP presentations. They take a good presentation and weasel it down to something downright stupid. Now I know why – your reasons are right on. Also love the cleaning list – I totally agree with those top three items. Learning how to sort tasks like that is so critical to time management.

  10. Ana says:

    This is great advice. Like noted above, I need to have graphs and figures for research results, but I’m considering having minimal slides and just talking through the background/discussion/conclusions, since those usually involve simply saying what’s written on the slide (I do memorize it and don’t literally read the slides!)
    For teaching talks, I find it easier to be interactive without ppt. And then you can take it in the direction the students lead you without being beholden to the order of the slides.

  11. smh says:

    100% agree. 🙂 I do not use PowerPoint in the classroom, which forces me to offer a very clear verbal outline and work hard on my lectures and forces students to pay attention to what I say.

  12. Kathleen says:

    Lawyer perspective chiming in with agreement:

    In court, when the lawyer or expert really wants a jury to remember a key set of data or concepts, she often uses a white board, flip chart, or magnetized board with custom magnets to “build out” the concept live. Juries wake up for that, compared to witness slide decks showing exhibit after exhibit.

    That said, there is a super-sophisticated industry of trial graphics experts who can make PowerPoint sing, rather than being the dull list of bullets so often seen in meetings.

  13. DVStudent says:

    I used to give bad and densely packed PowerPoint presentations, but felt like I could never get into a flow. Now, I put the bare minimum on slides: microscope images, bar graphs, etc…and just talk. One trick I learned from a major test prep company I taught for (all chalk talk based!), was to walk to the opposite end of the room from my notes/computer-it forces me to actually be engaged!

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