How to prevent death by PowerPoint

PowerPoint can undoubtedly be a useful presentation tool. But a presenter who is too reliant on a slide deck can quickly put his or her audience to sleep. When presenters use PowerPoint as a script or overload each slide with text or data, it becomes a barrier between them and the people with whom they are trying to communicate.

Steve Bustin, a communications consultant who founded Vada Media, offers some hints on how to improve presentations and better connect with the audience.

Set clear objectives. Before you venture anywhere near PowerPoint, be clear about your objectives for the session. Are you looking, for example, to transfer knowledge to another team, to agree on a decision, or to change your audience’s opinion or behaviour?

The next question: What’s in it for the audience? Are they there to learn, hear about new ideas, or get a progress update on a particular project? The answers should provide a good indication of the content of your presentation.

Speak their language. Communicating financial information to non-financial colleagues is not just a challenge for management accountants. Professionals in every sector struggle to communicate what they do in a way that will be engaging for people who don’t have the same knowledge and experience in that field. You have to start speaking the language of your audience, Bustin says.

Think about the kind of language they use and understand. Cut out any jargon or acronyms that only make sense to management accountants. If you’re not sure whether your message is comprehensible to non-finance colleagues, check with a friend or family member who works in a different field. 

When delivering technical information to a non-accounting audience, it is important to simplify, clarify, and repeat. Then check understanding by encouraging the audience to repeat the content back to you by asking questions such as, “Which of those areas I’ve just outlined do you think will be most useful to you?”

Plot it out and set it up. Planning out the content is essential. Plot your presentation with pen and paper so you don’t get derailed by the slides, Bustin advises. The opening of your presentation is your opportunity to grab people’s attention, so get creative.

To establish a connection from the start, use humour to make people smile; use a short piece of music, video, or a bold image to set the tone; or perhaps ask a question or provide a relevant piece of trivia.

In your introduction, previewing what you are about to say articulates what’s in it for your audience, giving them a reason to listen and engage.

Also, Bustin recommended Haiku Deck, free presentation software that takes the key word or theme of your talk and searches for suitable images for your presentation.

Have three key messages and an organized closing. Most audiences will remember only three key points from a presentation, so select the three “headline” messages you want to convey carefully. For each headline, start by outlining why that piece of information is important. Then bring in stories, evidence, statistics, or research to support it. Next, link to the following headline to provide a signpost and let people know you are moving on to a new subject.
Your closing section should provide a brief recap of the most important points, a “thank you for listening”, and a call to action. Again, think about what creative elements you can bring in to hold your audience’s attention. Remember, an image of a microphone or a megaphone is more engaging than a slide with the words “any questions”, for example.

Follow the “6-6-6” rule. When creating your slides, remember that less is more. Bustin advocates the “6-6-6” rule of PowerPoint: Use no more than six words per bullet point, use no more than six bullet points per slide, and don’t spend longer than six minutes on any slide. Say what you need to say as simply as possible, and show only what’s important. Strip out anything people don’t need to know to understand the main point – you’re not there to prove that you have done all the research.

Bring the data to life. If there is a particular statistic or piece of information you want people to remember, you can editorialise the data to make it more digestible. For example, display a statement or sentence rather than a detailed graph. Bustin recommends the website, which enables users to create infographics simply and quickly.

If you sense that your audience are more focused on reading the slides than listening to what you are saying, press B on your keyboard to make the screen go blank and bring the focus back to you.

To give your audience a unique live-action experience that really holds their attention, think about what you can create in the moment. One arresting example is building a bar chart from different coloured Lego bricks as you talk about the data.

Similarly, if you draw something on a flipchart, it’s much more engaging than a slide as it’s live and demonstrates your expertise in action, Bustin says. It also changes the energy in the room slightly, and people tend to copy down what’s written on a flipchart as, unlike a slide deck, they cannot assume they will be able to access it afterwards.

Ask for feedback. To really hone your presentation skills, ask for, and learn from, feedback from colleagues or the clients to whom you’re presenting. For example, ask them how useful the information you provided was and whether there is anything they would prefer you did differently.

Bustin also suggests asking a colleague to video your presentation. Watching it gives you a good indication of how you come across to your audience and can flag any potential distractions.

Related CGMA Magazine content:

Steve Bustin: How to Give a Better Presentation”: Steve Bustin, the founder of Vada Media, shares tips on preparing and delivering a more engaging presentation. He discusses how finance professionals can tailor their message to communicate effectively with non-finance colleagues and how to overcome nerves when presenting. He also discusses his “6-6-6” rule of PowerPoint.

Samantha White ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor