A Return to the Office Doesn’t Have to Mean a Return to Boring Presentations

As we return to the office, here are a few ways to ensure that in-person PowerPoint presentations are effective and engaging.

Training Magazine

We are finally walking away from Zoom and returning to work in our offices. No more Zoom presentations mean we can welcome back PowerPoint presentations in the conference room. A brief history of PowerPoint: it entered with a bang. We no longer had to watch people write on easels with a marker, write on a whiteboard with an erasable marker, or regress to squeaking with chalk on a backboard. It didn’t take long for it to devolve to presenters reading the bullet points on their screens so they couldn’t see how their audiences were twitching, reading their texts, or praying to be hit in the forehead by a bullet.

Here are two reasons cognitive scientists tell us never to do that again.

  1. If someone throws text up on a screen, you’ll read it. You have no choice but to read it. You don’t choose to read it. You do it at a much deeper cognitive level of automaticity. Text –> Read. Ask a colleague not to read what you’re about to show them, then hold up a piece of paper with a word on it. They’ll read it because they can’t not read it. It’s what we do. Now, if you’re saying anything other than the text on your screen, your audience is receiving two competing messages and asking their cortices to multitask. We are not wired for that. If both messages are important, you will be losing some of the information from one or both sources you’re trying to transmit.

Try this little experiment if you are foolish enough to insist that people (or at least intelligent people like you) can multitask. Here’s a simple sentence…Jewelry is Shiny. Try to spell it out letter-by-letter under these two conditions:

  • Multitasking: Spell each word in the sentence aloud while you sign your name on a piece of paper.
  • Non-multitasking: First, spell out the sentence aloud and sign your name.

Give people two tasks to do simultaneously, and something’s gonna’ give. Sadly, that’ll be some of the information you’re hoping to transmit.

  1. An average, college-educated person can read at the rate of 250 words per and speaks at the rate of 125 words per minute. If the text is on the screen, we know that they’re reading it…much faster than you’re saying it. While you’re reading, your audience will be tapping their fingers, looking out the window, if your conference room has a window, and twitching. If you know how to interpret the looks on their faces as you do this…don’t.

The only times you should use text in your PowerPoint presentation is if you use foreign words, technical terms, or a key phrase you think is essential.

What Should Be On Your Screen

If not text in the form of bullet points, then what? In a word, graphics. When it comes to text, you can use all the prosodic features your language has provided for you to make your words come alive. You can vary your pitch, loudness, stress and speed to animate your message. Your bullet points just sit there. The Advanced Media Lab at M.I.T. has done research showing that people who have good skills using these linguistic features are judged as being more effective speakers and are also judged as being more charismatic. Who doesn’t want that?

Just as it’s difficult to explain a challenging economic concept through interpretive dance, it’s near impossible to take an effective graphic and describe it verbally. This is where you can make PowerPoint come alive. Think of those thousands of words that are equal to each graphic.

Should you strive to be Entertaining?

The answer to this question is, “only if you want your presentation to be effective.” Holding an audience’s attention is one of the major goals of every presentation. No attention…no comprehension. (Note: Here’s a little tip if you’re presenting in the afternoon. Research shows that as the day drags on, people tend to exhibit glucose depletion. This makes it more difficult to for them to maintain their attention. Pass out some lemonade or chocolates to stimulate your audience’s cognitive powers.) The toolkit for attention acquisition and maintenance includes using stories and anecdotes, using questions to increase participation …and using humor.

A Few Words About Using Humor in Presentations

The two most important things about using humor are: (1) Have your humor make a point. It will help people acquire and retain the information surrounding it. (2) Make it appropriate to the environment. There’s an old joke: A boy screams across the house…”Hey Mom, is this shirt dirty? Mom, without having to look, yells back, Yes. Bad joke, but the moral is useful. If you’re asking, it’s dirty…or inappropriate.

The Boss’s Sense of Humor

Here’s something you might not have considered about the effects of humor. We did some research asking employees to rate their bosses on their sense of humor. We found out two valuable things: (1) The higher the ratings employees gave their bosses about their sense of humor, the brighter and more creative they also rated their bosses. (2) Bosses who used hostile or insulting humor were judged as less approachable by their employees. A good boss should be as approachable as possible to head off problems.

Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis
Peter Desberg is co-author of Pitch Like Hollywood: What You Can Learn from the High-Stakes Film Industry, professor emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award and Outstanding Professor Award. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the area of stage fright and performance anxiety. The author of 23 books, he has been quoted by such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and The New York Times, and has consulted for companies including Apple, Boeing and Toyota in the areas of pitching and persuasion, corporate presentations, and using storytelling and humor in business presentations. Jeffrey Davis is co-author of Pitch Like Hollywood: What You Can Learn from the High-Stakes Film Industry, a professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and served from 2009-2019 as the department chair. Davis has also written and produced trade shows for Dick Clark Productions and counted among his advertising clients Dell Computers, Toyota of America and Honda. His has more than 30 credits to his name, including Night Court, Remington Steele, and documentaries for A&E, Discovery, and The History Channel. As a consultant, his areas have also included writing, pitching, and employing storytelling and humor in business presentations.